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

Subpoenaed for Deposition

I was subpoenaed for deposition this week as a witness to a wreck I watched happen. A wreck that happened in 2012, 4 ½ ago. The attorneys wanted to question me as to what I remembered from that day. From 4 ½ years ago. Sometimes I have trouble remembering why I went into the kitchen and they want to know details about an event from 4 ½  years ago. Let’s see how that went.

I clearly remember the wreck. It was the kind you don’t forget. I watched it from my work truck, traveling on Highway 98. It was right in front of me. A Jeep swerved into the median, then came back across the travel lane, nailing a pickup truck. The Jeep then continued at full speed off the road, became airborne, and landed hard in a ditch. I thought for sure there would be serious injuries to the driver of the Jeep.

I stopped. I went to the Jeep and opened the driver’s door. The woman in the driver’s seat asked me to help her move her Jeep. I think she was asking me to help find her keys. She was drunk. She appeared to be uninjured, but was most definitely inebriated. The passengers in the truck seemed to be unharmed as well. When the State Trooper arrived, he ordered me to wait in my truck until he could get a statement from me. It’s from that point on that my memory is less clear. The adrenaline rush of the wreck made the immediate details clear and lasting in my mind.

The Attorney for the Plaintiff asked relatively easy questions. Basic stuff. Mostly questions about the actual wreck, where I was in relation to it as it played out, why I stopped. Things I had some answers for. He asked about 20 minutes worth of questions. The defense attorney, however, asked a bunch of different questions. He would ask, then rephrase the question, seemingly trying to get me to change my answer. I know how it works. He’s the defense attorney, he’s supposed to try to discredit any witness that can make his client look guilty. He even asked me if I could tell him what kind of shoes his client was wearing that day. Seriously? When I got to the Jeep, I expected to see someone in dire need of medical attention. I wasn’t looking at shoes.

After the defense attorney finished with his questions, I thought I was done. I was hoping to be done. The deposition had already gone 30 minutes longer than I was told it would and I was now running later for work than I had told my boss I would. But then, there was a third attorney, a gentleman sitting at the table that I thought was just there observing.  He turned out to be the attorney for the ex-husband of the defendant. The ex was the actual owner of the Jeep at the time of the wreck. The attorney for the ex-husband only asked one question and then I was free to go.

I have chronicled my memory issues in previous blogs. Some of the things I remember are detailed and vivid because of the circumstances. During my travels in Afghanistan, there were many times we found ourselves under attack from the enemy. I can probably remember certain details of every time we came under attack. I can’t remember much of anything after an attack ended. But the particulars of where I was at the time, who was with me, what base we were at, what I was thinking, time of day, how close or far away the explosions were…. I can remember all that stuff.

It’s ‘funny’ how the memory works. And I have no idea why mine remembers certain things clearly, but other things, I’m clueless. In the link here, https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/04/memories-and-afghanistan/, I mention a memory from Afghanistan that for two years I had completely blocked out or forgot until one of my appointments with my psychologist. And it all came back. The memory was similar to the dangers of the attacks I mentioned, so why did my mind suppress it? Why did it take a session with my psychologist to pull it out?

I kept a log of all the missions I went on while in Afghanistan. And between my deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan I took over 8000 pictures. Both of those things help me with my memory. I don’t look at the mission log much, but I do occasionally browse my pictures. And every time I do, I find pictures that remind of things I seem to have forgotten. I would really like to know what memories are hiding in my head that I didn’t get pictures of or put in the mission log.

I don’t know how much help I was in the deposition. Maybe I should have taken pictures of it all or wrote it down. But it didn’t seem that complicated at the time. To me, it was cut and dry. A drunk driver caused an accident. I don’t what they can be doing to drag this on for 4 ½ years. But I’m sure the lawyers are getting paid no matter who wins.

Thank you for reading Story of My Life this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

P.S. Join over 500 others that have RSVP’d to my next AMA that will be on Wednesday evening, June 7. Check it out and ask me a question. Follow the link if you are interested. Hope to see you there.

https://militaryama.com/hi-im-dave-as-a-disabled-veteran-much-of-my-health-and-psychiatric-care-157850/

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

Lessons Learned

When I was a young teenager, probably 13 or 14 years old, I had a dog that was a master at climbing the fence and escaping the back yard to roam the neighborhood. Eventually, my dad installed an electric fence kit to the top of the back-yard fence in hopes of curbing the dog’s desire to be free and explore. It should have only taken one jolt from the fence, maybe two, for the dog to no longer try to escape. That beagle sure could climb a fence. I’ve seen dogs that could jump a fence, but that was the only dog I ever saw that could climb one that way.

