Archive for the ‘military’ Category

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I support the Wounded Warrior Project for the same reason my book has the characters and themes that it does: my own time in Iraq. In 2009, I spent three months in country (Baghdad, with stops in Tallil and Taji) as a civilian contractor. That entire experience changed my perspectives on just about everything. However, I can trace when wounded veterans became especially prominent in my mind to one single instance there.

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In Iraq, every day was the same. Unless I traveled (which was a nightmare all its own), it was impossible to distinguish one day from the next. I worked the same shift every day, so days of the week meant nothing. I marched through an identical routine every day.

Every morning, I wrenched myself from catatonic, depressive sleep and crunched my way across the deep gravel of the contained housing unit (CHU) pad. I hit the treadmill and the weights then walked back to my CHU, back across the pad to the lone female bathroom, and back to my CHU again. I was like a zombie just going through the motions and counting down the days until I could board that plane back home.

When I struck out on the sea of gravel once more to walk to the work trailer, I saw him. He was moving across the rocks towards the trailers. In the wavering distance of the desert air, he looked like any other soldier. Perhaps his silhouette was slightly slumped and his walk a little punctuated. It was impossible to tell on those shifting rocks. I just continued toward the water palette and then the road and did not think twice about it

As we approached each other, I could make out more. Squinting in the harsh sun glaring off tall concrete T-walls and the dust covered roads, I could tell that his skin color was not consistent. From behind my sunglasses, it caught my attention more, perked my curiousity. As our opposing trajectories brought us closer along the gravel pad and he came into focus, I could see why.

His skin was a patchwork of scars. The minimal flesh exposed by his pixelated BDUs–his entire head and neck, both his hands–was stretched, shiny, warbled. He looked as if he had been melted. His skull was no longer round, and deep scars snaked through the buzzed hair that had grown back on his now misshapen scalp.

Our paths crossed under the bright light on dirty rocks, and I, shamefully, was in shock.

My entire time in theater, it was customary to make eye contact and say good morning or whatever salutation as you passed someone. Perhaps this was not universal, but it was my experience, and that small gesture always made things feel more normal and civilized than where we were.

When confronted with this survivor, I did make eye contact, thankfully with my mouth closed (at least that made me less of an asshole), yet my voice failed me. I was lost with my mind reeling to wrap around the extent of the injuries I was seeing on a walking, functional man. I was taken aback; I was inappropriately fascinated. Then that brief instance of our passing was gone, and I had failed to treat him like any other person.

Before the sound of his footsteps even crunched off into the distance, I was awash with regret. It welled up in my throat that had been so sadly dormant. I wanted to chase him down and rectify my failure, replace it with a normal interaction, but that time had passed. That moment was gone, only filled with wide eyes and closed mouth. Instead, I walked on to work, wringing my mind and mentally berating myself.

More than the clearly catastrophic injuries he survived, it was his presence that weighed on my mind, like a thorn buried in the back of the gray matter. I got over his appearance once the shock sank in; instead, it was the fact that he had endured such trauma, assumably during some phase of this same war, recovered, and redeployed. Him putting the uniform back on and returning is what haunted me and turned my mind.

The mere seconds of seeing this soldier stayed vividly in my mind. My overabundant empathy fixated on his motivations. Maybe he felt he needed to return to finish the job. Perhaps it was the only place that felt normal after such an experience. How could I possibly fathom? What did I know about any of it? All I knew was that I admired him, whatever the reasons and story behind it.

That experience, and specifically my lapse in normalcy, changed my mind. He was a physical manifestation of the sacrifices made by the military that I was only beginning to learn about. My three month civilian tour was the smallest glimpse into the years they spent deployed away from their families and lives. The stories and reports I heard were only echoes of experiences they went through. It was all just a taste that still managed to change everything. And this one man, with less than a word from either of us, solidified the depth of what was involved and the respect it deserved.

After that morning, it became very important to me to properly support those who had sacrificed. I still think of this nameless soldier from time to time. He still walks through my mind and reminds me of what I left over there when I returned to my comfortable stateside life.

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Once I started running, it was a definite goal of mine to run a race benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project. However, things never quite aligned. When I lived in Chattanooga, there were none close by. When I moved back to Colorado, one got flooded out. Then, finally this summer, the Wounded Warrior Project 8K came to town, inconveniently when I was over 9 months pregnant.

However, I would not be dissuaded from participating. My doctor cut me off from running at 7 months pregnant, and even if she had not, I did not anticipate pulling off 8K that far along. Instead, I resolved to volunteer my time. I waddled my very round belly around and helped with set up and then course direction and cheering.

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While I didn’t do much, it still felt better to do more than donate money, to actually physically do something. I suffered for standing so many hours so pregnant for the rest of the day, but it was worth it. It was barely a tax paid on the debt that I owe.