Short Story — Combat Fatigue

This is an original short story that first appeared on  the Bewildering Stories website, issue #585, in August, 2014  (


Combat Fatigue

by Bob Welbaum


“First, let me verify your information. You are Staff Sergeant Stuart B. Jamison, United States Army. You are 24 years old, single, and have completed two tours in Afghanistan. Is that correct?”

“Yeah, doctor, all that’s right.”

“I’m actually not a doctor. Just think of me as a facilitator. You may call me John, if you prefer.”

“Oh. Okay, John.”

“What would you like me to call you?”

“The guys all called me Stu. So you can use that, if it’s okay.”

“Yes, that would be fine. What can I help you with today, Stu?”

Stu leaned back in his chair and exhaled. “I just need to talk about some stuff. Okay, where to begin? Well… I guess the first tour in Afghanistan had gone pretty well. I did see some combat, but nothing really bad. Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“I understand.”

“But then on the second tour… Well, things started to get to me.”

“Please explain ‘things started to get to me’, Stu.”

“Things… Well, stuff… started to go wrong. Especially one day. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

“I guess I should, yeah.” Stu paused, took a deep breath, then started again. “The weather was crisp and clear. You could even see the Kush Mountains in the distance. We were driving along, children we waved to were waving back, everything was peaceful. Then all hell broke loose.”

“What do you mean?”

“The vehicle in front of me suddenly disappeared in a flash. It happened so fast. One minute it was there. The next, it was all smoke and flames.”

“Please explain, Stu.”

“I didn’t know what it was right away. Then we saw it came from the side of the road.”

“Was it an IED?”


“Would you like to continue, Stu?”

“Yeah. Well, no. I would like to stop there for now, if that’s okay, John?”

“That is fine.”

“When can I come back?”

“You can come back at any time, Stu.”

“Thanks. I really appreciate this chance to talk.”

“You are welcome. That is what I am here for. I have saved this session, and you can come back any time you want to talk.”

“Goodbye then.”

“Goodbye, Stu.”

* * *

“Hello. Is this Stu?”

“Yeah, John. Can you talk now?”

“I can talk any time. Are you ready to continue?”

“Yeah, I think so. Last time I had just told you about the explosion.”

“That was an IED?”

“I’m afraid so, John. It turned the lead vehicle over like a toy. We stopped out of pure reflex. Then the radio chatter started.”

“Please explain.”

“Standard procedure. Medic to the front. Everyone else out of the vehicles. Establish a perimeter. Call for air. Have you ever felt like a sitting duck?”

“What do you mean, Stu?”

“You just don’t know what is going on. Was this an all-out attack? Were there more IEDs? Were we being watched? And from where? Was it this house? Or that one over there? There is just so much going through your mind. And all the time, you’re scared shitless. Oh, I’m sorry…”

“That is okay, Stu. You are doing fine. Please continue.”

“We got out and set up the perimeter. Waiting, just waiting for something to happen. Then I thought about that first vehicle. and I remembered Josh was in there.”

“Who is Josh?”

“Just my best friend, that’s all. We enlisted together. Asked to be in the same unit. Then I remembered he was in the lead vehicle.”

“Please explain, Stu.”

“I think I’ve talked enough for today. Can I come back tomorrow?”

“You can come back at any time.”

“Thanks, John. I really appreciate you being available. Especially when it takes forever to get a doctor’s appointment.”

“You are welcome. That is what I am here for. I have saved this session, and you can come back any time you want to talk. Goodbye, Stu.”

* * *

“Hello, John, are you there?”

“I am always here. What would you like to talk about, Stu?”

“I have to tell you something. I had just remembered where Josh was. It took me a minute, but then I remembered. And I was laying there in the grass, trying to look forward, trying to find the bad guys. But all the while, I was just praying for Josh. But then I heard the medic yell there was nothing he could do. Nothing for all three of them. It was too big an explosion. Nothing could’ve saved them.”

“What are you feeling now?”

“Lots of things… But you know the worst? The guilt. It should’ve been me. I should’ve been in that first vehicle that day.”

“I understand. Do you feel guilty about living? ”

“I guess so, yeah.”

“Stu, that is called survivor’s guilt. It is completely normal.”

“I know. But I still feel crappy about it.”

“Were you the only one there?”

“No, of course not, John.”

“Do the others share some of the guilt?”

“Well, they could… Yeah, I think I see what you mean.”

“Listen to me, Stu. You should make a list of everyone who was involved. Include the enemy and especially our leaders. Remember, they were the ones who sent you out there. Then think of them as sharing your guilt. You can even assign a percentage of guilt to each of them. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, John, I think so.”

“I hope that will help you understand your feelings. How else can I help?”

“That will help a great deal, now that I think about it. Okay, I’ll try it. Thanks for letting me talk.”

“You are welcome. That is what I am here for. I have saved this session, and you can come back any time you want to talk. Goodbye, Stu.”

* * *

“Is this Stu? It has been two weeks since we last talked. How are you?”

“I… I’m fine, thanks. Can we talk some more, John?”

“Of course, Stu. Last time we talked about making a list of everyone who was involved in the IED attack, including the enemy and our leadership. Did that help you?“

“Yeah, it did. That’s a much better way to think about combat. Thank you again.”

“Good! You are welcome again. Now, how can I help you today?”

“There is something I need to tell you. Something I feel I can’t tell the doctor, but I need to tell somebody and I think I can tell you.”

“Of course you can, Stu. Please explain.”

“I told you about Josh? And how he was my best friend? And how he was killed in that IED attack? And how guilty I felt?”

“Yes, please continue.”

“Well… we had a relationship.”

“What do you mean, Stu?”

“We were, kind of, you know… No, we really were lovers. I’ve never told anyone before. Anyone. We were always very careful. You know how the Army feels about that, I’m sure. So we were careful. So now that he’s gone, I feel guilty even more. Guilty that he’s gone, guilty that I didn’t tell him how much he meant to me, guilty that no one knew. And I have been keeping all this to myself up to now.”

“I understand, Stu. A loss like this is hard. It can be like losing a member of your family. So feeling guilty is normal. How can I help?”

“Just telling someone is a big help. And now that I’ve told you, maybe I won’t have to hide my feelings any more. Maybe I… I can really start to grieve.”

“Grief is good. Do you know there are actually five stages to grieving? The first stage is….”

“I know, John, that’s okay, fine. I just needed to tell someone.”

“Good, I am glad you did. How else can I help you?”

“That’s all I need for now. I just gotta think about this some more. Thanks again.”

“You are welcome. That is what I am here for. I have saved this session, and you can come back any time you want to talk. Goodbye, Stu.”

* * *

Stu sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and let his emotions sweep over him. One minute, two minutes… Then he straightened up, logged off, and closed his laptop with a satisfying click. Forget the doctors, all the pills. Maybe he was going to be able to deal with this after all.

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