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Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
May 4th, 2009
This is my first entry. I’m keeping this journal as part of my recovery. My therapist has recommended I start tracking my thoughts, observations and memories to help with my sessions. She believes the exercise of writing everything down will help me sort my memories into a logical order. She says this will help me deal with the traumatic stress that’s put me in this hospital. I’m just hoping the migraines will stop.
I’ll start from the beginning, at least as far back as I can remember. My name is Thomas Anthony. My family calls me Tommy. I’m in the Air Force, stationed at Ramstein, Germany. I’ve been in for almost five years now but this was my first actual deployment. That’s rare these days- most of my buddies had already deployed at least once- but my unit hadn’t been tasked with supporting a combat mission until this past year.
I was understandably nervous when I was informed I’d be assigned to what was considered a “hot region” of Iraq. The area (whose name I won’t mention as it’s still sensitive information) was one of the more remote parts of the country, and it was known for daily mortar strikes, roadside IEDs, and RPG attacks. I was to be part of a 3 person communications team supporting a group of Special Forces operators.
My team would consist of Master Sergeant Jerry Fountain, our team lead and radio tech, Staff Sergeant Michael Ramos, our network tech, and myself, the designated satellite tech. Fountain was a decent-enough supervisor. He could be gruff at times, but as long as the mission was running smoothly and the work got done he didn’t care too much about regulations. As for Ramos, he’s the guy I considered my best friend. We’d been neighbors in the dorms when I first got to Germany, and as we were both single young airmen in a foreign country, we’d quickly bonded over our mutual love for beer and European women. Nervous though I was, it was a relief to be heading out the door with people who I knew would have my back.
Our pre-deployment training was relatively uneventful- long 12 hour days of prepping our equipment and getting signed off on various training requirements. For the first several weeks I was able to distract myself and push the anxiety out of my head. I tried to stay positive and not dwell on the danger, but I couldn’t speak to my parents or any of my civilian friends without them bringing up stories they’d seen on the news about roadside ambushes and attacks. As time went on I found myself wanting to be out the door already. In my mind the sooner we left, the sooner we could start thinking about coming home.
When our move out date finally arrived, we loaded our bags full of gear and body armor and prepared ourselves for a series of long flights. We were in the four-seat middle row of a mid-sized military shuttle. Fountain, being our team lead, helped himself to the corner seat, and it was up to Mendez and I to figure out who’d have to sit in the middle for the duration of our trip. “Not bitch”, I started- I didn’t even manage to get halfway through before he cut me off- “You can’t call Not Bitch on a plane, dude. Come on.”
“Flip you for it then, got a quarter?” I offered.
“Shit, I don’t have any change. Didn’t think we’d be able to use it in the desert. Rock paper scissors will have to do.”
I agreed, and on three we both drew. I threw down paper. He did, too.
“On three, one, two, three-”
I threw scissors this time, he threw rock.
“Damn it,” I muttered.
“Will you two just sit the fuck down?” asked Fountain. “You can play musical chairs later, we’ve got plenty of stops along the way.”
Ramos looked back at me and shrugged. “You can get out and stretch at Aviano.”
Aviano Italy would be our first stop, followed by stops at Qatar and Baghdad before we switched to a smaller aircraft for the last leg. “Sure,” I sighed, settling in next to Fountain’s large frame for the middle seat for the first part of our journey. I adjusted my seatbelt before reaching down to loosen my boots. As I finished I looked up and noticed a young woman walk up to the fourth seat next to Ramos. She wore her blonde hair in a tightly coiled bun high on the back of her head, and as she stowed one of her duffel bags in the overhead compartment I noticed how her Navy fatigues hugged her slender frame. I quickly darted my eyes away from her as she finished stowing her luggage so as not to be caught leering, and as I did I noticed the gold bars on her collar. “Ma’am,” said Ramos, introducing himself to the young officer as she took her seat next to him. She nodded curtly and smiled before strapping herself into her seat. Ramos looked over at me and quickly flashed me a quick thumbs-up before mouthing the words “it’s on”.
‘Should’ve gone with paper’, I thought to myself. I decided to make the best of the long flight and try to get some sleep. My head was starting to ache for some reason, and as we had several stops left, I decided to take an Ambien to help me doze off quickly. We’d been given several of the sleeping pills by our flight medic who recommended them for long flights and sleepless nights in the desert. I placed one of the tiny pills in my hand and knocked it back, not bothering to wash it down with anything to drink.
