THE HIT

In late November 2007 the PSD vehicle I was traveling in was hit with an EFP near Nasiriyah Iraq. Here is my account of the incident, written just after I was released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

I had just closed my eyes, hand propping up my head, elbow on the door handle. It was the end of a long day of construction site visits, and now only a few minutes out from base. I’d long ago quit paying attention to what was passing by outside the window and lost track of how far we were from the rest of our security convoy. This team seemed to travel with a half kilometer or more of road between wagons and I hadn’t seen the IP (Iraqi Police) escort for awhile. Not knowing the two security men in the front seats well, I hadn’t chatted with them. Some men preferred to rivet their attention on the environment; they weren’t talking with each other so they might not welcome questions or comments from me. The team was running on closed mic, a stupifyingly dull way to travel in the back seat of an armored Land Cruiser, cut out of the chatter of hyper-aware security men informed by multiple sets of alert senses. As a passenger I’d hit the familiar point of being artificially lulled into a secure boredom.

All I heard was a ‘pop’ …

The sound of a champagne cork from one hundred meters. The Microsoft sound of opening a new window. A finger snap from across the office.

It wasn’t loud, but I knew what it was. I vividly remember taking a long, deep breath – more of a sigh that echoed an internal sigh. I remember thinking, shit, with heartfelt resignation. I was tired inside, exhausted from long hours and trying to catch up with the workload after an insufficient two weeks of leave. I didn’t want something hard, something that would take work. I wanted to rest.

Tough luck. Get on with I, I told myself.

I took a deep breath and opened my eyes.

DSCN3284 view of hit - small file

View from the truck in front of us - the smoke is us

I wasn’t able to see out of my right eye, the one my hand had been covering as I’d settled for a short nap. My left eye was fine. I let both hands rest on my thighs. Both were covered with blood. Such a beautiful color, I thought, that alizarin crimson. I lifted my hand back up to cover my eye.

The inside of the Land Cruiser was charred looking, smoked with powder burns or whatever it is in an EFP that causes that black toasted look. There was blood all over. I looked over at JB, my co-worker, and said his name at the same time I noticed a hole in his thigh. The femoral artery should have been there, I was sure, but he wasn’t bleeding. Perhaps the hole had missed the artery, I thought, even knowing that was impossible.

JB moaned loudly, Shit, he said, oh shit. He rocked a little, bending forward and sitting back up. He didn’t respond to my voice. I touched his arm but he didn’t look at me. He can’t hear me, I thought. He’s panicked, let it go for now.

We all sat straight in our seats, then, the vehicle rolling straight down the road, and after JB stopped moaning it was dead silent.

The truck rolled for what felt like a couple hundred meters, then made a perfect and silent turn to the right, rolling off the road onto a clear area of sandy dirt. I didn’t see RJ move, but it was such perfect control – he must have been conscious and steering.

The truck stopped.

I put my right hand back down on my leg and studied it again; the skin was shredded on the little finger and ring finger. The skin was all there, just pocked with holes like a parmesan cheese grater’s surface. The other fingers weren’t so bad, though the whole hand was bloody.

It felt as if that took a long time, and now when I relive the moment, it was slow and leisurely. It felt important to take in what things looked and sounded like, to assess the state of this new environment. In addition to the eye and hand, my trouser legs were soaked in blood, though I couldn’t see any holes in the fabric. My legs and feet felt fine and they were still there. Good news. I made the optimistic and erroneious assumption that the blood came from one of the others.

No one else was moving so I thought I had better. I started to lever myself toward the center console. My right wrist wasn’t working properly.

I quit using that arm, putting the hand back over my eye.

Moving in what felt like full consciousness but slow motion, using my left hand for leverage, I maneuvered myself onto the center console, twisting around from the waist to face the front of the truck.

I was looking for the transponder, but there wasn’t one. That probably didn’t matter; one of the other trucks had to have seen us get hit. If they hadn’t actually seen it, they would notice our radio silence; they would see the black smoke rising in a narrow column straight up into the air. The smoke of a hit was inevitable, distinctive, that vertical black column. They would know. They were on their way and would radio base.

