Home.

After two weeks at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, doing army training, I am finally home. Good training. Pretty easy stuff, but it dragged on for two weeks. I felt like I was there for two months. And it was all classroom instruction. I got bored rather quickly being in a classroom environment 8 hours a day for two weeks, but I survived. And I got a 99 on my final, so maybe I did more than just survive. The 500+ mile drive home went well. I made decent time, had great weather, and there were only a few idiots on the road. And yes, the idiots had Georgia tags on their cars.

There’s nothing exciting from training to write about and I doubt there is anything I can write this week that would be an adequate follow-up to last week’s post. If you saw it, it was a tough one. Very emotional. It was hard to write. It was hard to fall asleep the night before I posted it, with all those thoughts swirling in my head. I also second-guessed myself as to whether or not to even bring it up. If you missed it, I will put a link at the bottom so you can read it if you desire. But I think it helped. Getting it all out there, the way I remember it, opening up about how horrible a memory it is. Only time will tell, but I feel better about it for now, today anyway.

The comments and messages I saw and received after it posted were amazing. Many people who were also at Camp Bucca, Iraq during that time, a lot of whom I’ve never even met, shared their memory from that horrible time. My memory was slightly flawed concerning some of the details, but the main part of the tragedy, the part that haunted me, is exactly as I remember. A special thanks again to my friend Galvan who’s words really gave life to the story. Much more than I could have on my own. Thank you Galvan for opening up, I know it was hard.

After a long week in class and a long drive home yesterday, this is all I got. But thank you for taking the time to read my weekly post on Story of My Life. I hope to have more for next week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Last week’s post.  https://storyofmylife.blog/2017/07/15/my-worst-war-memory/

 

My Worst War Memory

WARNING  This content may be upsetting or triggering to some.  WARNING

This week, while on orders at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, I ran into a long-time army buddy. It was good to catch up with him while having dinner and a couple of beers. We reminisced and talked about the people we served with together, shared stories of what’s going on in our careers now, and had a couple good laughs. Most of my army memories are good. Most of my deployment memories are good, even if only because I try to remember the good ones. Most of the not-so-good memories can still be made into an amusing, funny story. But not all of them.

Not long ago I did some online forums where people could ask me questions about a topic I would post. One reader asked me what was my worst memory was from war. For a moment, I wasn’t sure. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the worst memories, so I had to think about it. And as discussed in a previous blog, I have memories that are hidden. One of which, not my worst, was discovered during a therapy session with my psychiatrist. And once I remembered it, it was back. My mind had hidden it for two years until my therapist walked me through it.

But my worst memory from being deployed happened while I was in Iraq (2008-09). I went a number of years with that memory tucked away, hidden from my consciousness. And I didn’t even know it. It surfaced a few years ago, hung around for a while, then was gone again. I think it’s been more than three years since I thought about it. Now it’s back. This is something I’ve only shared with very few, and even then, I generally only tell the main part of the story.

I was at Camp Bucca, Iraq. My chaplain and I were responsible for about a thousand Soldiers that fell under our battalion. The two of us went to the hospital to visit a Soldier that had been seriously injured in a motor pool accident. The Soldier was soon to be transported to Germany, then back to the States, I think to San Antonio to get specialized treatment and start rehabilitation. I never made it to the room with the chaplain to visit the wounded Soldier.

The bay-style room we walked through that would lead to a private room with the motor pool Soldier had three beds in it. In each of those beds was a child. Each child had been severely burned over their whole body. The chaplain and I both paused and inquired about the children. Their ages were approximately between four and nine years old. It was the most unexpected thing I’ve seen. I got the story from the medical staff that had accepted the children into the hospital due to the severity of their injuries.

Their father was dead. He was trying to steal fuel, propane I think, according to my memory of the story I was told, and the whole tank somehow exploded. Why he had his three little girls with him to steal fuel, I will never know. But the explosion killed him and engulfed the children in flames. They were brought to our hospital for treatment. They were almost completely wrapped in gauze, only parts of their faces showing. Only the oldest spoke while the other two whined and cried. I think the oldest was trying to comfort the other two. They couldn’t see each other, only hear the sounds of pain and anguish that filled that small part of the room.

