Posts Tagged ‘Army civilian’

Heartbreak 01

August 9, 2010

March-April 2007

One of the nurses who took good care of me while I was laid out on the fifth floor for a month has recognized me. She sits down to share a smoke.

 I’m perched on a park bench on the quad in front of Walter Reed. I’m between my three appointments for the day, killing time. A tree shades me from the weak spring sun, which I would do something about but I’m still poling along on a cane. I’d like to stand in the sun, but my balance is poor and my wrist, shoulder and ankle are stiff. With only one working eye, I never feel as if I’m seeing all there is to see. I’m anxious moving about in the world, though no longer fearful. So here I sit, cautious in the shade on the bench nearest the door, tentatively enjoying the small speckles of sun passing through new leaves.

 “I’m having a bad week,” my nurse admits heavily when her cigarette is lit. “A lot of kids have come in. We’re full.”

 A lot of kids from Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers. Wounded young men and women. I know what she’s talking about. The wounded are the only ones who “come in” to our world. I came in four months ago. I make a neutral sound, remember lying in my room studying the ceiling with one eye wondering if one eye was the shape of my world to come.

 “A boy came in yesterday,” the nurse tells me. She pauses for a puff off the cigarette, her other hand lying dead on her lap, looking abandoned and exhausted. “He’s blind. They didn’t tell him. They kept him drugged until he got here, so he didn’t know it.”

 I suck in my breath with fear. I hold it, paralyzed with horror. I want her to stop talking now. Now. I stare at air in front of my face, willing her to stop talking.

 “When he woke up in the ward and realized he was blind,” she tells me, ignoring my mental plea, “he went crazy. He was throwing everything he could get his hands on, beating on walls … “

Overwhelmed with the horror of the moment that boy discovered he was blind, I want to scream. On the bench in front of Walter Reed, I hold my breath. I can see the ward the boy is in, the shape of the room, the placement of bed, the color of the chair, the wood grain on the cupboards, the metal trays, the plastic bag drips, the colors and feel the shape of every detail of every loose object that boy can’t see and so is throwing around the room in his unfathomable fear.

I sit still as a stone to keep from disintegrating, while my mind screams, Don’t tell me this. Don’t! Don’t tell me this right now! Oh someone, help that boy!

 I want to disappear. If I could, I would die to avoid this boy’s fear. If I could, I would die right now in trade for this boy to have his sight back. 

I’m still raw. I’m still new at this, still avoiding thinking about the possibilities of somehow losing sight in my other eye. I’m still raw, still worrying about the driver of our truck, whom I haven’t seen since the air evac and don’t know … I don’t know if he’s alright. I’m still raw, still melting with sadness – what is the word strong enough for gut-dissolving grief and frustration? I’m still disintegrating with grief for the handsome, angry boy in a wheelchair in physical therapy, for the boy in the bed in the elevator whose jaw was missing. Now I’m disintegrating with grief for this boy who woke blind.

I’m still raw, pumped full of Percocet, emotions flowing like spring water, no wellhead, no catchment, no filter. Oh please, don’t tell me this right now, this strong boy who is blind and all his friends are in the desert and all he can stand to do is throw things around his room. I don’t know what to do with this terrible love and horror that I feel for this boy! Stop talking to me!

 I look up at the sky, out onto the quad that I can’t see at all for the tears standing in my one good eye, my one blessed eye, refusing to fall. “I can’t stand it …” I whisper, frightened to death for this boy, this poor boy, oh god … my body bends forward, hands holding my stomach. Sit up! I scream to myself. Don’t think! I sit up, try to breathe.

 The nurse puts her cigarette out and forces a smile for me. “I’m so glad to see you walking around, honey,” she says to me as she stands to leave. She pats my arm.

 All I can do is shake my head and whisper, “Thank you.”

 I mean, thank you for taking care of the boy. Please take care of that boy. Please. Please take care of that boy.

I don’t know how to help these people. I don’t know how to help, and it feels shameful and shoddy and mean.


My Brothers

February 13, 2010

One of my favorite PSD guards, I’ll call him G, tracked me down five days ago. He sent a short, sweet email that catalyzed an excited flurry of communication. We compared injuries, traded photographs of our bombed out trucks, asked personal questions, sent each other love and kisses. He passed me on to another PSD friend, and another, who passed me onto yet another … my angels, my guns, my guards, my big brothers, my broken hearts, my strength, my baby brothers …  God, I miss them. I’m soaring on a flurry of sweetness and warm hearts.

