Listen

Listen. That’s all. Not, “Listen to me” or “Listen to this.” Just listen. Sometimes the best way to help someone is to simply to listen. You don’t even need to have a solution to their problems, you just have to listen. It could make a world of difference. Aside from the mandatory, “check the box,” training we get in the army about suicide awareness and prevention, I have had plenty of in-depth training with respect to actually intervening during a serious suicidal ideation. I’m comfortable with that role. And I have done that more times than I want to remember. Not to mention, I have my own personal experience in failing at an attempt. I might not be able to relate to a person’s specific reason, but I certainly can relate to the feelings someone is going through when they are contemplating suicide. But most importantly, I listen.

Years ago, a friend of mine was going through a rough time. Not only that, he was also being moved to a different unit which contributed to his downward mental spiral. Knowing he would be leaving soon, I pulled him aside and thanked him for his impact in my army life. He was a role model to me in many ways. I was a better Soldier for having been under his leadership, and I wanted him to know that. Then, unexpectedly, he started talking. He opened up to me. He talked for about 45 minutes or so. I mostly just listened. Everything he told me is confidential because, as a chaplain assistant in the army, it stays confidential. That’s the rules. And even more so, in my mind, since he was coming to me as a friend. I didn’t think much more of it until later.

I emailed him after he left, to check on him, to see how things were going. That’s when I realized how important it was that I took the time to listen to him when I did. He made it very clear that my taking that time altered his life. Actually, saved it. In his email reply he said, “I appreciate you man because your words really gave me the chance to live another day. All jokes aside, you can really say that you saved a life man.” Funny thing is, I don’t remember talking very much. That’s because I mostly listened. Sometime later, in a Facebook message, after my failed suicide attempt, he gave me encouragement and also details about the day I stopped to talk (listen) to him. He stated, “My roommate was gone. I had all my ammo and my rifle. And I planned on doing it…I was headed to the room and you stopped me and said I love you brother… Man, I went back and loaded the weapon and cried to myself because I knew people loved me…You saved me and I am always here.” That day, the day I just wanted to let him know that I appreciated his leadership, the day that I listened to him, that unknowingly important day. I had no idea he was even considering suicide. No clue.

There are a couple of reasons this story came to mind this week. First, the son of a friend of mine took his own life recently. I’ve been messaging almost daily with that friend. And it’s been hard. I have no idea what to say. I understand the emotions my friend is going through, and it breaks my heart. But I can relate to the son that got to the point of taking his own life because I’ve been there. I tried. Without giving any details, I told another friend about messaging with the first friend, that I didn’t know what to say, that my training was in suicide prevention, and that I’m at somewhat of a loss in talking with a surviving family member after the fact. That’s when friend 2 told me I’m a good man, because I listen when people needed. That hardly makes me a good man, but I am always glad to listen when needed. That’s when I remembered my friend who says I saved his life, and I didn’t even know it at that time, all because I listened to him. That’s how this story came back to me this week. I listened. And, at the time, I had no idea how important that was. All I did was listen. That didn’t cost me anything. But it could have cost my friend his life had I not made time for him. Dear God, thank you.

Sometimes all you have to do is listen to make a difference in someone’s life. Thank you for listening to me this week. Good day, God Bless.

Dave

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Milestones and Reflections

This past week, my blog surpassed 400 followers from all over the world. Granted, that’s not a huge number, but it’s still an amazing milestone to me, considering I write for my own pleasure and therapy. I didn’t set out to create any kind of following for this site, only a place for me to put some thoughts somewhere, like a way to journal. Originally, Story of My Life was a place for me to do some writing during my deployment to Afghanistan and share a few things with my family and friends. After returning from war, I took a two-year break from posting here. I then started using Story of My Life again in February 2016, as an outlet for self-therapy and recovery. Based on the number of followers, comments and likes on the posts, it seems like a lot of people can relate to what I’m putting out there.