I tugged at the med kit next to Steve’s feet, but his legs were jammed against it. I had no strength to pull and no leverage. I gave it up.

I think I tried to pull Steve’s long gun out from between the med kit and his legs, but that was jammed too. Now I’m not so sure – did I try to pull his long gun out? Maybe. Maybe not. Why didn’t I take his handgun? I didn’t think of it. It was not a priority at this point – to be armed.

I looked at Steve and RJ in the front seats only long enough to determine that they, like JB and I, weren’t bleeding. Were they conscious? What were their injuries? I don’t know. I didn’t focus on that. I don’t know why – maybe I didn’t want to know, but I’m not sure it occurred to me.
I unclipped RJ’s seat belt, hoping that would help get him out more quickly when the team showed up to help us. I can’t remember unlatching Steve’s, but maybe it was the other way around. Remember to unlatch JB’s, I told myself.

I pushed myself off the console, turned, and sat back into my seat. By that time I had forgotten to unhook JB’s seatbelt.

I sat back and looked out the window.

The glass had film on it. On top of the thick ballistic glass, it was difficult to see out of, and without my glasses I couldn’t see well out of my left eye anyway. This frustrated me. It had to be my right eye that got hit – that eye had good long distance vision. My left eye was nearsighted. I had to turn my body at an acute angle to gain a fuzzy view behind our vehicle. I couldn’t see the other trucks, only desert.

I looked back at JB. He appeared to be unconscious, and still – thankfully, luckily – not bleeding. An Iraqi face appeared at the gun port on JB’s side, which had had its cover blown out. The man was in uniform: one of our Iraqi Police escorts. His eyes were huge when they met mine.
Help! he shouted, turning his head toward the back of our vehicle as he did it so I knew the team had arrived. He looked at me again with those huge, frightened eyes, then disappeared.

PB240049 our truck fr their truck - small

View of our truck from another in the convoy as they arrived

I looked down at my legs again, BDU’s covered with blood. I lowered my right hand and looked at it, skin chopped up on my fingers. Come on, I thought. Where are you guys?

I heard a shout and JB’s door jerked open. Pete appeared, leaning in to look at us.

I leaned forward a little, and toward him. I’m ok, I said urgently. Get JB – his leg is bad.

You’re OK? Pete asked.

Yes, I told him. Get the others first – I’m ok. JB’s leg is bad.

I think other men from the team came then, behind P ete. Someone cut JB’s seat belt, reminding me that I’d forgotten to unhook it. Shit – I leaned over and tried to unsnap it, but by the time I found the release button, they’d cut through the belt and were pulling JB out, laying him on the ground.

RJ was next. Men helped him out of the front driver seat. I couldn’t see where they took him. I tried to look out my window to see how the trucks were deployed and where we were, but all I saw was a patch of nearly bare ground, dirt, and a Land Cruiser with no movement. None of the men were visible.

My own door was pulled open. You ok Nat? Pete asked.

I’m ok, I told him.

Let’s see your eye, he said, move your hand.

I lowered my right hand and watched his expression, which didn’t change. I thought that was probably not a good thing, but he didn’t toss cookies and he didn’t start yelling so maybe the eye itself was still there. Finding out wasn’t a priority. He reached out and plucked the remains of the rim of my sunglasses out of my nose – it felt as if it had been imprinted into my numb skin when he plucked it out. Ok, he said, handing me a bandage. Hold this over it.

I held the bandage against my face and he helped me out of the truck. When I put weight on my right foot, pain stabbed up through my heel.

Ok? he asked again.

Ok, I told him. Just my right heel.

I hopped, keeping weight only on the toe of the right boot. It didn’t hurt that way.
He helped me to the center of the ring of trucks and told me to lie down on the ground, take my helmet off. I lay down on the ground, took my helmet off.

I rested my head back against the dirt and relaxed, wondering where everyone else was. I was glad to be lying on dirt. I liked touching the ground, the warm desert sand and grit. I took a deep breath of the hot air and studied the blue sky. The hot sun felt good soaking through my clothes.

