Monthly Archives: March 2011

Are we freaking you out?

“Baby, Are we freaking you out?”

This was the question posed to me by one of the women that I have been working with in the hospital, while we were having to pack a horrible pressure ulcer. You could see spine and it was pretty gnarly. My facial expression I am sure was not too pleasant, but it was not because I was freaked out, I was just pissed that someone had neglected a defenseless person so long. So the question caught me by surprise. I said “No, it takes a bit to freak me out.” We packed the wound, it had an acrid smell, something I have not sensed since some of those combat engagements. There is a particular scent to open human flesh and it sticks with you.

I had worried when I started out into the medical field that what I saw in combat and my reaction to it might cause some difficulties even issues in providing care in the hosptital setting. I was dead wrong. It if anything has strengthened me on both counts. I am not only better medically because I have seen worse and I can spend my time learning not freaking the hell out while one of the care takers sticks three fingers deep into a patient’s back where a hole gives a clean shot view to bone. I can evaluate how the dressing is done and what should have been done to prevent it and how the patient is taking it. On the other side, me seeing this stuff in a controlled environment like the hospital, takes the sting and the myth away from the combat stuff. It makes my horrific imagniation have to face realistic first hand experience and tone down those adrenaline filled memories. Making my overall reaction to those memories dampened and dulled.

So back to “Are we freaking you out?” My internal monologue looked something like this: HA! Lady, I have been ass deep in casualties after a rocket strike, performing CPR on one Kid while lifting a stretcher with the other hand. I have had 60 patients with not a single first responder with more training than a 4 hour course. I have done everything from being a glorified IV stand, to tension pnuemothroax needle decompressions all while being under gun fire and rocket barage. I have taken life, saved life, and watched it fade out of too many teenagers and twenty year olds. I have given IV’s with NVG’s which is freaking impossible because you have no depth perception. I have been up to my elbows in blood and it wasn’t all from the same guy. If you knew how many pairs of ACU’s I went through in a year it would blow your mind… do you have any clue how hard it is to break in new boots! You are not freaking me out, you ain’t even impressing me. To freak me out, this guy would have to die and then jump up and start doing an Irish Jig.

My real response,” No, its takes a little bit more to freak me out.” Because words would not suffice nor explain nor even scratch the surface of how jacked up and screwed up our time over there was. In that fact, I find not just solace but pride. You can’t shake me, you can’t even make me take a double take as with most of the veterans you find.

“What the house is on fire? well, walk out.” “What do you mean you will kick my ass? I will break your neck.” “We don’t have any beds? Sleep on the floor.” This is what combat and war with all its gruesomeness has brought us, a baseline of what chaos is so far above everyone elses’ that we will forever be the clear head in the room. In the back of our minds there will always be one ever poignant phrase, ” This ain’t nothing to me.”

I find strength in my stigma, yea I got PTSD, you would too if you saw the stuff I did. I am stronger for it, I get a couple of nightmares and freak out everyonce in the while…. thats an incredible accomplisment all things considered.

So the real question in that room was not are you freaking me out, but am I starting to freak you out with just how calm I am about, blood, guts, gore, death, saving and or taking life. While these things are something you are remotely familiar with this is something I was immersed in for years and could do it all while eating an Otis Spunkmeyer Blue berry muffin and playing the celebrity name game.


The Uilleann Pipes

Fitting on St. Patty’s Day:

I strive to be relatively stoic or at least make fun of the bad or hard things that come along with these invisible scars. There is one thing though that will fill me with that little choking feeling and rush little pre-tears to my eyes. Bag pipes. I remember as a little private standing there at attention as “Amazing Grace” was played on the bag pipes as a soldiers funeral was coming to a close. I glanced out the sides of my eyes (you can’t move your head at attention) and I could see all of these grizzled sergeants deeply moved by the music, the song, the situation. I didn’t really understand then. I asked one of the guys, “What’s the big deal.” He smacked me on the back and said nothing. A week later I was in Afghanistan.

Flash forward a couple of years, and every bit of pain and emotion devoted to losing a soldier or a friend or a leader is attached to a bag-pipe trigger. Part of me hates it. Part of me is proud to have that kind of pride in my friends and their service. I also think it has a lot to do with the instrument used.

Its just broken and jaded sounding to evoke those level of emotions and then it sounds just pissed off enough to illicit that response. Whatever it is, it is powerful, palpable, and contagious. Too many quiet ceremonies with a group of tired soldiers staring a picture or a slideshow, while their buddy is heading home in a body bag. Too many, swallowed and bottled feelings of regret, anger, loss, buried way down deep. Those bag pipes for whatever reason allow a window into that dark pit of even darker emotions and just as I did not understand then, I doubt very much that an inexperienced onlooker would be capable of interpreting what was happening. Its like being dropped into a pitch black tornado and trying to determine where you are at.

