He awoke to his own screams.
The nightly torment was relentless. He dreamed of being blown apart by land mines, of the decapitated heads. Mornings brought exhaustion and flashbacks. In public, he scanned crowded areas for exits, convinced an attack was imminent. Lightning made him jump.
The nightmares grew worse. One night, he shoved his wife Jane out of bed, pinned her against the wall and held his arm across her throat. Jane was terrified. When her husband woke up, so was he. What if he had hurt her?
He suffered alone. At the time, Australia hadn’t experienced battle since Vietnam, so he was an anomaly. He hid it from his sons, wanting to protect them. He confided in Jane, but only to an extent. He worried his fear would contaminate her.
He began to live behind a mask. Every morning, he dragged himself out of bed and ruthlessly quarantined his fear into a tiny box inside his mind. He showered, shaved, slapped on a smile and adopted a confident tone: This is the John Cantwell the rest of the world will see.
The double life was exhausting. He consulted a psychiatrist, who offered a cold dismissal: Get on with your job and your life. Stop fixating on bad memories.
He slid further into depression. A year later, a psychologist diagnosed him with PTSD. Cantwell took sleeping pills at night to try and find peace.
It never came.
It was 2006, and the Iraq war was raging when Cantwell landed in Baghdad. Australia had sent 2,000 troops to support the U.S. and the British, and Cantwell, by then a brigadier, was deployed to coordinate operations across the country.
Despite his PTSD, he'd lobbied hard for this job. Maybe he could help, he told himself. And maybe if he returned to the place where his torture began, he could find a way to move on.
This time, though, his decisions determined whether his soldiers lived or died.
One day, he had to choose which of two groups of soldiers would travel with the only available explosives-clearing team. The group he sent out with the team had no trouble. The group he sent out alone hit a roadside bomb.
Three soldiers died. Cantwell wanted to vomit.
The violence left him in despair. He was visiting a neighborhood when a car bomb exploded. Cantwell stared at brain matter and blood sprayed across a wall. Two tiny pink sandals lay on the ground below the stain. One floated in a pool of blood, the wind turning it in a circle.
Cantwell knew the dead child’s sandals would join the hand in his nightmares.
He grew bitter and disillusioned. The job left little time for sleep. When he did, the nightmares were grislier than ever.
An officer asked one morning if he was OK. Cantwell assured him: ‘‘I'm fine.’’
He wasn't. But before he left Baghdad, he was promoted to major general and appointed Deputy Chief of the Australian Army.
Jane was stricken by her husband’s appearance when he returned home. He was exhausted and sick.
The guilt of the soldiers’ deaths from the roadside bomb was eating at him. Jane tried to assure him he was not responsible. He ignored her. In his mind, it would always be his fault.
He quietly visited another psychiatrist who put him on medication. It did little to help.
The pressure of pretending was almost unbearable.
Cantwell stared at the two flag-draped caskets before him. Inside lay the first Australians to die in Afghanistan since Cantwell had taken command of Australia’s forces in the Middle East.
They had been his responsibility. Now they were dead, torn apart in an explosion.
At their memorial, he spoke of bravery and sacrifice. Many in the audience cried. He strangled his own misery into silence.
After the service, he climbed on board the plane bound for the morgue and sat next to the caskets, thinking about the men inside. His warrior self tried to reject the nagging feeling that they had died because of him. He tried to think rationally: He had done his best.
But the line between his two selves was disintegrating. He began to cry. A friend on board asked if he was OK.
Cantwell could not answer.
He wondered if all the bloodshed was worth it.
He was at the beach on vacation with Jane. But he was detached from everyone and everything.
There were rumors he was up for a promotion to Chief of the Army when he was summoned to the nation’s capital to give his debrief on Afghanistan.
He donned the warrior mask one last time. He appeared calm, made jokes.
When it was over, his superior asked him how he was really doing.
Cantwell surrendered. He said: I am not OK. I am not sleeping. I am not who you think I am. Please tell the chief of the defense force.Continued...