I didn’t notice anything at first, but eventually, I started to feel heavy. The last thing I remember before nodding off was looking over at the female officer. Ramos was chatting her ear off, pulling his usual moves, but I’d swear her dark eyes were fixed on me, staring at me as I fell asleep.
“Come on man!”
I awoke to find Ramos shaking me by the arm. Fountain was gone, he’d already grabbed his gear and disembarked, as had our new blonde friend and most of the rest of the shuttle.
“I don’t know how you slept through that landing, that was rough as hell,” he said.
I shook my head groggily, trying to shake off the effects of the pill. The disorientation was stronger than I’d expected.
“Damn it. Sorry. I took an Ambien, didn’t think it’d work so well.”
“Geez, you couldn’t wait to get into those huh?”
“Well,” I said. “You looked like you couldn’t wait to get into something yourself”.
He grinned. “Her name’s Sara. Wait for it- she’s going to the same site we are, she’s a comm officer!”
“No way. Seriously?”
“You realize she’s an officer, right?”
His grin widened. “What goes deployed, stays deployed.”
“What happens when she dumps you for one of the spec ops dicks we’re working with,” I asked, “and you have to spend the rest of the tour hiding from her?”
“I’ll take that chance,” he replied. “Least it’ll be entertaining while it lasts.”
I sighed. He was right, I’d have taken that chance as well. Definitely should’ve gone with paper.
I have to cut this entry short- I’ve got therapy in a couple of minutes. Also, it’s hard to write at length about this stuff. Some of it’s hazy – and it takes a lot of effort to put it to paper. I feel like the more I think back on it, the more intense my migraines become. I’ll try to write more soon.
May 6th, 2009
I was discussing the last part of my transport over to our site. I remember arriving in Baghdad with Ramos, Fountain, and Sara, the new comm officer. The details are a little hazy, we didn’t spend much time there and the sun was setting when we touched down, all that really stands out it is the heat. Waiting in a hostile area waiting for our chinook helicopter to pick us up, we now had to carry our sidearms along with full “battle rattle”- Kevlar vest, helmet, gloves, elbow pads, knee pads, the works. If there’s anything more miserable than standing around waiting for a helicopter in 110-degree weather wearing 40 pounds of armor over long-sleeved camo, I don’t know it.
I take that back- these migraines are pretty high up there as far as misery is concerned. My therapist tells me I’m making steady progress, she says the pain and disorientation are the physical manifestations of some of the emotions I’ve been suppressing. Still doesn’t explain the memory loss though- I’m still struggling with parts of that.
Anyway, I remember trying to kill time by making small talk with Sara. Ramos had walked off to use the head, so I figured I’d try to figure out what kind of person she was. I just remember the nagging feeling that there was something out of place about her. I think I asked her a few questions, basic things like what unit she was with, where she was from, things like that. I don’t remember any of her answers. My head was still hurting pretty badly, come to think of it, I probably wasn’t able to pay her a lot of attention. I actually can’t even remember what her voice sounded like. Eventually, Ramos must’ve come back. I wandered over to Fountain to ask him what he thought of her. The man was standing some distance from us, staring off into the distant night sky.
“So what do you think of blondie?” I asked him.
“What?” he answered distractedly, not bothering to look in my direction.
“The comm officer, what do you make of her?”
“Hell if I know”, he muttered, clearly still focusing his gaze on something in the distance. “Look there”, he said, gesturing with his head. I looked over in the direction he was indicating and noticed a small, bright light steadily approaching our position.
“That our ride?” I asked.
“You’d think so. Don’t know why they’d be all lit up though.”
I realized what he was getting at- there was no reason for our transport to be running their lights at all. We’d been briefed that we’d be traveling at night to minimize the possibility of detection- there was always the threat of hostiles in the area looking to shoot down a US aircraft and take some prisoners for their next grisly beheading video. I felt an anxious knot form in the pit of my stomach. There might have been a dozen reasons why our pilots would decide to approach with their lights on, but still, something felt wrong. Ramos walked up behind us as we watched the light grow closer and closer.