After a couple of minutes with the staff, the chaplain was ready to move on to the injured motor pool Soldier. I couldn’t do it. I had to leave. I told the chaplain I would be out back, that he could come get me when he was done with the Soldier. I found my way to an exit, then I sat on the steps and cried. The reality and gravity of three children laying there, burned, crying, scared, barely alive– it got to me. It got to me in a way nothing else previously had in life. That includes losing a child one day after birth.

I could see that memory every time I closed my eyes, from that night on, for about two years. Then, it was gone. I forgot about it. It would reappear every 2-3 years, depress me, horrify me in my sleep, then hide again. Well, it’s back. This is probably the most details I have ever shared about this memory. I’m hoping that sharing it this way will help. I don’t remember ever talking to any psychiatrist or counselor about it. It must have been pretty well hidden since my psychiatrist last year was able to get the memory of a wrong turn in Kabul, Afghanistan to resurface, but the burned children never came up.

In preparation for this post, I reached out to a friend of mine that I served with in Iraq, Joseph Galvan. He told me that the event of the three burned children was one of his worst three memories he has of war. Being a medic, he was regularly exposed to more pain and suffering than most. He was on staff at our hospital on Camp Bucca during the time the children were there. I asked him if he would give a quote for this week’s blog about his experience there during that time. Just as I remember him during deployment, he didn’t fail to produce when called upon now. Here is what he had to say:

“As horrible as having three severely burned children was, the worst was after. The MRO (Medical Regulating Organization), who was the theater medical operations hub, ordered that we no longer accept any critically injured local national patients. The girls were in our ICU for about four months and we only had 5 ICU beds.

“’Try and imagine what that must have been like for our medics. Locals bringing their severely ill and injured to us, having heard that the Americans took care of children that were near death, only to be turned away. The begging, pleading, and crying they had to witness.”

 

 

My friend and hero, Joseph Galvan.

Galvan went on to say, “I can still hear them scream from their wounds being cleaned; there’s only so much morphine you can give a child and it’s not enough. That’s why I’d always bring my guitar to work. I knew the schedule for their wound care and I’d play for the kids after, while the nurses washed their hair. It got to be a routine. I’d even do it on my days off. The smell of burning hair and children crying or screaming in legitimate pain fucks with me pretty hard. And the burn patient smell…that sickly sweet, but acrid smell…I can’t do it.”

Maybe his sharing this with me will help him in some way. He told me earlier this week, “I just realized that I’ve never told anyone about that. The folks that were there (in the ward, on shift) knew, but I’ve never talked about it.” Joseph Galvan is a hero. His heart for those children makes him a hero to me.

This is why it’s harder to come home from war than it is to go. The memories never leave. Never. They may hide for a while, but they always come back.

Thank you for reading this week. Good day, God bless. And a special God bless to our military medics.

Dave

The 4th of July

Happy Birthday America! This week we celebrated 241 years of Independence. A lot has changed in America since we told the British to bugger off and leave us alone. The Founding Fathers of this great nation had the courage to stand up and fight for the freedoms we still enjoy today. I for one am grateful. I’m not sure I could pull off the British accent, so it’s a good thing that 241 years ago we became our own sovereign nation. LOL.

With the celebration of our Independence comes many festivities, including fireworks. And with that comes social media posts about veterans dealing with PTSD and the yard signs that some put in their yards asking people not to do fireworks around their home. That seems to be a topic of debate from what I saw on a couple of Facebook posts. I have PTSD. I served in Iraq, then later in Afghanistan. I avoid being outside during fireworks, it only for my own sanity. I don’t have flashbacks or lose my mind, but my anxiety skyrockets and some of the memories of the fear I experienced resurfaces. So, I simply stay indoors.

Here’s the debate, as far as I can tell. The post I saw states that some veterans are milking the benefits of being labeled with PTSD, which in turn is stigmatizing all veterans, also that they are looking for attention and disability ratings with the VA, and that many who post the signs never heard a shot fired at war and that the rocket impacts they heard were miles away. I think there is some validity to some of those arguments. Many years ago, I thought most people claiming PTSD were overreacting. But I don’t speculate on that anymore. It’s not for me to judge. I can’t speak for any other veteran, but I can tell you what I have experienced.