G’s truck was blown up about a month prior to mine, and no one would tell me, at the time, how he was doing. “A broken back, other bad injuries, Seren, it’s not looking good. We don’t know.” OK, maybe. Or maybe they knew every detail. I never really figured out the secret rules of their secrets. Some things were off limits but I was never sure which, or when, or why.

I didn’t know any of the PSD men well, yet I knew some of them very well. We weren’t friends in the sense of sharing opinions or feelings, intimacies or life stories. We worked together in delicate harmony of respect: I told them where to take me and when, and they told me how we’d get there, how long we could stay.  I trusted them to protect me, and they trusted me to stay alert and follow orders. I was the reason they were employed, and I couldn’t do my job without them. We grew into a sort of deep but narrow, limited friendship by spending many hours together on the road, watching each other act and interact in a volatile environment. We grew to depend on each other, to trust each other in certain important ways.

Many of their clients treated PSD men like servants or adversaries. I tried to treat them like the experts they were. Some of their clients – my colleagues – argued about routes, time on the ground, the intel behind their decisions. I asked the men what they thought was best and trusted their decisions. Some of them had been living in war zones all over the world for two decades. I’m going to argue with that?

We got to know each other over hours and hours on the road together: sweating in hot little Land Cruisers, walking down roads under the relentless desert sun wearing thirty, fifty, eighty pounds of armor and ammo on our backs. We watched each other defuse hot situations involving guns or angry contractors, belligerent Oil Police or Port authorities. We watched each other squirm in uncomfortable situations, and brood heavily over problems and tensions. We shared deceptions, lying to colonels and generals in order to make our own lives easier, and pushing agendas on behalf of each others’ interests. We shared water and candy and sandwiches. We shared hours of silence, naps bumping down dusty tracks through empty desert, winks behind the boss’ back, cigarettes in the thin shade of ratty trailers.

Each PSD team developed a unique personality. G’s team was mature, solid, impossible to shake. Where another team might move-move-move at the rattle of SAF up the block, these men would step behind walls and wait it out, assessing, watching, thinking, sensing. To a man they were calm, friendly, curious about the history and people of Iraq, thoughtful about the reconstruction effort. They made friends with children, fed families along the frequently-traveled routes, wondered how land ownership worked, pondered Iraq’s future. They asked questions and engaged the answers with intelligence.

We got lost on the desert following a faint dirt track, finally laughing, wondering if we’d strayed all the way into Kuwait. G tapped me on the shoulder and politely tugged me back into a doorway when SAF rattled off down the street. One of G’s teammates was insulted on my behalf when an Iraqi asked my age. Another teammate winked when the port official finally signed turnover papers that I was sure he’d find an excuse not to sign; “Good day, eh Seren?” he said quietly when the official walked out the door. “You looked worried.” He touched my arm gently and smiled, giving me a little bit of his confidence and assurance. G stared out across the blue water of the port, lost in time, looking like his heart was worn out.

The experts, my eyes and ears. My guns, my guards, my big brothers.

And sometimes my little brothers, the pain in their eyes almost too much to bear, the bravado a little too thin. I wanted to hug them, each of them, hold them close and hum quietly, taking them somewhere gentle and serene. I wanted to erase their memories of pulling bloody friends from beneath trucks and saluting coffins disappearing into the back of C130s. I wanted to erase the deep sadness in their eyes when they watched little children begging for water. I still do.

In this way we were friends: the whole world existed only in the present, and there we were.


Now we chatter through the ether, finding each other again. I’m excited; I’m touched that they worried for me – that they remember me.

My heart aches again for them, worries for them still in the zone, yet it soars and sings for them because they’re doing what they’re good at and they love what they do.

G wants me to call, day or night. I’m nervous. I’m scared now, of them, of G and of myself. Who are we now?


Mad Moments – 06

February 13, 2010

Spring 2007 

Some US troops, apparently recently arrived incountry, opened fire on the Iraqi Army just outside the base perimeter this afternoon.

The Iraqi Army defends the outer perimeter of this base. In other words, yes – they’re our allies.

The US Army called the Australians for help in the middle of the firefight, but those Aussies are no fools. “Clean up your own mess,” they replied.

Eventually the Iraqi Army sent out troops to stop the Iraqi Army from continuing to shoot up the US troops.

 (This may not sound like a funny story from an outside perspective, but from incountry it’s choice fodder for some raucous laughs and a  couple days worth of decent jokes …)


Post-Surgery & Exhaustion

December 13, 2009

I haven’t posted anything to this blog for a couple of weeks for two reasons. One is that I had my final (knock on wood) eye surgery last week. Aside from the usual week-long anesthesia hangover, it was a success. Instead of really cattywompus double vision, I now have a blurry image closely overlapping the left eye’s normal image. This is good! The change in perception is confusing to my brain though, so I have dizzy spells and a constant low-level nausea from the disorientation. I expect that to last a month or two.

