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/

 

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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

Suicide Intervention

It was during my first deployment that I had my first real-life introduction to suicide intervention. I was deployed as a Chaplain Assistant with my unit to Camp Bucca, Iraq (08-09). At that time I had only the minimal training in suicide intervention. I did not understand why someone would want to take their own life and, I am ashamed to say, I sometimes wondered if the person was faking it. It was an easy way to get to leave the desert early for people who didn’t want to be there. I had yet to experience a point that low in my life and I just didn’t understand when someone said they wanted to kill themselves.

During that deployment I took control of three weapons of Service Member’s that showed signs of suicidal ideations. Two of them were preventative measures before they went to the chaplain for counseling. But one was considerably more serious than that. It was real. I still thought in the back of my mind this guy was just trying to get out of work. But I knew him, we had become good friends. And I knew he wasn’t ‘right’, that something was going on. He was changing and I didn’t understand why. I took it seriously, but his logic that he would be better off dead escaped me.

I talked him into turning in his weapon to the base arms room for a little while. I walked with him and his commander in silence. He and I had made a deal that he himself would be the one to give up his weapon, that no one would take it from him. It was important to him that he felt in control of relinquishing his assigned firearm. His commander signed some papers and my friend forfeited his gun. My friend walked away without saying a word to me. I spoke to his commander for a few minutes, assuring him that I would keep an eye on him.

The next day my friend had his weapon. I asked him about it. The paperwork had apparently been filled out wrong and since he was the one that turned it in, he was allowed to get the weapon back himself. I asked if he had felt better about life. He said that he did not. I told him to give me his weapon to which he replied, “You’ll have to take it from me.” I took two steps towards him in the office to come face to face with him and placed my hand on his weapon. He did not resist and I took it from him. I escorted him back to the arms room and turned it in properly. That would insure that he could not get his firearm back without his commander’s approval. I went back to my office alone, closed the door, and shed a few tears. The reality of these things that I could not understand were overwhelming.

My friend didn’t speak to me much the rest of the deployment. I felt like I had traded our friendship to possibly save his life. That is a fair trade. I don’t know for sure if he would have gone through with killing himself, but I also knew, even in my limited experience, that it had to be taken seriously. I hated that he felt like I took something from him that he considered important, that helped define him as a warrior, his weapon. And he hated me for it for a while, too, I guess. On a side note, for those of you in the military that think a chaplain assistant has a cushy job, there’s a lot more to it than you think. It can be an emotionally draing job which many people do not see the whole spectrum of what we do.

Since that time I have received specialized training in suicide intervention. I have taken part in more than a few interventions. I have also experienced that darkness first hand in my own mind. I fully understand now what my friend was going through. I may not relate to his particular circumstances, whatever those were at the time, but for the hopeless feelings that comes with wanting to die, I completely relate. I wish I didn’t. But I think it makes me better at helping people when needed.

I understand that each of us respond differently to various situations. What destroys me might be normal to you. I understand that in many cases the ‘reason’ for wanting to die is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. I understand that no matter what I think, suicidal ideations must be treated as a real threat. I understand that there is no quick fix. I hate that part the most. I just want to be better again. But I know I will never be the person I was before I attempted suicide, it will just never happen. Maybe that’s the part I hate the most because I know I sure do miss the old me.

It was at least a year after returning from Iraq that I got a Facebook message from my friend saying thanks for what I did to help him. We still keep in touch from time to time. It turns out that I didn’t have to trade his friendship for taking his weapon. And now I understand why he reacted the way he did. Because I also lived it, and still do. Different circumstances, different setting, and different consequences. But I completely understand the feelings he experienced, during the deployment and the period that followed. I understand about pushing people away or shutting them out, I do it, too. I’m working on that, trying to do better. Or at least I want to do better.

For those that have been following the horrible life-rut I’ve been in lately, I can’t say that it’s getting any better right now. But I can say that I’ve stopped going in reverse with my thoughts and am ready to start moving forward again when it’s time. I had at least four conversations going the other evening on text or messaging when I was feeling pretty crappy about life, a low point. I don’t know if I were in danger of myself, but I do know my thoughts were not good. I don’t know how many of the people I was talking with had real suicide training, but I know the conversations helped. Point is, you don’t have to be a specialist in suicide prevention to help someone that is having those feelings. Just be there. That’s the first and most important step in an intervention.

Thanks for reading this week. I hope you get something from this. Good day, God bless.

Dave

A few pictures from Camp Bucca, Iraq, 2008-2009.