What To Do When You Don’t Have A Clue

I have no idea what I should do.  I have been feeling overwhelmed; angry; sad; frustrated; confused; forgetful; forgotten; unappreciated; & unappreciative.  The past month and a half have been difficult to manage, in fact, I have been absent from work for the past two weeks.  I am currently awaiting the VA to decide whether or not they will help me with an inpatient stay at a PTSD program.  The hold up in this process is likely the fact that according to their examinations of me that I do not have PTSD, only Adjustment Disorder with anxiety due to combat.  My service connection for mental health has not been finalized yet as I am in the (middle, beginning, end?) of an appeal.  They did graciously add to my service connection that they would cover and treat any mental health issues per Chapter 17.  Funny that their treatment plan for me was exactly the same as what it would be for someone who has PTSD…but far be it from me to suggest that the VA simply is looking for ways to not diagnose people with PTSD for monetary reasons.  Anyway, I digress.  There is a program near JBLM that helps with people who are struggling with the symptoms of PTSD and I have been referred to it by my therapist – someone outside the VA channels that I used the Choice Act to access.  What I really want is to go there and start to work on finding ways to heal and live with who I am now.  Over the past 6 months, every time I go to an appointment with the VA or with Choice Act providers their practitioners have sent someone out to talk with me to see “if I was okay.”  Just based on my presentation most times, other times by my truthful answers to their check in document surveys.  You know the one – “How many times this past week have you felt…”  Well, damn.  My answers must show something concerning for all the fuss.  Even at work (where I thought I was keeping up a pretty good poker face) my co-workers finally started to ask that familiar question, “Are you okay?”  That, I admit, was a difficult dose of reality for me to accept.  When I talked with my wife later she told me “See, everyone sees it.”  At my place of employment I have to deal with people in crisis that need someone strong and stable to support them getting the help that they need.  Daily.  Multiple times.  I also am one of the supervisors that the staff go to to get help in maintaining their caseloads and when they need help processing problems and direction.  Me.  In my current capacity, I am the last person that should be dealing with any of that.  And so, when my current therapist (for the second time) suggested that I think about inpatient treatment, I was finally ready to accept that I did need help.  I informed work and family that I was taking some time away for me to get some help.  Little did I know that the VA would prove to be glacial in its pace to assist a veteran who actually needed something more than an ibuprofen or hand surgery.  No kidding.  I have yet to have anyone in the VA system even admit to getting the referral from my therapist after two weeks.  Contrast that with the time when I saw my VA primary care physician about my extremely painful thumb – I had a referral to a hand surgeon within a week and they freaking cut my thumb in two before a month was done!  But mental health issues?  Veterans who don’t know if they might get angry enough to drive their van through a building or lose their employment because they get confused and feel threatened?  Or worse, a veteran who is so burned out that when a client comes to him seeking help that he misses the signs and that person kills themselves.   No, that situation requires the VA professionals time to “seek clarification on the recommendations of your Choice Act therapist and the mental health team at VAPORHS.”  And cynical as it may sound, I understand exactly what the VA is doing.  They are banking that veterans will just get so frustrated that they give up, that they walk away from the process.  In my case, they will be quick to point their fingers outside of their system, saying “this person didn’t contact us or fax required documentation.”  But what they don’t know is that I have already seen from both sides that they did in fact receive documentation – it’s all just stalling tactics.  But even if any of that was true, there is the fact that during the two weeks I have been waiting for the VA system to do something, I have only received ONE phone call from anyone in the VA mental health team and it wasn’t to talk to me about my current situation or my well-being.  No, it was a single phone call to see if I could sign a release of information.  The impetus of the VA clinicians to maintain a professional detachment and the overwhelming dictate to not do anything to step outside of service-connection has turned the practice of likely ordinarily helpful people into bureaucratic linemen, stalling any who dare attempt to break through into services that they may need but don’t rate.  And though I feel like screaming at the VA personnel every single time I see any of them, I sit and quietly smile, because every veteran knows that if you act out in anger in a VA facility you get banned from services.  So, I sit here without a clue, awaiting help from a system that is trying its damnedest to not do anything at all.  I wish I could sit here today and connect all this to some grand lesson or anecdote that shows forward progression on the path of life; but I promised that this would be an honest journey and that I would strive to tell the truth, even if it was painful.  What am I supposed to do when I don’t have a clue of what to do?  I haven’t a clue…

Qmo

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What’s in a name?

