Posts Tagged ‘OIF’

I Am My Own Science Experiment

December 18, 2010

Today the whole world smells to me  like my small world at Walter Reed Army Medical Center did in December 2007.

Since being blown up, my sense of smell has been quirky. For months after I was released from the hospital, all raw meat smelled rotten, salmon smelled like polluted earth; I was unable to tell if milk had gone off; the clean, fresh scent of lemon made me nauseous. I couldn’t smell smoke; some of the finest perfumes smelled like cheap drugstore scents; and coffee smelled like burned toast.  The day that I was able to discern the delicious scent of coffee as coffee is supposed to smell was one landmark day in my recovery!

Now my sense of smell has what appear to be permanent gaps, and about once a month or so I’ll have a few days of persistent strangeness. Many perfumes and – oddly and perhaps luckily – sewage type odors almost never register as accurate. I’ve become accustomed to that. It’s the days of unexpected scents that stand out. One day everything will smell like raw meat. Yesterday scented soaps smelled like alcohol, and the day before that the desert smelled like talcum powder. Today, as I’ve said, everything smelled like Walter Reed, a distinctive lightly sweet, slightly waxy, barely medicinal odor that wouldn’t be unpleasant if it weren’t associated with the hospital.

In the excellent book The Emporer of Scent, Chandler Burr describes Luca Turin’s scientific investigations of the sense of smell. Turin is convinced that we discern scents through the vibration of molecules, the molecules seating themselves in sensors in the nasal system. In contrast, the leading scientific theory states that we perceive odors by sensors reading the shape of molecules, so in the course of his investigations and conclusions, Luca Turin ran head first into the entrenched scientists of shape theory. When scientists have invested many years in a particular theory, they don’t necessarily follow the basic precepts of science by keep their minds open to deviations from that norm and alternative explanations for gaps in the original theory. Luca Turin’s theory explains the gaps in shape theory, and overall he makes a convincing argument for vibration. Although I will remain willing to be convinced otherwise, since I’ve read only one popular-science book about the subject, I am currently a proponent of Turin’s vibration theory.

One of the stories Chandler Burr recounts in the book describes a woman in Scotland who suddenly perceived everything as smelling like feces. After consulting with many experts, her physician heard about and contacted Luca Turin, hoping he could help this woman. Being convinced that smell is based on the body reading the vibration of molecules, he suspected that this woman’s body was misreading the vibrations, which he postulated might be alleviated by medicines for epilepsy. I wish I remembered the details of why he came to that conclusion, but I don’t, probably because it made sense to me intuitively.

I think about this when my own sense of smell goes haywire. I had a massive concussion, a fractured skull, shrapnel in my frontal sinus – that’s still there – and that frontal sinus was ultimately isolated by being plugged. Perhaps there are sensors in that frontal sinus that no longer allow me to smell certain odors at all. Maybe my brain had enough jarring that some connections were permanently altered. Or perhaps my brain sustained some scarring that affects the way information is transmitted or received.

It’s also possible that environment affects my body’s energy vibration in such a way as to disrupt the scent sensors. I’ve noticed that when I eat sugar my sense of smell will be “off” the next day. If I eat more sugar the next day, the deviations are exacerbated. If I eat vegetables and simple meats, and exercise regularly, my sense of smell gets more acute and accurate.

Physics has found that what appears to be solid is not really solid. A chair is just an organization of molecules, which are in turn smaller particles with spaces between, which are in turn smaller particles with spaces between … and on and on to smaller and smaller and smaller particles, down to perhaps no particles at all – just energy. Vibration.

It makes sense to me, in these contexts, that what I put into my body or do with my body or surround my body with will affect all my senses. All the “particles” that make up my body are my own unique energy, and create or emanate my own unique energy. That energy interacts with all that it encounters.

So on days that my sense of smell is screwy, I look at what’s affecting my energy: food, exercise, stress, chemicals, drugs, sleep habits …

I am my own science experiment.

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.

The Hurt Locker (spoilers, so beware)

March 8, 2010

I wanted to like this movie. Kathryn Bigelow got enough things right that I wanted the wrong things to be overwhelmed by them. Unfortunately, while I watched the film I felt that the wrong things were too much. It’s hard to overlook the majority of scenes being ludicrously implausible, and a main character who’s a walking Article 15.

I’ll overlook the wrong desert and the wrong uniforms … they had to shoot it somewhere, and they probably got a deal on the uniforms. But a one-Hummer EOD team wandering around alone, and rather randomly at that? They would travel in, at the very least, a two-vehicle convoy. 

