Welcome Home

His eyebrows sagged and his countenance fell. His lips tightened as he went into a blank stare. He wiped a tear from his eye. He was somewhere else in the world right then, a different place, a different time. He had come back from that place years ago, probably before I was born. He had to come back from it again during our conversation sitting at the bar. I wondered how many times he’s had to come back from there in the last 45 years or more.

During my last trip to Ft Jackson, I stayed for a week instead of the usual weekend. When I’m there for only my army reserve weekend, I have a routine I generally follow. I get to town on Friday, check into the hotel, then go to Sonic. And why not? They’ve gotten my order right 3 out of the last 5 times now, getting better. Saturday is usually blur, and Sunday afternoon I head back to Florida. But when I’m there for a week at a time, I usually go to a couple different restaurants instead of eating drive-thru food for a whole week.

One particular night I went to a place I’ve enjoyed a few times before. It’s a sports bar with a killer burger. Not only is it good, but it might kill you, too, at half a pound of beef. Hence, a killer burger. But I’ll take my chances. The beer is cold, there’s sports on the TVs, and the people are nice. That’s where I met Chuck.

The conversation at the bar had to the with the heat that day. Then Chuck started talking to me, saying something about a “dry heat” like in Arizona or something. I told him that only works until it gets to a certain point. I told him it was a dry heat where I was in Iraq, but once the temperature got over 110 degrees, it was just hot. Dry or not, it was hot. Side note. For the record, I took a picture of the thermometer outside our Preventive Medicine office at my base in Iraq. It was at 146 degrees. But it was a dry heat. LOL.

Then Chuck told me he had been to the two worst places in the world. The first place being Detroit during the riots in 1967. The second place was Saigon, 1968. He was a Vietnam Veteran. He told me how he went from Detroit to the jungle. Then he told me that off all the men on the plane that took him to Vietnam, only 4 came home. That’s when he retreated into his mind for a minute. I imagine he was taking a moment to remember each of them. I believe he could see them in his mind, maybe as they sat next to him on the plane or maybe as they drew their last breath, I didn’t ask. Either way, he needed a minute.

When he returned to reality, we changed the subject of our conversation to sports. But in only two minutes before that, I knew his pain. I had a sense of his war stories. I could tell where he had been in some respects. His face spoke it all very clearly. Sports brought a completely different face to Chuck. His sports stories were amazing and fascinating. The sports figures that he met over the years, the autographs he told me about, the memorabilia he said he has in his sports room. It all had me in awe. And he was happy talking sports. It’s his life now, and his job.

Everyone I went with to Iraq and Afghanistan came home. I personally knew a few people that died serving, but everyone I went with both times came home. I can’t imagine what goes through Chuck’s mind when he thinks about being only one of four surviving members of the group on the plane that took him to Vietnam. The only inkling I have of what he goes through is what I saw in his face while he revisited the fallen in his memories.

I have my moments where I get triggered to memories of war. On occasion I get jumpy because of unexpected noises. Being in traffic is hard for me. I battle anxiety and depression all the time. I’m still figuring out a lot of this since coming home from my last deployment. I don’t know his stories, but I can very much relate to how Chuck reacted when taken back to 1968. I also do that from time to time. And I wonder if years from now I’ll still have my moments like that. We’ll see.

I’ll say again what I told Chuck the other night. Thank you for leading the way with your service. And Welcome home. I’m glad you’re one of the four that came back.

Thank you all for stopping this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

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My GPS Needs Therapy

My GPS needs therapy. Or some kind of addiction intervention, or something. I think it’s high, or maybe bi-polar. And it definitely needs help. As I’ve mentioned before, I drive 500+ miles once a month to Ft Jackson, South Carolina for my army reserve training. And then, 500+ miles back home. It’s a grueling drive some months, depending on what time I get on the road, traffic, weather. It takes at least 8 ½ hours one way. It’s taken as many as 10 hours.

When I started going to this reserve unit in 2015, I drove from where I live in the Florida Panhandle up through Atlanta, then took I-20 across to Columbia, where Ft Jackson is located. If you’ve ever driven through Atlanta, you know why I desired to find a different route. Now I take the Georgia backroads from Mariana, FL (after a short drive on I-10 from where I live) up to just west of Augusta, GA. I call it backroads, but it’s not as bad or stereotypical as it sounds. However, the first few times I didn’t go through Atlanta, it was almost all backroads. Some of which seemed barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic. And one road that might forever be imprinted in my mind is Old Balls Ferry Road. You can insert your own jokes here.

I don’t need my GPS for directions anymore, after almost three years of taking the same route, but I do use it for traffic updates and to see my travel time. Traffic updates have come in handy more than once. And we all know that when plugging in the destination, the initial GPS estimated time of arrival is really just a challenge to see if we can beat it. I usually do.

Here’s the deal with my GPS. I plug in my destination. It usually gives me two routes to choose from, with one of the routes having a variation somewhere in it. Basically, my options are the shortest time or the shortest distance. The shortest travel time would be to go through Atlanta, which I hate. The shortest distance (at least when I first started doing this) was literally through some of the weirdest backroads I’ve ever been on. It was the shortest distance, but without using any common sense. Of course, it’s just a GPS, it probably doesn’t have common sense, although I talk to it like it’s a real person. But eventually, I refined that route with one that is both shorter in distance and makes sense. But most importantly, keeps me out of Atlanta traffic.

My GPS also gets confused. I’ll glance at the screen while driving (the onscreen display is wonderful for seeing how the road ahead is laid out). There, on the screen, is a suggestion of a different route with a little arrow pointing to a display that reads “32 minutes slower.” Or “54 minutes slower.” I’ve seen it up to an hour and 10 minutes slower. Why? Why would I want to go that far out of my way? The other thing it does is gets stuck in rerouting mode because I go the way I want to, a way that makes more sense. That’s actually amusing to watch it tell me for 10 miles to make a U-turn until it finally gives in and changes to my new route. I imagine the GPS getting frustrated with me as I drive down the highway passing on its suggested turn. And there’s one small stretch of road on my way back home that my GPS won’t even recognize. And what’s funny is, that’s the way it takes me on the way up! Did it completely forget that road? And why only on the way back? I seriously think my GPS is stoned sometimes.

Either I have some cool life-lesson to offer with this story, or I’m just a sad, bored soul that enjoys pissing off his GPS and then writing about it. Well, today’s your lucky day. It’s both. It is probably a little sad the enjoyment I get from knowing that if my GPS could cuss at me, it would. Is there an app I can download for that? “I said turn left you M#@&$er!”  (In the voice of Samuel L. Jackson).

But seriously, find your route that you’re comfortable with in life. There are a million ways to get where you are going. Some of them will take less distance but more time, some might be quicker but a longer distance. Only you can decide which is more important, which route is better for you. For me, not dealing with the stress of driving through Atlanta was important to me on my monthly trip to South Carolina. As with driving, you can change your route in life anytime you want. Whatever your GPS is (family, friends, coworkers), it might not understand where you’re going, or tell you to turn around, but as long as you know your destination, it’s all good. Go, explore, and enjoy your journey. Take some new roads, get lost, and do a U-turn if you have to. Just make sure you know where you’re going.

Thanks for stopping by this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

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