Recovery Days in Iraq, 2003

When on deployment, the day-to-day routine can be roughly divided into mission days and recovery days.  You either have a formal mission handed down through the chain of command, or you have the day to maximize your mission readiness in anticipation of whatever the next mission is.

I was part of an armored combat engineer unit based in Baghdad in the early stages of the post-9/11 Iraq War.  Our missions were quite varied.  We picked up from the ground and transported scattered enemy munitions (including mortars and RPGs) from blasted supply points around our area.  We resupplied 40+ local elementary schools with desks and other supplies for the kids (though sometimes having rocks thrown at us by the kids during these deliveries).  We organized work crews to clean out and restore the broken down canal system.  I could go on and on.  But when we didn’t have an “outside the wire” mission, that often meant that we had a recovery day instead.

iraq chicken laundry

During a recovery day, soldiers are basically expected to conduct maintenance on themselves and their equipment.  These days can be pretty great, and looking back, it is amazing how excited I would be just to spend all day doing chores.  First of all, this included catching up on personal hygiene and laundry.  Early on, showers and laundry were done with water stored in a big common “water buffalo” maintained by unit headquarters.  Just a large green camo-colored tank filled with water for all to share, unsafe to drink but safe to clean with.  Small brown containers were used for bringing the water from the buffalo back to your living area.  If you planned ahead, you filled up your smaller brown containers in advance of your recovery time, strategically setting them either in the sun or shade to get the temperature right.  That way, you could ideally have good temperature water to wash your clothes with.  And after washing your clothes, you could use the water left in those brown containers to dump over your (minimally soaped-up) body for a shower.  (Showering first was dangerous because the brown containers were very heavy when completely full.  Wouldn’t want to drop one on your head or toe, or both.)  And if you were a vehicle driver like myself, you typically preceded these chores with early morning vehicle maintenance, to ensure constant unit readiness and to take advantage of the morning’s relative coolness.

After hanging your clothes up on a line, the afternoon-to-evening was time for weapons (generally rifle) maintenance, reading and writing letters, working out, playing card games, or what-have-you.  The idea was to stay busy and preoccupied.  For a while I had a chicken that we had picked up from an Iraqi marketplace, sort of a pet.  There were also small lizards crawling around that you could stick on a block of ice, watch them turn into little frozen statues, and then put them back in the sun.  After a few seconds they would slowly defrost and begin crawling away.  (Seems cruel now, but seemed a quasi-scientific, life-of-the-mind sort of thing at the time.)  As the sun went down in the evenings, a low-rolling, streaking cloud of hundreds-if-not-thousands of bats would fly right over our living area.  All chaotically darting this way or that, turning on a dime mid-air, zigging and zagging.  This amorphous collective thing was mesmerizing.  They weren’t a threat — they never landed or came near any of us.  Which isn’t to say some wouldn’t come close, within just several feet.  In fact, their nearness inspired my curiosity so much that I acquired (I don’t remember where) a butterfly net and would waive it through the just-out-reach cloud of bats, hoping to catch one, if only for a moment.  I’m grateful that I failed, but it was a lot of fun.

A little bit of PTSD after Iraq

You never know what somebody else is going through.  Lots of veterans return home with some PTSD, but it is a hard thing to understand.  I had what I think was a little bit of PTSD in the immediate months after my first tour in Iraq.  Even with that, I have a hard time understanding the more intense PTSD experienced by other veterans.

A suffering veteran is a challenge for me, first in deciding whether or not to emotionally engage, and second in forming some sort of opinion about it.  The whole thing is damned complicated.  There are a lot of similarities to being around someone struggling with addiction.  You know that the suffering is real, but the person is probably not going to welcome you in.  In fact, the person may very pro-actively push you away or at least turn you off with something in their attitude.  People experiencing a serious problem like PTSD or addiction generally lack faith in any real solution.  But you’re still in pain, and you need to express it and for it in some way to be acknowledged by someone.  But you do that for selfish reasons, so it isn’t typically dressed up in good humor.  Actually, when you do engage with a person suffering and the conversation starts off good, you can almost guarantee once the conversation starts to lose momentum and the lack of easy solutions becomes excessively apparent, things can turn south fast.

My most classic shell-shocked sort of event was triggered by a car back-firing.  I always cringe a little mentioning it because it sounds so cliche, and cars don’t back fire as much as they used to, so it sounds made up.  Making up stuff, or at least exaggerating, is I think a temptation for any veteran that saw some action but not a ton, which is a category I put myself in.  So, given that the temptation is there, and being self-conscious about it, I feel more people’s scrutiny of the story.  Anyway, I heard the *bang!* and immediately crouch down besides / behind the person I am with, not really hiding behind them as much as pulling in close to them and getting low to the ground.  Sort of torn between acting instinctively and figuring out what the hell is going on, you can end up acting a little weird.  This was just a few weeks after getting back from a 15 month deployment, but up to that point really wasn’t aware of any underlying potential for that sort of thing to happen. I was just ecstatic to be back safe.

More of a recurring thing was being really sensitive to surprise — like someone being nearby when you thought you were alone and feeling a real shock of terror.  Another had to do with sleep.  I just slept weird, could be very tense sometimes, wake up sore from clenching or twisting into some odd position, but no nightmares or anything that I ever remembered.  Didn’t always do well between semesters after starting college.   Went down some dark paths in my head a time or two in those periods, feeling lost and wanting some sort of conclusion to everything to hurry along.

Which brings be to the other complicating thing about the PTSD veterans experience — I don’t know if they, like me, see a lot of it as a sort of maturation and intensification of problems they went into the military with.  I just don’t know much less than the problem is tough, and there are no easy solutions, or obvious things to say or do.  One time someone tried to confront me during a dark period and I was horrified by what I saw as a pointless invasion of my personal sort of exploration of the all-encompassing experience of misery I was swallowed up in.  I still haven’t really talked to that person since, because of that.  Even though I don’t hold any grudge at all over it, I have no idea how to initiate that reconciliation in a way that would be a net positive for the both of us.

Compared to many other veterans, I know my experiences weren’t nearly as intense or objectively traumatizing.  And, I was never physically wounded in combat.  I did not have to fire my weapon at the enemy but a few times across two deployments totaling two years in country.  I don’t think I ever shot anyone, and actually the thought that I might have, unknowingly, really bothers me sometimes.  You don’t know where those bullets go, or who they hit.  Some veterans, on the other hand, have lots of very traumatic experiences.  And they really are alone for the most part, because it is so hard to understand what they actually went through, how they are feeling, and how those two things are connected, independent of all the other stuff that happens in life.

I don’t want to just leave it there, so I’ll say that I think we just need to be attentive and available for each other.  The way forward sometimes is very hard to see, and has to be taken step-by-step, without any pre-determined outcomes — like things might just have to stay bad for a while, or indefinitely, and you still have to try to be attentive and available.  Not visibly and ostentatiously, but just enough to have a shot at helping the person if some progress becomes possible.