The Light Bulb Man
By Sean Parrish, Marines
Writing Type: Prose
By Sean Parrish
I am a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. I served nine years of active duty service from 2008 to 2017. I wrote something akin to what I believe is a decent novel after my third overseas deployment.
I first deployed as a foreign security force advisor way up in the mountains of Helmand Province, Afghanistan. There, our band of advisors made a valiant attempt to teach the allied Afghan forces war fighting skills ranging from hand-to-hand combat to the defeat of improvised explosive devices and more. Due to cultural and language barriers, these lessons didn’t always “take.” Moreover, we conducted numerous battlefield missions together, such as partnered foot patrols, long-range vehicle convoys and combat operations. Those didn’t always go well, either.
But if the Afghans were not showing up late to our training classes high on hashish and opium, they were out digging up IEDs and bringing them back to our cramped living quarters, which was not only NOT what we taught them but also just plain bad. They acted much like a cat that, having just killed a mouse, prances gleefully back home to its owner holding its prized kill in its mouth. You really couldn’t be mad at them. But you could run the other direction (highly recommended). Those IED’s often exploded in their faces due to cleverly installed anti-tampering devices which those crafty Taliban hid inside. I know because I often helped to pick up body parts afterward. Those poor Afghans, while often uneducated and ignorant, simply seemed to make a concerted effort to die in truly needless ways. I, on the other hand, typically endeavored to stay alive by avoiding those poor souls.
I survived that harrowing trip, only to return a few months later for another fun-filled deathcapade in my second helping of Helmand. Round Two in these hinterlands was a continuation of that first harrowing experience, but different in the way that I felt more like a highly confused teenager than a highly trained combat expert. The root of the confusion lied in what was known as U.S. foreign policy at the time. I’ve got other names for this policy in one of my other writings.
On this next little-big adventure, I served as an intelligence chief. I led our group of Marines in tactical site exploitation, detainee handling, battlefield evidence collection and biometrics, among others. Here, the rules of engagement would change on an almost hourly basis. And as you may imagine, it was highly confusing to us men and women who were the ones holding the guns on the battlefield.
We might as well have fought the Taliban dressed like clowns, slowly advancing in a Gettysburg-like fashion to the thump of our monkey-like leaders behind us clashing cymbals as we juggled exploding bowling pins. But the most frightening part was that occasional pause in the middle of those tactical advances. This occurred when some officer would change the rules, or at least tell us to change the rules of engagement. Yes, this did get some of our people killed. As for being an effective way to kill the enemy, let’s just say I do think those pauses scared them more than it put us in danger - usually.
Allow me to explain. When we would shoot at them non-stop, it was very obvious we were trying to kill them as fast as possible. But look at it from their perspective: if we shot at them, then paused for a while, then started shooting again, then paused, then shot, then started, then stopped, and all of a sudden just disappeared. It’s like some ghost who snuck into your house and didn’t know whether it was going to kill you like a malignant spirit or just play some cruel game and then run away.
That is really scary. And possibly worse than death. The Taliban must have thought we Marines didn’t want to actually kill them, but instead just constantly torture them with the thought of death. All in all, it was certainly not a tactic I believe we chose (it was the higher ups, I guess), but those of us who were actually on the ground executing these orders would have conversations with each other about whether that was a real, purposeful tactic or not.
We still don’t really know. And it hurts to think about it.
But after surviving these misadventures, I found myself questioning my own sanity again and again. Yes, I was a Marine who followed orders with instant, loyal obedience, taking the fight to the enemy with ferocious violence. But there was just all this other stuff mixed in that was harder to explain.
After the fog of war had lifted, I could feel these aftershocks slowly separating in my mind like oil and water, with describable ones becoming ink on paper. The scariest things I saw and felt would be internalized, but those odd and almost magical ironies I witnessed that made me chuckle uncontrollably were destined for externalization via writing.
Originally, I sought for my writing to be a personal form of journalistic therapy, one that would keep me away from things that combat veterans often do to cope with extreme levels of non-stop trauma, like excessive drinking, heavy drug use, driving super-fast, fighting, hitting things in general, occasionally lighting something on fire and more creative ones which probably wouldn’t be appropriate to describe here. Like non-stop masturbation while you’re crying. See what I mean?
