Triggers

The group we replaced in Iraq was spread all over the eastern part of the country.  Typically when a unit comes in and replaces another like that a lot of administrative stuff has to happen, a hand off.  We call it the left seat/right seat process.  You shadow them and ride along in the passenger seat for awhile, then you drive the bus with them looking over your shoulder, then they go home and you’re in it.  Most of our teams were responsible for a relatively small area on the map, but as the headquarters or support element we were responsible for getting gear, people and product out to all of them.  They had to be experts on shorter trips in more urban areas, we had to be experts at longer trips, more cross country in nature.  We landed at about two in the morning at the major air base that’s kind of central to that region of the country, inprocessed, then racked out for a precious few hours sleep.  The next morning we woke up and four of us climbed into trucks and started a “round the world” (really just around the region) vehicle tour.  Everyone else except for two teams were able to relax, acclimitize, etc.  The unit we were replacing had scheduled helicoptors to take them and their gear to their respective new homes.  One of the two teams that didn’t get the break was stationed at that very base, the other one was catching a ride out to our first stop.

The purpose of our mission was threefold.  My boss wanted to see the conditions his troops were living in and familiarize himself with the territory he was responsible for covering.  He wanted to meet each of the outgoing teams in their respective areas and get a feel for the situation on the ground.  And then he needed to inspect all of the gear for accountability.  He was about to assume responsibility for it and wanted to see it with his own eyes.  If there were any problems the outgoing guys would have to fix them before they went home.  Lastly, we were being taught how to handle those long, cross country drives.  Tactics and techniques that would keep us alive.  And the first night of driving, less than an hour after leaving the base and less than 24 hrs in country we got our first lesson.  We had slowed down a little for a turn and took small-arms fire.  Nobody was hurt, nothing was damaged but it was a text-book ambush site and we could’ve been messed up bad.  The unit we were replacing wasn’t following basic, time-proven patrolling tactics and had driven right into a known danger area without proper precautions.  Because we were in the “passenger seat” we were helpless.  I was in the back seat of one of the up-armored HMMWVs and couldn’t shoot, couldn’t really see much but the muzzle flashes, couldn’t drive, couldn’t see the displays or work the radios.  All I could do was sit there and ride it out.  I don’t want to over state this.  There wasn’t a sense of panic, it wasn’t something that kept me awake at night with nightmares.  “Eh, we’re being shot at.  Welcome to Iraq.”  What there was was just an…  impatience, a minor frustration that I couldn’t be more active, that I was forced into a passive role.  The role was appropriate because of our newness in country and lack of experience, but it was symbolized by my placement in the vehicle.

Once the ride alongs were finished, I was never in that position again, by design.  I was always either the mission commander, a driver or a turret monkey.  Of all of those, I definitely enjoyed the turret time the best.  In the turret you had the ability that everyone in the vehicle wanted when you were under attack, you had the ability to return fire.  You were the eyes and ears of the vehicle.  You weren’t cooped up in a tin can, you could move and see and breath.  Sure you were a little more exposed to danger, but you didn’t think about that.  If you were doing your job right you helped protect the vehicle from those dangers.  And on the open roads, when you were doing 60 mph under clear blue skies in the wide open, you could almost forget where you were.  I spent time growing up in Arizona, and so much of the terrain and weather reminded me of “home”.  When I was in Arizona in college I bought my first Jeep Wrangler and drove it with the top off from Phoenix to Tucson whenever possible.  One of my fondest memories is of driving it out to San Diego for a weekend.  That turret time could remind me of that.

At the beginning of the summer I read this blog post about triggers, and even commented on it, but I didn’t do that much self examination to identify my own.  I didn’t even read the signs that I had some.  When I wrote  “Back In the Moment” a friend linked to it off of FaceBook and tagged it with “Everyone has their own triggers”.

