How Being a Terrorist helps my PTSD
The machinegun fires and I worry it’s so loud that every shot’s doing some damage to my eardrums. I can barely hear myself screaming in Arabic at my makeshift squad of sad terrorists. At least a dozen Oregon National Guard soldiers sprint toward me, up the rocks and bushes of my hill. The muzzle flashes remind me of popcorn on the stove. When I turn to escape I realize how hard it is to run in a dishdasha, the full-body garment that some of the more uncouth soldiers call a man dress, but it’s really the traditional garb of the people who I’m pretending to be. Another squad crests the hill to my left and I accept that I am going to die, for the fourth time today. I jump down the uneven rocks and head down the hill, running. Somehow this is helping me to live a better life.
If you get to know me at all, the fact I was blown up will undoubtedly be volunteered in one of our early conversations. It was an ambush in Taji, Iraq, back in 2004. One of my best friends was killed instantly and another critically injured. Most the bones on the right side of my body were broken. Well, maybe not most, but many. I try not to drop that on people right away, but it was a very traumatic time in my life and I can’t help but talking about it. I push the weight of these memories around all the time. Some days are worse than others.
Some of the most brutal combat in the history of mankind has bookended the current generations with our most recent wars lasting over a decade. Today just about everyone is related to or loves a veteran of one of these wars and we become emotionally invested in their struggle with transitioning back into the civilian world. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts thirty-one percent of Vietnam veterans, eleven percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and twenty percent of Iraqi war veterans. I think these numbers are low, but as it is, 7.7 million members of our country’s population have a mental disorder caused by experiencing the horrifying deaths of other human beings.
In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus asks why we should go on living once a person realizes how absurd life really is. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said the world can’t offer anything to the man filled with anguish. Many of us feel this way and we begin to see suicide as an option. I did. I hate to admit this to anyone, but I planned to take my own life in my lowest moments. Life had no meaning anymore and I had no purpose, no mission. I just pushed the rock up the hill to have it roll down the other side so I can push it up the hill again.
I jump a cliff and slide down on the loose rocks. When I hit the bottom I roll but keep a hold of my rifle. The rest of my terrorist cell is either killed or being searched and cuffed. I run along the bottom of this small ravine until I see a box canyon and climb high enough to find some cover and watch the National Guard soldiers clearing the objective that was my hill just minutes ago. I’m watching from behind a couple of juniper trees trying to breathe slow enough to hear them call out for their aid and litter teams, to hear the team leaders call out to consolidate and reorganize, to hear the squad leader communicate with the platoon leader. I’m mentally taking notes, making sure they’re doing everything right.
There are two OC, observer/controllers who act as referees during these training missions and they’re doing the same thing so when the mission’s over we’ll all sit down and talk about what the Guardsman did right and what they did wrong. We do this so when they are deployed to Afghanistan next year they’ll be better prepared to patrol the mountains. In my own way I’m helping train soldiers how not to die while at war. I have a purpose. I have a mission again.
I get to play pretend with the army every few months and each time I get more and more of my old army buddies to come out with me. This time I have Patrick Eldred, Kurt Clickener, and Joe Hogland. The last time I saw Pat three men were firing AK47s at us. I was bone-broke and bleeding sprawled out in the middle of an Iraq highway. He hovered over me and tried desperately to get an IV in my hand. The needle couldn’t find my vein no matter how hard he tried. I still have the scar.
Pat isolated himself from everyone after coming back. Over the years I would hear news how he wasn’t doing very well. Click had been having problems too and just wasn’t getting the help he needed from the Mental Hygiene Clinic at the VA. I mean, do you think you’d get the help you need from some place called a Mental Hygiene Clinic? Without getting too much into Hogland’s life I’ll just say his problems after getting back from the war were as severe as you can get. We were all pushing our own boulders.
I trained my entire adult life to be an infantry and was damned good at what I did in Iraq, but that didn’t keep me from getting injured. The ambush that almost killed me wasn’t the first time I was hit either. And the horrible shit I’ve seen: people burned alive, people dying slowly and crying to their gods, stray dogs eating the dead. It all made me this guy who was too proud to understand why the one thing I took the most pride in also was the one thing that caused me the most pain. How does a person reconcile that?
The platoon has taken my hill and now surrounds the bodies of my men. They have confiscated my RPGs, my AK-47s, and my artillery shells. The platoon leader is reading a list of all the enemy personnel and equipment they found over the radio to the battalion leadership, but one kid is on a knee looking back at all that’s going on and not pulling security. I slink out of my position, down my hill, and move on him.
I crawl real slow on my stomach and move around the hill for a good position. I find a rock to get behind and peek over it. The kid is talking to the soldier on his left and not looking out for bad guys like me. I pop up and fire off half a magazine at him. He pulls his body in three directions not knowing what to do and ultimately falls over. The rest of them scream out my position and maneuver on me but I don’t see it because I’m running away. But they’re good so it only takes ten minutes before I’m face down in the dirt spitting pine needles as two giant soldiers are manhandling the shit out of me during their prisoner of war search. I don’t blame them. I’d be pissed to if some jackass made me sprint up a hill with all my equipment on. My hands are ziptied behind my back and they’re going through all my pockets. They’re moving up and down with their hard breathing and the drops of sweat fall on me like rain.
This time I’ve spent running around the hills dressed as a terrorist while shooting machine guns has made my life less absurd, more than that I’ve been able to help some war buddies. I know most people won’t be able to work out their problems by pretending to be terrorists, but I did learn some ways to help the combat veterans who might be having problems. Give them a mission. Ask them for help because they need a purpose. Have them rebuild relationships because when a combat veteran has some serious PTSD they will isolate themselves and self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or pills. The more connections they have to this world the harder it will be to leave it. They won’t like this, but it’s important. It doesn’t matter if they join a chess club, volunteer at the community center, or get a pen pal. The more groups they are a part of the better.
The adrenaline is out of our system and now everyone’s sitting with their helmets off in the afternoon sun. My terror cell and I stand in the back waiting our turn to tell the group what they did right and what they did wrong. When this is over a few guys light up a cigarette and joke for a few minutes before they have to head to the next mission. We turn to reset the cache of guns and equipment for the next group to find. During this time one of the sergeants announces that all us terrorists are actually guys who have served in the unit in Iraq a few years back. They all drink last sips of water, put the lids on their canteens, field strip their cigarettes, and tighten their ruck straps, but before they leave, one by one, they thank us for helping them out. I smile and nod, but there it is. There’s why we’re doing it. Pat, Click, Hogland and I grab our gear and begin climbing to the top of my hill again.