Posts Tagged ‘iraq’

I keep myself pathologically busy in my life. My life would be full enough with my day job and my fledgling as a published author and my husband and our two young children. I am infamous for multitasking, always doing at least three things at once. Yet, to all this, I continually add. I plan and do more. Some might consider it an addiction or even a sickness, to cram some sort of activity or task into nearly every waking second of my time. My friends, who so justifiably enjoy their leisure time on their couches, will ask me when I appear drained with bagged under my eyes, “Why? Why do you stay so busy?”

The answer is deeper than mere compulsion. There is a philosophy, a way of life behind why I keep myself (and subsequently my entire family) so exhausting engaged, entertained, and active. Ultimately, the life choice comes down to two formative times in my past.

First, in and after college, I squandered my youth. The saying goes: “Youth is wasted on the young.” That sentiment was especially true for me. I spent these youthful and formative years lost in the defect in my brain. I let depression infect this time and prevent me from doing and experiencing so much more.

I spent my youth consumed by my own pain, indulging in every self-destructive behavior I could devise. I tortured myself. I was drunk and fat and unhappy. This decade later, I can only think of all the ways I could have better exploited that time, all the things I could have done and experienced before life’s obligations wrapped around me, restrained me.

Yes, I learned from this chapter in my life. No, given the choice I would not change it because I would not want to alter the result. However, that foolishness lingers at the edge of my memories like a nagging regret.

Then, shortly after the wasted self-destructive period in my life waned, I went to Iraq as a civilian contractor. I was still quite youthful and naive, but, at the very least, I was somewhat disentangled from the darkness in my own head. Just in time for my time in a war zone to crack my entire head open (figuratively) and give me an entirely new and life-altering perspective on life.

Iraq worked on me from several different angles. Prior, from the cushion and comfort of my American life, I told myself that I knew that other people lived differently; I told myself that watching and reading about it made me aware. I had no idea, and, more importantly, I know now that I still do not.

In Iraq, in a war zone, I was exposed to how people in that country were living, what they were doing to each other, what they were surviving.  More directly, I got see and even share a bit of how a deployed soldier had to live. I was fortunate enough to be a young civilian girl who they kept behind the wire and usually on the larger bases. However, I got just the slightest taste of the distance, the withdrawals from home, the isolation.

In both cases, I learned to appreciate how I lived at home and also see it through a new lens.

But it was the nature of a war zone itself that influenced my philosophy. It is true anywhere that we could die at any moment. However, that seems much more apparent and likely in a place where sirens are going off for rocket attacks and there is a daily wounded/abducted/killed tally. All of these new and morbid realities were terrifying on my sheltered psyche. I may have loved horror my entire life, but I loved horror in media, not in my real life.

Both of these experiences seemed to be translated and processed by my brain the same way, resulting in my near biological need to keep myself obsessively busy. The two compounded one another, evolved upon the preceding lesson. Both of them boil down to: do not waste time. Whether it be that you will be young once before it is gone or that you could die at any moment for a myriad of reasons, do not waste the time.

So I pack the time. I cram it and stretch it and exploit it. I do not think that I will want to do something some day because it has been so deeply branded into my brain that I am not guaranteed some day. I do not want to spend my last breath thinking I should have gotten out more or traveled more or seen more or done more. I do not want to be rested and bored. I can rest if I make it to a retirement home; I can sleep on my death bed.

Instead, I strive to channel Thoreau and Dead Poets’ Society; I endeavor to suck all the marrow out of life.

So yes, I work a demanding full time day job to support my family and finance all our adventures and hobbies. Yes, I write and publish at every single chance I get; I try to pour my soul out on the page. And I try to get those books out for people to read. Yes, I travel at every opportunity, personally and professionally. Yes, I run and workout and take zumba classes and barre classes and do races and hike. Yes, I set up endless playdates for my children and get them into dance and any other activity they want. Yes, I fill up our evenings and weekends with dinners and projects and trips.

Before the dementia sinks in, I want the corners of my wrinkled, aged mind to be free, uncluttered with any regrets and only teeming with more memories than I can hold onto.

I live. I live as hard as I possibly can.

(And this long winded babble may or may not be an attempt at rationalizing why this blog has been so neglected.)

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In my book, Savages, I explore what time in Iraq would mean to a person as they try to survive the apocalypse. In my second book, coming later this year, I paint a picture of woman caged by regret for a life wasted on career.

http://christinabergling.com

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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.

If I am going to be talking about survival (even in apocalyptic proportions), I should start by discussing my own small brush with Death. I have been relatively lucky in life and have not (yet) needed to physically survive much catastrophe.

The closest I came to surviving a natural disaster was enduring a 9-day blackout. A nearby tornado sent a devastating storm cell through our neighborhood, which tore down many of the large, established trees. The trees took out power lines, pulled down the poles, blocked all the roads. My daughter was a newborn, and I was on the end of my maternity leave. We still had access to food and water and could easily drive to electricity (once the roads were carved open). It was just a long series of inconvenient days.

I also went to an active war zone for a couple months. However, by the time I put boots in Iraq, contractors were no longer allowed outside the wire, so I had no direct contact with the country or the conflict. And insurgents were less than effective with missiles over large walls and concrete T-walls.