You may be wondering why I sign off each time with the moniker Qmo.  Well, this is the simplified form of the nickname that I was bestowed by my platoon in Infantry school, and because I liked it, it stuck.  Qmo is short for Quasimodo, the famous bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral in France.  It became what my team called me in the Marines and followed me all the way through my deployment with I MEF.  And like all good nicknames, this one comes with a story…

My platoon was in the middle of learning urban fighting techniques, and at the time I was a fire team leader.  I was at the West coast School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, California during the month of August.  This meant that it was very warm out.  Our training schedule had us in the field for over a week straight, and this being the phase after the initial range runs, we were in decent physical shape.  During this phase, we were learning building breaching techniques, specifically room clearing through an elevated window.  The trick to this maneuver was that our fire team would stack and then rush to the window.  The first Marine would lean and crouch against the wall and be in position to help heave the next Marines through with their hands giving a boost up.  We had run through “Barney-style” multiple times and had been practicing the drill over and over again.  My platoon was not meeting the instructors desired levels of proficiency, and as the day wore on and the heat increased, our enthusiasm waned.  It just happened that after a particularly blase performance by a fire team that my team was next in the queue.  The instructors very demonstratively informed the platoon that if they even thought we weren’t giving it our all that we would “take a walk that night and look for our motivation.”  Not wanting to hump all night, and also not wanting to be the reason that we had to miss out on a few hours of rest, I resolved to show them my war face.  I slapped my team on the shoulders emphatically to get us moving.  I was the second Marine meaning that I would be the first through the window.  The way it is supposed to work is that the team clears quadrants of the room.  “1 set! Mouse hole right! 1 clear!!” is what I was supposed to scream out to my team as I swept my quadrant, as my team then fluidly cleared their quadrants and the room was declared “ALL CLEAR!”  That’s how it was supposed to be.  In my case, however, I came running toward the window with my loudest war-cry and upon getting boosted through the window, my Kevlar helmeted head solidly struck the header and I did a complete flip and landed unconscious on the room floor.  The instructors in the room told me that they rushed to my side to “see how badly I’d messed myself up.” *an extremely cleaned up version of their actual phrasing… and after a few moments of being motionless I suddenly jumped up and cleared my quadrant properly.  They told me this story later that night because I had fuzzy memories regarding that event.  But, with smiles and laughter they christened me “Quasimodo, the bell ringer!”

Shortened through time to Qmo, it has been a moniker that I cherish.  A reminder of a time when I had gone through some of the hardest training in my life, and had succeeded.  A reminder of a time when I had bonded with people I would have willingly taken on anyone with and died alongside happily.  As mementos go, Qmo’s not a shabby one at all.