When I first came home from some of the tours, I had some of the similar symptoms other vets do.  Hyper vigilance, easily startled by loud noises, etc.  NYE and 4th of July are/were a special kind of hell.  Always scanning for dangers, always thinking three steps ahead in “what-if” scenarios.  A couple of the things were particularly funny/odd to me though.  I’d spend mornings in the driveway arguing with myself about whether or not to ride the motorcycle without a helmet.  Unless it was winter or raining, I couldn’t force myself to drive the truck, but I also couldn’t put the helmet on.  I felt much too claustrophobic.  When I did drive the truck I couldn’t put the seatbelt on.  This summer, when the transmission of my old vehicle started to slip, I finally decided to compromise.  I bought another Jeep and spent the summer with the doors and top off.  I was insanely happy.  Frequently I’d bust out laughing while driving down the interstate for no reason other than pure bliss at having my bare foot hanging out the door and the wind in my hair.  I saw more of Colorado in one summer than I had in a decade.

When I got the word that I was being released from military service this summer, it hurt.  But after the initial shock and anger wore off I realized how much stress I was letting go.  I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t completely allowed myself to relax.  That’s probably not true, I talked about it, the uncertainty of whether or not to be a paranoid freak at home so that if I did deploy again it wouldn’t take so long to remember all the things to watch out for, or to let it all go and have to relearn/remember it all again the next time I went out the door.  But talking about it, and really analyzing the effect it had on me, or consciously making the decision between the two are totally different things.  I acknowledged the quandry but didn’t dwell on it.  Then all of a sudden I was out, and slowly, over the course of several weeks and months I relaxed more and more.  And it wasn’t until I relaxed that I realized how bad off I’d been.  Nor did I realize how much I was sticking my head in the sand and ignoring it, refusing to connect dots between events in my past and my current behaviors and fears.  I think it’s almost like a superstition, that if you think about it too much, dwell on it, you’ll laugh at yourself or start second guessing your instincts and reactions and it will all come apart.

I’ve been able to start wearing a seatbelt again, and sometimes a helmet.  It’s not a full faced helmet like I used to, but it’s a start.  And it’s still weird to me.  I used to religiously wear a helmet, used to be more than a little scared to get on the interstate without one.  Although I quasi understand some of the…  almost claustraphobia about wearing one, I still can’t believe how sudden the switch was.  It’s not like I all of a sudden thought I looked cooler without one, and it’s not like it was a fear of wearing one.  I couldn’t.  It’s like in the sci-fi movies where someone has been programmed or hypnotized not to shoot someone else.  And no matter how hard they want to, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t.  It was the same thing with me for the helmet.  I’d make fun of myself, I’d try to bribe myself.  Friends would nag me, I’d be embarrassed to admit it if it ever came up, and yet I still couldn’t do it.

Knowing the source of the problem isn’t always an immediate fix.  In discussions with people this summer, I was able to logically explain the link between the sense of freedom I had in my doorless, topless Jeep and the sense of helplessness the average soldier feels riding in the backseat of a HMMWV when it’s under fire.  But it still didn’t make me feel any better putting the doors and top on this fall, in preparation of colder weather.  If I was never, ever carting passengers around I think I’d try to survive the winter without it as much possible, maybe just a bikini top over the front seats.  And it wasn’t until I wrote “Back In the Moment” that I connected the final, obvious dots.  It went from being a generalization about how “soldiers” who are worth their salt feel in that position to being about me, specifically.  Me feeling caged, me feeling frustrated by passivity.  I understand a little better why putting that top on the Jeep felt like closing the lid on my own coffin.  The fun part will be seeing what I do with this trigger identification.

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3 Responses to “Triggers”

  1. That’s some serious heavy lifting you did there. One gold star for you!

    My old shrink taught me one of the most basic of things: be mindful. The only way to change behaviors is to understand why you now do what you do, and then tweak them. At times it can feel like thinking about breathing. Except eventually it becomes second nature and you settle into a new place.

    • PJ, I guess like all other good habits it takes practice and a concentrated effort to form it. I don’t always do so well at my stick-to-it-tiveness…

  2. CPT (ret) Jill Murphy (Abn) Says:

    Sean….. I love you 🙂

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