Status: Complete.

I Will Falter, but Never Fall

The Veteran

I can't do this. I can't do this. I. Can't. Do. This.

My pace slows until I come to a stop. Both hands rest on the back of my head. Air is sucked in by my desperate lungs. I choke back a sob, so disappointed in myself.

I collapse to the ground and hang my head. There is no drive left in me. All the skeptics were right. This course was too much for my damaged body to handle.

I let my tears loose, and mindlessly brush at the dried blood on my leg. Other runner's feet go jogging by, ignoring my embarrassing cries. My hair tickles my bare shoulders as a breeze catches my burning skin.

"Don't give up."

I squint up to see another woman standing in front of me. Mud is caked all over her body, the same as mine. Sweat tracks down her skin.

"I know it hurts, and I know it feels impossible, but it's not. You can do it."

She waits, blonde hair a tangled mess on top of her head. Even as I continue to mope and stare, even as others race by, she waits.

It's not until she extends a hand that I notice her legs. Or the lack of. Both are amputated at the knee, same as my right one. I'm shocked, but more than that, I'm newly empowered.

"The first one is always the hardest," she tells me as we fall into a steady jog.

The angled wall sits in front of us, waiting to conquer us. Groups have formed human ladders, allowing the weaker ones to crawl up them. Others are flying solo, speeding up the fortress with such agility.

"I'll see you at the top." A grin splits her face as she runs forward.

My face scrunches, so sure she won't make it. Except, she does. Everyone breaks into cheers as she does a silly dance of victory. Instead of continuing on, she waits, watching me expectantly. So does everyone else.

A ton of lead settles in the bottom of my stomach. How will I ever make it up?

Sucking in one last breath, I burst forth like a bullet out of a gun. My knee is searing with pain, but I grit my teeth against it. My legs pump as fast as they can, propelling me up the wall. A few more inches and-

My fingers barely miss the ledge and I slide back down, jarring my already raw stump. My pride hurts more than my knee, though. Heat floods my cheeks as I limp around a second, shaking off the impact. I can feel hundreds of eyes burning into my back.

That's the thing I hate the most about being a disabled veteran. The sympathetic looks in everyone's eyes. The way they tiptoe around in a conversation, terrified they'll offend me. The way they turn away, afraid I'll think they're rude for staring.

I wish I could tell them all that I'd rather them stare and fumble and ask. I don't mind telling my story. I don't mind people seeing my wound. I wield it proudly, because I did it for a country I love and believe in.

Someone offers to help me up the wall, but I decline with the most politeness I can muster. I see my new friend cheering, hands cupped around her mouth. Others join in until it's a dull roar. Their chanting voices light a fire inside me.

This time I'm able to grasp onto the edge, and my body floods with relief. I accept the help offered to climb up the rest of the way.

"That was awesome!" She hollers, slapping my back. "We're in the home stretch now!"

We link hands, holding our arms up high as we cross the finish line. Joyful tears race down my cheeks, and I pull her into a hug. We cling together tightly, barely able to stand.

"Thank you," I whisper. "You're my hero."

She squeezes me one last time before disappearing in the crowd. Everything blurs together as I'm congratulated left and right. So many people tell me how inspired they are and thank me for my service. It's humbling, but my eyes are only searching for a certain group.

I'm given a t-shirt and headband, staring I've defeated the obstacle course. Someone shoves an ice cold beer into my hand just as I see four women rushing towards me.

"You are literally the most amazing person ever!" One screams, squeezing me around the neck.

The others circle, forming one big embrace. We laugh and cry together, none even caring I'm soiling their clothes.

We finally pull apart, and my gaze scans each of them.

I ask about one's kids, how her oldest is doing with his new therapy. Her eyes light up at being able to talk about her favorite topic.

One slips a passive comment about possibly moving down here, and that she might've met someone new. I notice she doesn't startle anymore when someone raises their voice.

Another has put on some weight, and there's a new gleam to her eyes. She's wearing make up and her hair is a shining mass, flowing down her back.

The other is all muscle and grace, going on about the massive cheat meal she's about to engorge in.

My four best friends. My four biggest fans. So much beauty, and so much strength.

"By the way," one speaks up, catching our attention, "I've drawn the perfect tattoo for us."

"Oh, yea?"

She pulls a piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolds it. It holds a simple and beautiful flower.

"A gladiolus."