I have a recurring nightmare that my Bradley Fighting Vehicle is swarmed by the enemy and I cannot find my rifle or shoot my weapons. Pretty much, replace the zombies shown above with insurgents and you get the picture minus me screaming. I wake up in a cold sweat until I realize I am home again. The nightmare is less now than when I first returned, but I still get a panicked visit quite frequently. In theatre there were incidents of Soldiers being ambushed from behind while on their vehicles. I remember one report about a Soldier who was killed at close range on his track. I think there was a stigma about being on the receiving end of these types of attacks that most of my peers related to weakness. Worrying about your covering your “Six” is standard for me.
This past week has been a rough one because of a number of factors, some of which are beyond my control. Unfortunately, though they are beyond my influence, they are still gnawing at my thoughts. My dog passing and the fever pitch in the news about the debt ceiling negotiations affecting Veterans benefits have me re-running scenarios and working contingencies. Essentially I am worrying more.
Hot Hot Heat
The weather has been brutally hot and reminiscent of my time spent in the desert. The intense heat always puts me on high alert. I can grab winks in the heat, but it is far from sound sleep. (My remedy is to put attempt to put frost on my windows with my AC…) In each deployment during OIF I and III there always seemed to be a period of time where we were transitioning to a new AO and comfortable amenities were not readily available. (Ah, the life of an Infantryman…) The large operations were targeted in the heat of the summer to preempt an active fall and prey on the insurgents’ laziness and unwillingness to fight in the heat. Lucky us.
In one instance I remember the heat, lack of true safety, and little sleep colliding to wreak havoc on all of us as we laid siege to a town. We rolled forward through our sector and eventually took over a school as a forward base in searing heat. While the school did have an air conditioner, the electricity needed to run it was limited at best. Still, we tried to rotate everyone through that room to catch their little bit of sleep in the AC.
Each night of that operation we pounded the city with artillery, close air, Abrams and Bradley fire. (I have a sweet story about a trigger happy an LT for another day…) We were close enough to the impacts and the forward line of troops that we had to be alert all the time. We slept whenever we could on whatever we could and trying to achieve any comfort gave way to sheer exhaustion. The inherent danger being around falling artillery, with insurgents close by, and the constant push of mission planning and execution, I feel that this operation (and others) organizes my mind to relate the heat with anxiety and restlessness and worrying.
Trained to Worry
I was trained as a leader that in combat you do not get second chances. Attention to detail, flawless execution, and expecting the unexpected are so highly emphasized that when I finally reached combat, I spent each phase of planning and operating ruminating on how to keep my Soldiers alive.
What if x happens? How would Y impact our next move? If the enemy does Z, what do we do? It was constant and ever changing with these fluid and dangerous battlefields. Overlay those thoughts with maintaining my own personal safety (Is this a safe enough position? If I am attacked now, what are my first moves? See zombie picture above.), and the result over time is ingrained hyper vigilance. Again, the fear in my dream is that I cannot react to the threats and the vigilance is for naught.
It is well documented that this mindset is hard to turn off when a Soldier returns home. In some way we are essentially turned into an efficient worry wort or super prepared boy scout in combat. The Army calls it “risk mitigation” and it is important for being in combat.
However, the strain of survival and the burden of keeping my Soldiers safe became such a way of life that it was hard to remember what safe and calm felt like. I was more comfortable pissed off and on edge. Then, when an acute trauma was intertwined with the perpetual anxiety, some whacky stuff started to seep into my everyday thoughts. (I currently get into these fits where I work through detailed plans for responding to a Nuclear attack on Manhattan and getting off Long Island. Normal? Not so much.) But, when you combine super anxiety with anger and depression you have some real fun between your ears.
How the Cognitive Processing Helps
As I have completed and continued Cognitive Processing therapy, I am able to unwind the anger from the depression and guilt from the anxiety. Though being able to separate the feelings doesn’t stop their onset, knowing what I am facing and applying techniques to “combat” the onslaught of impulsive and irrational feelings give me a fighting chance to fend it off.
The first line of defense for me is getting rest and taking the time to unwind and think. This blog helps because I can logically revisit my thoughts and organize a plan for staying rational. My plan for the heat is pretty simple: stay out of it. :) But, when that is not possible I am ensuring my medications are current and I have adjusted my diet and added fish oil to my regiment. Keeping a tight calendar and preparing myself mentally and physically is where I can get my edge.
This past week the calendar was very fluid and I paid for it by the end of the week. This coming week I am booking up again, but at least I have visibility.
My Mom has a poster hanging in the kitchen that reads “Don’t let the worries of tomorrow drain the energy of today.” It is good advice and takes a lot of work to achieve.
If I ever start thinking about Zombie attacks, I will really have to check myself out. Though as I quickly think about it, I don’t think the scenario is much different from the nuclear fallout… I may just carry more blunt objects.