I wondered why they pulled me out of the truck before they’d helped Steve, because I could have waited until they helped him. I was conscious, not bleeding. I wondered if it was because I was a client, technically their first responsibility or something. I hoped not, and was glad they’d helped Jerry before me. The sky was a beautiful blue, and the dirt was warm, familiar, comfortable. It was so calm and quiet where I was.

A few minutes passed before someone came to get me, told me to come with him. I remember wondering where everyone else was – a team of at least a dozen men, the IP escort, where were all those men? Now I think they must have been deployed around our perimeter, working on JB, working on Steve, manning the radios … at the time I thought I should be seeing some of this activity, and I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t, why it was so quiet and calm where I was.
The man helped me hop to a Land Cruiser and he placed me in the back seat. I forgot my helmet, leaving it lying in the dirt.

I knew most of the men on the team by sight, yet for some reason I paid no attention to individuals as they helped me. I was only aware of good, competent, thank-god men helping. Taking care of business. For some reason Pete was the only man that I recognized during this whole event, the only team member I remember speaking to aloud after I’d spoken JB’s name as we’d rolled silently down the road just after the blast.

I’m glad Tom or SC aren’t in this, I thought. I’m glad that I’m not with one of the old Basrah teams … any of those men … all of them. I thought I’d have been more worried and stressed. I’d have been outwardly acting the same, but inside I might have been having a hard time taking care of the moment. It seemed wrong and mean and cold that I would care more about some hurt people than others, but I knew it was just the way it was. I very much wanted RJ and Steve and JB to be ok, but not in the same personal way, really. Not then.

It is what it is.

I remember thinking, these poor guys, knowing that the men on this team, the ones who walked away, might have a harder time dealing with this in the long run than I would have. They would have to go on in the same environment, doing the same things, taking the same risks but now with a physical memory of helping fucked up people after a hit. They would be in the same environment but with their minds and emotions changed. I would be occupied for awhile in healing. I would be busy with something new, in a new environment, captivated by the moment – however shitty that moment might be. If I could I wanted to let them know that I was ok and that they did all the right things, all that was possible to do. I told myself that once things stabilized, once I arrived at Walter Reed or wherever I was going, I would find a way to tell them how grateful I was and how much I respected and loved working with them today and for the past fifteen months.

RJ was sitting beside me in the truck they’d moved me into. We looked at each other. He signaled something to me, but I didn’t understand. He did it again, something to do with my eye, or his eye, or the bandage I was holding to my eye, or one he needed for his eye.

I shook my head, confused.

He tried again. I didn’t understand. I turned away to look out the window, frustrated. I was embarrassed for some reason, for us, for my not understanding.

Now I can’t figure out why we didn’t just speak to each other; why I didn’t just speak to him. I suppose he started out not speaking, and since he was signing without speaking, I followed his lead. Now it seems absurd. Hey RJ, what were we doing? What were you asking? Now it amuses me, two people who could talk perfectly well signaling incomprehensible messages at each other … I can’t help laughing as I write this. What were we doing?!

I stared out the window then, though, frustrated, embarrassed by my dense inability to understand RJ, wondering what he wanted, trying to decipher it. And still wondering where everyone was. No one was visible outside the window, just a couple of static Land Cruisers. No men, no movement. Nothing was happening. Just dirt and stationary trucks. Desert. Sky.
It felt as if we sat there for a long time. Now I think it was five minutes, not much more and maybe less.

What has been accomplished by this? I thought staring out at the desert. What has changed now for anyone, having blown us up? What has been moved forward or resolved? Nothing. It’s utterly empty. This is how violence is profoundly pointless.

The radio was on open mike …we’ve got two superficial, two critical, someone said. I remember thinking, JB is critical, RJ is here beside me, so Steve is the other critical.

Correction … two superficial, one critical, the voice almost immediately stated.

And I knew Steve had died.

I don’t know why I knew it was Steve. It could have been JB, couldn’t it. His femoral artery was gone. But I knew it was Steve.

I wondered if I’d be blind in my right eye. I wondered if there was some advantage to that, remembering a dream I’d had after my grandmother died. In it she was blind. She made beautiful pictures in my mind and told me in a very intense voice, You don’t need eyes to see.

