07 February 2012

To Support and Defend

There are a lot of new people in my life lately. It's certainly no secret that for years and years I've used my closest friends as sounding boards, but lately it's been glaringly obvious that professional sounding boards are much better equipped to help me sort through the rainbow of emotions that followed me home from Afghanistan.

Over the past month, I've averaged roughly 90 minutes of professional counseling a week, derived from various sources. Before Afghanistan, the social and career stigmas of therapy were unwanted blemishes on the perfect (though rather disingenuous) life I was living. I'm an excellent talker. I'd also like to think of myself as an excellent writer. But as it turns out, writing about my personal struggles (at the command of my therapist) has been overwhelming.

For a week I've been staring at my "homework," a white 3 x 5 index card on which my assignment was painstakingly scribbled, not by me, but by the person to whom I have to answer tomorrow afternoon. I've carried my assignment in my pocket everywhere I've gone, and though it's now tattered, it's no less daunting.

"I have a homework assignment for you," he said at the end of my last session. "Write about the most traumatic event, and note how the event impacted on your views of yourself, other people and the world. Talk about why you think this event happened to you, and how the event has changed your views about yourself, other people and the world."

Yeah, that's easy. Just sift through nine months of memories, each mildly traumatic in a unique way, some positive...some negative, and pick the most significant one. And I'm back to old habits. My "homework" is due tomorrow at 11am, and it's taken me until now to piece together my thoughts...the pressure of a deadline never fails.

And what it came down to is that it's one thing to prepare for war, shooting rubber bullets and paintballs, and pretending the various pests (both human and otherwise) in Louisiana were the enemy. But for me, nothing stirred more authentic trepidation than knowing I was flying into a country where the enemy could be anyone, anywhere, anytime.

I boarded the United States Air Force aircraft headed into Afghanistan with 15 guys who had spent an extraordinary amount of time over the past 60 training days teaching me everything they knew. I admit to nerd-like qualities, which were immeasurably beneficial as I basically sought to become fluent in my personal equivalent of Swahili in 9 weeks. I felt safe on that airplane...flanked on either side by my favorites of the young mentors.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have entered the combat zone," declared the Loadmaster, who was all of maybe 22. And then, it was real. Just eight months earlier my father put his United States Navy uniform back on and swore me back in as a Major in the U. S. Air Force, and in my oath I had sworn to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." I'd taken that same oath each time I was promoted, but somehow those words seemed hollow for a personnel officer, sitting in a comfortable, safe office, away from any real danger, living an Air Force life governed by email, Power Point slides and staff meetings, where my job was to "support and defend" the Almighty Dell.

I entered the combat zone on the 2nd of July, and even now on my toughest nights, that Loadmaster's declaration of danger still reverberates in my ears. And as I sat in my tiny little airplane seat that afternoon, I had no idea of the true meaning of "support and defend." I know now, and returning to that same Dell-driven monotony I left behind months ago has proven a significant undertaking.

Exiting the combat zone was anti-climatic by comparison, and it lacked the closure I now think may have been helpful in returning to my former life. This time I was alone, hidden among a large Air National Guard unit redeploying to somewhere in the central United States, holding in my lap the same black bookbag with the same pink and white polka dotted ribbon tied on top I'd clutched some 160 days earlier, heart racing, ears ringing. This time there was no Loadmaster declaring that we had "exited the combat zone." We landed. It was cold and snowy. I was exhausted. We dragged our bags full of combat gear in circles like an army of ants. We slept. We woke up again, dragged more bags in circles, returned our protective equipment to the United States Army, and then waited. And waited. And waited.

Before I was sent to Afghanistan, I couldn't fathom "real" danger. The best way to describe wartime danger is to imagine a wooden rollercoaster at an old amusement park, and listening to the soothing sound of the gears grinding as the car slowly chugs up the hill. That's the training. And then there's a moment of utter silence. The arrival. Your stomach muscles tighten. You draw a quick inhale, and your stomach drops as you're physically shaken all the way down the hill. Except there aren't restraints. And the hill never ends. And it feels like you're secured with dental floss, wrapped around your lap a thousand times, and every so often another strand snaps free and you feel one step closer to flying uncontrollably out of the car.

That's what it feels like to be outside-the-wire, to "support and defend," and to know that the only way to arrive safely the bottom of the hill is through patience, vigilance and a whole lot of Groundhog Days.

And getting off that outside-the-wire rollercoaster feels a lot like walking on flat ground after spending an afternoon on rollerskates. Every step feels awkward at first, but then a brain that has walked on flat ground for 32-odd years remembers the sensation of picking up one foot after the other and moving forward. That mind is willing to talk about every single step, and about why establishing closure to those memories is so important.

That's why I went to war. I had always sworn to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic." Ten months ago, I had no idea what that meant to me. I know now.

It changed me. I've braver now, and my confidence feels earned. I'm brave enough to write my own advice for myself, and not to worry about what anyone else might think.

Be yourself...the rest will work itself out. Through patience, vigilance and a whole lot of Groundhog Days.

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