I am in room 107 of a modern Army building that overlooks the large green expanse of Division Hill on Fort Drum in New York. Seated around me are my soldier peers, all division staff officers and noncommissioned officers. Collectively we are working through a series of PowerPoint slides and operations orders. Our mission for the day is to hone our skills and prepare for an upcoming training exercise that will take our Army National Guard unit to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where our skills will be put to the test.
Room 107 is thousands of miles away from the dangers of the battlefield. Here the air conditioning is crisp, the high-speed Internet is reliable, and the toilets flush. These facts form the holy trinity of luxury for any soldier who, like me, has spent time deployed to hot, remote, and austere locations “over there.”
Surrounded by all these creature comforts, I should be in a soldierly state of bliss. Instead this tranquil moment is unexpectedly interrupted by the sensation of physical pain.
I feel it hit me, but I can’t pinpoint just where. My hands, which have been busy typing up operations orders, suddenly freeze above my laptop. I hold them motionless, inches above the keyboard. The stillness allows me to locate one of the multiple sources of the pain: the joints of my fingers and wrists, specifically those on my left hand, are throbbing.
My mind tells me this pain has been bothering me for days, but for some reason only now has my nervous system closed the loop and delivered the message. It’s a confusing and frankly disorientating realization. Is this dementia? Is the pain in my hands arthritis? My daughter likes to call me “the old man,” but come on, I’m only 44.
I begin to slowly and carefully massage my hands, like the old ladies did on that arthritis commercial I saw as a kid. As I rub my left hand, I notice a small bruise around the knuckle of my pinkie finger. Does arthritis cause bruising? I didn’t think arthritis caused bruising.
As I tenderly poke at my sore knuckles, I become aware of a rhythmic pounding noise coming from somewhere—a thump ... thump ... thump ... thump—like someone hitting a punching bag. The noise is close. It feels like it is in my head. Where is this noise coming from?
As I slowly flex and stretch my fingers, a new sensation of pain rises to the surface, but again, a disconnect. Where is this new pain coming from? I can’t seem to get my thoughts straight, and I am distracted by the continuing rhythmic pounding in my head. Thump ... thump ... thump ...
Sitting next to my laptop is a pile of gum wrappers. Honestly, it is more like a mountain of gum wrappers. Some of the silvery sheets are neatly folded. Others are crumpled up into shiny spitballs. Still others are wrapped around large circular blobs of discarded gum. Most of these blobs are piled into a large mountainlike formation. The smell of spearmint suddenly becomes overwhelming.
Who chewed all this gum? What is this noise? Why does my jaw hurt so much?
My jaw! The source of this new pain comes instantly into focus. From my neck to my temples, there is a throbbing soreness on both sides of my face, all radiating from the hinge of my jawbone. Inside my mouth, my tongue darts about wildly, guiding and maneuvering a large spearmint wad from side to side, while my teeth chomp down, rhythmically pounding away at the gum. Thump ... thump ... thump ...
It’s clear now. I have been frantically chewing gum for two days, pausing only to eat and sleep. Having localized the jaw pain, it quickly becomes unbearable, and I spit the gum out to give my tired face a rest.
The thumping stops. The silence is deafening. I dig around in my pockets for fresh pieces.
What’s with this gum-chewing obsession that’s brought my jaw to the point of muscle failure? Why do my hands hurt? What the hell is going on?
My tranquil training afternoon in room 107 is quickly morphing into a panic attack.
I slouch back in my office chair, breathe deeply, and stare up at the ceiling trying to regain my composure.
My mind travels back two days to Friday. I see myself screaming in rage, insulting my wife and doing everything I can to pour gasoline on her decision to cancel our dinner plans at the last minute, due to some pain she is experiencing.
My blood is boiling. I am bouncing up and down as I yell at her—literally jumping and bouncing like a kid on a trampoline. My hands curl into fists as I yell at her to be tougher dealing with this pain. Pain can’t stop the mission. Doesn’t she know we had a planned mission?
