10 April 2012

Every Girl Like Me

My life is colored by so many of the incredible people and experiences I've encountered in my 32 years of globetrotting adventures. But sometimes, and yes I am admitting this, I have a knack for looking all over the world for inspiration when in fact the most mesmerizing events are unfolding right under my nose. And such has certainly been the case as three unbelievably strong women have made brief (yet dramatic) appearances in my life over the past few weeks. My therapist likes to tell me that we have friends for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Below are the stories of three women who walked into my life for a reason...and whose stories will always be a reminder of inner strength and resiliency.

1. Jenny. She was a nursing school student in Iowa in 2004 when her young husband, an Army Specialist, was hit in Iraq. And by hit, I mean his body was torn apart in his unarmored HMMWV, burning 80% of his skin and changing every minute of the future they had imagined together. Unphased, she visited him at the Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas every month for two years using frequent flier miles donated by community members from her hometown. Jenny stood by his side as other wives, overwhelmed by grief, left their battle-scarred husbands to fend for themselves in the maze of an underprepared military medicine beaurocracy. She shared her story as we overlooked a beautifully green golf course in Germany, the trees swaying in the gentle March breeze, and the sun bouncing off of her Ray-Ban rockstar sunglasses. Jenny glowed as she told me about her husband, bragging that he still "spoils me rotten" more than eight years later, and just that morning he'd woken up early to make her coffee. He left her a travel mug with a quick note wishing her a great weekend, which she was spending out of town on a work project. She's stunningly beautiful in a way that exudes confidence and inner peace. I had to coerce the story out of her...she just didn't think it was a big deal that she'd stood by the man she loved through his traumatic journey from the battlefields of Iraq, through the medical system, and then back into life as an Army transition expert still on active duty today. "I can't believe how lucky I am," she told me, with her genuine smile. "I appreciate him more now than I ever did before. He might look different now to other people, but to me, he's just as attractive as he ever was." I sat there, across the wooden picnic table from her, staring at my lunch and trying to put my own life into a perspective even one bit as healthy as the one that seemed to come so naturally to Jenny.

2. Charlotte. On our second week in the program, we participated in a retreat called Project Odyssey, a tribute to Homer's epic play in which Odysseus takes ten years to return to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War (and no, the irony of the city name is not lost on me). The retreat is sponsored by an organization called the Wounded Warrior Project, arguably the best kept secret for war veterans of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Charlotte, a social worker based in Florida, organized our retreat (which is sponsored entirely by public donations to the Wounded Warrior Project) with the primary intent of exposing us to healthy, new, adrenaline inducing activities at a lake not far from Landstuhl. We spent three days and two nights learning to golf, climb, scuba dive, shoot a bow and arrow and fly fish in classes all taught by local veterans, and she watched me like a hawk as I resisted every new activity. The thought of putting a mask on my face, jumping into the water and breathing through a tank was absolutely overwhelming...until, well, I stopped thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen ("only fish breathe under water," I repeated over and over to myself) and just jumped in. As it turned out, scuba diving at the bottom of a dirty pool in Germany wasn't so bad after all (though next time I'd prefer to see colorful fish instead of human hairballs), and I had a knack for fly fishing, which I found to be both unexpectedly relaxing and incredibly thrilling at once. Charlotte and I didn't really talk much during the weekend...she just observed from the sidelines...but at the end of the weekend, she came up to me, looked directly at me and said "I'm so proud of you. You can do this, girl!" And in that moment, and after those excruciating first two weeks of treatment, she gave me the push I needed to buckle down and get serious.

3. Emily. Until the past year or so, I'd never found a way to incorporate yoga into my life. I'd tried a bunch of classes (and DVDs and Podcasts and everything else under the sun), but nothing had really stuck. When Jane and her best friend were in Europe over Christmas about 18 months ago, they dragged me, terrified, into a Bikram Yoga studio in Berlin where we practiced 26 poses in 105 degree heat for 90 minutes. Now we're talking! When I start to feel things spiraling into chaos, I drive the 90 or so minutes to Frankfurt and sweat myself silly, feel cleansed, and walk away beaming. I just figured that once I knew Bikram, nothing else would do. Then I met Emily...and she introduced me to Power Yoga. Like me, she's an Air Force veteran, and was a young cop when she was raped by a fellow Airman in her squadron. It was our final day of the retreat and she sat on her yoga mat in front of a room of 30 or so perfect strangers and told her story. She hadn't reported the rape at the time, and for 12 years the haunting memory of that day drove her every life decision. It was yoga that in her words "brought me back to life" so many years later. Connecting the mind, body and breath gave her control over 60 or so minutes of her life at a time, and as I sat there, I thought to myself "that's her equivalent of learning to breathe underwater," a skill I'd acquired just one day prior. I watched, transfixed, as she continued to talk, and eventually her words bled into my own internal monologue. I knew in that moment why I'd been "stuck" for so long, and for the first time I recognized that my journey back to being myself needed to start with a public admission of my own experience, and the impact I've allowed one bad night to have on every minute of my subsequent life in (and out of) the Air Force.

I never imagined myself in an eight-week mental health program...it just didn't make sense. But tucked under the public shroud of self confidence and determination were some very painful and emotionally charged memories acting like a demagnitized compass and driving my every day into total unrest. So here I am, finding calm from the storm, and preparing at the same time to navigate my way safely through the changing weather when I leave the program in a few short weeks.

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