Army Ranger Paxton Haskell was good at being a soldier, for he could follow directions and carry out orders without question. He survived two deployments in Afghanistan, and, by some miracle, finished his enlistment without so much as a scratch. When he attempted to reintegrate into society as a regular citizen, Paxton learned very quickly that he was not good at life as a citizen.
Immediately upon arriving back in Georgia, Paxton was determined to get his life together before reaching out to any of his family members or pre-military friends. The plan was to get a job and secure his own place because he was too proud to ask them for help and never wanted to be seen as a burden by the people who could not fathom what life was like as an Army Ranger.
He began couch surfing with members of his battalion while he tried to get back on his feet. He accepted his first civilian job as a security guard at an upscale mall, but Paxton was let go two weeks into the job after he was too physical with a pair of teenage boys whom he had caught shoplifting. Next, an Army buddy hooked him up with a job tidying up in his auto repair shop, but decided that Paxton was too unstable to employ long term because he would drop to the ground and panic anytime a muffler backfired or an engine stalled. He finally stopped looking for a job when he was fired as a busboy at the local sports bar for breaking too many plates and cups. Apparently, he was spooked too easily and this resulted in him dropping too many breakables.
After being awakened multiple nights by Paxton’s nightmares, his Ranger friends tried to convince him to visit the VFW or join them for their veterans’ support groups. Paxton wasn’t ready to talk about or relive the horrors he had witnessed during his time overseas, so one-by-one, his friends politely asked him to not return until he got help. Instead of doing this, he drifted further and further away from his friends, and failed to nurture or maintain relationships of any kind . Eventually, Paxton realized he couldn’t make sense of the mundane world he had fought so hard to protect, and he didn’t understand where it all went wrong. He thought and thought about his childhood and how he became a Ranger, but could not pinpoint the source of his struggles.
Paxton presumed he was raised as a quintessential American; he grew up in a suburban home with an actual white picket fence. His father worked to provide for the family while his mother stayed at home and cared for Paxton and his younger sister, Kenzie. Throughout high school he was the star quarterback on his football team. At the age of eighteen he was self-aware enough to know that he was not a good candidate for a four year university, so he proudly joined the Army.
Paxton thoroughly enjoyed basic training. He was physically fit and mentally tough. Years of football camp and training had prepared him well for the daily routine of bootcamp. Paxton was a hard worker, got along with the other trainees in his barracks, and impressed his training officers each and every day.
Immediately after basic training, he moved to Fort Benning in Georgia, where he began training to become an Army Ranger. While stationed here, the unimaginable happened; the United States was attacked on their own soil. The World Trade Center fell and fear spread throughout the country like wildfire. Fort Benning prepared to send out the best, most fierce infantry men and women; Paxton was among this group.
Paxton spent months in Afghanistan with his fellow Rangers. They searched cave after cave in the mountains and found men forced to carry out extremists' violent plans in order to ensure their own family members’ safety. They found stashes of weapons, but they did not discover the origin of terror they so badly wanted to defeat. These patriots scoured the Afghan mountainside for two years and engaged in daily shootouts. Friends lost limbs to landmines as they scouted the booby trapped fields between cavernous hideouts.
During his extended time of struggle, reflection, and deflection, Paxton found himself homeless and without means of income. He had found shelter under an overpass where he was not disturbed, and he had established a routine of walking to a local food shelter three times a week. Despite his troubles, he never begged. Doing so would betray the oath he took as an Army Ranger. He had sworn, “under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country,” and begging for spare change or food scraps would be a disgrace to the Ranger code.
He was homeless for just over a year when his sister, Kenzie, found him while he waited in the line for his meal at the homeless shelter.
“Sergeant Haskell,” a meek voice called, “is that you?”
Shocked, Paxton asked, “Who wants to know?”
“Kenzie Haskell, sir,” she paused, “Is it really you Paxton?”
Paxton nodded and grumbled something inaudible. He was incredibly embarrassed to be recognized, and was even more humiliated that he was recognized by his sister, whom he had not seen outside of his military leave in almost a decade. Even worse, he had been found to be taking a handout, which was almost as bad as begging.
He stood in silence and attempted to avoid his sister’s gaze, but she was as persistent as he had remembered from their childhood.
“I was just dropping off some donations. Bryce, my son, who you may remember, has outgrown yet another wardrobe,” Kenzie attempted to make small talk.
Finally, she asked, “Paxton, can I take you to lunch or to the grocery store?”
Paxton hesitantly agreed to a quick lunch, but insisted that he bring his three bags of belongings with him. Kenzie was happy to allow this and took him to the closest burger joint she could find. They sat and talked for just over two hours. Mostly, Paxton listened while Kenzie talked, but Paxton did share some about the struggles he had faced while trying to integrate back into society.
“Why didn’t you ever come home or ask for help?” Kenzie asked him repeatedly.
Each time she questioned him, he shrugged and stated, “Surrender is not a Ranger word.”
Kenzie did not quite understand this, but didn’t push back. When she dropped him back off at the underpass she asked Paxton if she could pick him up for lunch on a regular basis. He explained that he was not to be a charity case, and was interrupted by Kenzie explaining that it was just to spend time with her brother.
That was the start of Kenzie and Paxton’s two lunch dates a week. Just before Christmas, Kenzie convinced Paxton to spend the holiday at her house with her husband and son, Bryce. Paxton only agreed to attend because his parents had passed away during his second deployment and Kenzie had described how much she missed having her family around for the holidays. While he agreed, Paxton laid out his conditions for attending; he would only stay for two nights, and no one was to interrupt him once he fell asleep.