Semper Fi,

Qmo

But I always carried my knife

When I deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the Marines, I had a KABAR that I carried with me always.  A bunch of the Marines in my platoon did the same.  None of us had been to combat (back then we only had a few in our Battalion that had deployed to Desert Storm and only 1 who had actually had Vietnam service) and so we all had our own thoughts and ideas about what invading Iraq was going to be like.  We had been given our desert combat uniforms (DCU) which blended well into the Iraqi desert.  But then as typical of the Marine Corps getting hand-me downs, ALL of our chemical suits and ballistic vests were in the dark green forest camouflage pattern.  “So much for concealment…” I supposed at the time.  Better yet, the Interceptor Body Armor (IBA) that we were given had no SAPI plates which meant that our ballistic vests were really there just as a nice warm sweater – in the Iraqi desert.   Really, the tag reads “protection from fragmentation and 9mm submachine gun or lesser threats.  This vest does not protect against knives or sharp objects.”  What were the main arms of the Iraqi army?  AK-47’s, which fire a 7.62 round, a might bigger than 9mm.  My platoon in particular was lese majeste in regards to our fitting out.  When our chemical suits (also forest camouflage) started to acquire rips and tears due to our having to actually wear them and work in them at the same time, the NBC (nuke, bio, chem) officer told us to just use duct tape on them.  While I’m sure that it would work it didn’t inspire us with confidence of actually surviving a chem attack.  The best news ever, however, especially for a former grunt, came when we were given our ammunition.  31 rounds.  That’s 2 magazines of 15 with one in the chamber.  We were told in our platoon to spread load them across magazines to make it appear to be more if we were engaged.  Now, I get it.  We were support and the majority of ammo was rightfully allocated for the infantry elements in front of us.  But we’re the frickin United States of America.  Every service-member should have had a full combat load.  On our convoys, our 246G’s had 15 rounds.  Just enough for the belt to flop into the canister and look like it was full.  Doctrine at the time was different.  They still were the under the impression that only front line troops were really going to need the stuff.  But, remember that story about Pvt. Jessica Lynch?  Yeah, that was a maintenance company convoy that happened to be only a few miles from where we were operating at the same time.  So, yeah, me and my platoon always wore our KABAR’s on our legs like a stupid SEAL wannabe.  But it wasn’t just because it looked cool.  We knew that if we actually came into contact with the enemy that after 31 rounds, we were going to be utilizing our knives very quickly.  What a different time that was…we call it the “wild, wild west” now because of how just free and open the operational doctrine was.  There were many times that my maintenance fire team would jump into a soft sides Hummer, with no radio, and just drive looking for American vehicles and equipment we could repair, strip, or…ahem…”acquire.”   The stark difference in convoy experience is shown in the two pictures at the end.  In one, I have full kit in a MRAP rolling in a convoy that is tracked via radio, satellite, and hours of pre-mission planning.  In the other, is me and a buddy sitting in the open air in a lone vehicle just taking a cruise through the Iraqi countryside.  No radio, no blueforce tracker, no hours of planning and rehearsing.  And check it out…just me in the sweater and 31 rounds.  But I always carried my knife.

Thankful that I only needed use it for my machismo and MRE’s,

Qmo

Castles in the sand

One of my favorite memories from the invasion of Iraq takes place when my company was on the plains of Ur, near An-Nasiriyah.  We had moved out from the Kuwaiti border 24 hours after our infantry units crossed Breach Point West.  We left in the middle of the night, in a fantastic sand storm.  We had no idea what that sand would do to our trip and our weapons, but I suppose that the command figured that moving in cover was the safest bet.  I guess so, because we made it to where we going to build our Logistics Support Area (LSA).  I remember that those first few days were hot, dirty, and long.  We literally built our base from nothing in the middle of a hot, barren, wind-swept plain.  The first time that I was able to walk around and take stock of the landscape I realized that I could not see anything…no mountains, no cities, no trees.  The curvature of the horizon was occasionally able to be glimpsed, when the mirage effect was not distorting the vantage.  Not that we spent much time looking around.  We were THE maintenance and supply hub for the invasion.  If we weren’t working on vehicles, we were building facilities, and when we weren’t doing that we were on watch or sleeping.  My MOS during this time was Heavy Equipment mechanic and my job was Corporal of the Guard.  This meant that I had to set and relieve the watch every 2 hours, while doing my maintenance duties.  To make finding me easier, I was given permission to move my tent from the tent cluster to the area near the maintenance shop entrance.  This way, the constant coming and going by other Marines doing their watch duties would not interfere with the rest needed by everyone else.  In making this “guard shack” I was able to build my own berms and salvaged enough materials to completely cover my tent and the common area with camouflage netting.  My favorite memory came a few weeks after my little castle was complete.  In the midst of this hot, and barren sand pile, a little bird made a nest under the rain fly of my tent.  I was able to hear the little guy chirp all night long, and during the day it would flit about under the netting catching flies out of the air.  The bird, which I think is a common chiffchaff, had some yellow coloring within the sandy brown.  I took some photos of that little bird, but they didn’t make it through the deployment.  All I have now is the memories of my little friend.  It did such a good job of keeping the flies away that I often welcomed guests with “you scare my bird away and I’ll kill you.”  I don’t know what happened to that little bird, but I imagine that it moved along as soon as we began the tear-down and move out farther up into Iraq…but the weeks that it spent with me will always be a fond memory in a time of not very fond remembrances.

