25 April 2012

Silent Lucidity

I'm in the middle of week seven of an eight week treatment program, and while the progress I've made over the past few weeks in particular is tremendous, my brain continues to focus on my personal failures rather than my many successes. I guess the difference now is that I recognize this character flaw as it's happening, and my negative way of thinking is evolving. Slowly, sure, but evolving.

Every day here, I've walked into a classroom that feels like a minefield, and I've constantly feared the one misstep that would detonate the first in a series of daisy-chained bombs. Moreover, I was a thousand percent confident that my body wouldn't be able to withstand the blast. Except, well, those "bombs" are actually real-life events, and they're daisy-chained because the impact of one event radically distorted my response to the next similar event, which would unfold at some future unknown period time. I lived my life in fear of how my "body" might respond to the next traumatic impact, conveniently disregarding the fact that most impacts would be emotional (not physical) and that I actually had the power and ability to control my own reactions.

The greatest opportunity the Air Force has provided me is the chance to lead people in all kinds of situations. Once I discovered my fondness for leadership, I looked for other opportunities to lead. I found the perfect opportunity when in 2006 the local high school sent a base-wide email asking for a volunteer cross country coach. I'd been a runner for more than a dozen years, I love teaching, and I genuinely enjoyed sharing my passion for running with others. The head coach of the program was the most popular teacher in school, Mr. Turner, and though he had significant experience coaching basketball, he knew little to nothing about running. My experience and his personality were the perfect fit, and for an entire season, we watched a group of non-athletes develop into inspirational young runners.

In September of 2007, I returned to the high school to coach again with Mr. Turner. I'd spent the previous nine months studying coaching techniques, developing training plans to help our talented runners meet their potential, and testing ways to inspire our runners to become lifelong athletes. Mr. Turner had returned to school that year determined to change his own life, and asked me to also coach him into better physical condition. I was thrilled.

During our first practice of the season, Mr. Turner headed out on a run with the team for the very first time. He died of a heart attack about one mile into a three mile run. Two of our youngest runners heard him gasp "Oh God," grab his heart, and watched as he collapsed to the ground. He fell directly outside the school's perimeter fence, which was locked for security and angled with barbed wire at the top to prevent intruders. The only problem was that this time, the so-called intruders were the people running on the school's track who watched Mr. Turner fall and were unable to help him because of the fence, instead watching in aggravated horror.

We arrived at the track following our run, and I collected the kids in our gazebo, telling them that I didn't know what happened to Mr. Turner, but that as soon as I knew, I would tell them. By now, the school's administration was buzzing with activity, chasing the 150 or so students (football players, cheerleaders, runners) into the cafeteria because they couldn't figure out a way to shield them from the sight of their favorite teacher laying on the pavement 400 meters away. Mr. Turner, an American, had collapsed in downtown Germany, outside of the base, and it took the American and German authorities almost four hours to determine jurisdictional authority. In the meantime, Mr. Turner rested peacefully on the sidewalk, covered in a black sheet, his wife kneeling by his side.

The school principal walked into the cafeteria, nonchalantly declared "Mr. Turner is dead" into the microphone, and started to walk away. The cafeteria erupted into absolute chaos. My runners were in complete shock, as were each one of the students in that room. And every adult in the room.

I watched, in baffled silence, and took it all in. "This is my fault," I kept telling myself. "All last season, I teased Mr. Turner for not running with the team. And on his first day of running with us, he dropped dead."

The kids were all picked up by their families. I sat on the track in complete silence, tears streaming down my face, and watched for three hours, apologizing to Mr. Turner as his body remained in the exact position as it had been when he fell. By maybe 8:30pm his body was taken away, and I no longer felt obligated to stand watch. I walked to my car, hopeless and shaking while the clouds opened up and delivered a tremendous rainstorm. I got into the car and thought about the 45 minute drive home. I couldn't do it. So I called the Chaplain and begged for them to send someone to the chapel on this base to help me.

I never really talked about how I felt about what happened that day to anyone until this week. At the time, it was obvious to me that the kids needed a coach and leader, and I was proud to have such an incredible opportunity to help them transform adversity into strength. That season, I watched my runners, who named themselves Turner's Burners in honor of their fallen coach, take on the world. The girls were recognized as the fastest team in Europe. One of our boys finished in the top five fastest in Europe despite being weighed down by the flu on the day of the biggest race of his high school career. How could I possibly need help when the kids I was coaching were so talented and strong?

Turner's Burners were then and are now truly inspiring, and so many of them and their parents still touch base with me four years later. I've been thinking about them in particular this week as I've watched one of the senior girls from that season graduate from college, another senior boy (and his wife) have their first baby, two of the younger runners join the Air Force and Navy respectively, and my lone eighth grader from that year apply to and be accepted into college.

That ten week season was, until Afghanistan, both the most challenging and the most rewarding professional experience in my career...and it had nothing to do with the Air Force except a majority of my runners have Air Force parents. It leveraged everything I love about the Air Force into a series of some my very favorite memories.

And now I look back four years later, amazed at the strength those incredible kids demonstrated during such a challenging time, and draw from their strength as I continue reassemble my own life into some version of manageable. Each day of these eight weeks feels like a Saturday morning cross country race...I know I've trained properly, I know that my body is prepared for the task, but when the horn sounds the beginning of the race, my brain seems to respond in a shock-filled paralysis instead of with a graceful stride.

At the end of each race, regardless of my performance, I imagine my teammates commending me for making a solid effort, which then inspires me to train harder...which is exactly what I watched the kids do for each other instinctively that season. And at the end of the season, I hope that I, like Turner's Burners in 2007, will have the personal courage to set and achieve magnificent personal goals in the face of daunting adversity.