42″ x 30″ • Mixed media on canvas
The artist’s pictorial translation of Charlie Pacello’s account of his journey, from the next in line of a proud family of warriors to ultimate disillusionment of self and the frightful awareness of the world-ending power he came to understand to closely for comfort.
His path ultimately leads to redemption through a new understanding of self, a catalyst of which being a transcendent experience on the banks of a half-moon shaped island in Thailand, represented here. The procession of figures is bookended by two out-of-this-world figures, on the left stands the oldest archetypal ancestor of his family’s warrior lineage, a lion-headed manticore. On the right, the multi-headed man/woman “with a thousand faces” that appeared on to him on the island.
by Compton Bailey
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Though he might not see it himself, Charlie Pacello is a man of profound strength.
He was a straight arrow growing up, honest, kind, and always trying to do the right thing. The Christian thing. His respect for a life of service was further inspired by his own personal war heroes. His grandfather fought under Patton in North Africa, making him a legend that worked with legends. His father, a distinguished Vietnam veteran, carried those hidden stories found between bullets. It wasn’t personal, but some things need to remain hidden from loved ones, threats that could undermine the relationships people have with those they care about. Charlie didn’t know that as a boy, however. Instead, amidst his father’s proclamations of fatherly appreciation and love came a vacant place where dialogue was met with empty echoes. When Charlie’s boldness grew with his age, he asked his father about war. The response was both vague and crystal clear.
“There is no high like the one you get facing an enemy trying to kill you.”
Awed and eager for crumbs of sacred knowledge that can only be found from combat, he soaked in all the information he could. The more he knew, the closer he came to earning his father’s respect. Following through on his end of the unspoken contract, and driven by a need to carry on the warrior lineage, he decided to join the Air Force. All he had to do was follow the rules and trust in those around him. Trust in those closest to him. Trust in his community. Trust in America and Americans. The Good Guys committed to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. His intentions were noble. His hope, assured; backed by the promises made by the entirety of our culture.
A year after graduating from the Air Force Academy, he got a cushy assignment in Los Angeles Air Force Base working in acquisitions equipment procurement. They had not been made aware that he was coming, so, adapting and overcoming, they gave him a choice between working in communications or the NDS (Nuclear Detonation Detection System). The NDS was a component on the Global Positioning Satellites that could detect the detonation of a nuclear weapon, its location, and all important details in managing the threat of nuclear annihilation. It was fascinating work and a good role for someone who didn’t quite fit what he thought an Air Force officer should be. He felt like more of a State Department type who wanted to solve his country’s problems without killing anyone.
He was put in charge of writing a book on quickly integrating new people into the unit. He studied and sat in on briefings with the scientists working on the project who came from the Sandia National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project was born. Having liked science as a child, he felt like he was in a position to thrive. Yet something began to bother him. They were all brilliant, invested in their jobs, but they spoke as though a nuclear war in the next forty to fifty years was inevitable. It wasn’t that conclusion, however. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was inherently wrong.
He’d taken a position working with the NDS Program Office, tasked with completing the operational readiness of GNT, the Ground Nuclear Detonation Detection System Terminal, command units which would be used for Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment and Nuclear Force Management.
In other words, nuclear war. Deterrence, counter attacks… and first strike capabilities.
He looked around at his comrades. At those with whom he worked and fought, shared stories and secrets and laughter. As a lieutenant, at those who were looking for his guidance. He looked around at a room filled with people committed to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness… and saw what awful things purpose can inspire. He saw an unspoken desire to see the actualization of their life’s work, their theories tested, they’re questions answered. In other words, many of them were aching for World War III.
The moral injury was profound. It felt like a spear falling from the heavens, through the roof of the GNT trailer in which he found himself, and into his gut, pinning him to his chair.
Not wanting to cause drama, especially with the heavy respect he had for his father, Charlie ignored it, as well as the deep sense of betrayal he wouldn’t recognize until decades later. A betrayal not just of what he was falsely taught about the institution of the military, but of God himself, who had placed him in this position. He felt he needed to speak to a priest or a psychologist, someone to help him make sense of what was happening. Someone who could guide him in understanding, and thereby dealing with, his guilt and shame.
Instead, he began downing bottles of Johnny Walker on the weekend, dulling the guilt in a socially acceptable way. However, when the system he was working on went operational, a system he was entirely responsible for ensuring operational integrity, capability, and mission readiness… apocalyptic nightmares began to plague him. He would be trapped in dreams of nuclear war, unable to wake up, drenched in sweat and panic. This was further reinforced by the photograph of the mushroom cloud that had been left on his desk when he first arrived, a stark reminder of the kind of warfare in which they were ultimately engaged.
When his alcoholism began to become apparent, he was given fewer and fewer responsibilities, which gave him more and more time to himself. He was stuck, the victim of his own morality in a world that was too busy to care. Wanting to escape any way he could, he started using a popular drug in the rave scene, Ecstasy. It worked. It turns out doing hard drugs lets you escape life, at least for the moment. Especially when these drugs are part of a regiment of others, such as cocaine and GHB, followed by unprotected sex with multiple partners in rabid, rapid frequency, all bolstered by the equally hedonistic lifestyles of some of his fellow officers. In fact, he became such a regular to the scene that he started looking after other drug dealers when they went out of town but wanted to keep their customer base.
However, the glamor of drug fueled orgies and a brain swimming in dopamine tends to wear off when sunlight is stabbing you in the eyes with a blade made of high-carbon hangover. That’s when your understanding of time slows down, as though the searing pain right between your eyes were trying to prevent the actions of the previous night bleeding into the expectations of the following day.