The first time I heard the sirens in the dining facility (DFAC), all of the third country nationals (TCNs) came flooding out from the kitchen to hide under the tables. My heart started to pound in my ears. I did not know what to do or if a rocket was going to  come blazing through the ceiling. My coworkers calmly kept eating and told me if a rocket hit the building, a table was not going to save me. And that was it.

My closest flirtation with Death, instead, happened when I was 22 on the Arkansas River. I was graduating from college that summer, and a large contingent of family was in town for the ceremony and my younger sister’s graduation from high school. We decided to go whitewater rafting a couple days before the festivities.

I squeezed my (at the time) fat ass into a wet suit, and we took to the rafts. They divided our group into two, and I ended up in the second raft. It was a Colorado drought that year, and the water level was extremely low. As the raft drifted down the river, I often felt the river rocks bumping against me through the bottom of the raft. Over and over, we got stuck on a rock and had to shimmy, shake, pull, and paddle our way off. It was not rapids we encountered; it was exposed rocks.

At one particular point, the raft got deeply wedged up on a rock. The water then poured down from the rock in a small slip but not at enough volume to keep us afloat or moving. The raft clung to the rock, and all our jostling and shifting were for not. As the first raft disappeared around the bend, our guide eventually dismounted the raft and instructed us all to do the same.

As my uncle and I stood, a wave of water pushed the raft up and onto its side, spilling us out. I felt my feet slip from the raft; I felt myself falling. And I felt my leg slide behind the chicken line (the rope that lines the top of the raft). I plunged into the cold water, and the force of the water held me down, yet I was not moving downstream. I was stuck, immobile, caught.

I kicked my legs confused, but my right leg was hooked on that chicken line, caught behind the knee. I was tethered to the raft. My hands shot out only to grope cold, shapeless, moving water. I struggled to sit up, but the weight of the current moving over me held me down. Panic spread through my skin as I realized I could not get out, could not get up, and could not get free.

At this point, my body and my brain divorced. It happened so quickly and so completely. I felt the panic in my flesh; I was aware that my body continued to flail and grope, that I was thrashing around in the water like I was drowning. However, my mind ascended somewhere more detached and placid.

I remember the thought moving slowly over my mind, Holy shit, this is how I am going to die. I’m not even going to graduate college. This is how I’m going to die. This is bullshit.

Even with this bitter acceptance laying across my brain, my body continued to fight. I tried again and again, repeatedly, to catch a breath of air. My lungs and my muscles were desperate. The sunlight danced on the surface of the water, which appeared to be just above my face. It looked so close, like I was right there. Surely, I could just lean up and take a breath. I struggled and stretched, yet every gasp only filled my mouth with more water.

My arms continued to claw out into the shifting nothing around me. They were relentless until my nails raked across something. All my attention diverted to that something. I had no idea what I was touching. I did not care. I focused all my efforts there; I dug in and clawed my way, heaved myself out of the water.

I broke the unimpressive rapids that were drowning me in a desperate gasp and firmly pressed my head against another rock, pinning myself above the force of the current. My family and our guide were surprised to see me. They had assumed I had been washed downstream. My uncle clung to the chicken wire beside me; it had been his arm that I groped up, leaving nail marks deep through his wet suit.

When I did finally emerge from the water, they thought the raft was on top of me, pinning me, and attempted to tug it free. I felt the pull on the back of my knee and the pain. I jerked with their efforts. Feeling myself drag down against my savior rock, I threatened to tumble back into the water. Panic flared up in me again, and I screamed in an incoherent slew of cussing. My father finally climbed forward and heaved me into the raft.

I crouched trembling at the bottom of the raft as we finally flowed down the river again. It was all a blur of fading panic and adrenaline. I was disoriented and at a loss to process what just happened. Our guide had me pick up a paddle and keep rowing.

When we beached the raft, my father came over and held me for a moment without a word. When I later peeled off my wet suit, I had a small rope burn across the hinge of my knee. Yet that tiny abrasion would blossom into a deep and black bruise.

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The force of the water that kept me underwater so effectively also tore a long line in my thigh muscle. The physical therapist I eventually saw a year later said he was surprised it did not pull my hip from its joint. The entire back of my thigh turned black; then the blood began to pool on the back of my calf as well. The rope burn was deep enough, even through the wet suit, to scab heavily.

It took months for the blood to reabsorb and dissipate from my leg. I could not even wear pants for the first week or two; it was so sensitive. Even after the color had faded, the tenderness persisted. I was driving with a pillow to prop my leg off the edge of the seat by the time I relented to see that physical therapist.

I was probably under the water for less than a minute. However, in that detached, accepting, panicked state, it felt like much longer. I would have believed I struggled against the crushing, formless water and eerily calm thoughts for closer to 20 minutes. If my uncle had not been dangling from the chicken line for me to climb up, I do not know that they would have realized where I was before I did drown.

I did not see a light, beside the mocking sunlight playing on the surface I could not reach. My life did not flash before my eyes, only the damning realization that this was it for me. No angels, devils, or anything in between. It was the mental detachment, the calm acceptance that unnerved me. Though I have to admit, that would not be the worst state to exit this life in. No pain, separated from the panic, just quietly thinking it was bullshit.

Have you had a near-death or survival situation? Was your glimpse different than my own?