Note: I had a number of thoughtful conversations with a soldier from our first encounter at NTC to the two embeds I did in Afghanistan. On my second embed, he had returned from R&R and we were talking about the difficulty transitioning from the “civilized” world to a combat zone and vice versa. I shared my own experiences and he shared his impressions. He said: Cheryl, you have to write about it. People don’t understand. You have to write about it.” I wrote this blog about a month ago. I’ve hesistated to post it because it’s so deeply personal…and yet, I made a promise to a soldier and I’m going to keep it.
I’m sitting by the pool at Sarah’s home. The water feels too cold yet for a swim so I’m soaking up the sun.
I’ve been out of Afghanistan a week and today is the first day I feel remotely rested. It’s the first day I’ve left the house.
I’ve seen the photos of the first soldiers returning home–and I’ve been thinking of my own transitions from war zones to home.
I’m a PADI scuba instructor. I’ve been diving since I was a teenager and there is nowhere I am happier than under the water swimming with fish, sharks and whales, hovering over coral bending in current or just floating and watching the light filter and sparkle in the deep blue.
There are people who think my choice of recreation and profession are reckless. And I’ll admit, I do push the envelope a bit. However, in diving, I always take a safety stop.
When you dive, the gasses builds up in your system, pushed in under the weight of the atmospheres of pressure above you. You ascend slowly and then take a safety stop to out gas, release what was built up, safely. If you don’t…if you ascend too quickly or ignore your dive plan, you can get “the bends” or “bent”….you can get extremely ill or die.
Long ago, probably after my first trip to Liberia, I learned I need a safety stop when I leave a war zone. Too much builds up…the horror, the suffering, the fear….it’s sneaky and it builds up like the gas in a scuba diver.
In Somalia, for example, I would arrive in Nairobi and check into the $10/night room over the brothel in a neighborhood where it wasn’t safe to cross the street in daylight. I’d make friends with the desk clerk so I know I would not be robbed or visited in the middle of the night. This was my way of transitioning. I’d cross from the luxury and ease of my civilized life into the mayhem and madness of civil war.
When I’d return from weeks in Somalia, I would pull out my American Express card and check into the five-star Mt. Kenya Safari Club. I’d lock the door, soak in a tub, order room service for two days and eat pineapple and coconut on clean white sheets. I wanted the pleasure and the luxury to cross back over….to leave the anarchy and bloodshed.
I know the signs of the tough transition: fragile, exhausted, bone and soul weary.
I ache with emotion–it feels like my heart is exposed. I’m not wearing it on my sleeve. I’ve ripped it out of its sacred sanctuary and offered to the bright, searing light of the desert–skewered it on a rib. I don’t want to socialize. I am achingly lonely and I want to be alone.
I have learned the hard way that a safety stop–a decompression stop–is mandatory in leaving war for home.
When my youngest brother married, I caught a plane from Mogadishu and landed in Houston–with no decompression time.
I’d been at a wedding in Mogadishu where the mother of the bride had posted armed guards around the compound to secure my safety so I could join the celebration. While gunfire erupted outside, we painted our hands with henna and giggled.
I stood a day and a half later and a world away at a posh restaurant in Houston to give a toast at my brother’s rehearsal dinner. I was moved by the love in the room–the shining light of love on my brother and his bride-to-be’s faces.
When I opened my mouth to speak, tears spilled from my eyes. I stopped talking and tried to compose myself.
Each time I tried to speak, tears poured down my face. My brother squeezed my right hand, grounding me, tethering me, holdling me in place as I struggled to hold it together.
I coulnd’t. I was bent.
The laughing. Joy. Love. The long table full of beautiful foods. Too jarring a contrast to the bleakness of famine and starvation I’d just left. Dying children and blood spilling from bodies like red latex paint.
Later, my brother would come to my room and sit on the bed where I wasn’t sleeping.
He put his hand on my leg.
“Cheryl, are you OK?”
I will remember the moment until the day I die. I wanted to say “no.” I wanted to say that something is terribly wrong. I’m blank and empty and drowning inside.
I lay there in the dark. I felt the tears knock, knock, knock…and I squeezed them back.
I knew if I spoke, my voice would betray my sorrow. I could not speak the ugliness I carried–not to my brother–not on the cusp of his bright new blessed married life.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”
I knew I wasn’t fine. I felt that all I’d witnessed, what I’d seen and done, what I hadn’t done….I carried it like radioactive waste, like poison inside me. If I spoke of it, if I shared it, I would poison those I love.
I made a choice. It stays with me. Locked in me. I carry it.
Now I know better. And even with all my experience and awareness, I can still come undone leaving a war zone and going home.
I appreciate it when my friends respect my silence, when they notice I don’t want to talk or socialize. I appreciate it when they let me turn my head or flee the room when unexpected tears start to sting my eyes. I am happy for the nourishing food, hot water, hugs and laughter that are offered with abundance.
I don’t know what it will be like for the soldiers. I do know they don’t get a safety stop.
When I think of all those homecoming moments, all that love and ache and longing crashing into the arms of their loved ones who have been strung out with relentless worry for their beloveds over 12 long months.
Yes. The joy. The relief. The release.
And yet, the soldiers will be only days from their last patrol, from the adrenaline of all they’ve lived and accomplished…and what they’ve suffered and lost. Just days from the fear and longing they’ve lived with for 12 long months, too.
They’re coming up from a great depth under extreme pressure.
They’ll need a safety stop.