07 April 2016

I think there was a frog in my throat

Here's the thing about my past few years...there were moments (more like weeks and months, if we're being honest) when I wasn't sure the storm was going to pass. It did, but mostly because I took more than my fair share of calculated risks to change the weather pattern. Okay, maybe they weren't always so calculated, but no matter what decision I made, I was all in. Probably more like ALL IN, if we've met.

Let's catch you up quickly so that we're all on the same page. In April of 2011, my number was called in the "You're Headed to Afghanistan" lottery. Really, my boss's number was called. She sat on it for about three weeks, then decided at the last minute she wasn't willing to go, so she sent me on a six month deployment with a three month pre-deployment training requirement with the U.S. Army with three days to prepare. I might sound jaded. I was peeved at the time, but in all honesty, the only way to pack up your life and leave for nine months to a place from which you may not return is to just go all in. I had never been deployed in my then nine year Air Force career, and I have to admit that a combat deployment is on most service members' bucket lists. Crazy but true. Of course, a combat deployment with an outside-the-wire mission leading convoys for the U.S. Army was far from my desk officer comfort zone, but all in is all in.

Off to Fort Polk, Louisiana I went, and into Combat Skills Training something like 10 - 12 hours a day, usually six days a week, led by Infantry kids (yes, they were kids...most of them were old enough to drink) and in a group of 35 men. And me. I'm a little girly, again, to set the record straight. But I also have very little fear. And I'm fairly athletic (more then than now), so I was just fine at the "grin and bear it," run several miles each morning at 4.30am, then be on your feet with 60 pounds of gear in the summer heat kinds of games we played. We captured and killed Osama Bin Laden while I was in Louisiana. We watched from the TVs in the chow hall, or whatever the Army calls it. But we were all in, so we still got on airplanes in late June and we headed to Afghanistan. I think it took us something like 60 hours to get there. Not my favorite travel memory.

I remember little things, like the C-17 pilot calling over the intercom the moment we crossed into the combat zone. Yeah, little things. I remember landing at the Kabul International Airport at maybe 7pm. It was dark. I had so much stuff and two guns. And absolutely no idea what I was getting into. That was probably for the best.

I lived in half of a filthy shipping container, in a two-story "neighborhood" of 60 or so shipping containers, mixed genders (though less than 5% of us were women), with a 50 meter or so commute to the bathrooms. You do the math to decide whether or not that sounds safe. The first month was the hardest. There was one particularly terrible morning...or maybe it was an evening...when my nerves got the best of me and a Canadian medic peeled me off of the floor of that filthy bathroom and hauled me to the clinic. That was probably my first panic attack. I will never forget the desperate, puking-my-guts-out feeling that I may not even make it out of that bathroom, much less through the deployment.

Four or five times a week we made the 45 minute each way commute to the Afghan base where we worked, driving down roads that still make my hair stand on end. A nine or ten hour day doesn't seem like a big deal until you're driving through a warzone for about two hours a day, and the other hours you're a sitting duck (and one of the only women) on an Afghan National Army base...trusting the Afghans to keep you safe. But I was all in, so I did it, in a headscarf (because again, all in also meant sticking out a tiny bit less and showing my respect for the culture by covering my head).

Weird stuff happened out there, which at the time felt totally normal. By the way, there is nothing normal about being a woman in a warzone in a misogynistic culture and country. It's not that women can't handle combat. We certainly can. But in 2011, that being able to "handle" combat came at a huge cost for me, and one that took a solid four years to truly unpack. I guess the best way to explain it is that feeling your kids might have when they're waiting for a fire drill at school...or the startle response at the first buzz. Or as a runner, those pre-race butterflies. Constantly. For six months. 

But then I was home in very safe, hardly have to lock your doors, small town Germany, and the butterflies were gone. And in their place, a cartoon-sized massive bowling ball. Or something like that. Something that made me numb and jumpy and tired and wide awake all at once. And I basically lived with that same mixed-up-emotions feeling in varying degrees of intensity from December of 2011 until early in 2016...so just over four years. For those four years, I was all in to find my way out of this mess.

During that dark time, the military medicated me within an inch of my life (which I had no idea of at the time, because trusting medics was a skill I honed in Afghanistan and hadn't yet shaken). I checked myself into an outpatient Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) clinic for eight weeks, then I checked myself into an inpatient psych ward in Salt Lake City for another eight weeks, I lost my job in the Air Force because I was no longer "fit for duty," then moved from Germany back to the US...more specifically to Florida to be with John. A counselor at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Florida told me that I should file for permanent unemployability because I would never recover. Yes, that's a word. She told me that I should start collecting social security. I told her to fly a kite.

I drove to Alabama and convinced another counselor for the VA that my "disability" was forcing me to learn about American business culture in order to find a future job. He had a son about my age, and he quickly agreed to get the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation Program pay the full tuition for me to go to Georgetown to earn an MBA (I didn't mention the astronomical tuition until I had the approval letter...it's all about strategy...) So I worked on my MBA for 20 months, because, you know, I was never, ever, ever going to recover (I guess that kite was still flying). Then I started what has so far been a successful career in Management Consulting for a big name consulting firm. Here's a hint..."unemployable" veterans are damn good employees. Spread the word. 

Don't get me wrong, this was not just a personal quest...it was a total team effort. And by team, I mean professional team, because what I was dealing with was well beyond anything I was willing to lay on my husband, my family, my friends, or pretty much anyone without some type of medical degree. I saw every doctor under the sun once a week for four years, rarely skipping even one week. I destroyed plenty of valuable, long-term friendships, and prevented lots more from ever starting in the first place. I was relentless in my pursuit of mental health. And finally some combination of upending and reassembling every single element of my life resulted in a brighter reality. All freaking in.

Now that I'm on the other side (this month at least...though anyone who has been there knows that the demons continue to lurk...), I keep talking about bringing back my blog. To talk about what it really took to navigate the long and winding road that brought me here. To replay some of those Afghanistan memories and to unpack some of the events that still give me the willies. To describe some of those events in a whole lot more detail and to bring people along on the sensory journey. And to describe how it feels to be a modern military veteran who left the service on someone else's terms.

It's been almost two years since I last posted on this blog. And those last few entries...man...so dark. Such struggles. But here's the good part. Some dig deep grit, a bunch of tenacity and a whole lot of hustle and anything, and I do mean anything, can be possible for our Nation's veteran. I didn't believe that four years ago, three years ago, two years ago, or even at this time last year. A bad day is just another day. And on the journey to building a better future for myself and for my family, I am all in, one day at a time.