Christmas Eve went off without a hitch. Kenzie cooked a traditional southern comfort meal, and the family watched It’s A Wonderful Life together. Kenzie explained that this was one of the Haskell family traditions she had insisted she keep. Bryce, being sixteen, was not thrilled with watching this movie yet again. He went on and on about how his friends’ families have better traditions and watch interesting movies like Die Hard or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Christmas Day wasn’t bad either. Paxton awkwardly interacted with Kenzie’s husband, Declan, and his parents. He didn’t even mind that Kenzie had bought him a new outfit and a large camo duffle bag. She explained that the bag should be large enough to hold all of his belongings. He did, however, feel bad about not having a gift for Kenzie. She picked up on this and insisted that his presence at the holiday was all the gift she needed.
Paxton was surprised how naturally he was able to blend back into his sister’s life, and he was almost proud of himself that evening when he went to the guest room to go to sleep. It wasn’t two hours later that he heard it; there was an explosion.
Years of experience as a Ranger kicked in, and before he knew what was happening or where he was, Paxton was Army crawling through the house. He found no threats in the kitchen and proceeded into the living room. His sister’s large home, like the mountains of Afghanistan, had many places for a threat to hide, and Paxton strategically cleared each one of these hiding holes as he continued on.
Finally, he reached the living room. There was a fire blazing, and he could see the silhouette of the one responsible. Paxton decided that the intruder must have waited until all the lights had gone out before breaking in to pick through the family’s Christmas haul. As quick as the carpet vipers he had worked so hard to avoid in Afghanistan, Paxton jumped up from his Army crawl and lunged at the intruder. He didn’t have a weapon on him, so he made do with his hands; he surprised the intruder by punching him in the gut then grabbed him by the neck. Paxton wrestled him to the floor, but his opponent was able to get out a quick shout for help.
Paxton hadn’t even considered that the intruder was not working alone, and he began to fear that he’d soon be fighting off other people as well. He heard running toward him and he decided that the first intruder was incapacitated enough to focus his efforts on the incoming threat.
That’s when the lights were switched on. Kenzie stood in her pajamas staring at Paxton and her son, Bryce, in the living room.
“What the hell is going on out here?” Kenzie asked.
“Mom, Uncle Paxton attacked me!” Bryce whined.
“I, I,” Paxton paused, “I heard an explosion,” he tried to explain.
Paxton couldn’t find the words to explain what had gone through his head, and he was mortified that he had attacked his nephew who was evidently just staying up late to play his newest video game.
Kenzie sent Bryce to his room and attempted to comfort Paxton. He was too embarrassed for this and returned to the guest room, where he gathered all of his belongings and stormed out of the house. He knew it was too good to be true; a vet like him just didn’t belong with others. Paxton decided this was the end of his relationship with his sister as it was for the best. He couldn’t just go around attacking her teenager every time he played a game that reminded him of the most terrifying time in his life.
He didn’t return to his normal underpass. Instead, he carried his new duffle bag about two miles outside of town until he found a suitable bridge to camp under. He adopted a new routine and got a meal each day at a nearby church. This allowed him to completely avoid the part of town Kenzie had found him in.
He didn’t know that Kenzie had searched for him every day for almost two months before she finally found him again.
“Paxtonlip James Haskell,” she shouted angrily from her car. “Don’t you move a single muscle. We need to talk, mister.”
Paxton was surprised, but followed his sister’s orders. He stayed put until she parked her car and walked to where he was camped under a bridge.
“Do you know how much time I’ve spent looking for you big brother?”
“That seems like a waste of your time sis. I didn’t want to be found,” Paxton responded.
“Too bad. I’ve found you now, and you will not run away from me again this time,” Kenzie exclaimed.
“Kenzie, I didn't run away to hurt you. I left to protect you and your family. I can’t explain what happened at Christmas. Being a Ranger is in my blood now, and sometimes it just takes over. It’s like I hear a sound and I’m back in the mountains fighting terrorists again. I will not put you or your family in danger by being near you when that happens.”
“You can’t just avoid people altogether Paxton,” Kenzie argued.
“It’s worked out okay for me so far,” he countered.
“You know, this condition has a name. I’d be happy to help you work through it. Declan and I talked it over, and even though we don’t love what happened at Christmas, we’ve agreed that you can stay with us until you get back on your feet. Bryce is okay with it too. In fact, he said being attacked by you was the coolest part of his Christmas. He had a bruise and everything. He was so proud showing it off. He bragged that his friends got to watch Die Hard but he got to act it out with his badass uncle.”
“Kenzie, thanks for the offer, but I don’t think that will work. What happens when my next episode means you find Bryce unconscious in the living room?”
“Paxton, if we work together, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’ve already talked to a great therapist who specializes in veteran PTSD-”
“No,” Paxton interrupted, “This isn’t a good idea. I am managing just fine on my own.”
“You know Paxton, living under bridges, eating other peoples’ scraps, and avoiding the people who care for you is not really ‘managing just fine’. I’m the only family you have left. I’m not a soldier like you, but this is a mission that’s just as much for me as it is for you.”
Paxton didn’t know how to respond. He had never thought of his life or struggles as just another mission to push through, but when Kenzie put it that way, it didn’t sound so overwhelming.
Kenzie shocked Paxton even more when she added, “Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one-hundred-percent and then some.”
It took Paxton almost a minute to understand that Kenzie had used the Ranger creed on him, and he suddenly realized that he wasn’t the only person in the family who had made sacrifices for the US military. With this newfound understanding, Army Ranger Paxton Haskell surrendered to a different kind of soldier.
Bonnie Pollock is an aspiring writer and middle school English teacher living in Northwest Arkansas. Bonnie has previously had academic work published in an online education journal, has written multiple picture books for family members, and completed a middle grade manuscript in 2020.