Maybe if one eye was physically blind, it would allow me to see other worlds more clearly. I got a little thrill thinking that, but then thought that I could probably do both – see other worlds and see the physical world out of that eye, and that’s what I wanted.

Pete opened the front door of the truck RJ and I sat in. He grabbed the radio handset. The helo was on its way ad couldn’t find us. Unable to get direct comms, the men were having to talk to base, base relaying to the helo. I didn’t want to have to drive to base. I didn’t want fifteen minutes on the road to think about how bad my eye could be, to anticipate getting through the stupid gates. I wanted someone to take charge of my body and move move move. I wanted the medevac helo.

I told myself to quit whining. If we had to drive, that would be interesting in some way too.

We heard the helo pass over us.

You just flew over! Pete shouted into the radio. They just passed us!

Don’t shout, a calm female voice replied. Try to stay calm.

I’m not shouting! P yelled.

I grinned – too classic!

Turn the helo around! He shouted more softly into the mic. We’ll pop smoke! Tell him to follow the road back and watch for us – we’re deployed … something like that. He told them what side of the road, what color smoke maybe. Something.

Pete got direct comms with the helo about then, according to my possibly faulty memory. I think I remember hearing the pilot’s voice on the radio. Things started moving. Pete jumped back out of the truck, and I could see men running and dust clouds billowing outside the window. Within a few minutes the door beside me opened, and two men helped me out of the truck, pulling my arms over their shoulders.

I might have screamed. My right wrist became a sharp mass of pain as the man on my right pulled it across his shoulder. It didn’t slow us down. They ran me to the helo where a medic reached out to help me aboard.

How are you doing? He asked me.

I grinned. I’ve had better days, I admitted. I think he laughed.

I was lying down. Someone ran a blade up my left pant leg, the bloodier one, slicing it cleanly. But maybe that was earlier … a couple of vignettes have become wanderers in my memory, today happening here, yesterday placing themselves there. The cutting of my trousers is a nomadic event.

I like riding in helos and was curious to see what the inside of the medevac helo looked like. They shot me up with morphine, so I missed that episode. Dang it.

***

Memory picks up again in the hospital at Tallil. Lying flat on my back, I was chattering to a chaplain and asking the doctors to tell my boss to do this with that project, and that with this project. I was trying to download information so we wouldn’t lose funding for the $10 million irrigation project in Wasit. I was wondering where the docs were that I knew. I knew some of them because I’d had a small hernia operation a month before. They weren’t the ones working on me now.

I started shaking uncontrollably though I didn’t feel cold, exactly. I wondered if it was shock. Though I didn’t feel shocked, I knew that my body might react while my mind believed itself to be on top of what was going on, calm and tracking. I knew myself well enough to understand that. Years earlier, my brother and I had taken our cat to the vet for an eye infection. The vet had used tweezers to pull the cat’s inner eyelid down over the eye, and although my mind was interested and didn’t think there was anything gruesome or threatening in that, my head swam and my legs tingled and went wobbly. My face went cold, all the blood draining from it. I knew my body sometimes reacted to things my mind knew nothing about.

The medics tried to cut a thick silver ring off my finger, a ring I had made and worn since high school. My finger was swollen badly. The ring had to come off somehow. I knew that if they didn’t get it off I would lose that finger, but the cutters were ripping my skin and pressing hard on bone. It felt like they were cutting off my finger, not the ring. Will you please do that when I’m knocked out, I asked them. It hurts so bad when you crank on that thing. They quit trying to cut it off.

Someone put more blankets on me, tucking them around my body, and placed a hot pad on my stomach. I relaxed. The shaking stopped. It’s the morphine, someone said. She’s allergic to it.
Don’t tell my family, I said to someone who asked who should be notified. Don’t tell them. I’ll tell them later. I didn’t want my father to have another heart attack, or my mother to flip out, or my brother to have a panic attack, or my sister to freak. I knew I was ok but they didn’t. I didn’t want them to be afraid or panic. And I knew that I’d be busy; I didn’t want any of them hovering at the hospital, wherever I ended up. Do not tell my family, I repeated. I’ll call them when I get to Germany.

