March 15, 2007

Name: Teflon Don
Posting date: 3/15/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Milblog url: acutepolitics.blogspot.com

There's a rush that comes on the heels of a significant event here. After the IED explodes, or the RPG whistles overhead, or the shot cracks past, there's a moment of panic as you process the fact that you are still alive -- that this time, they missed you. After that second's hesitation, the rush hits.

No one really knows what it is, exactly, but we all feel it. It's physical. It's emotional. For some, it's spiritual. Some say it's endorphins or adrenaline; some say it's rage, or hate, or joy. Some say it's safety -- the knowledge that Someone is watching out for you. It's different for everyone, but it's always there.

For me, the rush is mostly exhilaration. It's a feeling of invulnerability. I've heard the unforgettable sound of an RPG somewhere very, very near my little sector of space, and stood a little taller yelling "Missed me, you bastards!" as I spun the turret and looked for the shooter.

The first time I got blown up, I had to remind myself to get up and look around for the trigger man, or possible gunmen set to take advantage of the confusion. I felt like I was floating through a world where time stood still. There's something about looking directly at an artillery shell, and seeing it vanish with a sharp crack and rush of dust and debris, that changes you. My brain was yelling at me "This isn't normal! You shouldn't be alive and thinking right now!", and my body was yelling back "Well, I'm definitely alive, so hoist your doubting ass up into the turret!"

I've never felt more alive than I do in the moments after a near miss. I feel the same way after a big jump skiing, or after jumping off a bridge, but here the feeling is magnified a hundredfold. It's incredible when you do something that you shouldn't live through, but do.

Some might call me sick, or crazy. I assure you that I am sane, and very much alive.


Hell No! I call you competent!

We're all fighting to get you some clean water, some decent equipment, and a square deal if you do get hit.

BTW: it's more like a tag line, but; Stay alive. Come home. Help us fix this mess so it never happens again.

When reflecting on his experiences during the Boer War in South Africa, Winston Churchill said, "There is no greater feeling in the world than being shot at and missed."

Has there been any noticeable improvements in the situation in Ramadi over the past few weeks?

Danger can give a rush which leads to addiction. There an many kinds of addictions, this is one your own body creates. Like any other addiction, there is a problem when the supply dries up. Translate: deployment over. Often alcohol is a readily availible substitute, maybe a thrill sport or another dangerous job. These are socially acceptable outlets...The cost of addiction is never paid by just the addict, it is also carried by those who care about that person and the social infrastucture. Addiction is useful in a situation like yours, (Would you do the job without the rush? It would probably be unbearably frightening!) but what do you do later when you still need that feeling? I am not a professional in this field, but it is a situation which has been very much in my face, and I have seen the the consequences. The social cost is huge, and yet no one speaks of it. If there are any professionals out there reading this, PLEASE speak up! Please be careful, Teflon, and I thank you for your description of combat stress reaction.

After re-reading your blog, I realize my response is dull and boring, especially compared to the what you are experiencing. However, growing old does have it's compensations. Hmm... let me search my memory...must be something in here...

What do you think of the idea that war exists to provide you with this experience?

This really isn't meant as a smart-ass question: I want to know what you think. A little background: from what I can see, warfare usually bears no relation to its stated goals -- looking ahead, no rational person would expect it to promote those goals, and looking back, it hasn't done so. (That "usually" is important: the exceptions tend to be spectacular.)

So if that's a given, then either the whole business is just part of the world's randomness (always a possibility) or there's an unstated goal. Or some of both. A lot of the silliest thinking about war that I see is a frantic seeking of the unstated goal in the form of some nefarious conspiracy -- thinking that completely leaves out the effects of chaos, misunderstanding, and incompetence at high levels. So I don't want to assume, in some portentious way, that There Has To Be A Reason. I'm not always sure there does.

At the same time, it's a complicated & expensive business. And we keep doing it. It seems there has to be something more than simple randomness or blundering.

This is what brings me to the question above. I'm not a soldier, but I've been talking to soldiers all my life -- people at pretty varied levels in the hierarchy. And they all (including, BTW, many who haven't ever personally been in combat) talk about the feeling you're describing. They talk aboutr it like it was the grail. When they are young, they want it -- as if they can't really be alive until they've had it -- and when they are old (and in positions of power) they want to share it with their sons, or the people they think of as sons. As far as I can tell, that feeling is the one and only good thing war -- any war, just or unjust, won or lost -- is guaranteed to produce.

So I wonder. At times it seems to me that, as explanations go, modelling war as a fantastically costly form of bungee jumping makes more sense than most of the alternatives I see proposed. And I wonder how this idea looks from there. (Other than obscene, of course. But then this started with people tryimg to kill you for no good reason, so I guess obscene is kind of a given.)

Hey Teflon Don ... There is always atleast one in the bunch that can find a positive in a very negative situation... May you continue "get back up" and God be with you ...

zelma, your post is not dull. It's quite insightful. I can assure you that behavioral specialists (clinicians and research scientists - Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and other public and private sector) do read these messages to glean information that may be of use in broadening the understanding of the consequences of these events and to develop treatment regimens.

Don - You nailed it. I never felt more alive than right after a firefight in Vietnam. Early on that was followed by extreme nausea and then violent shakes. The nausea went away after a while but I always got the shakes.

Stay safe.

LOQUITUR: En Bertrans de Born.
Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife.
Judge ye!
Have I dug him up again?
The scene is at his castle, Altaforte. "Papiols" is his jongleur. "The Leopard," the device of Richard Coeur de Lion.

Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let's to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howls my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth's foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav'n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God's swords clash.