“Quieter than I thought it’d be, for a twin-rotor,” he said.
That’s when I realized what was bothering me about the approaching aircraft- it was silent. Not quiet, not a dampened engine sound, but complete, dead silence…
Damn it, my nose just started bleeding- I’m trying not to get it on the page. I’ll pick this up tomorrow, I think, my migraine’s starting to act up again as well.
May 20th, 2009
I haven’t written anything in a couple of weeks. I haven’t been able to, the migraines have been too severe. It’s not just my head either- since I last wrote my nosebleeds have become a frequent, almost daily occurrence. I’m really anxious to work through all of these issues, it’s just been difficult and I think I’ve been cooped up in here for too long. I haven’t been able to get out and talk to anyone. I really felt like calling my parents the other day but my therapist advised against it, she told me at this stage I have to learn to deal with the repercussions of the accident before I can start re-establishing my past relationships. She’s always telling me that once I’m better, I’ll be ready to go out into the world and see it for what it is.
So I think the most important thing that I try to work through is the crash. As I mentioned, it’s difficult to think about it. I think part of me doesn’t want to remember the details, doesn’t want to relive the pain of what happened to me. But I have to- for my own sake, and out of respect for everyone else that didn’t survive the crash.
I’ll start with the things I do remember. I’ll try to write this out quickly as the pain in my head is starting to build up again. Already I feel like I want to smash my head into a wall and crack it open. Anyway. I don’t remember boarding the chopper. I don’t remember what I was doing or if I even realized at the time that it was going down. I mostly remember feelings. The anxiety of watching the white light coming towards us as we stood waiting in the desert. Then another feeling, one I can’t quite place- I can best describe it as a sort of complete weightlessness, combined with complete and utter terror. I remember hearing screams, both my own, as well as others I couldn’t identify. Rationally thinking I suppose these could be from the moments as the chopper was about to go down- the last moments before the helicopter crash that ended my deployment and my best friend’s life.
Shock, confusion, devastation, emptiness. Those are the next feelings I remember- the ones that overtook me when I woke up here. Seven weeks to the day I was standing in the desert with my team waiting to board a transport to a remote part of Iraq, I woke up to find myself in a hospital bed in New Mexico. A nurse was there when I woke up. She grimly informed me that the Chinook helicopter we’d boarded had been shot down by insurgents shortly after we’d taken off. The ensuing crash had claimed the lives of all of the passengers but me. I’d immediately retched as I heard the news, and unfortunately what followed was several minutes of painful attempts by my body to vomit. This led to me forcefully coughing up a stream of saliva mixed with viscous, dark blood.
The nurse had rushed to my side. Once my retching subsided she’d informed me that the extent of my injuries had been such that I’d been in and out of a coma several times as I’d been med-evac’ed out of Iraq and back through Europe before eventually being transferred to a military hospital at Cannon Air Force Base. I’d been in and out of surgery, received several blood transfusions, and been fed through a tube for most of that time. As such, I didn’t have much in my stomach with which to produce much in the way of regular vomit. “Are my parents here?” I asked the nurse.
“They’ve been in to see you several times while you were unconscious” came the answer. “They’ve had to limit their contact with you though, as this next stage is crucial to your recovery.”
I sank back into my bed, unable to breathe, or vomit, or even cry, and unable to process the grief that was surging through me. Fountain. Ramos. They were gone, ripped away in an instant. And not only them, but the pilots, there had to have been at least a couple of pilots on that chopper… And Sara.
The thought of her name, then, as it does now, sent a wave of intense pain through my skull.
I’m bleeding again. All over the place, this time. I’ve noticed since the transfusions that my blood seems a little darker than I ever remember it being before the crash. I’m certainly getting a good look at it on a regular basis these days. According to the nurse, it’s a fairly common short term side effect from one of the surgeries I had while I was under.
I think this is it for today. No new progress, haven’t really remembered anything new, but at least I can take this entry with me to therapy this afternoon, I think it might help. I’m really hoping this might lead to a breakthrough soon.
May 28th, 2009
I haven’t made any progress this past week. I feel I’ve actually gotten worse. I really wanted to talk to my parents the other day, but I had to remind myself that this isn’t the way I want them to see me. I need to get better before I can start working on talking to people again.