As I celebrate a very modest milestone, I also want reflect on Story of My Life and share with some of you that might not know the progression this blog has taken the last couple of years and why I post (almost) every week. I say progression of this blog, but in reality, it’s my progression. These are my thoughts, feelings, experiences that I share here. Some entries are comical or silly. Some are dark and painful. Some are rants, usually complaining about dealing with the VA. I’ve posted poetry and short fiction stories, but mostly, real-life stories of me surviving my life.

While my first blog post to Story of My Life was 5 years ago, it’s only been in the last two years that I started a new journey of using weekly writing as therapy and sharing my story with the world. The beginning of this new journey started with me opening up about a failed suicide attempt, being taken to the psych ward at the hospital in hand cuffs by the police, and being diagnosed with PTSD and major depression. From there, I shared what I saw as obvious irony in the fact that I attempted suicide, being that I was the lead trainer in suicide prevention training in most of my army reserve units. Ironic, in a twisted way, I know.

I’ve shared stories from my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, stories about my kids, and I’ve written some entertaining fictional stories. I’ve touched a little on the end of my marriage and I’ve exposed some of the flaws with the VA that veterans have to deal with. I’ve written about the struggles I have from time to time with depression and suicidal thoughts. I’ve also written about some of the victories I’ve had the last two years, which include sharing a couple excerpts and progress from the novel I’m writing (yes, still working on that). I’ve written about the weather, traffic, youth sports, investing, the Mississippi River, and I’ve shared some about my civilian job in a few posts. I cover most everything that pops into my head in any given week. We can all see the pros and cons in that. But I do it anyway.

I write every week and post it here because it helps me. I am able to sort my thoughts and put them in some kind of order that makes sense to me. It’s a way to track my progress as well as my low points. Each post gives me a record of what I was doing or thinking and I can go back any time and see what was on my mind. I know, I can do the same thing without putting it on a blog, but I feel that making some of these stories public forces me to put more thought and effort into this project. And I know that my story helps other people, too, which is a bonus for my motivation to keep writing and sharing. Knowing there are people out there that can relate to my issues and mental illness is helpful to me as well. I appreciate all the likes and comments of support on my posts each week.

I do this for me. But I also do it for everyone else that hasn’t found their voice yet in speaking up comfortably about their own mental illness. I share it with the world so that someone that might be in the dark places of the mind, like I have been, know they aren’t alone. If you need help, reach out. If you know someone that needs help, help them find help. You don’t have to be a professional to help someone that is thinking about suicide. You only have to get them to someone that is (hospital, police, fire station, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255). Helping is easier than you think.

For those of you that might be new to Story of My Life and want to get a bigger picture of my story, below are some links to previous posts that will highlight my journey the last two years.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/02/06/battlefield/  (the beginning of my new journey)

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/07/16/depressed-ptsd/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/11/26/suicidal-anonymous/

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

https://storyofmylife.blog/2017/07/15/my-worst-war-memory/

Thank you all for your support, I hope that I am returning the favor in some small way here. And thank you for stopping by this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

J.F.D.R.T.

For the vast majority of us that serve in the military, we simply do a job. It’s not completely unlike jobs in the civilian world. The military has human resources, cooks, IT personnel, police officers, engineers, management, instructors, lawyers, doctors, and the list goes on. I’ve had three jobs with the army. Construction Surveyor, Wire Systems Installer, and my current job, Chaplain Assistant. And for my current job, I’m also an instructor. It’s not always exciting, but I like it. And that’s how it usually works for most of us, both in the military and the civilian world.

There are a select few in the military that become part of elite groups. Special Forces, Rangers, Sappers, and others. (Sappers are like the Rangers, but for smart kids- LOL). I was never part of any of those distinguished groups. But, while I was deployed to Iraq, I was part of a very small, very special group that had carried out a number of extremely important missions. The group was made up of myself, a Navy Chaplain Assistant, and an Air Force Chaplain Assistant. The three of us shared an office in the chapel at Camp Bucca, Iraq.