I tell her that she needs to suck it up. I tell her she needs to be more like a soldier. Still bouncing in anger, I launch myself skyward and, at the zenith of my ascent, let my fist fly, punching a hole in my bedroom ceiling. When my feet land on the soft-carpeted floor, my hand starts throbbing.
I don’t stick around long enough to survey the damage caused to my house and marriage. I make peace as best as an infantryman can be expected to do under the circumstances and leave for my favorite bar.
The day before the ceiling-punching episode, I’d had a similar meltdown against my red couch. Much like the ceiling, the couch did nothing to merit the attack. But during an equally mundane argument with my wife, I lost it and decided to pound away at the wooden armrest on the couch until the tendons running through my wrist felt like they were going to snap.
Looking back, the pattern seems painfully obvious. Thursday I attacked my couch. Friday I punched a hole in my ceiling. Saturday I reported to Fort Drum. Sunday came and I was in better spirits; things were settling down, although there was that compulsive gum-chewing habit.
My monthly military drill seems to be the trigger for these anxiety-ridden behaviors. But why? Nothing bad ever happens at drill. There have never been any gunfights with the Taliban at the armory, nor has there been improvised explosive devices planted on roadways that I drive. Really I have nothing to worry about. It’s not like I am being sent away again to a war thousands of miles away for the weekend. I’m just going to be in room 107, where everything is always A-OK.
I sat there, reflecting on this pattern of anxiety and rage, then drill, then a return to normalcy, which had been going on most months since my return home from Afghanistan over five years ago.
As the years passed, I figured out how to mitigate these rough patches through self-medication. On the nights before drill, a couple of adult beverages and an Ambien chaser usually did the trick. But treating the symptoms wasn’t doing much to stop them from recurring. Maybe my vet-center counselor is right, that I need to go deeper and deal with some of this stuff. I can count on the Army always welcoming me to drill month after month, because I put my problems aside, and I show up and do the mission. But I can’t count on my wife continuing to welcome me home from drill given the behaviors I had been exhibiting.
This month’s training in the comfortable confines of room 107 eventually comes to an end, and we are released to our barracks. I gather up my laptop and toss the mess of gum wrappers and chewed spearmint globs into the trash can. As I exit the front door, I pause to put on my patrol cap.
My eye catches the calm and smooth stratum of gray clouds that approach from the south. A slight breeze travels with the clouds, flowing down Division Hill, carrying the sweet smell of the fields of freshly cut grass, slowly working its way toward me. It is a tranquil moment, and my afternoon panic attack seems like ancient history. Division Hill is so calm and green and quiet in this moment that it makes my rage at home and my war experiences seem foreign and distant.
Was it really me jumping and punching and yelling days ago? Was it really me in combat years ago? Did all these things really happen to me? Or was it someone else, a stranger who occasionally takes up transient quarters in mind and causes such turmoil during his short stay?
Above the grass, below the clouds, the large flag flying in front of our training building captures my gaze. The breeze from Division Hill calls it to attention, and I hear its metal clasps clang loudly as they bang against the shiny aluminum pole. But today the flag is frustrated in its duties, flying at half mast in honor of two Fort Drum soldiers recently felled on a battlefield thousands of miles away.
In the course of its service, I know the flag has been exposed to hostile elements and violent forces, bleaching summer sun and cold winter winds, and I feel a sense of solidarity. I have faded in the heat of the desert sun, been frayed in the winds of combat, been stained by the black smoke of burning vehicles.
I stand still before the flagpole, transfixed by this lowered flag fluttering erratically in the breeze, and feel a new shock of recognition. The flag is me, a metaphorical image of my postwar self. Sometimes I am up, unfurled, engaged in the current of the world around me. Other times, I am lowered, hobbled by anxiety and rage.
In the coming days, the official mourning period for these recently fallen Fort Drum soldiers will end, and the flags on post will be elevated again to their rightful and proper position. I hope that my spirits and emotions will join them in this ascent.