Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stories Series Episode #1: At War With Myself.

Andrew Turner
25 March, 2014

I came home from Iraq and put my medic aid bag in a closet.  It stayed there, practically untouched for the next eight years.  Last weekend I got it out and opened it up.  Everything was still right where I left it.  Even after all those years I could have grabbed anything I needed without much thought, including the bags of IV fluid that expired back in 2006.  It gave me goosebumps.  I didn't know if I felt good or bad.  I just felt weird.  I messaged my roommate from Iraq and let him know.  He told me he had left his packed until about a year ago.  It was harder to unpack it than he thought it would be, he said.  I don't think I can unpack mine yet.  I just found out how not ready I really am.

Every Friday I sat in an informal “Lesson’s Learned” class at the Battalion Aid Station.  A doctor from the base hospital would come talk about the injuries they were seeing, the latest treatments that were working, and the treatments that weren’t.  He told us once of a medic that reacted just as he was trained, and saved a life that otherwise could easily have been lost.  Eight or nine months into our deployment he asked us to raise our hands if we had treated an American soldier outside the wire.  I looked around the room and everyone, all 15+ medics, had a hand raised.  All except me.

I was the one guy in the group that had managed to escape any real danger or serious incident.  Even though I was the medic out on mission when our unit was hit with the first IED, everyone other than the gunner was fine.  He took a small ball bearing in his upper arm and barely even noticed.  He didn’t require any attention from me that merited us hanging out at the site.  Instead we just got out of the area and let the medics back on base double check him.  He was back on the road a day or two later.  The rest of my time in Iraq was smooth sailing for me, relatively speaking.  My roommate on the other hand treated two soldiers who died as a result of small arms fire.  My section sergeant treated two soldiers that had to be medevac’d out of the country after a suicide car bomb exploded into their convoy.  Every other medic had been on ground for serious injury or death within our battalion.  Any person in their right mind would consider me the lucky one in the group, but  I didn’t feel that way.  Instead, as I realized every other person had a hand raised, I sunk back in my seat, embarrassed, hoping nobody would notice.  I felt like a fraud.

Nearly ten years later it’s hard to shake the feeling I got that day.  It almost makes me sick to think back on it.  I realize what being embarrassed that day means.  It means that for me to validate my part in the war, I needed to be on ground for the death or serious injury of a fellow soldier.  I don’t really have words to express how fucked up that feels in my head.  Did I really just admit that I needed, or worse yet wanted, one of my guys to go down so I could play my medic role and proudly raise my hand with the rest of the medics??  Go ahead and admit a more fucked up thought you’ve ever had.  I’ll wait.

Of course when I think about it rationally, I obviously never wanted anything like that to happen.  But some traitorous part of my brain creeps up now and again and makes me think, “Did you really just think that, you sick fuck?  Is that what it would take to make you feel like a ‘real’ medic, or ‘real’ soldier?”  I really do feel fortunate that all the guys in my platoon came home in one piece.  I feel fortunate that I don’t have to live with the memory of pretending to talk to a soldier I knew was dead, because it would help keep everyone else as calm as possible.  I know friends who carry that burden and I don’t know how they do it.  I know my platoon well, and I know they were glad I was their medic, just as I was glad they were my platoon.  But despite feeling like a fraud for not having done my job, I was scared as shit that one day, I would have to.  I went outside the wire with my guys more than 250 times.  How many times can you expect to be lucky?  More than anything I was scared that sooner or later my luck would run out and I wouldn’t get the job done.  If I was a fraud for not doing my job, how much more would I have been for failing at it?

When I came home I started developing some kind of mental funk.  I didn’t know what it was.  I told people it was vertigo because that’s a word that would make sense to them.  They would understand why I was unable to drive at times because my head was spinning so badly.  They would understand why I needed time off work.  They would understand why I was unable to choose food for my own plate at holiday dinners, because the variety of choices were overwhelming.  And most importantly, they wouldn’t ask too many questions.  But once a year or so, I would be in my “funk” for an entire month. For six weeks. No driving, no working, no eating, no TV or radio on while I laid on the couch all day, head buried in the cushions.  And once a year I would hold on with everything I had until that month passed and I woke up one day, back to normal.  One instance when it was at its worst, I had to drive to Grand Rapids to participate in a memorial service for former First Lady Betty Ford.  For two hours I gripped the wheel, forced myself to focus on the car in front of me, and fought thoughts of just closing my eyes, letting go of the wheel, and…who knows what next.  I didn’t want to kill myself.  But, I didn’t care what happened to me.  I just needed my brain to function right.  I can’t describe the frustration I felt in thinking that my mind was not doing what I knew it was supposed to do.  It wouldn’t allow me to make quick decisions.  It wouldn’t allow me to focus.  It wouldn’t allow me to operate at the level I’m accustomed to.  It was betraying me. 

When I got to Grand Rapids I was told that the ceremony had been delayed and to come back the next day.  The sigh of relief I breathed for having finally made it in the first place was replaced by the realization that, though I was not even sure how I made it as far as I had, now I had to turn around and do it all over again.  I don’t remember much of the drive.  I do remember driving past construction zones I had obviously driven through on the way to GR and thinking, “Where the hell did that come from?  Why don’t I remember driving through that?”

I didn’t go back to Grand Rapids the next day.  Instead I had Jamie take me to the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor.  It was probably the fourth or fifth time I had gone over the years since I returned home, and though I was desperate for an answer, I was pretty sure I would leave disappointed like every other time.  I don’t know what was different that day, but by some stroke of luck or fate, I found somebody who helped me.  Over the course of the next 6 months I worked with “Ashley” to develop a treatment plan to combat my issue that included an "in case of emergency" plan should I feel it happening again. For now, every morning I take a pill.  Every night I take a pill.  After talking with my doctor, I expect I’ll be taking that pill every morning and every night indefinitely.  And my mental health is always at the forefront of my mind and my wife’s mind.  I know what I need to do if I feel myself slipping back into the funk.  My wife worries more about it than I do.  Probably because she’s the one who has had to take care of me for the extended periods of my life that have vanished. 

I’ve maintained my normalcy for nearly two years now.  I feel pretty confident that my month-long sabbaticals from life are a thing of the past.  I still have normal ups and downs, but my wife is hyperaware of them, always concerned that I’m not being completely honest with how I feel during the downs.  I’m more aware too.  Aware of when I’m getting close to that edge and what I need to do to back away from it.  I feel like I have as good of a handle on it as I can expect.  But I also realize that if I’m not careful, I could wake up tomorrow with the prospects of a long painful month, thinking to myself, “Not again…” This is my new normal. This is what we don't really talk about. This is the war with myself. 

No comments:

Post a Comment