PTSD, Iraq & the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Most of the time when the shooting starts, State Department evacuates Embassies and gets its people out of harm’s way.  We were sent to Iraq in the opposite direction with the risks well-known and acknowledged.   This represents a big change that State is still trying to understand.   They are trying to find out more about how such an assignment affects the people involved, so the high stress out briefing I went to today at FSI has a double purpose: to help us reintegrate and to get some ideas on what happened to us over there.

They told us that employees often have more trouble coming home than they did going over.   Life is the war zone is exciting or at least active.   You feel like you are doing something special and that you are a big deal.  At home, you are just an ordinary guy.   You must also reintegrate the people you love.  Things have changed.    Experts identify a whole range of situations ranging from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to more mild forms of just feeling a little strange.    PTSD, BTW, is not rare even among people who have not been to war zones.  We were told that 5% of men and 10% of women NOT deployed in overtly traumatic conditions will still suffer from the symptoms. 

I was lucky.  I experienced few traumatic events and I think I have reintegrated fairly well.   I do feel some of the things they mention in the course.   I have a little trouble focusing and I lose track of the things I am doing more than I remember doing before.    But I think that is also the simple result of the ordinary changes I am going through.   I am still waiting for some of my clearances; I still don’t have my remote access and I am still not settled into my new job.  More precisely, I am kind of between jobs since I have the CENTCOM assessment taking most of my time when I am trying to check into my new job.   I will spend the next couple of weeks in Doha, which postpones the real start of my new job.   Anyway, whenever compare the first weeks of a new job to the last weeks of a past successful one, it will inevitably seem more confused and chaotic. Presumably you get better at your job so the end is better organized than the start.

An experience like Iraq reveals (if not builds) character. We all agreed that some people should not be allowed to come to Iraq and that our eagerness to get willing people at the posts lets some of them through the filter.   Some people are not emotionally robust enough for the stress and many are not physically fit enough.  You don’t have to be Arnold Swartzenegger, but you do have to wear body armor, carry your own gear, and jump out of helicopters & into MRAPS.  You also have to be able to take the temperatures and the pounding that comes from ordinary life and travel in Iraq.

The experts say that people returning from posts such as Iraq are sometimes crabbier, less engaged and they think life is less colorful or interesting.   This passes in normal cases.   I also don’t think this is a problem for me (although maybe I don’t notice my crabbiness.)    My time in Iraq made me appreciate more the things I had here in America.  I had a network of support in the family and I did a few things right, w/o even planning it.   My forestry interest tied me to something long term and rooted (literally) and the blogging was an excellent outlet.   The experts say that telling your story helps calm and put your mind straight.  I guess it is like the old man in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” who periodically feels the need to share (inflict) his experience with somebody else.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

As a career FSO, I have come home several times.   I was happy to get out of Iraq.  I loved the job and worked with great people on an important job.  I regret leaving them and the sense of duty, but Iraq as a place holds no attraction for me.  Forget the war.  I like living trees and verdant hills.  I just don’t like barren deserts and I don’t like that extreme heat.  I felt no sadness leaving Iraq.  I really liked Norway and Poland and was sad to leave those places.  The hardest homecoming for me and the family was when we left Krakow.   That was an important job too AND I felt at home in Poland.   Beyond that, I came back to a job (in the ops center) that I didn’t like and beyond all those things, the family had some adjustment issues at the same time.   Even I could tell that I was crabby, troubled and troublesome back then.  I do agree with the general proposition that coming back is often harder than going over, probably because you think it should just be a piece of cake.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

(Maybe those who read Coleridge don’t really need the course.  He seems to have figured it out and expressed it better.)