Posts Tagged ‘veterans’

Progress Not Perfection

May 1, 2011

Every day I feel like I haven’t accomplished much, yet I’m always busy. I know that this is a mental-habit perception rather than reality. In the five months since I bought this house, I’ve completed an enormous amount of work …

Just to list the major accomplishments: I’ve moved all my belongings into the house almost single-handedly (two objects required assistance), painted the interior (1500 sq ft, 10ft ceilings), built shelves on every wall of the garage (5 units), refinished three bookshelves and one coffee table, installed a sink in the garage, built two worktables for the garage, devised and built a way to hang my kayak, sealed all outdoor wood timbers, assembled five industrial shelf units, refinished a floor, dug 20 holes for trees and a 5 x 10 x 1ft deep foundation for rainwater storage tanks, set up and fired a new kiln.

As soon as I finish a project, it is dismissed from my perception. Wouldn’t it be better to give attention to the finished project, taking the time to admire it and myself for the accomplishment? Instead I focus on the long list still to be done: build earthbag terrace walls, put rip-rap on the driveway extension, gravel the driveway, plant the 20 trees and as many bushes, install the rainwater collection tanks, make and fire clay half-pipes to direct water from one tree to the next … the list is long.

Progress not perfection.

The journey matters.

I’m trying to re-teach myself that generosity. 

In Iraq I moved full-speed sixteen or eighteen hours a day. Rolling around in my brain were between twenty and sixty projects, each with their uniquely bizarre problems to be solved yesterday. Being untrained in the tasks, I had to work twice as hard as everyone else just to be half as good at the job.

Then I got blown up, and as soon as I was conscious again the same sort of dedication and concentration was required in recovery. I was always doing something: stretching this, moving that, controlling pain, tracking government paperwork (try that when you’re looped out of Perc – yeesh), pushing my body, training my mind for new expectations and adaptions.

Habits have always been hard for me to break, and this one – a tornado brain – is proving tenacious. The mental chatter is not constant, but it constantly returns. Being alert in a war zone pays. Whether at work in an office (alert for incoming), riding the roads (alert for IEDs, SAF, etc), static at a site (alert for SAF, RPGs, coordinated attacks, etc), the background is a constant if sliding scale of adrenaline. Add handling a near-panic level learning curve and high speed problem-solving in a strange and violent land, … is it any wonder that breaking these habits takes time?

Before going to Iraq I’d traveled extensively, living for months in different countries and in various intense, microcosmic, small-group situations. Culture shock had become familiar to me. When I returned from Iraq that experience paid off, as I was more patient with myself during re-entry than many friends were with themselves.  I knew that many of the symptoms would gradually fade without effort.

War zones, though, produce unique intensities of persistent culture shock and thought patterns.I know other vets who feel the same way. Habits learned in a war zone are deeply seated. Reinforcement tends to be strong when you immerse yourself in a world for a year and half, and extreme behavior and thought patterns are seated profoundly in the body’s nerve system. It is said we learn best if more than one sense is engaged, the spoken word accompanied by pictures, for instance. A war zone teaches through engaging every sense, and with extremes (explosions, blood & guts, 130F heat, guns, bad food, constant problem solving). By a person’s senses entirely, actions and thoughts and emotions become tuned to a high level and rooted in the very cells of the body.

My most useful tool in quieting the hyper-aware chatter of the mind, slowing time in order to notice and congratulate myself on accomplishments, and letting go of the goal-oriented ticking off of tasks (lists – the organizational nerve system of my life!) has been the use of meditation. In particular, I find that the Monroe Institute cd’s (www.monroeinstitute.org) are especially useful.

Hemi-synch, the use of binaural beats to put a person into deep meditative states, often short-circuits the hyperactivity of my mind, quieting the chatter. The instant release of dropping into deep meditative states is making it easier and easier to remember during the rest of the day to take one moment at a time, and helps me to find the beauty and ease available in just being alive in this strange world.

Today I ordered sandbags to build the earthbag terrace walls. A contractor is working up an estimate for the rip-rap and driveway gravel (I’ve decided I don’t have to do it all myself). I’ve got culvert and gravel on the way for the rainwater collection tanks, and tomorrow I’ll get the pvc pipe that I’ll need for their plumbing. Saturday a friend will join me for a tree shopping spree.

There is still so much work to do.

It’s not work that needs to be done right now though. Right now I’m going to go sit on the back patio and watch the daylight fade and the stars appear, quieting my mind.

Progress, not perfection.

____________________________________________________

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?

_________________________________________________________

Oh Yeah … Celebrate?