I suspect, that many of you have been nodding and understanding what I am talking about. The reason I am writing this is because of late I have found myself cursing every commercial or glancing blow of anything related to the bagpipes. I feel that is wrong and somewhat cowardly. The reason I do this is because I am trying to keep those demons locked up tight. I once wore these invisible scars with so much pride and I have some how reverse stigmatized myself. Its ridiculous, the goal that I had set to work to be stable again, that when I slipped or showed the tumultuous stuff under the surface I would lament myself and feel that I failed.

Those invisible scars are my personal badge of honor, meant for no one else but me. They remind me, I am here, I have lived that vigorous life, I did not take the easy route, and I have been tried and tested. I carry emotional baggage, really, if thats all I deal with after going through that meat grinder I should count myself among the lucky and proud. I should never be ashamed of being proud of my brothers’ ultimate sacrifice. I should never be afraid to show that yes I was emotionally connected to those great men, that I lived with, ate with, bled with. If they think it makes a man less manly… I will show them my stamped and certified man card.

The next time you get a chance to hear those bag pipes, it will unfortunately probably be at a funeral or at a memorial. But I challenge you to stand there and take it, let it rip that window into your soul and let a little of the pain go but hold tight to that pride. Not personal pride, but pride that you were once counted amongst men and women cut from a different cloth that were so proud of their country that they signed that blank check, men and women that so loved the others they served with they gave their lives to protect them. Dig in, grit your teeth and let those little badges of pain well up in your face and take it like a grown man or woman.

Happy St. Patty’s, everybody is Irish today, go get some green beer!

When the bullet hits the bone

He jumps in his truck, after hanging out with his dad for a couple of hours on a lazy Sunday. He backs it up into his neighbors drive way, looks left looks right, all clear he pulls out. Screeching tires.

Two teenage kids blow past the front end of his truck. As this happens he shakes his head. The passenger of the other vehicle leans out and throws him the bird as the fly past. Little kids down range from them are playing basketball and these guys are doing 40MPH in their direction.

The mental jet engine fires. The adrenal courses violently through the veins almost as angrily as his mind descends into darkness. The gear selector drops into D and his tires are now the ones squealing as his V8 engine comes to life and aims itself like a missile for the back of their hoopty.

They slam on the brakes like a challenge. He is out of his vehicle in under a second. The MP habit makes him put a thumb print on the trunk in case they draw on him. The driver door starts to open. He kicks it shut and in the most angry psuedo-clint eastwood voice grumbles sit down boy. The driver addresses him as sir, which immediately softens his tone. He politely says hey kid you need to slow down, your in a neighborhood. The rowdy one in the passenger seat, proceeds to cuss him out. The man politely tells the kid, to settle down. The boy replies f#$% you I will kick your ass. The man, replies, I have killed for less boy step outside and the only thing you will kick is the f#$%ing bucket. Watch your mouth or someone is going to show you just how soft and pathetic you are. Back to the other kid, slow down and pick better friends. The passenger says some other stuff. The man replies you are real tough inside your car, I am out here, waiting.

As he is walking back to his truck the passenger jumps out. Blood red, the pain generating machine is wide open. The man turns around, that calm demeanor is gone. Its time for combat, this kid just signed his own death warrant. The voice that yells at the kid, disturbs even the man himself. It is not a warning, it is not a threat, its begging. Begging for the kid to touch him, to make one move. It laughs at the kids that its been too long since its killed a person and that killing his dumbass would almost not even count cause it would be a service to humanity. Come on, kid! You are out of the car, come on, do it, commit suicide, all the cool kids are doing it! Whats the matter you scared you fing coward.

Sensing the fear in the kid and the sudden trepidation of action upon realizing that he was dealing with a psychopath hidden in a calm 5 foot 7 inch frame. The man told the kid, to get in his car and drive off. The boy replies stupidly, why you scared. The man replied, yes, I am terrified that I am going to beat you to death, I mean it not as a threat, I am begging you get in your car. The unspoken words: I don’t want your parents to bury you over nothing. Common sense or boredom prevailed he shot the bird one final time to solidify to his buddy that he was the merciful one not the man standing there with blood rage running through his veins with visions of tearing the kids throat clear out. And when it was over, the man felt nothing but shame. They were 16 or 17 they are young and dumb, whats his excuse. This is just like the bar fights and the wild nights. This is just like the road rage and the hate. This is not the way he is supposed to be after going to war, he is supposed to be the greatest advocate of peace, not the stark raving mad rabid psycho lurking beneath the surface, genuinely enjoying the promise of combat.

Obviously, I had an interesting experience this weekend. I undid a year of progress in less than a second. I also almost ended everything I have worked towards and for in less than a minute. Amazing how I think I have a grip on it and some stupid kid, blows it all to hell and almost lands my ass on CNN for breaking a kids neck in the middle of a quite suburban neighborhood. STUPID.

