Archive for the ‘military’ Category

Go with It

Posted: January 10, 2019 in military, nonfiction, psychology, real life, survival

As our plane began to land in Baghdad, it went dark. The crew extinguished the cabin lights, floor lighting, exit lights, indicators. The resulting black consumed us, startling and unnerving. It felt so unnatural to be floating in a darkened aircraft. If it weren’t for the engines still vibrating under the wings, the plane could have been mistaken for coasting dead. A few passengers tugged their window shades down to solidify the darkness.

The more experienced contractor beside me leaned over.

“They go dark so hostiles can’t target the plane from the ground as we land. They’ll use any small bit of light,” he whispered. “Oh, and be prepared for the evasive landing.”

He eased back into his own seat, gathered up his phone, and brought the bright screen to his face, a tiny beacon of light broadcasting to the open window. Confusion contorted my brow as I stared at him, dumbfounded. If a seatbelt light could get a rocket launched at us, why did he have his phone blazing in his face? It near-blinded me against the dark. I just kept looking from him to the open window beside us.

The plane descended toward the small lights below as my heart ascended into my throat. The shapes on the ground dilated in size. Pinpoints of light grew into buildings and roads; the dots articulated into the darkened city. My body automatically braced itself out of practice, habit from so many plane landings. I knew what the final descent should feel like, the way a gentle suspense gripped the air until the ground hopped up into the tires. Instead, the plane glided down then banked sharply. I groped startled at my armrest.

Anxiously, I glanced around me. No other passengers reacted. No one spoke. They sat as if nothing happened. The man beside me remained glued to his glowing phone, inviting the enemy to shoot us down.

The evasive landing.

No one else reacted, so I took a deep breath and went with it.

As I stepped out of the plane and onto the gravel in the surprisingly cold Iraqi night, I smelled only shit and burnt fireworks. I stood alone, unsure where I needed to go next—a 25-year-old female civilian contractor in an active warzone.

A week later, after I had been placed in my freezing trailer, been orientated to camps Victory, Liberty, and Slayer, and began riding the first unfathomable wave of homesickness, I headed to lunch with two fellow software trainers. Bored with the low level of service requests in the training trailer, Charlie and Ed decided we should venture away from the main dining facility (DFAC) and burn time traveling in the dented, dusty Mitsubishi Pajero to one farther from our trailer.

In the DFAC, we sat on metal folding chairs at plastic tables. Charlie hunched across from me, a tapestry of tattoos crawling from his jaw to his hands. Ed rest beside me in a bright blue polo shirt and fauxhawk. I nibbled on my grilled cheese and cantaloupe as they attempted to dazzle or unnerve me with their military stories, as always.

A siren shrieked through the air. The sound snatched my breath, tangled it in my throat. The piercing tone was followed by a flat voice repeating, “Incoming imminent. Incoming imminent.”

I threw wide eyes at Ed then Charlie. They continued to eat uninterrupted as if they had heard nothing at all. The third country national (TCN) workers came flooding out from the kitchen and huddled under the flimsy tables. Soldiers sat on the floor and crouched beside the buffet lines. I looked around at all the people on the floor, waiting.

“They do that because the kitchen doesn’t have any T-walls,” Charlie said, still chewing. “A while ago, a rocket landed on a kitchen. Killed all the TCNs.”

Ed sat casually, gathering a bite on his fork as he watched the TCNs unaffected. My heart battered my ribs. I tried to force out calm breaths and keep my face slack as my eyes roamed. My back tightened, and my posture stiffened.

Charlie looked at me.

“Look, there’s not a damn thing sitting under this table is going to do if a rocket hits this DFAC. If it’s our time, it’s our time,” he said, shrugging and looking down to his food.

They both resumed eating. I sliced my melon with shaking hands and shoved a bite into my mouth, unable to taste it. I took a breath and went with it.

The all clear sounded, followed by an annoying series of tones. Whining smoke detectors replaced the noise to complain about the unattended food left burning. Gradually, everyone got up and returned to their stations. Back to normal, like nothing ever happened.

Later that shift, I sat at my desk in the trailer, letting my fingers dance on the dusty keys of my laptop. I typed away, jamming software procedures into a user guide when a whooshing sound rippled past the trailer, nearly indistinguishable from the sound of an incoming helicopter as it crossed the wire and passed over us.

A boom echoed off in the distance; then a small vibration rumbled against the soles of my boots. Another deeper sound erupted in response, closer and louder. A ripping burst then a pause followed by crackling explosions in the air. I tensed and looked toward the ceiling as if I could see something of what was happening.

“C-RAM,” one of the guys mumbled.

A second rocket hit, far away. A second C-RAM answered.

The trailer fell silent, thick with anticipation, waiting for more. Another rocket, another C-RAM to rebut it. That burnt smell swelled in the air, so thick it spread onto my tongue, that same smell that assaulted me at my first step off the plane.

A voice in the distance declared the all clear, transient as if broadcast from a helicopter. Soldiers arrived in the trailer for accountability, to ensure we were all present and still alive. As we stood in the dark beside our T-wall lined with a single strand of Christmas lights, our jingle T-wall, we heard the sirens traveling in the distance. The rockets had hit something.

In the dark, I took a breath and went with it.

 

Christina Bergling

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iraq3

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.

wwp8k

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.