Coping With My Iraq Nightmares

It was a slow, painful awakening to realize last week that I have post-traumatic stress disorder.

The holidays can be difficult for many reasons. For me, it could be that I’m studying finance and energy policy in some of the worst economic and energy crises of modern times. These holidays could be rough because my family near Detroit just lost their jobs when our business of 25 years went for peanuts in a fire-sale. It’s possible that I’m feeling down because I’ve spent more than my fair share of Christmases aboard a submarine or inside a war-zone. Then again, it could be that I just broke up with a wonderful woman who I care about very much (and that I don’t understand what went wrong). But if the holidays are tough on me for these reasons alone, then why is it that I keep having nightmares about Iraq?

Over the last several nights, I’ve been chased by insurgents, blown to bits in mortar attacks and paralyzed by memories of the scene from my office window—the landing pad behind Baghdad ER where unrecognizable remnants of men on stretchers were rushed from helicopter to operating room (presumably for organ donation... what else was left?). When I’m awake, my hands occasionally shake... I can’t focus in class... I can’t sleep until utter exhaustion sets in... and on the really bad days... well, let’s not talk about that, please.

Despite the fact that I’m not traveling home for the holidays, I’m incredulous and indignant that I am still carrying so much baggage.

It was a slow, painful awakening to realize last week that I have post-traumatic stress disorder.

On the day I left Baghdad in July of 2007, I checked out with the medical department by completing a mental health survey on a Palm-Pilot. Have you been exposed to danger which immediately risked your life? I checked ‘yes.’ Have you seen any of the following wounded? I checked the boxes for ‘Coalition Forces’ and ‘Civilians.’ Have you been exposed to sand? I checked ‘yes’, but only because no shit, Sherlock, wasn’t an option. The survey continued for 27 slides.

An army doctor in his sixties took me into a private examination room.

“Would you like to see any specialists when you return home to... uhhh....” He glanced down at my medical record, where my home address was written.

“...Connecticut?”

The Doctor looked up from the clipboard and blinked with a detached look of routine concern. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but the notion that I might have ‘special’ problems didn’t sit well; it was simpler to say no. The doctor was silent as he typed on his computer. It looked as though he was concerned about something—perhaps my record or the Palm Pilot had triggered a warning signal. Maybe he’ll send me to a shrink... But that sort of complication was the last thing I wanted. The doctor’s brow furrowed, I became even more nervous. Dammit, he muttered in frustration.

“What is it, doctor?” I asked quietly, trying to appear confident and well.

“Uhhh… It’s this darned Connecticut thing—what’s the abbreviation? I can‘t get ‘CN’ to work.”

I told him the abbreviation and he typed it into the computer, his face lighting up with epiphany before sending me on my way. I left the clinic with all of my boxes neatly checked.

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Last week, a journalist in Baghdad threw his shoes at President Bush. Some Iraqi citizens interviewed later that day described the launcher of these “ground cruise missiles” as a hero. According to one jubilant man, “He threw twenty-seven million shoes,” one for every person living in Iraq by his calculation.

Everybody’s got problems. Nobody in America is making it through this Christmas season unscathed. But despite the fact that I’m not traveling home for the holidays, I’m incredulous and indignant that I am still carrying so much baggage. Now that I think about it, I’ve got a pair of combat boots that I don’t particularly want anymore; I wouldn’t mind throwing them away to lighten my load. Or better yet, in the spirit of the season, perhaps there’s a lonesome, wayward soul in America who truly deserves to be given the boots...

By my calculation, that would make twenty-seven million and two.

Merry Christmas, Mr. President.

Christopher Brownfield drove nuclear submarines before volunteering for duty in Iraq. In Baghdad, he worked as a liaison between the State Department, coalition militaries, and the Iraqi government. He is studying international energy policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has written a book, My Nuclear Family: Growing up with Energy & Violence.