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

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/

Mediocre Determination

I was on the wrestling team in high school. I did well. My junior and senior years I won the Regional Championship in my weight class. I had a natural talent on the mat. I also had a great coach. He was a tough S.O.B., but to this day, I still carry some of what I learned from him all those years ago. In the state tournament my senior year, I lost in the second round by one point in overtime to the eventual State Champion in my weight class. It was a hard loss. I still carry that, too.

This week I attended two sporting events that my kids participate in. Middle school tennis and track. My twin girls are each a student athlete, one in each of those sports this season. I was watching a boy’s tennis match after my daughter finished her singles match. One of the young men on the court was hustling, running, playing his heart out to make it a competitive match. The other young man, who was a little further along in his adolescence, put in far less effort and still won the match 6-5. It was a great match. The young man that lost probably played one of his best matches ever, but still fell short. As soon as he got off the court, I heard him ask the coach if he could be in the doubles match against the opponent that just bested him. He was not going to give up, even though his chances of winning were not good. I like that kid. He’s not afraid of a challenge, and not afraid to fail.

Isn’t it challenges and failures that make us better? Or at least strive to be better? Granted, you must have the desire to put in the work to get better since natural talent can only carry one so far. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part, natural talent without hard work to elevate and hone those talents usually leads to mediocrity. Did you know that Michael Jordan was told his sophomore year in high school by the coach that he wasn’t good enough to be on the varsity basketball team? He failed to make the varsity team. He didn’t quit, he played junior varsity that year, worked hard, and ended up becoming, arguably, the best basketball player of my generation. Failing may have been the best thing that ever happened to him in high school. It sparked a desire to succeed. And that, he did.

michael-jordan-quotes

Sometimes I think back to the State Tournament my senior year and wonder if 10 minutes of extra practice or work a day would have made a difference. I don’t dwell on it, it’s more of a nostalgic memory, remembering good times. It was a terrific match. It was the best I ever wrestled, and I fell short. I think most of us in life have had that experience. Here’s why that loss was tough: There wasn’t a next match for me in the tournament. I was a senior and done with my wrestling career. But the kid that lost the tennis match has many games left in him. He may not have the success that Michael Jordan had, but he has the determination to keep trying.

I miss that determination in my life. I lost it in 2015 and I almost died because of it. Maybe I lost my determination before then and was just trying to survive on my life’s natural talent, whatever that is, and it finally took its toll on me. I got tired and gave up. But I’ve learned some things. There is a time and place to have the determination of the young man that lost his tennis match. There’s a time to be mediocre and survive the storm, even taking a couple steps back. And there’s a time to simply pace yourself while moving forward, with no need to be a hero and no need to keep running into the brick wall at full speed. That’s where I’m at in life right now. And I’m OK with it. I’m moving forward. I’m taking it at my own pace. And I’m going to survive.

Gone are the days that I need to go full throttle with everything in life. I’m done running into walls just to prove I can. I already know I can get back up and do it again if I wanted to. No need to keep proving it. I’m content with being mediocre because I’m still moving forward. And also because I have such wonderful memories of all the times I ran into those walls and got back up and succeeded. And I mean that. I’ve learned a lot from my challenges and failures, and those subsequent victories. Victory after failure is sweet. I hope that young man on the tennis court experiences that.

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

Dave

Other posts you might like:

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

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/03/12/passing-the-torch/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/01/10/what-motivates-you/

 

Back to Work

For the few of you that follow and read Story of My Life every week, you may have noticed that I missed two weeks in a row. I’ve been busy. A month ago, I started working again after a year of being self-unemployed. Except for my Army Reserve weekends, I wasn’t doing anything outside the home for employment. I really missed working. Now I miss being lazy. LOL. My psychologist I was seeing at the Vet Center and I discussed work and decided last year early in our sessions that I wasn’t ready for the stress of work. By the time he relocated to another job in December I had made great progress and started passively looking for work.