One thing I experienced were rockets landing on a base I was at. Multiple times, multiple locations throughout Afghanistan. Building-shaking, loud booms. While I handled it well at the time, I never took the time to process it all until I got home. By then it was overwhelming. I was trying to process everything all at once while trying to adjust to being home. And I wasn’t doing it properly. I wasn’t talking to anyone about my mental problems or getting the counseling that I knew I needed. I was trying to avoid the stigma that I had created in my mind of being labeled with PTSD. And I desperately wanted to avoid that label. In 2011, I talked the VA out of diagnosing me with PTSD more than a year after I got back from Iraq. I toughed it out and Soldiered on, which in retrospect was a bad idea. In 2015, there was no way to avoid it. I had reached rock bottom and was forced to get help.

During one rocket attack, I remember feeling the building shake from the first explosion. Then the second blast- it was much closer, shaking the building in a way I had not experienced before, all while grabbing my gear and getting to cover. As I sat alone in the bunker, the third blast felt like it was almost on top of me. It was loud, it was close, it was the only real time I thought I might die over there. On only two instances do I remember having that kind of fear while in Afghanistan, that attack was the worst one of them. I could hear each boom getting closer and closer to the bunker where I was taking cover. In my mind at the time, if there had been a fourth one, it would have been right on top of me, based on how each blast was clearly closer than the last. Fireworks elicit those feelings and memories in me.

Even so, I don’t want anyone to not celebrate with fireworks. This is America and that’s how we celebrate, we blow up stuff. I can stay inside and be just fine, for the most part. The noise and booms will still get to me a little, especially when there is a long pause followed by a firework that is obviously too large to be discharged in a neighborhood. As I write this, neighbors are firing off an impressive amount of pyrotechnics at almost 11pm on July 4. My anxiety is through the roof. But I don’t want them to stop. Keep celebrating. It is America’s birthday after all. I can handle it.

During each of my two deployments, I never had to fire any of my weapons. But for the more than two dozen missions I went on in Afghanistan, I was locked and loaded, ready to go every time. And on the handful of missions that I needed both my rifle and my pistol, they were both locked and loaded. For those of you unfamiliar with that term, ‘locked and loaded’ means there is a magazine in the weapon, and a round (bullet) in the chamber. I would only need to flip the switch from safe mode and pull the trigger. I was always ready. And I wonder if being ‘ready’ that many times and never getting to use my skills and training had some kind of adverse effect on me.

I’ve wondered for a while if sitting in a bunker through all those rocket attacks and never actually engaging the enemy contributed to some of the symptoms of my PTSD. Maybe because of all the adrenaline spikes without being able to release that energy right then and there. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a study on that somewhere, I’ll just have to do some research and find it. How, or would, I be different today if I had in fact fired my weapon and directly engaged the enemy? Would I have handled post-deployment better? I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know and accept that I have PTSD. But I can’t let that stop me anymore. I work. I live. I function. But there are moments where I can’t deny that it has some power over me, but not as much as it used to.

With all that I shared here, none of it even comes close to my most traumatic memory of war. Tune in next week when I will share a story that I rarely talk about. It’s a memory that resurfaced uninvited recently and maybe writing about it in detail will help.  Thanks for reading this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Related posts:

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/04/23/ptsd-is-contagious/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2017/03/18/ptsd-moments/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/08/20/the-storm/

 

Memorial Day Weekend, 2017

Every Memorial Day Weekend I take time to reflect on the Service Members that paid the ultimate price. As you enjoy your long weekend, sales, BBQ’s, and family time, take a moment to remember how we got those freedoms. Men and women who willingly put on a uniform gave their lives to insure our continued freedom. Take a moment to remember them.

DSCN4755 Death Registers at Enduring Freedom Chapel at Bagram, Afghanistan. 