This last week has been particularly difficult- I’ve been experiencing some vivid and disturbing dreams. I’ve had nightmares before, everyone has. But these are something else entirely. They don’t feel like dreams, they feel like I’m actually living through an event, experiencing every excruciating detail. They might not be so bad if not for the fact that they seem to relate to the crash. Or rather, my mind’s twisted interpretation of the crash.
In my dream, I’m floating, trapped in a bright beam of light. I struggle to get away, to move my hands and escape, but I can’t, I’m helpless, immobile. Next, I find myself restrained to some sort of cold, metallic surface. In my dream, it feels rough, like my skin is lying on top of an oversized cheese grater. I’m no longer floating nor surrounded by light- this new place is almost completely hidden in shadows.
I hear screams, pained, agonized screams. They sound like they’re coming from a person around middle age. I hear a loud whirring sound, like a hummingbird made out of razor blades – the screams grow louder, then they’re replaced by a type of gurgling sound, then something that sounds like leaking, like water pouring out of an overflowing bucket.
I try to turn my head, to look around and find the source of the screams, but I’m unable to control my body, I can’t move a single muscle. Suddenly I’m aware that I’m not alone. I can’t see or hear them, but I can tell there are several presences in the room. They aren’t people, at least it doesn’t feel like they’re people, they feel like something monstrous and inhuman. I can feel them in the dream, standing next to me. I suddenly realize I’m not wearing any clothes.
As my mind processes this I see what looks like a hand pass above me- I get a good look at it for just a second. It’s long and shiny, reflecting light like crude oil. There are just four fingers on the hand, each of them ends in a sharp point, not a nail or a claw, but like the fingers were each filed down to sharp edges. Another four-fingered hand appears, this one reaches for my face. I try once again to move away, but I’m frozen. The sharp hand rakes into my mouth, past the lips and teeth, and steps into the soft flesh of my gums. Another hand appears and does the same to my lower jaw, then the two hands violently rip my mouth open. I’m now able to make a sound, and I hear my own screams fill the dark space.
I hear the whirring sound again- the noise of the razor blade hummingbird draws closer and closer- I can hear it inside my mouth now- I’m still screaming, but the noise changes as the hummingbird’s wings slice through my tongue and into the back of my throat…
That’s when I wake up. It’s always at that same part of the dream, and the dream is always the same. It scares the hell out of me. I don’t know what kind of meds they gave me during the surgery but I’m starting to wish they hadn’t. Hell, I don’t even know what kind of surgery it was that I needed. Come to think of it- I’d found it strange at first that I would’ve been flown stateside so quickly given the extent of my injuries, but the nurse explained to me that I’d been placed within the Air Force’s most capable traumatic stress treatment facility. I didn’t even know that dedicated facilities for dealing with what I was facing existed, but I was as relieved as I could be.
I know I’m just being paranoid, I don’t mean to be. I just really need to be able to sleep. I need to focus on my mental recovery, and I can’t do that when I’m falling apart.
June 15th, 2009
I’ve had the nightmare every single night for the past several weeks. Same details. Same dream. I really need to talk to someone. I’ve asked, even demanded to be allowed to talk to my parents but my therapist won’t let me do it.
At first, I thought I was just being paranoid, just letting the pressure get to me. I know I’ve been through a lot, I know people crack, but there’s something really strange going on. I started thinking about it. The Air Force doesn’t maintain a regional hospital at Cannon Air Force Base. And even if they did, why would they have brought me here instead of letting me rehab back in Germany? I thought it was so I could be closer to my family but that’s not it because they aren’t even letting me see them. What possible reason could they have for this?
I talked to my therapist about it today, and as I expected she told me that these concerns are the result of paranoia that’s common to people who’ve experienced the types of things that I have. My migraine started up in the middle of her explanation, and as it did I noticed something- my therapist looks exactly like Sara did.
June 16th, 2009
Goddamn it, the migraines are not getting any better, I didn’t even think the pain could be worse but it is. Half the time I can’t think straight at all… And the nosebleeds, my god. Starting to wonder if I should just walk around with tampons jammed into my nostrils at all times. The color of my blood still frightens me as well. I’d all but gotten used to seeing it look a bit dark after a nosebleed, but this morning I nicked myself shaving. The blood that poured down my jaw wasn’t dark- it was completely black, like a trickle of crude oil was escaping my face.