That’s one reason that I haven’t been telling stories here on my blog. The other reason is that I found, in telling my stories from Iraq, that I was vividly re-living them. Sometimes that was great fun, but just as often it brought back – in full force – difficult emotions that I experienced at the time: intense frustration, rage, sorrow, and a bone-deep exhaustion. After a couple of weeks of working on the stories that I’ve posted here to date, it became difficult to climb out of bed in the morning. The simplest tasks seemed to require herculean effort: take out the trash, wash the dishes, sweep the floor… just the thought of moving off the couch was too much. I slept fourteen hours a day, and would have slept more but I put some effort toward avoiding alarming my boyfriend by doing that.

By the time I was blown up in Iraq, that bone deep exhaustion was a constant state that I overcame by sheer force of will. I refused to bow to it. I kept moving, one task at a time, concentrating my energy and will to keep moving: there were things that needed to be done. Only at odd moments would I surrender to it. One day at Alamo Road I stood still and stared out at the desert for a full ten minutes, disappearing into the beautiful space of sand and sky and the vast empty space of my exhaustion, my mind a blessedly profound and total blank. This ten minutes felt like the deepest soul rest, like a coma.

Those moments were too few. When I was flown out through Kuwait for my every-six-months R&R breaks, I spent the first twenty-four hours asleep, waking only to go scrounge a little food, then back to bed. On one passage through Kuwait I was stuck there for three or four days, and I slept through it all. And after those days of sleep, I was still longing for more when I stepped off the plane at Dulles.

That profound exhaustion is what infected me again while I wrote stories to post on this blog. Is this a form of PTSD? I don’t know. I do know that I need to heal what the writing of these stories has uncovered before I go on writing. I’m lucky – I know how to do this. I’ve slid off the road before. Ninety-seven percent of people say “Oh shit!” when they feel the car slide off a snowy road into the ditch. In Wyoming we said, “Hold my beer – watch this.”

Hold my beer – watch this.

I’ll be back in awhile …

— Seren


Who Goes There – Zeb

November 28, 2009

Major Zebediah Brighton: Operations

As LTC Slasher’s operations man, Zeb takes the brunt of the colonel’s insanity. Fully as anal as Slasher but lacking most of the micromanaging control issues and generally being capable of maintaining firm footing in common sense, Zeb is perfectly suited for micromanaging the micromanaging manager, effectively distracting the colonel from many of his most worthless obsessions and keeping him out of our business at critical times. A canny and diplomatic manipulator, Zeb is also a first rate schmoozer, and since his moral compass points him toward the good of others, we often benefit. Need a flight out on short notice? Special food items? An ‘in’ with the Brit Mil? If you’ve treated Zeb right and the cause is just, he will solve your problem.

The best way into Zeb’s circle of favor: make him laugh, compliment him frequently, and listen attentively and appreciatively to the endless collection of stories from his idyllic childhood in the wilds of rural California. Thinking quite highly of himself, the second two may become tedious, but they’ll pay off someday when you’re stuck in an operational morass, or when you’re looking for a witty after-work companion. Off the work grid, Zeb’s company guarantees clever repartee from a creative and loony mind.

Madly in love with a major stationed in Afghanistan, Zeb will fly to Hawaii to marry the sweetheart halfway through his tour. Under the desk during rocket attacks, bets are laid on whether he’ll be a laid-back, clever, creative and hilarious father whom his kids will adore, or a micromanaging, anal, prick of an officer father that his kids will grow to despise. It’s a tough call.

Zeb’s inflated self-importance concerning work matters and his occasional power plays directed at those he actually has no power over creates resentful enemies, while his generosity and quirky wit earn him an equal number of friends. If you duck under the ego he’s swinging around in the office and hunt him down for a late night movie, you’ll learn to love him.

Defining actions and characteristics:

  1. Won’t shut up about his idyllic childhood, basically running wild with his two little brothers in California
  2. Loves watching movies
  3. Frequently shows up in the DFAC with Brit Mil in tow, schmoozing

Why he stays:

He’s an officer; it’s not a choice. He might have volunteered though, even without orders. He seems to believe the reconstruction cause is just, and he’s generally appreciated here, which I’ve heard isn’t always the case at his home office.


[All names have been changed – OS]