I had to find the exact right job for me. While I have improved in many areas in my mental health, my brain still has issues. I’m still easily frustrated, although I am dealing with my frustrations much better now. I’m getting better at not being so jumpy and anxious, but still have my moments. And I still hate crowds and being around groups of people that I don’t know very well or at all. And let’s not forget traffic. I doubt I’ll ever do well in traffic again. I know an argument can made whether I was ever good in traffic to begin with, but I see a difference between getting angry at a fellow motorist and having bad memories from deployments because of traffic. I actually don’t get angry much in traffic anymore, but the feelings I have from being in certain traffic situations can only be understood by someone who has “been there.” In my case, Kabul, Afghanistan. For others, somewhere else in Afghanistan or Iraq, or wherever.

I got hired to cook at a restaurant that was opening in our local airport. In my interview, I said I had not worked in a year and would like to ease back into things, maybe four days a week, perhaps working 30 hours or so. I let the interviewer know that I was still in the Army Reserves, that I had previously deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And also that I was dealing with PTSD, among other issues, but that I was capable of doing the job I was applying for. So, I went to work. First, we had to get the restaurant cleaned, painted, and set up. Then we opened. And then I cooked. And now I’m tired.

My plan of easing back into work did not work as planned. I worked over 40 hours three weeks in a row. There was a time in my life that 40 hours was a piece of cake. I was told recently that I have a history of going from one extreme to another. While that has some truth to it, I certainly didn’t mean to go from doing mostly nothing to going full speed. But I’m glad I did. I’m very comfortable where I am. The kitchen is small. The staff is small. I work with some good people. And often I’m in the kitchen by myself since it’s a small operation. And the best part? Since the restaurant closes after the last departure, I’m out of there before 8 pm on nights I close. I found my groove, my niche, and a schedule I like. For those of you that work or have worked in the restaurant industry, you know that getting out before 8 pm on a closing night is completely unheard of.

Working at the airport requires a background check, fingerprinting, and a test about airport security that must be passed to get the ID badge. No problem. And working at the airport has a few perks. I took my twin girls to the airport this week for a class trip to Washington, D.C. I parked in the employee lot, no cost to park. I was able to go to the gate with them since I have a security badge while all the other parents had to say good-bye to their kids at the TSA checkpoint. On a side note about the class trip, an anonymous donor paid for most of the kids to go on that trip. That’s the only reason my twins could go. I have no idea who that mystery person is, but a huge Thank You to him or her. I am forever grateful.

Well, I’m back to work and handling it fairly well, except that I was too tired and busy to post here the last two weeks. My body is getting used to being on my feet all the time again. That is not a fun process, but one I must go through. I miss the Me that didn’t hurt so much after being on my feet all day. And that was only a few years ago. I’ll probably never be as fast or as good as I was in the kitchen back then, but I’m keeping up. I still have some memory issues, but not as bad as it was a year ago. And lastly, I’m very thankful for the opportunity I have with the company that hired me. I feel like they have taken a chance on me and I appreciate that. It was a huge confidence boost.

I’m still here. Busy, but here. Thank you for reading this week. Good day, God bless.

Dave

Related posts:

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/11/hostage-negotiator-or-hostage-taker/

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

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/07/30/recovery-its-not-that-easy/

 

The Soccer Game

Somewhere around 25 years ago, probably longer ago than that, I got a traffic ticket.  To be honest, I got quite a few tickets during that time of my life.  A lot of tickets.  Most of which I deserved.  But I’m reminded of one in particular from way back then this week that was questionable whether or not I deserved it.  I was behind a vehicle going 20 mph in a 35.  It was raining, but the vehicle in front of me was being overly cautious.  If the driver was that uncomfortable, they should have pulled off the road.  I found it very annoying, so I passed.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I saw flashing lights.  I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for the police officer to come stand in the rain next to my car.

He asked for license and insurance card.  While I was handing that to him I asked why he pulled me over.  He informed me that it was unsafe to pass a vehicle in the heavy rain.  I pointed out that I didn’t even have to break the speed limit to pass because the vehicle in front of me was going so slow.  Plus, the fact that we were not in a residential area.  The police officer acknowledged that I had not exceeded the speed limit but that I would still be cited for, if I remember correctly, something called “failure to use due care.”  It’s like reckless driving, but not as bad.

I was not happy with the police officer’s decision to give me a ticket when I honestly felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.  It was a judgement call, it was his call.  And he deemed it unsafe and wrote me a ticket.  I didn’t argue with him.  I respected his authority even though I think he was wrong.  I could have contested it, taken my chances in traffic court, but just ended up paying it.  Back then that violation wasn’t a very expensive ticket.  And I’m guessing he must have really wanted to write someone a ticket that night even though it was raining fairly heavy.  He probably had rain gear on, but I’m sure he was getting soaked anyway standing there next to my car.