We were part of J.F.D.R.T (pronounced jif-dirt). And don’t try to Google it, you won’t find anything about it. It was that big of a secret. Either that, or maybe because the three of us made it up. J.F.D.R.T. stands for Joint Forces Dessert Recovery Team. Ok, we made it up. The three of us shared many a meal together at the Camp Bucca Dining Facility and after each meal, one of us would go on the mission of retrieving dessert for the group. As I said, extremely important missions. Thus began the long and storied tradition of J.F.D.R.T.

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T/Sgt Espino, me, and RP2 Davis.  J.F.D.R.T. outside the Camp Bucca Chapel.

Maybe it wasn’t so much a long and storied tradition as much as it was us trying to survive the boredom at Camp Bucca. The three of us each had important jobs taking care of our troops as part of our Unit Ministry Teams. Unfortunately, our jobs basically kept us at desks for most of our deployment, unless we were escorting our chaplains to the TIF (Theater Internment Facility) at the south end of the compound to provide chaplain support to those in our unit doing guard duty. My job in Iraq was sometimes monotonous and boring, but it wasn’t terribly hard. And fortunately, I worked with some great people that kept it entertaining.

 

See? They look entertaining.

Coming from different branches of the military, each member of J.F.D.R.T. ribbed each other about who was better: the army, the navy, or the air force. Obviously, the army, but I played along so they wouldn’t get their feelings hurt. And the two of them piled on me about being a reservist. They were both active duty. We played great practical jokes on each other. We got on each other’s nerves and we also put up with each other. We helped each other out, covered shifts for each other, and when we could, we made fun of each other. We were family. Sometimes dysfunctional, just like blood family. But we always had each other’s back, no matter what. And we always had dessert when we ate together.

 

I miss those guys. J.F.D.R.T. may not have been real, but being part of it helped get us through a stretch of deployment and made it a little more bearable. Thanks for taking the time to stop by Story of My Life. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Who Are You?

I was mobilized for my second deployment in 2013, this time to Afghanistan. I was a chaplain assistant in the Army Reserves and was being cross-leveled and reunited with some great people that I previously served with. I was going back to the 143d ESC family, this time with the command. I had previously been in a battalion within that organization where I was a chaplain assistant to the chaplain I would now be going to war with. We would spend more than a month that summer at Ft. Hood, Texas, training for the upcoming mission.

During that time at Ft. Hood, it was to be decided which personnel would be going to Kuwait with the main body and who would be going to Kabul, Afghanistan and be attached to the 1st TSC to become part of their mission. I was going to Afghanistan. Then it changed. Then it changed again. When the rosters were finally finalized, my chaplain and I were in fact going to Afghanistan. A group of 80 of us, or so, left Ft. Hood on August 8, stayed a day and a half in Kyrgyzstan, then arrived in Kabul on August 12.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/08/13/a-day-and-a-half-in-kyrgystan/

Believe it or not, there was some miscommunication between the unit I was in and the unit I was being attached to in Afghanistan. I know, right? Miscommunication in the army? No way! Believe it. When my chaplain and I got there with the rest of the soldiers being attached to the TSC, the chaplain and I were not on the TSC’s list to be there. “Who are you? Why are you here? We weren’t expecting a Unit Ministry Team.” Umm… I’m still getting paid, right?

The new unit wasn’t sure what to do with us and didn’t have office space for us. The Chief of Staff for the TSC told my chaplain and I to go see the chaplain with USFOR-A, at his office in the basement, and ask if they had anything we could do or help with until the TSC figured out what to do with us. (USFOR-A = U.S. Forces-Afghanistan). The Chief of Staff  told us to work with USFOR-A, do what they do, and that we would get some office space with the unit soon enough. So, we went to the basement and integrated ourselves in with the USFOR-A chaplain team. That miscommunication ended up being a good thing for my chaplain and me as far as I’m concerned. It was like getting bonus adventures on what was already going to be an exciting deployment.