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour's stour than a year's peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there's no wine like the blood's crimson!

And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might 'gainst all darkness opposing.

The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth's won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.

Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There's no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle's rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges 'gainst "The Leopard's" rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry "Peace!"

And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought "Peace!"

-- Ezra Pound

You hit it right smack on center. One tends to crave that "rush" after a while and not too many people can understand the feeling of being shot at. And Mike's got it right--the shakes never goes away. and sometimes, tears flow for no reason except for the fact that you can yell "Hey sucker, you missed me!!" Stay safe and always check six.

Zelma- This isn't addiction. It won't lead to addiction. It is a normal response to abnormal situation. Someone is trying to kill you. The juices start pumping, fight or flight. You shoot anything that moves. Training takes over and you double tap the trigger or put down 400 round bursts from the 240. This is about your survival and if they die and you live this is just the way we planned it.
Now when folks get back it is also normal to get triggered by things that are safe now but just last week were far from it. Things like driving around off post, lound noises, smells, going out in crouds, live fire ranges and training troops to go back downrange. Things are simple in combat. Black and White. Home can be difficult and confusing for your brain to re-adjust to. The juices can still get flowing and with no clear targets be very scary.
My fear is for the women and men who return. How will they adjust to life on return and make sense of something that just dosn't.

Hello, LCSW,
I think these guys are describing the flip side of combat stress, a kind of euphoria. I think if it didn't exist it would be difficult to shove humans into these situations. How else to describe it but addiction?

Zelma- Addiction is very different from what you are reading. This is the rush of adrenaline as it is dumped into the blood prior to and during combat.
A number of responses can and do happen. Soldiers may vomit, loose bowel and bladder control, shake during and after just to name a few. This is not an addiction.
Training and Indoctrination exist at an amazing level to support soldiers in doing their jobs. They are not shoved. Lt.Col.(ret)Dave Grossman gives some excellent examples in his books.
Anyone else have something to add to the list.

Zelma & LCSW -- Ya'll might be closer to resolving this disagreement if you could agree on a definition of "addiction" to use.

Off the top of my head, I'm using: "a behavior that the addicted person compulsively repeats although he (she) knows it's not in his (her) interest". This is a broad sweep definition & could apply to anything from shooting heroin to continuing an abusive marriage, so maybe you would want a narrower one.

I think by that definition, some people come out of combat addicted to the rush and others do not. I've known guys who went from combat through hellish re-adjustments to pretty well normal life (not addicted) and guys who went to jobs as emergency responders or as policemen in scary city neighborhoods (addicted but managing it in a socially acceptable way) and guys who came back and just picked fights with people until someone killed them (not managing it in an acceptable way). Interesting to think about what makes that difference.

Hello, Ivy,
I was using a broad definition. Thanks!

I was in a rollover car accident once where I was sure I was going to die, and I can remember the exhilaration I felt after I realized I'd made it through alive. I remember running around the scene of the accident, so pumped up, with my friends looking at me like I was crazy. If that was even a fraction of what you experience, I can imagine how intense it must feel. I hope you get to experience it plenty more, and never get hit.

Don...from the sounds of things, you should have about 6 Silver Stars with Bronze Stars inside them. You have been through so much, yet I haven't ever heard of your heroics on cable TV. You must thank God every waking moment, or do you have the time, what with dodging all those RPG's and IED's. I have been on 4 combat rotations and am going on my 5th. It is okay to say that your tour was boring and that you are a mail handler in Kirkuk or Kandahar...we need your type there too! If you truly lived through all those rush-full "near misses," I would suggest that your brain is scrambled and that you should move to the Maldives to live out your fantastic life...in the meantime, put your self on Auto-scuff... Go!

War is truely an addiction to some. Just look at the famous names of the American west, they are largely the names of soldiers and ex soldiers who fought in the American civil war. Custer, Sheridan, the James brothers to name a few. The effort to find that "high" again shows up after most wars, even the good war, WWII, gave us the Hell's Angels.

It has long been said that you can never go home again, this is especially true for soldiers in combat.

Big Jim-
Ahhh....Hell's Angels, some nice guys. Love a bunch of old pilots. But you can go home again, and again and again. Just ask the troops who are on their third mob.
Wonder what the cool kids who get back will do for fun. 240 paintball, jdam surfing ahh the possibilities are endless.

LCSW, I wasn't going to mention it but a cool kid named Timothy McVeigh came back from Iraq once and caused a little stir in Oklahoma if I remember correctly, while another cool Soviet-Afgan War veteran is still at large in the somewhere in the Afgan area. There are also a lot of Vietnam era veterans that I have to deal with frequently, but cool really doesn't describe their lives very well.

No, I'm not a mail handler. I'm a combat engineer clearing IEDs between Ramadi and Falluja. I'm no hero. I haven't seen as much as some, and I've seen more than many. Satisfied? :)

Don't worry. I don't think I'll come home endlessly seeking "the rush". Not this tour, anyway.

Yep, you described it pretty well there Don and aptly titled as well because it can become psychologically addictive. That's truly the sickening part, when you survive something like that and want some more, I've since gotten over those desires, only had them during my tour in Iraq but they left when I went back stateside. I have no idea if it's tied in with combat stress. At any rate good luck over there, Afghanistan is very mild in comparison.

There is a book on this subject that is very good. It's called _War is a Force that Gives us Meaning_ by Chris Hedges. He's a journalist who's covered just about every war since Vietnam. Just in case you want to read someone else's account of what you've described, to combat that "only me?" feeling - definitely not only you. Stay slick, Don ;-)

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