Elisa A. Escalante/ LCSW/ 2-17-2022
“Everyone dies here in some way. Some get killed by the enemy, others kill themselves, and others die in the sense that when they go back home, they will never be the same again. That person they used to be, has died. Everyone here is reborn. Some through a grave and tomb, some with a Memorial in their honor, some are reborn into a new person. They may hate their new self or they may love it. But either way, that rebirth will stay with them until the day they die again.” -EaE
Sunday was my one day to sleep in. But not on this particular Sunday, in December of 2012. I was woken up by a loud and shaky BOOM! I was slightly startled, but I laid completely still. I already knew it was an attack. I always knew the difference btween training explosions and explosions from enemy combatants… call it instincts, I do not know why. Since I worked in the combat stress clinic as a mental health technician, I was considered a “Non-Combatant”, and was given specific instructions to stay I n a hardened facility when under attack. I happened to live in the same dorm hall as my social worker counterpart. The other female mental health tech did not want to be alone, so she ran to our hall to hang out with us. Curiosity got the best of them, they kept the door open to watch how this battle would play out. Curiosity also got the better of me, as I decided to join them.
A second VBIED (vehicle Borne Improvised explosive device) hit the barrier of our FOB (forward operating base) and sent a strong gust of wind into the hall along with a loud bang. After which, I looked outside. The scene: Several Apache Helicopters floating above from about ½ a mile away shooting down at the enemy. There was too much obstructing the view, which was a blessing in disguise because, why see killing if you do not have to? Then a few minutes later an F-16 jet also hovering above, shooting more at the targets. (Once upon a time I watched these jets at Air shows with my family, they were my favorite) I distinctly remember thinking in that moment: (This is like what I’ve seen in movies, but, this is my life right now. Right in front of my very eyes.) I felt nothing at the time, I just saw it, and I had thoughts. No emotions yet.
I then noticed my colleagues solemnly looking toward the left of our building. “He’s dead”, the social worker mumbled to the other technician. I leaned forward and peaked my head out of our hall, to see what they were seeing. The scene: An Afghan civilian dead, laying on a litter, with tarp covering the majority of his body. Another Afghan civilian standing right over him, sobbing. And right behind the sobbing Afghan civilian, a U.S. soldier with his hand on his back in comfort. I saw this, the mental image became ingrained, but no thoughts yet, and no emotions. The fire fight lasted for about 90 minutes until all enemy combatants were killed, and then, damage control.
This was not our only attack while I was deployed. But typically they came in what I called “onesies” and “twosies” of mortar rounds that would randomly shoot toward the direction of our base, sometimes not breaching the barrier, but sometimes landing right in the middle. My social work colleague once joked: “Just when I forget I’m in a war zone, they send us these little explosive presents just to remind me of exactly where we are at!” I remember the first big attack that included 9 mortars. Where I went from working out in the gym to being crushed in between two large cinder blocks by many people as the explosions seemed to get closer and closer.
What do we really learn in war? It all depends on who you ask? We all have different experiences. For me personally, I learned that I have more physiological anxiety symptoms when I engage in public speaking vs when bombs are crashing near me, even when they’re meant to kill me. With this danger, somehow I numbed out and became shockingly logical. I learned that when I’m near death, sometimes I get a case of the “fuck it’s and engage in some pretty careless behaviors. I learned that Helicopter rides in the midst of war are terrifying, and yet oddly exhilarating all at the same time. I learned that I did appreciate living in my country after all, because I witnessed a country with citizens suffering from extreme poverty and constant war violence on the regular. I learned that even when a bomb hits from a quarter mile away, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, I can feel the shaking of my organs. I learned all about the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, suicidality and homicidality that my clients suffered through. I learned and heard all about the gory details of suicide bombings, fire fights, convoy dangers, ambushes and more. We saved people, we also lost people. I learned what it felt like to lose a client to suicide just hours after I last spoke to him. And, to see his coffin/ flag get carried onto a C-17 while something inside of me broke. (A deep moral injury in the making)
I learned that, unfortunately, as close as you would love to remain to those that you had deployed with, in most cases, they will disconnect from you. As you are a reminder of a trauma that they do not dare revisit. I learned that whatever personal shit your deployed coworkers are going through, they are very likely to project it onto the easiest target: Me at the time. I cannot truly say that I had support in war or going home. (Except for a very rare few gems in my life) I learned that most people forget about you. They may forget you are there, they may not care to send anything, they may find it an all-around taboo topic. They might even be more terrified of hearing about the stories than you are of seeing it in the flesh! I learned that many of my coworkers stateside were growing resentful and jealous of what they considered a possible ‘vacation’ from the ever demanding work back home. I learned that I really trusted no one completely, I learned that I had a lot of anger after all.
I’ve never opened up about my warzone in the majority of my writings. But this is a 3 part series I am planning on doing with my blog, at last. The next two will be called: Homecoming (About what happened right after I came back home from Afghanistan, but had time left on my military contract), and then Final out (After I was released from Active Duty and transitioned to the civilian sector). Stay tuned.