I would not be the first to do something incredibly stupid out of the oef/oif vets. I was lucky and things calmed down. It took me nearly 3 hours to come down from the unresolved rage and adrenaline. I was ready for war because a novice driver made a silly mistake and his buddy acted like a teenage boy. Seriously, how pathetic does it get. I am not a peaceful man, never have been. I will stand for what I believe in and fight for it just as quick. That doesn’t mean I should be walking around like a UXO waiting to pop in the unsuspecting person that kicks the can over.

The thing that shocked me was the anger. I haven’t been that mad since some of those nights in numaniyah after my friends were wounded. How in the hell does that kind of anger find its way to a suburban neighborhood.

Woosa…. this is the reason I don’t carry a gun in my truck.

Thing 1 or Thing 2

No its not another Dr. Seuss rhyme. One of the things that a lot of us struggle with coming back, beyond drinking ,having PTSD and mTBI. Is that we struggle with identity. I have talked about this before, the idea of, I was Sergeant Snuffy but, now I am student 13,453 sitting in the back of the class with a pissed off look on my face. So I forged out in my previous rant about this, that you have to sit down and solidify a new identity. You have break everything back down to core values and build yourself back from square one.

In a lot of ways this is also very therapeutic because it removes some of your internal labels. In this tear down process, you take away a lot of the bad labels, like broke, weak, PTSD, crazy, baby-killer, mercenary, and all the other fun things that someone called you in passing, that stuck to the wall and hung. Whats important is to hang onto the good labels, hard-ass, warrior, brother, hero, honorable, loyal, strong. Pack those things in the ruck, just like when you field strip an MRE, the napkin and salt can hit the back of the trash can, the Tabasco is definetely coming, stuff that funky bread and cheese in your cargo pocket and move out. Same concept, don’t need that, need this.

Whats more important is that once you have solidified those core values, you actually have to act on them. Thats the hard part. This is where the personality really starts to set in and the new Identity, the post-war post-military id becomes the only one. It can be a rough process, with some serious competing desires going on. This is where you dig in and fortify your position. Discipline and motivation are key. Delayed gratification is always better than giving in to the immediate. “You really want another drink huh, sorry your ID says you know how to handle yourself. No drink for you dummy now put it down and step away from the bar.” Want to play video games huh, that doesn’t fly with that whole “college grad” thing, back away from the controller. If you make it through the settling point things get easy for a while. You get more comfortable with the post-war persona. You start to see things in yourself you haven’t seen in your years, like discovering what food you actually like (unfortunately for Allison). But then a bomb drops on your little world of one simple identity.

The path splits. Typical, happens all the time in life. However you just settled in to this thing and now you are faced with two bigger splits. Part of you is looking back at where you just came from and all that has happened; part of you looks ahead at the fork in the road. Do you go left, right, sit down and make house where you stand, or head for the wood line and hope no one pops lume rounds?

The answers to these questions are based largely in who you are after coming home. For me I never choose outright. I recon running each path down a little bit to try and get a view and sometimes I try to take them both on at the same time by splitting them down the middle. Which brings me to the newest label in my little arsenal, pseudo-workaholic. You might be scratching your head on this one, what the heck is a pseudo-workaholic? Its where you like the idea of being as involved as possible but once hip deep hate how incredibly busy you have made yourself. The core values though, the foundation that the house is built on can never be betrayed, you do that and it goes from stone pillars to a house of cards. Make your decisions, make them well, carve your path.

Game on it is. To be or not to be is not the question, the question is when you are about to cease to be, do you believe you be-ed enough. Thing 1 or thing 2, I choose not, I’d rather be a little of that and dash of this, and definitely some of that. A little Robert Frost to end it.

The Road not Taken- Robert Frost

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 20

Don’t hold your breath

An Ode to Dr. Seuss:

Don’t hold your breath, waiting for it all to just go away.

Don’t wait until you are hip deep or neck deep to try to get out of its way.

Don’t think that this will all go away if I just close my eyes, that’s when its free from all that reality ties

Don’t coddle your pride as you let your mind and anger slide.

Don’t hold your breath; you will only end up blue and gasping, with no ladder rung left for grasping.

No you should stand up and yell I am here, I am here, struggling alone,

Is there not a friend around to break this most monotonous tone?!

They will come in great flocks, even the college veterans in crocs.

They will come, bearing beer and stories and jokes to share in good cheer

They will help you leave the issues in the past or drag you up by your boot straps just as fast

They know about those dark days that follow, those memories that are rather hard to swallow.

They know the strength it takes to make it through, you’ve got it too, through and through

So stop sucking up and start standing up

Don’t hold your breath, waiting for it all to just go away, Reach out for help it’s a much better way.

And when you have stopped turning shades of blue, lean over and help your buddy so they can stop too.

All kidding aside, let someone know if you are having a hard time. You don’t have to suffer alone, let someone else help you embrace the suck. By the by Mar 2nd is Dr. Seuss’ birthday.