I knew they wouldn’t track on black humor. I knew that they wouldn’t think there was anything funny in this. I was already making blown-up jokes in my head. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye …

The doctors strapped me down to the gurney and rolled me down a hallway. I could hear the plane outside. It sounded like a C-130. Warm air washed over me, the smell of Iraq, late summer – dust and fuel. I took a deep breath, loving that smell, the distinctive home scent of dust, the off-key sweetness of the oil and gases burning, the sharp chemical smell of aviation exhaust. A crowd stood just outside the door, to my left as I was rolled past, feet first toward the plane. I saw Tom and grinned at him. I saw Kelly and heard him yell to me, Get well muffin!

I laughed, the little shit – muffin!

Someone was running to catch up to us. She put her hands on either side of my face and ran alongside me: Dr. Switzer from the October hernia surgery. She half shouted over the sound of the plane’s engines, You weren’t careful like I told you!

I’m ok, Dr Switzer, I told her, smiling widely because she sounded so worried and looked so frightened, and I knew that I would be ok.

PB240050 truck hit small

I was on the other side of that back seat passenger window

* **

I was evacuated to Balad, the in-theatre surgery center, then Landstuhl Germany for further stabilization. A few days later I was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where I spent almost a month as an inpatient.

 

***

While I was in Iraq from Aug 2006 – Nov 2007 I sent group emails home. Numerous people asked me to send out a final group email, updating everyone on the trajectory of the year that had passed since being injured by the EFP attack in Iraq. I finally caved … below is the final group email that I sent to my mailing list of over 150 names. I have made some edits to  clean it up a bit and correct inaccuracies. I didn’t  change, add or subtract anything substantial, but it’s still a little rough. It seemed wrong to work it too much after the fact.

To catch up those of you who may have been out of the loop in the immediate aftermath, the PSD vehicle that I was traveling in was hit by an EFP on 24 Nov 2007 near Nasiriyah, Iraq. One of the Aegis guards in our truck was unfortunately killed; the remaining three of us were all pretty seriously injured. We were all flown out of country; the other Corps employee and I ending up at Walter Reed (WRAMC), the Aegis guard was flown home to England.

My major injuries consisted of right heel broken by shrapnel, right wrist and forearm shattered, facial bones broken, skull fractured (with a small pieces missing!), and blunt force trauma to my right eye. The doctors added “concussion” to that list … (well, duh!)

I was an inpatient at WRAMC until just before Christmas on 21 December 2007, undergoing various surgeries: wounds were cleaned wounds, plates were attached to my two forearm bones, and when my retina detached a doc spent 8 hrs tacking its edges down with laser surgery.

I briefly returned to inpatient status at WRAMC for 2 days in January to have titanium mesh inserted over the holes in my head. The surgery made me look like I’d been blown up all over again 😦  Squeamish people skip this sentence: To get to the hole in my skull, which was located above my right eyebrow (exposing my frontal sinus), they cut across the top of my head from ear to ear, peeled my forehead down, put the mesh in, then re-laid my face and stapled my head back together … my boyfriend has photos of the surgery if anyone’s into that (ew!!)

With the aid of a walker and boyfriend TJ, I spent the next 6 weeks or so learning to navigate with one foot, one arm and one eye while high on Percocet – an adventure! I visited various doctors a few times a week, and had my wrist and hand tortured every other day by the Occupational Therapy staff. Their motto: “No pain, no gain: quit whining.” They are a great group of people, personable and funny and caring even while (or because of?) hurting people all the time. Popping Percocet helped with the “no whining” part, although I discovered new levels of pain that cut right through Perc and re-calibrated their 1 to 10 pain scale … luckily it all paid off.

The heel was the perfect injury: it never hurt. By March I was walking around on it. The forearm/wrist has been slow to regain range of motion. It hurt like crazy for about 3 months (better living through pharmaceuticals!). Since it was such a mess (broken, split and splintered) the doc is surprised I’ve been able to regain the range of motion that I have – about 80%. I still work on it, so it continues to improve very slowly. A couple areas of skin are dead to touch due to damaged nerves, but nothing that too seriously interferes with everyday life.