By the third day of the deployment, I was already getting outside the wire on missions with the USFOR-A chaplain team going to other local bases in Kabul. We were told to work with them and do what they do. So, we did. The USFOR-A chaplain team was busy, always going somewhere. Some of the missions I went on with them included taking the USFOR-A Command Chaplain to meetings, picking up the AFCENT chaplain for a visit, attending the weekly NATO ceremony at ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), and more.

 

 

 

My usual view from the passenger seat while TSgt Hivner drove, in and around Kabul.

On a side note, the USFOR-A Command Chaplain at the time was CH (COL) Hurley. He’s now a two-star general and the U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. To this day, he is still the only chaplain to make me drop and do push-ups. But eventually, he warmed up to my sense of humor. And I’m sure that working with me is what set him apart from other candidates for the Chief job. He probably used me as a reference. Ok, that last part might not be true. (This would be one of those moments when CH Hurley might tell me to do push-ups).

 

 

 

Left:  CH Hurley after a chapel service at ISAF.  Right:  Me and my chaplain at the left,  CH Hurley and CH Fredrick on the right, SGM England and Air Force TSgt Hivner (Both USFOR-A chaplain assistants) kneeling.

One mission I went on with the USFOR-A chaplain assistant was to get a vehicle serviced. More specifically, to get the Duke system updated. The Duke is a device mounted on a vehicle that jams remote controlled IEDs. Some improvised explosive devices would be placed on convoy routes and could be detonated from a distance by the enemy with a cell phone or other type of remote control. Our Duke was non-operational that day. Completely dead. We had to make the short trip to Camp Phoenix without the protection it offered. But we made it there without incident.

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Me and CH Mac at Camp Phoenix, Kabul, AFG, 2013.

On another mission with the USFOR-A chaplain team, we walked from our base to ISAF. It was a short walk, but to me, it was very exciting. It was a close-up view of the area that I could not get in a convoy or on a helicopter. I filmed the whole thing with a camera attached to my gear. I had my long rifle and my sidearm with me, both locked and loaded, both ready to go if needed. The following week, we were set to walk to ISAF again, staging behind the back entrance of the building we worked in. Keep in mind, we were told by the Chief of Staff to work with USFOR-A and do what they do. Imagine the surprise my chaplain and I had when our Command Sergeant Major showed up, about to pop a blood vessel in his forehead after finding out we did a walking mission the previous week, telling us that we are not authorized to leave the base on foot. He was livid. We made other transportation arrangements and still completed the mission.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/09/22/the-true-risk/

I thought we were going to be in trouble, well me, not so much the chaplain. When a Command Sergeant Major expresses his displeasure with you or your actions the way mine did that day, it can often mean you are in some sort of trouble. But, there was nothing in writing saying we couldn’t walk and we hadn’t been told not to. And the Chief of Staff told us to do what they do. We simply ended up being told to not do that again. Two positive things did come from that day. First, the entire command was given a memo very specifically detailing the proper procedures for going on any mission, to include prohibiting any walking missions. I should get a ribbon on my uniform for effecting such important change in a two-star command. Second, they finally gave us office space upstairs with the rest of the unit. I guess they wanted to keep a closer eye on us.

Thanks for stopping by this week and checking out my 100th post to Story of My Life. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Waiting on a Helicopter

Sometimes the most ordinary or inane event can bring back a memory for me. This week that was caused by the weather. Here in the Florida Panhandle, we have four seasons. They include Hot, Really Hot, Humid with Heat, and a few days of winter. Since we don’t experience the winter most others around the country do, we may have a skewed view of the winter season. When it gets down to the 30’s at night and daytime highs are only in 40’s, we start to lose our minds. And when Mother Nature decides to throw rain at us during those “freezing” temperatures, we act like the world is coming to an end.

Although I’ve experienced snow and cold weather all around the world, I am not a fan. During my deployment to Afghanistan, we had plenty of snow in the mountains 6000 feet above sea level. We had below freezing temperatures, the lowest I recall was 14 degrees Fahrenheit. But the most gloomy, uncomfortable weather I experienced there was like the weather here in Northwest Florida this week. It had been in the mid- to upper 30’s with rain during one missions. The near freezing rain is what clinched it for being classified as miserable. I would have rather it been a little colder and traded the rain for snow.