Call it “Reality.”
He had fallen off the proverbial cliff by this point – a lost soul rebelling against everything. Nothing to live for that wouldn’t be undermined in due time. His one hope was a woman he loved, who had shared his lifestyle and shown him support. Once she left him for another man, Charlie snapped. He went AWOL, no choice left but to escape. When he came back, he was asked to do a drug test. The test took an agonizing month. By the end of that month, he received an email stating that someone on base had tested positive. He thought it was a safe assumption that it was him, so when the Air Force Office of Special Investigation approached him, it was shocking what they asked next. They wanted him to go “undercover,” a mole looking to snitch on others who were doing drugs. Fueled by guilt and panic, as well as a drive to protect his Air Force friends, he preemptively jumped on a metaphorical hand grenade he knew was coming. He instinctively turned all the attention to himself, wanting to drown out the spotlight on his friends and take all the responsibility. Plus, you don’t rat out friends.
If anyone had corroborated his admission of guilt, he would have gone to Leavenworth, but no one did. He had protected his friends. But when they found out Charlie had spoken with someone in law enforcement, they saw that he brought “heat.” That their lifestyle was under threat just by Charlie being around. They vanished and he was again left to the isolation that so often comes from profound betrayal. It was one of the worst times of his life, where even his Air Force friends had abandoned him.
He eventually approached his sister, putting his faith in her to not speak about it until he had formed a reasonable way to present his side of the story. He was, after all, going to be presenting his failure to a person he wanted to impress more than anyone. His father. But she told his father immediately, who consequently flipped out. A calm, caring conversation was not in the cards. For this reason, Charlie’s suicidal ideation spiked.
In November of 2000, while still in the Air Force, he kept abusing drugs. Kept wandering, with no foreseeable direction. He found himself in the Bay of Thailand in a place called Koh Phangan. At the time he was looking to self immolate. Burn hot, burn down, and vanish in ash. It was in this place that he was offered another direction in the form of something entirely unexpected.
The island flooded with pulsating, polychromatic lights and chest hurting beats to rave music. In the midst of celebrated hedonism and a suicidal frenzy, he was given the answer he had prayed for and.
Charlie had taken what is referred to as a “heroic dose” of psilocybin mushrooms. Though these mushrooms are also used recreationally as “party drugs” like cocaine and ecstasy, unlike cocaine and ecstasy, they are also known to be used in certain traditional ceremonies passed down through civilizations in order to create profound, life changing experiences. Just as Charlie’s private hell had been his and his alone, these experiences, brought to the fore by your own thought processes, are catered to you. This often comes with spiritual epiphanies and severe shifts in priorities.
When the veil we all wear was lifted for Charlie, he saw the moon moving with the stars, a thousand faces on the men and women underneath, visions of Buddha and Christ and Vishnu and those parts of our minds that can remember someone we’ve never consciously met, yet know intimately. He felt a connection to the entire world. Something beyond our understanding of purpose. He felt his place in the cosmos. How small he was. How small his problems were. How easily addressed, if only he had the motivation, the momentum, and the hope to address them. In this moment, shared between him and the vastness of all he could imagine, he was finally shown the guidance he’d been waiting for… aching for… the whole time. A new perspective. A sliver of what it is to stretch toward actualization. It was just a sliver, but it was enough.
His service ended in July of 2001 when he received a Discharge Under Less Than Honorable Conditions. In 2002, he joined the Stella Adler Academy of Acting, graduating valedictorian in 2004.
In 2005 he met a woman, fell in love, and got engaged. She had inspired him so much, and in so many ways, that he stopped abusing substances all together. He had regained a sense of purpose where there had previously been only loss. When she left him in 2011, that purpose no longer mattered. He was at a true rock bottom. The sort that inspires people to reach back out to God. So he got on his hands and knees and prayed, searching spiritually for a means to live his best life, to fill that hole where so much of his soul had been, finding footing at one point at a veteran-centric retreat, where he found another form of guide. One which, with patience, understanding, and a willingness to put forth effort, allowed Charlie to know he had been heard. He was shown the tools necessary to recognize, digest, accept, and adapt to trauma and crisis.
He also began a vid-cast called The Council with Charlie Pacello, which features people who are taking an active role not simply in healing themselves, but in healing society as a whole. He gives these people, these champions of our collective growth, a platform to pass their abundance of hope and optimism onto those who lost or never had it. Through this, Charlie has found purpose in supporting others, showing them ways out of their own tragedies in order to regain a semblance of control over their lives
In other words, Charlie Pacello, morally torn asunder, who turned to smoking or snorting or drinking himself into oblivion in order to avoid the guilt and shame that had come to define him… a man who cast out God just as he felt he had been cast out… who was on the brink of overdose for years… who tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed… finally found the right guide, the right tools, and the right motivations to benefit a world that, at one point, felt too busy to notice his pain. For the wayward who, broken by a hope that was once their greatest strength, Charlie became a guide all his own.
With this momentum, and with incredible effort, Charlie found forgiveness. For the world, which has no choice but to continue turning, for himself, knowing he had done his best in the circumstances in which his soul had found itself, and for his father, who was a warrior long before he met Charlie’s mother. Beyond that, his father also forgave him, helping Charlie become more whole where there was previously emptiness.
In the shadow of despair and abandonment, Charlie became a man of profound strength, helping give others the same.