Showing up on-site to find a deserted Humvee, its team cowering around the corner? Where are the f’ing radios – not just in this scene, but throughout the movie?

One lone Brit bounty hunter/merc truck on the desert? What was one little ol’ Humvee with one little ol’ 3-man EOD team doing alone out on a desert track anyway? Shooting each other up like that? No Brit team is waiting that long to be ID’ed. Then they couldn’t change a tire because one of these Brits threw the tire iron? 

Huh?? 

A sniper rifle in either of those vehicles? Pinned down all afternoon? And if I’m required to swallow all that, then at least provide them with enough water because I can pretty well guarantee that no merc or mil team is out without enough water.

The CO slobbering all over James? Aside from this weird and useless fiction, where are the officers in all the random wanderings of this lone EOD team?

Running through the streets of Baghdad in fatigues – or, frankly, even making off base in the first place? (Ok, I wasn’t there in 2004. Any vets out there, help me out with this one if I’m wrong.)

A 3-man EOD team taking off through the night to chase down a bomber? By this time, all I could do was roll my eyes and giggle.

James was junk. I was rooting hard for Sanborne to go for the malfunctioning detonator, hoping his action might help propel us all toward some more credible lead character. Sanborne’s initial reaction to him, and Eldridge’s telling him off as he was being evac’ed were – praise the lord – realistic snapshots. 

***

For all that, I made it through the entire movie without actually throwing anything heavy at the screen, and now I find myself developing a retroactive affection for the film. My strong desire for the movie to be better than it is stems, I think, from a sense of ownership in the content: this is my war.

This is my war, so I need you to get it right. Tell our story authentically.

Finding this thought and emotion surprises me, since I don’t think there’s any one story that would encompass the war authentically. I don’t mean that there are as many stories from Iraq as there are individuals who have been there – of course that’s true, but it doesn’t interest me. I’m thinking more broadly, in the sense that I don’t know the soldier story, really, and soldiers don’t know the DoD civilian story. Neither of us knows the contractor’s story. The journalists probably think that they know everyone’s story, yet many of us would sense they know nothing but their own stories. I know some of the PSD story, but not all of it.

If the soldiers’ story is told authentically, will I feel satisfied that my own has been done right? I wonder. I doubt it.

But it would be satisfying anyway. Because the soldiers are part of my story.

***

According to my affection, then, what Bigelow got right retroactively begins to forgive the things that she got insultingly wrong.

The dusty tan streets decorated with colorful trash were true. That’s close enough to how it looks, and it’s how the reality feels. I felt homesick for our mad dashes through towns, sirens whooping occasionally as we wheeled around a corner, dust billowing. I could smell the sharp twist of diesel and earthy dust, the fetid garbage, feel the smothering hot air.

When the camera lens filled up with the bag left behind by the men with the donkey, I whispered boom. Thank you, Kathryn, for that.  To illustrate how far my trust in this film had been eroded by then, as I whispered I wondered if it really would explode. I’d have given up on the movie entirely had it not.

My stomach clenched all over again under the squirrelly weight of all the eyes watching, watching, the men while they worked and I wanted to scream at the team myself: get the fuck out of there! Every moment is seared into slow motion on a good day, like you already know the next moment, the next action, the next reality. If you’re on, you’re on it. On a bad day, your brain starts spinning like a crazed rat and there’s absolutely nothing you can do yourself to stop the raging panic; you only contain it.

James walking into the shower all geared up made me laugh out loud. I’ve been there. And standing in the cereal aisle staring at all the choices was poetry in its silent summation of a reality so thickly layered with contrasts that it freezes itself and devolves into profound absurdity. Been there and Bigelow nailed it.

And perhaps most importantly, the foundation of the movie was authentic: war is a drug. It shifts perception into a heightened symphony of sensation. Good or bad, comfortable or not, that intensity is profoundly, achingly beautiful. For some, like James, that razor’s edge of living fully in the present is addicting. Anything else pales to a dream.

I guess I’d recommend The Hurt Locker, but with serious reservations. So far it’s probably the best Iraq movie I’ve seen, unfortunately. If nothing else, maybe Bigelow has raised the bar so the next Iraq war movie will not only get the environment and emotions right, but will give us a plausible plot, plausible scenes, and a plausible lead character.

Congratulations on the Oscars, I guess.

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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?

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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 …)

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