common-chiffchaff-6

Qmo

Flip a switch

Several weeks ago I began a therapy called EMDR.  I don’t know much about it other than it has something to do with retraining the way that the brain processes emotions and memories.  What I can say for it is that I already feel the benefit far more than I ever did with medications.  I’m not saying that I don’t have a long way to go, but I do get the sense that I have rounded a corner.  A switch in my brain feels like it has been flipped into a new direction.  Over the past weeks I have felt more calm and happier than I have in quite awhile.  My wife says that she has noticed a difference and her comments started about the same time I began EMDR, so it feels like a connection.  It might not seem like a big thing but I went to church with my family today.  We went for a morning drive afterward and just have had more real family moments where I have felt present.  I bought the kids a vintage Battleship game and just enjoyed watching them play it, I even played a little myself with my youngest.  I know that I have a ways to go yet, but it feels nice to be among the living again – with a hope that there can be a real lasting change in how and why I feel what I do.

I don’t know if anyone out there will be swayed by the recommendation of a former Marine grunt/Army Soldier, but if nothing else is working, give EMDR a chance.

Peace out,

Qmo

Just smile and wave, boys…just smile, and wave.

Image result for penguins smile and wave

Those penguins of Madagascar had one of the best lines in the movie.  I feel like that often in my life.  Over the past weeks I have felt completely overwhelmed by feelings and thoughts.  I haven’t a clue as to what has precipitated my feelings recently, but I feel like I have to put a mask on everyday just to make it through.  This happened often in my run-up to being sent to Jordan.  I knew I was in trouble, that I wasn’t close to 100%, but I just put that mask on and pushed ahead.  At the time of my training and preparation for mobilization I was also the pastor of a church and a mental health counselor.  To say that I was suffering from compassion fatigue is an understatement.  I had been burning my candle at both ends and in the middle.  By the time my orders came through I was near the point of exhaustion.  If I had been strong enough, and brave enough, I would have reached out for help then.  However, I am a hard-headed and stupid man.  I decided that I could suck it up and drive on – oohrah.  I was determined to “not tarnish my honor” by admitting that I was not up to the task at hand.  (These, of course, the musings of a much older and wiser hard-headed and stupid man).  I think that the mask started to slip fairly early into my deployment though.   I was paired with a person that not only was likely dealing with his own wounds and scars, but whom was also the polar opposite of myself.

I once told a Sergeant Major that “I could work with anyone.”  That vain and ignorant statement would most certainly come back to haunt me.  I have been trying to be as fair as possible in my recollections and recounting of this person, but I find that I am still too hurt to be completely objective.  Where I would choose quiet persuasion, he would choose overt bullying.  Where I would counsel compromise and cooperation, he would disappear and ignore.  How many times was I asked, “Where is he?”  My job was to know, and I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  He was my Captain Dike.  I literally walked miles and searched for hours trying to answer that question.  And the truth is, I didn’t really  want to find him.  We were stranded for 2 months in Kuwait waiting for important documents because of his bullying and impatience.  Two months!  We could have been on mission, doing our jobs, but his decision resulted in me basically being turned back into a Private, and given duties commensurate.  You know that you are fulfilling a vital task when you organize closets and files that had not been touched in 6 years.  I’m quite proud of that actually.  That’s about when I first started to hear, with regularity, “Everything okay?” and it’s not like I could answer truthfully.  Then, we finally make it to our mission in Jordan and almost immediately he made difficulties with the command that, from my viewpoint, caused us to be transferred to Afghanistan.  I honestly don’t know how I was able to function, but I did.  I accomplished the absolute, bare-bones of my responsibility in Afghanistan.  I told him upon our arrival in Kabul that I did not feel that our current orders supported our leaving post, and that after getting through Iraq twice, I had nothing that I needed to prove.  This was a lie.  The truth was that as a fundamental responsibility as a Chaplain Assistant and as a Christian, it was my duty to lay my life down to protect his – and I couldn’t guarantee that I would.  He did not challenge me on this.  As it was, there were multiple times that I actually had to place myself at risk for his welfare even on our post (again, not trying to over-inflate my service – but this is true).  The times that I did it was more out of concern for the reputation of the office of Chaplain and for myself than for personal concern for him.  That is amazingly hurtful to write…but unfortunately true.  I perfected my smile and wave enough that no one else suspected.  But I knew, and I am rather sure that he did too.  But again, he did not challenge me on this.