So, I often locked myself in my own version of my own padded room and began my own self-imposed writing therapy. More than just my own type of therapy, though; it became a novel undertaking which sparked the actual undertaking of a real novel. Here in my safe-ish space, I could express the inexpressible, free from the immediate and often terse judgement of others, and relay these thoughts to readers in a poignant and unassuming way. I even created my own special genre--“True Fiction.”
The writing process blunted the bleeding of my wounded mind and distracted me from the horrible events of the past, allowing me to focus on the reality of the day at hand and finding the humor in between that past and this future.
This therapy helped me so much that I made it into a ritual, more than just an occasional thing I did.
Since I had already endured two incredibly harsh back-to-back combat deployments in austere hell holes, I opted to make a career shift within the Corps by veering onto a vocational trajectory, the “intelligence” discipline.
I trained as an intelligence agent, and after some ridiculously insane and difficult training that I failed multiple times but managed to eventually pass, it was off to Central America, where I faced a very different, unusual and ambiguous type of mission: using humans to collect information instead of killing them.
After returning from Central America, I requested 30 days of military leave and began my own writing therapy in earnest. I went home to my lonely kitchen and put three things down - my pen, my paper, and my water glass. I forced myself to sit down at this very spot for 30 days straight and write a work which came to be titled “The Light Bulb Man.”
While I always appreciate and enjoy a great military story, I chose to write this work in a way that allows just about any human the opportunity to see a unique side of the world and possibly understand the raw human condition contained therein. No politics, no societal issues, no censorship, just a firsthand account of a newly minted, highly unsupported and extremely under-budgeted government employee sent off on a wayward, poorly directed mission to an Alice in Wonderland kind of place.
After 30 days in that somewhat uncomfortable kitchen chair averaging around 2,500 words per day, I finally finished what I thought was the final chapter. Sitting back with an initial sense of satisfaction, I read the work in its entirety. Then I went to bed. I woke up the next morning and re-read it, thought about it, and went back to bed that night. The next morning, I awoke and instead of reading it for a third time, I poured myself a glass of whiskey and stared intently, then said to myself “This is some crazy shit, and if anyone reads what I wrote, I will likely be forced into a mental institution.”
But instead of burning it in my back yard, I put it in my filing cabinet next to all my other bad ideas. It remained hidden away for seven years until I remembered recently that I had even written such a thing. Or maybe I had just sobered up enough to remember things I did as a sober person. Or maybe it was because I was moving my belongings out of my now ex-girlfriend’s house. Or whatever. In short, I can’t remember what triggered finding this old manuscript just like I can’t remember what led to the breaking up of that relationship.
Upon reading this novel for the third time, I had a really bad idea: let other people read it too.
I decided this one could be an interesting aside to what most people are used to reading and/or seeing in movies, which are usually stories about super-spies, covert operatives, missing nuclear bombs and saving the world.
Instead, this was an honest attempt to share my observations, display my own human fragility and gleefully showcase the kind of dumb shit that happens when you mix real world intelligence assignments with crazy people, guns and my absolute favorite – U.S. foreign policy.
Everything in those jungles never went according to any kind of plan. But maybe that was the plan all along, because in the jungle I was no longer the clown marching to the beat of the monkeys. I was hunting the monkeys with the clowns I had created. And so, who was I? What were my actual orders? I didn’t always know.
One day at lunch, my friend Chris told me that if anyone asked who I was, I could always say I was just the guy who went down there to change the light bulbs. Boom! This book title was born.
No one was harmed too severely in this novel, but then again no one involved expected anyone on that mission to actually write a novel, much less publish it.
There were a lot of pissed-off people down there already, including the dangerous cartels, violent street gangs and even radicalized extremists. But worst of all were the ones translating U.S. foreign policy into action based on their own seriously unique and wildly entertaining but hardly moral or correct interpretations.
Some people in my field call it “business as usual” to just go along with what you’re told to do. Me, on the other hand. I’d rather turn the light on and let you decide whether it is right, wrong or just totally f….d up. In any case, that’s your decision and not mine.
Notes: This particular piece is meant to encourage fellow Veterans to share their stories. Because it took me (7) years to work up the courage to do it myself, I decided it would be just about time to share mine. The raw and unedited language should be censored, of course, for your audience - but make no mistake that our younger generation of OIF and OEF Veterans have a unique language and should feel free to use the language of their generation, because that is how we communicate with one another quite often! Thank You for what you do for Veterans - I have many more submissions in that dark old filing cabinet…