I’m really worried now about the long term side effects of the medicine or whatever it was they gave me after the surgery. Maybe I’m having a bad reaction to something. I don’t know. I need to ask my nurse about this. I’ll bring it up this evening when I see her. For now, I can’t really write or think anymore, I need to lay my head down.
June 17th, 2009
There’s something seriously wrong with me. I had the dream again last night. Worse, when I woke up I sat up in my bed and looked over- Ramos and Fountain were there, standing at the foot of my bed, staring at me. Something was wrong with their eyes. They looked hollow at first, but after staring at them for a moment I realized that they were completely dark and empty, like twin tar pits sitting on their faces, staring back at me.
As I gazed back at them in horror my migraine kicked in again, worse than it’s ever been. I felt wet trails forming and running from my eyes down my cheeks, and I thought I was somehow crying, like maybe I was so terrified that I’d just burst into tears. I reached up to touch my face and realized it was blood running from the corner of my eyes. The same jet black oily blood I’d noticed yesterday was now running from my tear ducts. I looked from the dark substance on my fingertips back to the foot of the bed, but there was no one there.
I frantically pressed the button next to my bed to summon the nurse to my room. She arrived a few moments later and immediately went about wiping the blood from my face. I told her what I’d seen.
“It’s a visual hallucination,” she responded calmly. “They’re common in individuals like yourself, who’ve experienced stressful situations. They’re also common in people who are sleep deprived. You can see how you might be seriously partial to something like this.”
“And the blood?” I asked, desperate for reassurance.
“Haemolacria,” she said, as she delicately wiped my left eye- “Is a condition that affects about 8 percent of men- it causes blood to leak out through your tear ducts.” She continued to explain the condition, but by this time I wasn’t listening. I’d just noticed her fingers. My nurse has four fingers on each hand instead of five.
June 18th, 2009
I know what I saw yesterday. More frightening than that, however, is the fact that this morning, when I went to write in my journal, I found all of the pages with my earlier entries empty. It’s like they were never there- there’s no evidence of the missing pages- it’s like someone just replaced my journal with a completely new one. Someone seems to be going through some degree of trouble to make me think I’m crazy.
But I know what I saw. I can re-write those pages from memory if I have to, and in fact, I think I should. I’m starting to be able to focus through the migraines, and even the thought of getting the pages covered with blood won’t stop me. There’s something wrong with me, and I think I finally know what it is.
June 24th, 2009
This morning I finally had the guts to do something I’ve been afraid to do for a long time. I went into the bathroom and examined myself- there are no surgery scars, no incision marks, no evidence of any surgical procedures performed anywhere on my body, except for one specific location. I used a flashlight to look inside my throat in front of the bathroom mirror. There, past my tongue in the back of my throat, I can see a long straight scar. I now know what I feared is true. They weren’t dreams. They were memories.
My best friend wasn’t killed by a plane crash, or by insurgents. Neither were any of the others on that chopper. They were all taken- by someone or something- against their will. I have no idea if they’re actually dead or not but whatever happened to them is not going to happen to me. Tonight I’m leaving this place- I’m fairly confident I’ve got the nurse’s schedule memorized, as soon as she’s clear I’m just going to bolt. If I can make it to the ground floor of this building, I think I have a shot. From there I can make a run for one of the building’s fire exits. Hopefully, I can find some sort of hiding place or get far enough from the building to where I can plan my next move. I don’t know how far outside of this hospital this thing, whatever it is, goes, but I’m not taking any chances.
Mom, Dad, I’m writing you this so you know exactly what happened to me in Iraq. If you’ve come across this journal and haven’t heard from me, then I don’t know what’s happened but I can only imagine it’s the worst. I’m sorry, I love you, I should’ve paid more attention when you told me how dangerous it was over there. Please, if you don’t hear from me, contact Ramos’ mom and let her know about all this, Fountain’s wife too, they all have to know what’s going on. I have to go now, before I lose focus and my migraines take me again. God, they’re getting worse suddenly. I can see them all in my head. I can hear them too- they’re saying something but the words aren’t clear… I need to go.
Credit: Griffin Cologne
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