This week I attended my daughter’s middle school soccer game.  My girl’s team played very well in their loss.  If you are a parent of a student-athlete you know that sometimes calls on the field (or court) get missed, wrong calls get made, and the referee will hear about it from the parents in the stands.  It did seem that the majority of the calls favored the other team, but in his defense, he missed about the same number of calls for each team.  One of them he missed on our team could have drawn a yellow card.  One of our girls lowered her shoulder before plowing into her opponent.  No call.  That’s when the parents of the other team yelled at the ref.  I don’t envy his job.

During one play, a girl from each team was going for the ball as it headed towards the sideline.  Our girl (the blue team) was trailing another girl (the yellow team) to get to the ball.  The yellow girl started to lose her footing.  The blue girl slowed up and instinctively put her hands up to show she wasn’t making contact with the yellow girl.  The yellow girl eventually slipped on the ball and fell to the ground.  The referee called a penalty against the blue girl.  This happened right in front of the bleachers where all the parents were sitting.  The referee was much further away from the play.  But from his view, his angle, he saw a push that caused the yellow girl to fall.

We, the parents of the blue team, vocally shared our disdain with call.  That’s perfectly fine.  No one was ugly about it, no one used profanity, and then play resumed.  Well, except one mom in the stands.  She got a little ugly about it, but didn’t use profanity.  Once play resumed she should have let it go.  It’s perfectly fine to disagree with the call and be respectfully vocal about it.  After the ball was put back in play, the mom continued, attacking the referee’s character.  She was beginning to make a spectacle of herself.  The ref blew the whistle and halted play, walked over to the seats and asked the mom if she would like to watch the rest of the game from the parking lot.  She declined.  The ref put his hands to his chest, then extended his arms straight out as if to stay this matter is over.

I ended up talking to the referee after the game.  In the men’s room of all places.  I started by telling him not let the parents get to him, that he did a good job.  He’s a volunteer that officiates middle school and high school soccer games.  Give the guy a break.  I did tell him that I thought he got the call wrong, that the yellow girl tripped over her own feet.  He explained to me that call was pushing from behind that led to her falling.  That’s what he saw.  I was in a much better place to see it, had a much better angle, much closer to the action as it happened on the sideline.  But he explained what he saw.  I couldn’t argue with him, nor did I want to.  He’s the authority figure on the field.  It was a judgement call, his call.  He got it wrong, but it was his call to make so it counted as a penalty against the blue team.  That’s life sometimes.

All my children play or have played organized team sports in school and city leagues.  They aren’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest, but they compete hard.  We have had talks about “bad officiating” over the years.  I try to explain, and I think they understand for the most part, that at the middle school and high school level, the referees aren’t professionals.  I think some of them, especially the football officials, get a little something for their services.  But I believe most of them do it out of love for the sport, or for the kids, or possibly as a hobby.  They aren’t perfect.  But they are doing something that makes a difference for the young people competing.

I want my children to fiercely compete in whatever sport or academic team event they are part of.  If they win, great.  If they lose, I only ask that they gave it their best effort.  I want them to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.  And I want them to respect the officials in charge of calling the game.  If something needs to be said to the referee, let the coach say it.  Let the parents yell from the stands.  But you, my child, my student-athlete, shake it off and keep playing.  Play hard and do your best.

Life lesson:  Not everything that happens in life is fair.  God knows I’ve gotten away with a few things in my life, but I’ve also paid the price for things that weren’t my fault.  It’s a balance.  Sometimes that balance tips one way or the other.  Don’t get bogged down with the minor things in life that aren’t right, that in reality won’t matter later anyway.  There will always be a bad call or a questionable traffic ticket in life to deal with.  Shake it off and move on.  Save your energy for the battles that matter.

Thank you for reading this week’s post.  Good day, God bless.

Dave

Other posts you might like

https://storyofmylife.blog/2016/06/11/hostage-negotiator-or-hostage-taker/

https://storyofmylife.blog/2013/01/10/what-motivates-you/