My skull healed without any complications. I had a cool hairdo as the 1 inch-wide shaved strip across the top of my head, ear to ear, grew back. TJ wanted to keep that strip trimmed to about an inch long, sticking straight up. Right.

I haven’t set off any airport security scans yet, though they left a chunk of shrapnel in my frontal sinus (not to mention all the small stray bits still surfacing on my cheek and hand, and the plates and mesh…) do airport scanners not read titanium?

While I was in two casts, wearing an eye patch and grooving on Percocet, I tripped and fell, injuring my right shoulder in a (successful) attempt to protect my injured wrist so I’ve added an injured shoulder to my list of bumps and bruises. My occupational therapist laughed and said, “Don’t you know there’s only two kinds of patients: those that have fallen, and those that will?

Since the docs couldn’t do an MRI because the shrapnel in my sinus is waaay too close to some paper-thin bone that separates my brain from functioning/non-functioning status (I know, that’s a dicey distinction in the best of times), the doc guessed and treated the shoulder as a rotator cuff injury. I added Physical Therapy to my routine. The Occupational Therapy clinic released me about one month ago. I still go to Phys Therapy 2-3 times a week, and spend at least a couple of hours a day stretching and strengthening my wrist and shoulder.

I had a final eye surgery one month ago (it’s always the final eye surgery … I expect I’ll be still announcing yet another final eye surgery two years from now …!). I can see out of that eye … sort of. The retina was “a bit beat up“, as my doctor drily puts it, so I don’t have much (any) peripheral vision. They took out the lens while the eye healed, so everything is (very) blurry. There was some damage to the Optic nerve and the cornea, so the eye doesn’t read all the light it normally would and doesn’t react fully (at all) to changes in light. And they think that they got the retina on crooked. Oops! [Note: This proved not to be the case: muscles were injured so the whole eye is crooked, causing me to see – such as it is – a tilted view from that eye. This can be fixed – yet another final surgery!] I know, it sounds like there’s not much left there, but I can see out of it a tiny bit, which makes me happy. I currently see with a sort of double vision, since that eye doesn’t focus well and reads things as tipped to the left about twenty degrees and the view is blurry and darker. It’s not terribly distracting except in new environments, reading/writing, and in high contrast situations (night car headlights or computer screens, for instance). I’m quite keen on stem cell research!

After a year at WRAMC, watching soldiers flown in every week, I consider myself lucky. I’ve talked to men who’ve been hit with IEDs 8 times, 10 times, then got the million dollar wound: one finger blown off. I’ve talked to people hit with rockets, EFPs, legs gone, legs rebuilt, arm missing, blind. I’ve seen a guy missing his jaw and know the doctors who rebuilt it. I’ve met guys who have been in rehab for two years, living at WRAMC, no family. It’s easy to feel lucky.

For all the horror stories in the press about Walter Reed, overall I had good experiences. I don’t know if the doctors are top of their field, but all the ones I’ve seen (lots!) are very competent, especially with traumatic type injuries. And they truly care about what they’re doing. They treat us like valuable individuals. They ask questions and listen carefully to the answers, and they always take the time to answer my questions. The nurses were almost all equally wonderful (there is one whom I wouldn’t mind strapping down and shooting up – fast – with Phenergan…). The facilities seemed good to me – the hospital is old, so it’s scuffed up and stained in places, but it seems clean and adequate.

The only notable glitches I ran into at WR were administrative. Being a civilian in a military facility confused everyone. I’d have thought that four years into Afghanistan and Iraq, with more civilians in theatre than military, a few of us would have come through there and they’d have had things lined out and squared away. Wrong! It was as if JB and I were the first DoD civilians they’d had as inpatients (- and in fact I was told by one colonel that we were the first DoD civilians severely injured in theatre: can that be true?! unbelievable record – I wonder). Having had some good training and practice in Iraq, then, each time I ran into a glitch I doggedly gimped around the hospital from office to office trying to get it straightened out through chain of command and in a way that assured that the next civilian wouldn’t run into the same problem. In the end that never worked – desk bureaucrats are the same everywhere, I guess. I ended up going all the way to the commander more than once. To their credit, once the command understood there was a gap or problem, that was addressed on a system level. (Hooah!) My eye doctor thinks I’m CIA.

