Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Darling made his wife beef wellington for Mother’s Day. Like anyone does in a relationship, he says that she thinks of him a certain way.
"My wife has a vision of me as father and husband. I don’t think she really liked seeing what I was in combat," Darling says of his wife's response to the book he wrote about his time in Afghanistan.
Darling, who is a graduate of West Point and now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, deployed in 2009. When he called home for his son's fifth birthday after a 16-hour mission, his wife could hear a difference in his voice after all he'd said was, "Hey, you."
"To effectively work in that kind of environment, at least in combat, you kind of have to let that dark side out a little bit. I used to call it 'the beast,'" he explains. "Then when you talk to your kids and wife, you've got to put that away real quick."
He hadn't put away the dark side fast enough that day. She asked if he'd like to talk about it.
He couldn't on the phone that night. But ultimately he did in the book, called "Taliban Safari: One Day in the Surkhagan Valley."
"I would love nothing more than to sit down with her and talk for hours or days about what today was like and how I felt," he writes. "But certainly not tonight and most probably never. Not with her; not with anyone. I am not sure anyone can speak about such things fully."
Darling says he and the soldiers he was commanding had previously stumbled into an ambush and killed the commander of the Taliban troops. The Pashtun general who worked with Darling said that a new commander would take the place of the one who had just been killed. This new commander would, Darling learned, "have to do a mission to kind of establish his chops. We took a guess where he’d be at, and we went to hunt them down."
It was crucial that Darling and his troops find the Taliban fighters before they made their way into the mountains, where terrain was difficult or impossible for allied forces to navigate.
"I used a suspected Taliban spy in the Afghan government, or the Zabul government, to relay false information, and then the mission was designed to reinforce that false information that I assumed was leaked to the Taliban," Darling explains.
Apache helicopters successfully stopped the fighters from disappearing into the mountains. When Darling tells the story, he doesn't shy away from describing what he and his troops did that day as hunting humans.
"You're a very different person when you're hunting down human beings. We were hunting down, and we wanted to kill, as many as we could, as quickly as we could, before they disappeared," he says.
It's taken him years of thinking, writing about, and discussing combat with fellow veterans to be able to openly talk about the things he did and saw during battle.
"Civilization has a veneer that allows us to function and to cooperate and not do those bad things," he says. "I found in combat, and it was frightening to see, how thin the veneer of civilization really is."
He says he'd hoped his book would open a conversation with his wife, but instead it closed the conversation. He writes that he'd already known to edit what he described to her based on what he imagined she'd be able to accept.
After reading the book, he says, "She kind of looked at me. She said, 'You were stupid about seven times in this book. Really stupid.' I took risks. I gambled with my life and her future."
Societal and familial pressure not to share the ugliness has kept entire generations of combat veterans from talking about experiences perceived as just too terrible to share.
However, more recently in the veteran community, conversation, writing and art relating to combat have become ways to address the moral injury soldiers incur in battle — even if they can’t process it with their families, though many organizations include families in the process.
Darling points out that the American public has increasingly become removed from military experience, as a narrower segment of society volunteers to serve. In his experience, he says, the infantry is not diverse, but largely middle class and white.
"The military has lost the connection to the public at large. And I wanted people to know what it's like for a normal guy."
Paul Darling spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.