November 14, 2009

It occurs to me that using the word celebrate to describe my Veteran’s Day activities and thoughts (see last post) could be taken to mean a picnic, a party, balloons and tickertape and champagne.

Here’s how I celebrated last year: I took the Metro alone to Arlington Cemetery, where I wandered aimlessly for an hour thinking of my friends still in Iraq and Afghanistan. I watched the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, trying to reconcile the stark and bizarre difference between these strak soldiers polished to perfection and the dusty, sweat-stained, rumpled exhaustion of the troopies in the war zones. Then I walked to the area of Arlington where the men and women who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are buried. There I walked through every row, scanning every name, thanking them silently. I nodded to the families gathered for picnics on the graves of their sons and daughters, and I stood off at a distance and cried for the woman who sat sobbing at her son’s grave.

This year I stayed home and wrote a list of all the people that I know who have served in the military or worked in Iraq or Afghanistan. I included names that I remembered from uniforms on strangers that I passed at Camp Bucca, Basrah, and Tallil. When I couldn’t think of a person’s name I wrote one word that described something memorable about them. When I was finished, I said a silent thank you to all those people and tucked the pages in the back of my journal.

When I received the Defense of Freedom Medal, I said to the General, “It seems a little weird to me, like receiving a medal for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” What I meant but couldn’t articulate at the time is that many people that I worked with in Iraq were more deserving of the medal than I felt I was, whether they got blown up or not. They’d served longer, were more effective, and were under-appreciated. I have this medal in my drawer, but it isn’t mine. I feel as if I’m just a caretaker of the medal, holding it on behalf of all the civilians who volunteer in war zones.

I’ve said it on another page, but it bears repeating: if the only people who went to Iraq were the worst sort of people I met while I was there – the officers chasing Combat Action Badges, the yahoos chasing big paychecks, the arrogant Americans talking to Iraqi engineers as if they were three-year old children, the journalists who only reported the bang-bang, the ideologues in Baghdad who cared more about sound bites than they did about truth or reality, the State Department appointees bartering long-term gains in business, education and health care for international oil contract agreements … If the only people who go to Iraq are the worst sort of people that I met while I was there, I believe that we as Americans – and I personally as a human being – will have to accept some responsibility for compounding the general incivilities and horrors of war.

Thanks to all who serve and have served, military and civilian.

Now pass the champagne …

***

All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers.

~François Fénelon

 ________________________________________________

Veteran’s Day: Am I A Vet?

November 13, 2009

I’ve received a lot of Happy Veteran’s Day greetings from military and civilian colleagues that I worked with in Iraq. I’m grateful for and humbled by the honor implied in those greetings, at the same time I’m not sure what to do with them. As a civilian war-wounded, am I a vet?

Veteran:

–noun

1. a person who has had long service or experience in an occupation, office, or the like: a veteran of the police force; a veteran of many sports competitions

2. a person who has served in a military force, esp. one who has fought in a war: a Vietnam veteran

–adjective

3. (of soldiers) having had service or experience in warfare: veteran troops

4. experienced through long service or practice; having served for a long period: a veteran member of Congress

5. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of veterans

I assume that Veteran’s Day is specifically in honor of the military, and I was never in the military. I only worked for the military. I’ve never noticed civilians among the decorated military marchers in the parades, wounded or not. I’ve never seen an article in a Vets Day edition of a newspaper reminding people of civilians serving in war zones, or of the many civilian war-wounded.

Due to the Bush administration’s push for government work to be contracted out as much and as often as possible, and due to the strong social and economic efforts instituted in Iraq and Afghanistan and staffed by State Department and DoD civilians, as many civilians have served in those countries as have soldiers. There must be at least hundreds if not thousands of civilians who have been wounded in attacks on convoys, attacks on bases. (Where are all you people?!) Yet really, I don’t think we’re considered veterans. Not by most people.

War zones are microcosms within microcosms. Our stories are not a soldier’s stories. They’re not a war correspondent’s stories. They’re not a policy wonk’s stories. Where are our voices?

Although I don’t know if I’m meant to be included in Veteran’s Day, I don’t feel as if I would be deliberately excluded. I don’t think I’d be shunned were I to pin on my civilian war service and war wound medals and show up at a parade to walk with a group of veteran soldiers. But I don’t feel invited.

I don’t think that I can comfortably say that I’m a vet of the Veteran’s Day stripe.

I celebrate anyway, on behalf of the honored soldiers, the overlooked civilians, and my happy self recovering so well from my wounds.

______________________________________________________