As for the other men with me when we were hit … The other Corps employee, JB, had only been in-country 6 weeks when we were hit. Rotten luck! He had extensive shrapnel wounds, part of his femur blown away, and inches of his femoral artery missing. They rebuilt the artery and muscles, put a rod in the bone, and he’s able to walk now: amazing and wonderful. He has nerve damage from shrapnel in one bicep and foot, and some muscles that don’t function, so he’s still working on that with some specialists and experimental procedures. He’s home with his family and seems to be in good spirits, driving himself like a madman to be healed up by yesterday.

Our driver, a Brit, also received extensive shrapnel wounds in his arms and head. He was evac’ed to England, where he says he’s getting good care. Shrapnel cut his optic nerve, so he’s blind in his right eye; he’s still undergoing surgeries on his arms, also with nerve damage, unfortunately. (We all consider nerve pain is the WORST.) He has use of his hands though, and is also in good spirits. He and I agree that we loved working in Iraq, and our injuries are worth that experience.

For now I’m living in Maryland with TJ, who has taken care of me all this time. He used up all his vacation time to babysit me in the early days, visiting the hospital every day, driving me to the hospital nearly every day. He walks on my right side like a seeing eye dog and teases me mercilessly so all is well … he hasn’t tossed me off the back deck once even though I’m sure some days he’d have liked to do just that, settling in on the couch in front of the TV, then, all by himself with a pizza and beer.

I get around the house pretty well, if a little more carefully … (it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye! 😉 I don’t duck at loud noises anymore, and no longer have the underlying certainty that trash lying in the street is going to blow up. Playing the blown up card gets no more than an eye roll from TJ these days, so I do my share of vacuuming and scrubbing bathrooms, and fetch my own second helping at dinner. I”m slow but I’m game!

Our PSD guard who was killed was married with two little kids, so we all think about him and his family often. Most of the rest of the men on the Aegis team are still working out of Tallil. Two other Corps of Engineers men who were with us and helped the day we were hit (they were in another vehicle) keep in touch via email. The one who planned that mission still feels some responsibility, which we all assure him isn’t his. We’re all big kids and knew the risks. I think some of those guys had it tougher than I did – it’s hard to help people who are really messed up, then go back to base and try to describe to people’s friends what exactly happened, then go to your office and get back to work, plan the next mission. We all thank each other every few months in a warm group email hug.

As for other characters mentioned in my group emails from Iraq … let’s see … Boss T is still in Tallil – and still dealing with Assburn Road fiascos … better him than me, is all I can say to that one! Miss Sherry moved up to Baghdad. Miss Crystalline is still in T making maps for colonels. Just Too Jivin’ J was back in Basrah, last I heard. Corvidae is home with a high powered job that he’s – of course – shining in. SS the Palace Man has finally landed a job he’s good at, somewhere down in the deep South. Jumpy J tried to go back to Basrah but no one would hire him, uncomfortable about his panicked reactions to rockets. I don’t know where B the Allergy is, though I heard she applied for an extension that was soundly nixed; with any luck she was sent home.

Colonel Slasher finally got his wish of dubious merit: a Purple Heart. He was hit with an EFP a couple months after we were. He was medevaced to Walter Reed after having his chest cavity drained of blood and a long shrapnel wound in his thigh cleaned out, among other things. I hear he’s back teaching at WP with a lingering limp, Purple Heart proudly displayed, working on a book and still glorying in histrionic fictions. Hooah.

My Iraqi engineers still email me; they’re all still working projects in B–, where things have become much, much safer than they were when I was there. They no longer carry firearms, the streets are safe for their kids, and shops and restaurants are open after dark. They sent many apologies after we were hit, and told me that they would understand if I was angry or now hated all Iraqis, that they were very angry at their countrymen, and very embarrassed.