I went on over two dozen missions during my 9 months in Afghanistan, mostly escorting the unit chaplain to different places he needed to be. Although, I always downplayed each mission by calling them “trips.” It sounded less dangerous. And my roommate over there would go a step further by saying I was going on vacation or a weekend getaway since most of the missions were multiple days. Most of the travel to and from our destinations went well, considering we were traveling in a war-torn country. There were always possibilities for delays, either caused by the enemy or the weather.

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

From our base in Kabul, we embarked on what was supposed to be a six-day mission. First, we took the few minute flight to the airport in Kabul. From there, a British C-130 gunship to Kandahar, with a stop at Bastion on the way. For the trip back, we flew to Bagram, which was like my home away from home during deployment. And that’s where we got stuck for a few days. The transition to winter weather was upon us. It was early November, fairly mild up until that point. The days had been comfortable, the nights were cool. Nothing too bad. But that was about to change.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/04/memories-and-afghanistan/

The night before we were supposed to fly by helicopter back to Kabul, the temperature dropped to almost freezing and the rain came. For three days it rained. Cold, wet, miserable, rain. Knowing the weather would likely result in travel issues, I woke up at 0430 to walk the mile to the terminal to see about flights. If they were flying, I would call the chaplain and the other traveler in our group and tell them to come. But of course, they weren’t flying. I walked back to where we were staying. In the cold, miserable rain.

The next morning, I awoke at 0430 again and made the walk. The rain was just enough to be annoying, light but steady, and still very cold. I was in line to inquire about flights, knowing we weren’t going anywhere. They guy came down the line holding a clipboard, asking each hopeful traveler a single question, “Where you going?”  I answered, “NKC.”  He simply said, “Nope,” and moved to the next person in line.  Back to my bunk, sloshing through the rain, looking forward to a nap. In my journal that I kept about the missions we went on, the single entry for that day was: “Flight cancelled due to weather. Did nothing, getting bored.”

On the third morning of being stuck at BAF (Bagram Air Field), I made the same early-morning walk. Still raining, still cold, still knowing there would be no flights. At least not any civilian contractor flights that we mostly traveled on. But while at the terminal, I was able to find out that the Deputy Commanding General of our unit was traveling through there on his way back to Kabul. And the DCG flies on Black Hawks with military pilots, not relying on the civilian contractors.

When flying with the civilian contractors, you just show up, get on, and go. It doesn’t work that way when trying to hop a flight with a general. When I peeked over the counter and saw the general’s flight on a manifest, I told the guy that I was in that unit, and we had three personnel that had been stuck at BAF for days and needed to be on that flight. He looked at me like I was Jon Lovitz saying, “Yeah, that’s the ticket!” But, eventually, after some phone calls, we were confirmed on the General’s flight.

Finally, just before midnight on the ninth day of our trip, we boarded one of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters going back to our base in Kabul. It had been a long trip and I was ready for it to be done. And as much as I loved traveling throughout Afghanistan during that deployment, it was nice to get back “home” to my own bunk. After returning, my roommate told me I got back just in time, that he was going to rent out my bed because he thought I wasn’t coming back. And of course, he asked how my ‘vacation’ was.

Good times. Good memories. Despite the blaring sirens during the rocket attacks and sitting in concrete bunkers at both Kandahar and Bagram during that trip, I have good memories of that mission. And somehow, it was this miserable weather here that elicited those memories and made me smile. There are still things around me that might take me back to an event during that trip that would not make me smile. Perhaps, a fire alarm or loud booms might make me remember the same trip in a different light. But for some reason, and I can’t explain why, this cold, wet, nasty weather we had in Florida this week takes me back to that mission in Afghanistan, and I smile because of it. Go figure.

https://storyofmylife.blog/2017/07/15/my-worst-war-memory/

Thank you for taking the time to check out Story of My Life. Good day, God bless.

Dave