I was curious about the electric fence. I tapped it with my finger. Nothing. I touched it for a second. Still nothing. I decided to grab hold of it. Not the brightest thing I ever did in my life, but still not even close the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I was “shocked” to learn that the fence worked when I grasped it fully in my hand. It was slightly painful, but a life lesson that I still remember to this day. I won’t be testing anymore electric fences. No need, I satisfied my curiosity and fully understand how they work.

Most of the things we learn in life are directly related to the decisions we make, whether those be good decisions or bad ones. Ever since my children were little, I liked letting them make their own decisions about things when they could. When my two oldest were in pre-school, I would let them choose what to wear each day. Living in Florida, they usually chose shorts and short-sleeve shirts. One morning I told them a cold front was coming through and they should take a jacket. Neither wanted to take a jacket, so I took them to school with only what they had picked out to wear.

By noon that day, the temperature had dropped to a “frigid” 40 degrees. When I picked them up from pre-school, I heard one teacher comment that I should check the weather and dress them accordingly because my children were cold. Really? They weren’t going to die from hypothermia in 40-degree weather on the walk from the classroom to my car. I promise. And they both learned a valuable lesson that day, that sometimes, dad knows what he’s talking about. On the flip-side, on a trip to Colorado in January years ago with the kids, I made sure they had more than enough warm clothes. The trick is to know when to let them decide and when to plan for them. I don’t care what that one teacher thought, I was teaching my young children by giving them all the information available and letting them make the final decision. I think using that philosophy has more than paid off with them.

But what about the times when a decision is made without any idea of what all could possibly happen? And what if a decision is made with the best of intentions, but it turns out to be a disaster? That’s a great ethical question that has been debated for centuries. I don’t have the answer to it, in case you were wondering. During an army reserve weekend years ago, a fellow Service Member found a puppy. There was no collar with identification on the dog. And after asking around, he believed it to be a stray or an abandoned pet. He went to the store and bought a dog bowl, some dog food, and a leash. He was going to give the puppy a home. Since it was a couple hours before quitting time, he put the puppy in the bed of his truck with food and water, and put a collar and leash on the dog and tied it to the inside of the bed of his truck. The puppy climbed up on the wheel well and hanged himself trying to get out of the truck. The man’s intentions were pure gold, but the outcome was tragic.

In 2007, I decided to go back in to military service in the army reserves. I wanted to serve my country again and take care of Soldiers as a chaplain assistant. Although my life does not reflect it now, it was a matter I prayed about and truly believed it was something God wanted me to do, so, I rejoined. I still believe that. I volunteered to go Iraq in 2007. Then, I volunteered to go Afghanistan in 2013. My intentions were admirable, but the outcome of my decision cost me my mental health, my physical health, my marriage, relationships, a business, my favorite job I ever had, and who knows what else. I basically lost Me, the Me I used to know, the Me I used to be. I lost my identity. I had even lost my will to live at one point.

There have been times when I would figuratively touch the electric fence just to see what would happened. There were times when I learned from my decisions like my young children did from theirs, in learning that sometimes we should heed the advice or warnings of others. And there was a time when I was like the puppy, trying to escape, even though I didn’t know it would kill me.

All the decisions I’ve made in my life make me who I am today. Same goes for you, too, by the way. I’m grateful and lucky that to have survived some of my decisions. And even knowing what I know today, I would still rejoin the military and serve again. There are definitely some things I would do differently, but I know for certain I made the right decision to rejoin the army reserves. I don’t understand some of the consequences I’ve had to endure since I believe that decision was made with the best of intentions. And I don’t care to debate it or dig into the philosophical principles of whether or not it was the right decision based on the outcome. I’m moving forward with life.

Thank you for reading Story of My Life this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Other related posts you might like:

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/02/13/the-irony-of-life/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/08/06/suicide-intervention/

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

4 Months Since Therapy

It’s been four months since the last time I’ve been to a professional therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist. I may have mentioned in a previous blog that my psychologist that I had been seeing at the Vet Center (part of the VA) moved on to a better job. I don’t blame him. I know I’ve mentioned before that all the good ones leave the VA and the ones that can’t do the job very well get comfortable at the VA because they get paid whether they do a good job or not. The ones that are worth a darn know they don’t have to put up with the bureaucratic stupidity that is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, they can make it elsewhere. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen way too many mental health professionals come and go at the local VA I use.

