I recently was asked about how I adjusted to life in Iraq. State Department even has a course we have to take when we get back re adjustment. They worry about our mental health in a high stress environment and they want to figure out how our experience can help the next group. I don’t know how much my experience can help others. Each experience is unique and I was lucky in my timing and my place. I arrived in Anbar just as the violence was ebbing. Given the extreme pessimism and scary stories in the media, I was ready for a horrible experience. Instead there was steady improvement and strengthening peace. It is much easier to adjust to better than expected conditions than the opposite.
Luck was also on my side in my decisions and the couple of hard decisions that turned out well. For example, after a few successful attacks against Coalition Forces in Anbar and another PRT that resulted in deaths, some members of my team were feeling a bit skittish about all the travel we did outside the wire. I determined that the successful attacks were just a statistical cluster and did not represent an actionable trend, so I put on the mask of certainty and told my staff that we would trust the ability of the Marines to keep us secure and continue our activities w/o pause. We kept up our busy schedule and nobody got hurt. Now we all feel brave and it was the right decision, but if it had turned out differently it would have been hard to take. I respect my military colleagues, who often must make decisions that WILL result in people dying.
There were not many heroic decisions I had to make. Mostly I had to deal with the more prosaic problems of dirt, uncertainty and discomfort. A lot of the same problems we have everywhere else, we have in Iraq. I think being away from family and familiar surroundings is the hardest for most people. It was hard for me. There is a special sort of isolation in a place like Iraq. I felt doubly away from home because there were few trees. Everywhere else I have ever been I have always found ways to walk in the woods. It is how I relax. Not in Iraq.
You are reading one of the best things I did to adjust to isolation. Keeping this blog and sharing my experience kept me feeling in touch and helped me in concrete ways. I could give my blog URL to people asking questions about Iraq. Writing also helped me keep my own experience in perspective. You take a different role when you try to explain something in writing to others.
When reading the biographies of great individuals, I am always impressed by how much information there is about them in the form of letters, diaries and journals. I am beginning to think that the relationship is casual in both directions, i.e. people who do important things keep journals and because they make the writer think through his ideas, journals help make people important. I have always kept journals, but never regularly. I started to keep the blog because I thought that my experience in Iraq might be important enough for others to want to see. I found that it helped me a great deal in the way I mentioned above and it made my thinking clearer and my actions more effective. I recommend it to all.
I did other things experts recommend, such as keeping regular habits. I would advise anyone living in a climate like Iraq’s to wake up at or a little before dawn during the summer months. That is the time of the day when the weather is pleasant. I like to run. At 0530 running is good. By 0800 it is already too hot and somebody who woke up at 0700 and did not get moving until around 0800 would only see experience the blistering heat and have that impression of Iraq. You are smarter to change habits in winter. In December it is cold in the morning, but nicely warm in the afternoon. In that season it makes sense to wake up a little later and do your outdoor activities later in the day. Actually nature gives you the directions. The sun comes up later in winter, so if you just get up around dawn all the time, you have a good general schedule. Iraq does not have daylight savings time, BTW.
You don’t have to be in Iraq to be TOO busy. Many people are too busy. They brag about it, but it is no virtue. I hate it when people claim to be too busy to read books or exercise regularly. Nobody is that busy on a consistent basis. They are just bad managers of their time. I am not saying that there are not periods when you have to just work constantly, but if you do that too often it is like trying to sprint through a marathon race. It is a losing strategy. In Iraq, as everyplace else, I have carved out time to read and run. People who don’t read don’t learn. They end up wasting their time because of their bad judgment. And people who don’t exercises slow down and/or die young. Reading and exercise are investments, not expenses. “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” calls such activities sharpening the saw. It is harder and more effort to cut wood with a dull saw. Taking a little time to sharpen saves time and energy.
Finally, I think it is important to find the good and the fun in all situations and to learn from them. There were so many interesting people & things in Iraq, so many things to experience, that it almost had to be an enriching experience. Much depends on your attitude. I always pity people who are too anxious to get away from or get to something. They think that if they can just get somewhere or something different everything will be great. This is rarely true. No matter where you go, you have to take yourself along and if you are not happy with that who you are it won’t help to change your scenery. In other words, if you are unhappy you probably should work on yourself before you work on other people or things.
Anyway, what I said from my first days in Iraq remains true. I am glad that I volunteered to go to Iraq and I am glad to be finished. Both things were and are true. I will add that right now I am glad to have the free time (State gave me fourteen working days of home leave) but I will also be glad to get back to regular work. Nothing too much.