I hadn’t even thought of being angry at someone until they said that – then it just seemed so absurd. When I was waiting for the medevac, I remember staring out at the desert and thinking, “What has been solved or resolved by this? Nothing. This is how violence is profoundly empty. Pointless.” There are frustrated people all over the world, not just in Iraq, and although I wish they wouldn’t choose to blow people up trying to get what they need, it seems crazy to hate them. What a sad way to live. Then I think about my engineer friends, and cheer up. Their graciousness and humor will always override the violence of Iraq in my memories, so that I still miss them, their desert, and working hard together on projects that give some people things that they need – water treatment plants, medical facilities, sewage systems, electricity. Not all our projects functioned, and I still question the efficacy and value of what the US is doing in Iraq, but the projects that I worked made me feel like we individually touch people in a positive way, in a place that could use all the respect and positives it can get.

One of the large stresses, perhaps, of war and its aftermath is living with intense and simultaneously opposite emotions, finding a way to accept them all as valid or harmonize them, since it’s impossible to make sense of them logically and simultaneously. Deep compassion next to utter indifference, rage next to near paralyzing sadness, horror next to black humor hilarity … I suspect that pretty well any honest person who’s been in a war or similar situation (or is it just anyone alive?) has been appalled by themselves, their emotions, their actions, at one time or another. Most of us, though, must also be humbled and awed by examples of the depth of our goodness, and grateful to have been offered opportunities to express that – often without thought, surprising the shit out of ourselves. I read over some of the emails that I sent out, and wonder if I should explain in more depth some of the vignettes that look quite callous sitting in a large, warm, convenient house in surburbia, USA. After a moment of thinking about that, though, I mentally shrug … I’m not what I “should” be – few of us are, and wouldn’t we be dull if we were? It’s not hard for me to harmonize this type of conflicting emotion, but it’s valuable to have learned that for many people it’s a difficult exercise.

Someone asked me if there was one major lesson I learned while in Iraq, one thing that I particularly value. That’s a pretty hard thing to answer, in my opinion, since there are things that are personal with no public application, or things that are small and silly but valuable to me. I do think it’s a valuable question though, so I’ll choose one thing to share that changed for me: I’m pretty cynical, and went to Iraq not really believing that one person’s actions can make a useful difference in the world – certainly not believing that I could make a positive difference in something as large as that war. I suspected that by the time I left Iraq I’d feel more as if, by participating at all, I’d condoned war.

Now I believe that individuals can and do make a difference, and that each of us shapes the world in some way every moment of every day – all the way to the big picture of places like Iraq. When I was in Walter Reed last year I received an email from an engineer who shared my office the last six weeks or so before we were hit; he was on temporary loan from Baghdad. In the email he told me that just being in the office with me, watching how I spoke and interacted with the Iraqi Engineers, changed everything for him. When he went back to Baghdad, his engineers asked him what had happened to him in down south, because now he was treating them as equal colleagues, asking advice, arguing openly, listening to their opinions, treating them with respect. He said even his persistent problems with contractors were disappearing as he approached the Iraqis differently.

I was and am grateful to him for changing the way he treated Iraqis, because every Iraqi Engineer was and still is, in my eyes, my Iraqi Engineers’ brother. I thought that if I did nothing else worthwhile when I was in Iraq, this one unintended influence made everything worth it. I believe that 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, should have to accept some responsibility for compounding the general incivilities and horrors of war.

This is now how I think the world is changed: one person at a time, treating one person right. If just that one man sharing my office touched a few people, then the respect that I tried to give to my Iraqi engineers and contractors was at least doubled. This is important: respect and dignity foster self-confidence and pride in themselves, their work, other people, and their country. With luck, they’ll go touch others with that, and those others will touch others, and each day the world will grow a little more peaceful instead of a little more weighted down by fear, greed, anger and resentment … inshallah.

I loved working in Iraq – even when I hated it, there was no place I’d rather have been.

Thanks for following my tour in Iraq. Happy holidays, and a very happy – and hopefully peaceful – new year for everyone …
njs

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

François Fénelon

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