Overall, I’ve been doing well since my doctor left. So, let me first say, to make sure there’s no confusion, I do not feel like my world is crashing down on me. I’m ok, I promise.  However, I am starting to notice some things about myself that suggest I should start looking for a new therapist. In the last month, I find my frustration with life events to be more easily provoked. My attention span and interest in things has gone downhill. I have had minor, but very noticeable, bouts with depression.  And I have not been sleeping well at all.  Again, I say, I am handling all of this. I am in no way a danger to myself or others.  (https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/05/21/im-ok-i-promise/).

It was a rough week at work. Three schedule changes, a few contentious exchanges with the boss, and people not showing up to work. I actually started to wonder if I made the right decision in going back to work after taking a year off because of mental health issues. I wasn’t having bad thoughts. Not like the ones documented in my psychological evaluation from last year that the VA ordered. During that session, I discussed with the psychiatrist some of the morbid thoughts I had during my last job. This week, my thoughts were more questioning if the job was worth it, if it were good for my sanity. And with that, the doubts of me being able to function in the workforce flooded my mind. That’s where the bouts of depression came from, I’m sure.  (https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/07/16/depressed-ptsd/).

I took my truck to the shop this week. I only let one shop work on my truck. I told him my budget and a few things that I needed to get worked on. Nothing major. So, I thought. The one issue I figured would be the easiest and cheapest part of my short list was twice as much as my entire budget for maintenance and repairs on my truck. I’m not good under the hood, so I’ll explain it as best I can: The fluid reservoir for the clutch was leaking and the housing for the transmission must be removed to get the root of the problem. Ouch. OUCH. My truck is 16 years old and paid for. The money I spend yearly on maintenance is still much cheaper than a car payment. But, ouch, all at once this time. Well, all at once again.  (https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/07/23/448/).

These were the two highlights of my lows for the week.   I remember not too very long ago how either one of these stressful events would have derailed me. And while I am feeling the effects of these things, both financially and psychologically, I am in control. I am handling each of these things better than I did similar events in the last year and a half. I have my moments when I want to run away or simply punch someone in the throat. But I don’t. I can’t. I’ve come too far in my recovery from my own mind to go that far backwards. A few steps back on a long, forward journey are expected, but I’m not going to start over again. I can’t.

As far as the job goes, YES. I was supposed to go back to work when I did. Any earlier and I might not be handling this as well. Any later and I would have missed out on a great job that I feel at home with. I missed having a job during the year I was not working. And I’m very happy to be where I’m at now, it was perfect timing and I love what I do. I’m learning how to cope with the challenges of functioning in a work environment again, challenges that didn’t seem to be there before I went to Afghanistan. I’m doing pretty well with it.

My truck and I have a lot in common. We both have a lot of miles and wear and tear on us, and both need some maintenance from time to time. And if the maintenance falls too far behind, we run the risk of a catastrophic breakdown. In August 2015, I had a complete breakdown in life and I got “put in the shop” for a while. Since then, until four months ago, I had been getting regular therapy maintenance. Similar to checking the tire pressure or getting an oil change in the truck at regular intervals and having a mechanic check things over. Sometimes for preventative measures, sometimes for repairs, for both me and the truck. I do still take my medications daily, but I think I need some more maintenance than that right now. Nothing imperative, I just think it’s time to go back to therapy.  (https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/04/16/the-pysch-ward/).

Now I have to find a new psychologist and start all over. That’s the whole reason I’ve gone four months without therapy. I don’t want to start over. But I will say that the timing for my previous doctor to move on was good for me. I had made tremendous progress with him in the 10 months we met for my therapy, and by the time he left, I didn’t really need to see him weekly. Now, because I know I need it, I have to find someone else for therapy. A few years ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of needing therapy on a regular basis. But, like my truck that needs regular upkeep, I know I need it, too. Basically, I’m far enough along in recovery to realize that I need to go back to therapy. I think knowing that is a good sign. But it doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it.

I put links throughout this post that relate to the idea of specific paragraphs.  If you haven’t read them before, it will give you an idea where I was, what I’ve gone through, and where I’m at now.  Also, go check out my friend Frank’s blog, here’s the link.  I think most of you would enjoy it, he’s a very talented writer.  https://fnvaughn.com/

That’s what I have for the week. Thanks for taking the time to be part of my week and reading Story of My Life. Good day, God bless.

Dave