Which brings me back to now.  I have been “smiling and waving” so long, that it feels like that is what I should be doing.  But it’s not sustainable.  My practice of living is not sustainable.  I can’t keep doing the same things and think that a different outcome will occur.  That’s insanity.  I was hurt before because I was unable/unwilling to admit that I needed help and that I was not able to accomplish something.  Well, without a doubt it is time to change that narrative.  Tomorrow morning I take a large step outside of my comfortable rut and walk in a different direction.  An important step, and one that must be free from any masks, any “smiling and waving.”

Dropping Pretenses Regardlessly,

Qmo

Sweeping Streets

Today was difficult to get through and to be quite honest, I almost didn’t try to make it.  I was very close to just calling my boss and letting him know that I was not going to be able to make it in to the office today.  I could have, but that would have been the wrong answer for me.  I have already missed several weeks from work and I know that even though I was far from 100% today, that I needed to make it.  Two main things made me go into work today.  First, I had promised a friend that we would meet and study the Psalms today and pray together.  Second, I intellectually know that every time I stay in my safe zone at home that I am in fact reinforcing the opposite that I want to occur in my life.  So, I went out of the house and, in fact, made it through the day.  Though I really did feel quite “off” today, I was able to accomplish what I needed to.

Funny thing is that when I got home I decided that I was just not ready to be in the house with the family yet.  I know that they can tell when they need to keep their distance and I know when I am feeling agitated.  So tonight, when I arrived home and was feeling this way, I decided that I needed to sweep the street clean of the aftermath of our long winter – gravel.  I swept from our mailbox all the way to our side street.  I had to move our vehicles, dodge some traffic, and shovel quite a bit of the aggregate off the road but it now looks freshly swept and I ended up gaining a good bit of weed cover in my front yard.  By the time I was finished I realized that I was feeling better and that I was ready to be around family again.  It reminded me of another time I that I swept up and took great satisfaction in the task.  Iraq is known for its amazing sandstorms, Haboob’s, and when I was assigned to 25th ID/3DBE’s Bronco Chapel (we were on an extended downtime from Transition team rounds) we had one of the most epic sandstorms I can recall.  After 2 days it finally died down and we were able to finally see the results to our office and chapel.  There was a thick layer of sand covering everything.  I ended up helping my immediate supervisor move all the furniture, electrical equipment, instruments – everything – out of the chapel and began to sweep up the mess.  It took hours, but I remember just being so happy to do that work and I loved how clean the place looked and felt afterward.  You see, I’m one of those Chaplain Assistant’s who really believes that a chapel is not just a place we do church but is in fact the place where we go to worship and cry out to God.  I also understand that it is a testament to His mercy and grace that we are even allowed to have life in our body, and that each moment that we are allowed to continue is just more evidence of His matchless compassion for us.  I know…with all the struggles that I have been having, that seems a little confident.  But, my struggles are not with HIM.  My belief in Him has never wavered and actually has never been stronger.  My struggles are something internal to me, and in my practice and expression with others.  I know, it’s confusing to me too.

Regardless, I have always held a high view on the place and manner of worship.  So for me, it was an act of duty and service that brought much enjoyment to clean and prepare that chapel for use again.  And that was not the only time.  In Jordan and Afghanistan I was just as focused on making sure that there area that was set aside for ministry met my standard for personal and communal worship.  Now, what does that have to do with sweeping the streets today making me feel better?  There is something to be said for just getting to work and making something better than it was.  The longest hump I have ever accomplished started the same way that the shortest one did, I took a single step.  Psalm 51:10 says “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.”  God certainly can use majestic and radical events to make instant change in our lives.  I know that is some people’s experience.  But God can also use the unexpected and the small gesture to do the same.  That’s more my experience.  Not the crashing thunder, but the still small voice.  Taking the small first step today and just getting out my door, and finishing the day with some good solid labor that is observably obvious is that still small way that the Lord helps to bring me back.  I may try to hide from it at times, I may even fight it at times, but the nice thing is that He never stops.  And I sure keep leaving plenty of messes that He needs to help clean up…but at least I’m on the road to renewal again.

Qmo