The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

TOKENS OF HOME |

July 06, 2007

TOKENS OF HOME
Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 7/6/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

There's a small charm that hangs around my neck. Many soldiers carry some small token or good luck charm -- Saint Christopher medallions, coins, crosses, sometimes even hand-blown glass hearts. Mine is a stylized fishhook carved and polished out of bone. The Maori call it Hei-Matau; they believe it will bring strength, peace and good health. My sister bought mine for me while in New Zealand this winter, and I've worn it ever since. The Maori say that with time, part of the essence of the bone and of the wearer will swap places, and the necklace will become a small part of one's self. Mine has certainly changed in the six months I've worn it -- one side has become even more highly polished from the constant rubbing of my cotton shirt, and the other shows dark streaks along the pores of the bone and hints of color from months of sweat and dust.

I've changed, too. One of my friends told me I wouldn't begin to realize how different I had become until I went on leave and saw soldiers who had spent their tours in Kuwait or other less violence-prone areas, and that I would not realize it fully until I got home.

A part of the difference is a profoundly deeper appreciation for peace. One of the first days I was home, I lay on a strip of grass while I waited outside the store my sister was shopping in. I breathed in the clean air and closed my eyes to better hear the wind whispering through the trees. I opened my eyes again and watched the people strolling by, caught up in their own concerns and ignoring the quiet beauty that surrounded them. I jerked upright when a garbage truck dropped a dumpster -- the harsh thump of metal sounded enough like a VBIED to jerk me back to Iraq.

The polished sheen of my necklace is there -- one friend told me that he'd never seen me act more confident. I felt it before he mentioned it. I own the ground I walk on, and you'll have to go through me if you want to take it. I've made it through nine months in what was once called the "triangle of death"; that area of Iraq that last year saw nearly thirty percent of those serving within it earn the Purple Heart. I've learned, as I think most combat soldiers do, to truly "not sweat the small stuff". If a situation doesn't threaten death or injury, I can't trouble myself to care too much about it. The only things that bother me are the moments in which my reflexes work faster than my brain, and for a moment I'm "back there". It didn't happen to me often over my two weeks at home, but when it did, it reminded me of what I think of as my "dirty side". I don't say dirty as in bad, but as in colored by Iraq.

By the time I left home again, I'd stopped jerking the wheel when I saw pieces of junk on or near the road, but I was still cautiously approaching manhole covers and overpasses. The dumpster falling bothered me. The car backfiring startled me for a moment. The neighborhood kid dropping a string of firecrackers out in the alley definitely startled me. All those incidents were quickly over, though.

The only one that truly bothered me was while I was on a trip up to Alaska. One of my roommates from college was getting married and I happened to make it home for the wedding. The bachelor party was standard Alaska fare: shooting guns (don't worry -- the drinking waited until afterwards). We took a long drive out around the coast from Anchorage. The improved road ended at a small dirt airstrip. My friend took his little Toyota Camry up to about 40mph and pulled the e-brake, spinning us in a complete circle.

Things started going downhill from there. We drove along a rutted, potholed road through trees and undergrowth that looked like places I'd been along the river, and turned to cross a small culvert onto another road. Some enterprising Alaskan had blown up a car on the narrow crossing -- the rusted hulk of it and another vehicle lay bullet-riddled on the other side of the blackened hole in the dirt. A little further on, the road disappeared into a giant hole. Another bullet-scarred car sat in the water-filled bottom. We backed up and took another side road and parked. I got out and smelled rotting meat -- the smell of death.

One of my friends gagged, and I remarked to him that all we needed was the smell of burning trash to re-create Iraq. That was the cue for someone nearby to start firing single high-caliber rounds. Of all the things on the trip so far, that was the one I was actually expecting -- it startled me less than it did them.

Another friend said he hoped we didn't get hit. I said not to worry, because the rounds weren't coming our way. He said that sounded like the voice of experience. I just nodded. It made me feel better to pick up a gun.

People will think I'm crazy for saying this, but I'm glad to be back in the desert. Things aren't quite black and white, but there are fewer shades of grey. The danger is real again, not imagined like some monster in the night or a djinn conjured out of the air.

Life is real.

Comments

Life in Alaska is real, life at home is real, they're just not Iraq. Please, keep home first in your heart and mind and come back to it in one piece.

Teflon Don,
Everytime my soldier returns from deployments they are changed. Driving on the other side of the road to avoid a dead deer, thinking it had a bomb in it or dropping to the floor in a Target store when there was a huge(boom) sound. It's wierd but they were glad to get back to the desert also. I do know what you're talking about.
Take care and keep safe!

Yeppo. Life sure is different out past the paved roads and streetlights. Uhmm, and no, they don't get it. That used to piss me off; people just didn't get what we went through so they didn't have to. But, hey, they couldn't hack it at all.

All the rest is bull. You're changed. It's a good change, 'cause-you-still-alive-change, and they just won't even go there in their mind. Ask them to listen when you tell the whole true story.

Yeah, it's different. Gonna be different all your life. You never get over it, completely. Realizing that you came by it honestly, doing something most could never do, and that the changes make you ready for, well, just about anything. That knowledge fills in the gaps when people stare or gasp at something you said or did.

I scared people when I came back. I didn't realize I was thinking, "OK, mutha, I will kill you if I have to . . . but I hope I don't have to." Folks didn't immediately pick up on the reluctance.

Oh well . . .

R

Baby, if they offer it, take the transitional counseling. Guys from my generation are still host the jungle in their heads forty years later. You want to someday shake that desert dust out of yours. Be prepared - the reaction gets less noticable to uninitiated but it hangs in the back of the mind for life.

I appreciate your insights which have added to my understanding.

Take care and God bless.

Transitional counseling is just the start of battle fatigue recovery. Active recovery will take years to undo the changes in automatic reflexive fear and adrenaline release from loud noise and the instant readiness of stress hormone release from visual and aural cues.

See a cognitive behavioral therapist and a naturopathic physician when you get home. The former will help with sensory deprogramming and the the latter with adjustment in diet and supplements to help you reduce the damage from chronic stress and addictive stimulant use - a hallmark habit among soldiers that actually worsens brain cell damage.

Takes a while to deprogram. Soon after I got out I realized I needed to "civilian-ize" myself. I knew I had an issue when I'd scan a bar for "field expedient weapons" and "threat vectors". When a car in Manhattan somewhere behind me backfired, even before the sound finished, I'd dived for cover and in mid-flight realized it wasn't an explosion, so I tucked, rolled to my feet and kept walking--as if nothing had happened. You should have seen the look on strangers' faces who were still processing the sound and confrotned w/some lunatic w/short hair diving behind cars! Took a solid year for me to deprogram the instantaneous reflexes. It does gets better and you do become more civilian like -- but it takes time, self-study, and conscious effort.

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