I invite you to check out a previous Memorial Day post I’ve made. It contains a piece of poetry about Memorial Day I wrote while serving in Iraq in 2009. https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/05/28/memorial-day-weekend/

I also invite you to check out another post I made while serving in Afghanistan that gives insight to the ceremony for the fallen of the NATO and Coalition Forces. https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/09/04/the-ceremony/

DSCN3370 The set-up for the weekly ceremony at ISAF in Kabul, Afghanistan that honors the fallen.  Only the countries with killed-in-action have their flag displayed during the ceremony.  The U.S. flag was displayed every ceremony I attended.  We gave a lot over there.

But most of all, I ask that you pause for a moment in your busy weekend and be grateful for the ones that gave their lives so that the rest of us didn’t have to.

Good day, God bless.

Dave

The Frustration of Stress

Stress is the difference between expectations and my view of reality.” ~Chuck Waryk.

That resonated with me when Chuck put those words in that order on the phone a couple of weeks ago. I think I knew that already, but I don’t think I fully understood what that could mean until I heard it phrased that way. He and I served in Afghanistan together. He and I both know the stresses of serving in a war zone, where we were most certainly under stress. But when I think back to that time, I don’t remember being overly stressed with the situations in which I found myself. Here’s why. I didn’t find it as stressful as life now because in Afghanistan I anticipated the enemy to launch and fire at us. It was reality. It was expected. And every time I traveled from my home base to somewhere else, there was at least one attack per trip. Often more than once a day, and occasionally for consecutive days.  https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/03/19/the-fear-in-the-eyes/

I think the first part of stress after war is expecting everything to go back to normal after returning home. I know that’s not possible, maybe it was more wishful thinking on my part, but I think I expected it to be so. I expect the VA to take care of the mental and physical injuries I sustained over there. I expect my Army Reserve Unit to do the things they need to do to either find a way to keep me in or put me out. I expect my body and mind to function as it did before I deployed.

I have a lot of expectation. Or, I should say, I HAD a lot of expectations. The reality of some of the above-mentioned issues make it painfully obvious that my expectations were lofty and unrealistic. Or, at the very least that my time-frame for those expectations are out of sync with reality. Things are moving forward with the VA and the Army Reserves for me, but much slower than I want it to. But it doesn’t stress me like it used to, because I have a new view of what the reality of those issues are. Although, the VA giving me a 30-day supply of medication, but making my next appointment almost 50 days away is stressful. Just so everyone knows, I’ll only be on my medications every other day until the end of the month so as not to run out and have to miss a longer, consecutive block of time taking them.

The thing that bothers me the most is that my mind and body will never be what they once were. That leads to frustration. Stress is the result of external circumstances that can have mental and physical effects. Frustration comes from the inability to change or achieve something. I can’t change it and that frustrates me. But I don’t feel the stress of it like I used to. I have accepted that I cannot change certain things. At my civilian job, I have told everyone I work with that my mind doesn’t work like it used to and to bear with me if my words don’t always make sense or if I have to stop and think for a moment to finish a task. And especially if I forget what you just told me because I’m actively engaged in a task and I have trouble concentrating on multiple things. I have found that being open and honest with my mental issues has greatly reduced my frustration with myself.  https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/04/memories-and-afghanistan/

While I’m doing better with accepting that the VA is a mess, that the Army Reserves is slow and sometimes incapable of taking care of Soldiers, and that my mind and body are well-worn, I still have work to do in other areas. People still get on my nerves. Lazy people who don’t do their jobs, people who don’t put the shopping cart back and just leave it next to their car, or people in the next hotel room over who are keeping me awake at 4 in the morning because they’re arguing and threatening to kill each other. I have no use for any of these people in my life. Their laziness and lack of respect for other human beings is frustrating to me. Yes, I just equated leaving the shopping cart in the parking lot to the drunken rage of a guy threatening to kill someone causing me to lose already illusive sleep. But that’s my life and view on things. I’m being open and honest. And it feels good.

All in all, I’m continuing to find ways to cope with stress, which in turn reduces my level of frustration. And I think taking a realistic view of reality is a huge help. Thank you, Chuck, for the wise, inspiring words. It made me think about how I view the world around me and adjust fire.  https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/05/21/im-ok-i-promise/

Thank you all for reading Story of My Life this week. Feel free to leave feedback and let me know you were here. Good day, God bless.

Dave