October 14, 2013

I Wasn't Ready for the Smell...

This describes violence and will trigger PTSD symptoms. In the Terrible Moments I purposefully omitted smell because it was too much to write in one installment. I will return to it in the following post.

As a platoon leader I was ready to lead my soldiers, even in the most trying of circumstances, but when I arrived to the aftermath of a suicide bomber detonated on a crowd of civilians I wasn’t prepared for the smell. In my experience blood doesn’t have a smell at first, although it is very visible, tends to flood your memory and when it stains clothing that smell imprints itself on the memory event as it were there in the moment. In honesty that street corner mostly smelled like dirt and dust, because the explosion had picked it up off of the ground. The smell of explosives was present, I was used to those smells, but the smell of burning flesh was much more apparent and different then anything I had ever experienced (still this was muted by the overwhelming smell of scattered dirt and dust). The smell of burned flesh was like smell of burnt hair, yet exponentially grown by the scale of that terrible day in northern Iraq. This mixed with the smell of burning meat, though completely unappetizing and unseasoned. The only way I can describe the smell of peoples skin is that it was as if leather was left out in the rain long enough to fester slightly, and then it was burned, or at least how I image that would smell. The addition of the burnt clothing created an earthy smell, which was a mixture of burning leaves and grass/marijuana.

Still, no matter how traumatic the stench of death and violence was I mostly inhaled the terrible smell common in the urban centers of Iraq created by the burnt trash, raw sewage flowing through the streets, and the awful smell that the dirt and dust made as it lodged itself into your nasal passages. A not so insignificant part of the awful smell of Iraq was my body odor, because I lived in an outpost and showered weekly at best. Only that day the smell of Iraq was amplified by an explosion that wafted it through the air. Despite the stench, I refused to throw away my flesh stained boots, because I would spend a lifetime, if necessary, walking that smell away. After nine years and thousands of miles it is still there in my boots, so are the bloodstains, and the barbwire scratches I got rushing to that intersection on another night. That smell has also stained my very being as an unmovable and unalterable weight on my memory. Even during exercise my sweat pours more profusely than it did before and rather than overpowering the stench of that day the sweat contributes to it as if my every pore was endeavoring to recreate the smells of that moment. Stress sweat is more pungent than normal thermal regulatory perspiration. My body remains attached to the muted ammonia smell of muscle deterioration that comes with the body's processing of the stress chemical cortisol. I have smelled fresh cow brands and had a terrible panic attack. Anytime I smell burning hair, unseasoned meat, grass, warm sewage in a portable toilet, marijuana or the dust of the desert I am back there again: only naked, unarmored, helpless, and alone. My heart races and I can't seem to breath.

The stench combined with the chaotic sights, sounds, my internal dialogue, and physical sensations, though the smell was by far the worst of all my sensations that day (well that and feeling the weight and limpness of a dead flesh). Smells today are forever different and can send me into PTSD symptoms, often simply sicken me, or worst give me terrible migraine headaches. A lifetime of therapy and doing the right things to manage PTSD will never make that memory less burdensome. Although, I am still proud that I have refused to get rid of those boots because they are like my tattoos, a symbol of my commitment to deal with the violence I witnessed: to face my PTSD. Preserving my boots, even if they still smelled like that day in the hopes of walking them clean, was the first gesture of my efforts to face my burdensome memories no matter how terrible, with as much honor and strength as possible. The smells are certainly less pungent now, and the memory is too, at least with every attempt to understand and accept them. As if taking the time to remember that awful stench, or any sensation for that matter as it was, or as they were, reduces their terrible grasp on my life.

October 3, 2013

Another Knife in the Back: I Feel Like I did in Combat, a Pawn in a Unreal Political Game

Disclaimer: This has profanity, and contempt for politics on all sides. However, I am a person who currently supports one party over another, that has not always been the case, and try as I might to remain objective some of my bias might come through. If I could control my triggers I wouldn't have PTSD. I apologize if my descriptions, of how current politics are triggering my PTSD, appears as an attack on anyone's beliefs.

I usually have uplifting things to write, about and I am as positive as possible, but I can't get past what is going on right now. I am having a terrible week. I am getting the somatic fevered symptoms common in my worst months. It started when I presented a paper at a conference this weekend. Don't get me wrong the scholars were so inviting, supportive and did everything they could to encourage a graduate student, but public speaking is always a burden for me.

When it ended I did what I always do. Run stairs until I stop panicking. It usually takes a few terrible, nauseous, slow and miserable days to get through it, but whats going on in the country right now is making it harder this week. This week all I can think about is how Congresspersons are using my livelihood and benefits as pawns in a game. Like many other vets all the cuts may or may not hit me in my paycheck while I struggle to create a new start in a more appropriate career field. Worse it reminds me of how George W  purposefully held off offensive operations in Iraq during his reelection (a fact that was most frustrating to me at the time because I voted for him), and all the heavy fighting it caused on my first deployment. I remember the faces of men and women that died, because we weren't real to politicians. Just pawns in a game.

But like then, now we aren't pawns: we are real and we are struggling to get by. Suicide numbers had to get to 22 times a day to make the VA start taking its backlog seriously and now, because of partisan nonsense the overtime in the VBA to combat the backlog is over. All the advocacy seems to be meaningless because politicians don't actually care about anything, but political ideology. My advocacy and openness about PTSD has cost me my relationship with my father, yet all that sacrifice can be wiped away as a chip in the game for a group of politicians unhappy with a law that can be combated with an infinite amount of other strategies. Whatever your beliefs about the affordable care act or Obamacare you can't believe that taking people off of working the backlog won't create terribly real and measurable loss in the lives of American veterans and their families. How many vets have to kill themselves a day for our earned services to cease being a chip in some partisan battle.

Though we probably won't lose our benefits we, who have major anxiety disorders that at times result in death by suicide, have to hold our breath and fight new mental battles about what Congresspersons, who clearly don't give a shit about the secondary effects of their current political battle, who only see our hard earned benefits as something to leverage in a political battle. All while safeguarding their own salaries and healthcare. I can only say what I have to say. Fuck Congress (regardless of political party)! I hope you will join me in my absolute contempt for what is happening today, but I hope that you are all doing better during this very frustrating and tenuous time.