Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Nearly shell-shocked in Iraq
By Jeremiah Goulka
I was one nightmare short of PTSD.
It didn't take much, that's what surprised me. No battles. No dead bodies. I spent just three and a half weeks as a contractor in Iraq, when the war there was at its height, rarely leaving the security of American military bases.
For several years now, Americans have become increasingly aware that a large number of veterans have gotten post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Studies estimate
that at least 1 in 5 returning vets - possibly as many as 1 in 3 - have it. Less notice has been given to the huge numbers of veterans who suffer some PTSD symptoms but not quite enough to be diagnosed as having the disorder. Civilian employees of the US government, contractors, and of course the inhabitants of the countries caught up in America's wars have gotten even less notice.
The thing is: It doesn't take much to develop the symptoms of PTSD. Our idea of what used to be called "shell shock" tends to be limited to terrible battles, not just the daily stress of living in a war zone or surviving a couple of close calls.
This is a story of how little it can take. I hardly saw a thing.
I. My first day in Iraq ended with an explosion
I had just made it "in theater", as they said, with a plane-load's worth of contractors coming for this or that bit of danger pay. I was 32 years old, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nervous, excited, frightened policy wonk. I had executed my first will.
People would ask me, Why go? For typical reasons: Adventure. Hazard pay. I was single. No kids, no lawn to mow. I thought it would be cool. I'd get to pal around with the troops and fly in helicopters and wear body armor. I'd get to learn more about the whole war thing, which had always obsessed me, as it does so many Americans. And if I were lucky, I might even catch a glimpse of how much more idiotic the Iraq War was than I already assumed. I had never bought into it, but that didn't mean I wasn't eager to be there.
And then there was the work itself. My project fascinated me: to figure out what exactly was going on at a weird camp in Diyala Province where American troops were sort of detaining, sort of babysitting an Iranian cult group that was then on our list of foreign terrorist organizations. To a lawyer and policy wonk, a man whose boyhood had been consumed by all things military, the combo was irresistible.
That first night, after we finished dinner at the DFAC, the Dining Facility, my supervisor and I drove our rental Ford Explorer through the concrete T-wall jungle of the curiously named Victory Base Complex, the giant American encampment at the edge of Baghdad International Airport. As we arrived at the shipping container that was to be my new temporary home: explosions. Then a piercing cry from loudspeakers in the distance: INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!
The next day I'd learn that those explosions had blown up several people in front of the chow hall, right where we had exited just minutes earlier.
It was October 2007, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and General David Petraeus was the rising star of the moment with his "surge" strategy. Mortar and rocket attacks, which had once been repeated daily occurrences, were now plummeting. Gunfire, though, still prickitypricked the night, every night, out in the "Red Zone",that wild yonder of the country beyond those T-walls. It sounded like disorganized fireworks, only without the happy spectacle.
When the mortar and rocket attacks did come, it was usually early morning, between 5:45 and 6:00 a.m. I called it the Insurgent Alarm Clock. Afternoons featured "controlled dets." A boom here or there as soldiers detonated duds, blew up UXO (unexploded ordnance).
The nights whirred with helicopters. Blackhawks patrolled the perimeter in pairs. Even on the ground they kept their rotors spinning for quick liftoffs, and there was a landing zone near my bed. But that didn't keep me from sleeping once I got some earplugs. Nor could the snores of the seven other men in the corrugated-metal containerized housing unit keep me awake. The tension was too exhausting.
II. The worst day started with an explosion
Shockwaves rattled me awake. That was a first. Usually I just heard the insurgent alarm clock; I didn't feel it.
Now, it was stone quiet in the shipping container. No more grunts from sleeping men. I craned my neck. In the low light cast by the lamp of an early riser tying his running shoes, I could see that we were awake to a man, frozen like rabbits, ears perked, waiting for the next bass rumble.
You see, insurgents wouldn't attack the world's most powerful military with just one shot. They'd lob a bunch of mortars or rockets over the concrete, and, to increase their odds of actually hitting something, they wouldn't aim at just one place.
Closer. My heart pounded, but what to do with the knowledge that the attack was coming our way? I could've made a dash for one of the concrete bomb shelters that dotted the base, but there weren't any nearby. Besides, no one thought they did much good. They were open on two sides and people got hurt running to them.
No big deal, I thought. It was well known that the insurgents' aim sucked.
Even closer. I felt the compression in my chest. I couldn't believe that, just the previous day, I had been running the numbers to see whether it was worth extending my stay to get a bump in danger pay.
At least their aim did suck. The vastness of Camp Victory was so full of manmade lakes, dry marshes, and empty expanses of dirt, brush, and asphalt that the insurgents rarely hit anything. We were, however, close to one obvious target, the big palace that the US military had colonized for its headquarters.
The trailer shook hard, and someone yelled, "Hit the deck!" I was already rolling. I dropped to the hard cold floor and slid under the bed. The guy from the top bunk squished in beside me, his feet in my face.
Officially scared now. Out in the distance, the weirdly thin, flat voice of the warning horn finally woke up: INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!
And my brain was shrieking, too. What protection would these flimsy walls and mattresses provide against rockets and mortars? I should've run for a concrete bunker. I had missed my chance.
Someone had said that lying flat kept you safe from the blast angle, so I tried to mimic a pancake.
My adrenal glands started pumping faster, flooding my blood and … time slowed … I felt a sort of clarity. Not moral clarity or wisdom, but sensory clarity - a readiness to act, to survive. So this was mortal fear. Not very nice to meet you.
They'd found us. It felt like the explosion had occurred right outside the door, like lightning striking the neighbors. Any closer and we'd be dead.
Somehow, we went even flatter. All I could do was lie there and hope that the next one wouldn't get us, hope that there weren't people out there right now with twisted metal driven into their flesh.
We lay there, waiting... waiting... and then... nothing.
No screams. That was good, right? And then, in the distance, the horn spoke: ALL CLEAR. ALL CLEAR.
Long seconds passed. Doors creaked open on neighboring trailers, while we rolled out from under our beds, muscles cramping. I pulled on a shirt and stepped into the light. All along the row of containers, men in shorts or underwear were peeking out. Despite their tans and youth and professional toughness, they looked pale, drained, scared.
Little was said. That was close. That sucked. Eyes followed eyes to the end of our little trailer park. Just past a row of trees a black plume of smoke mushroomed into the sky. Someone said there was a generator over there, maybe 25 yards away, musta got hit.
That's when my jitters started.
III. Dreams straight from hell
Fast forward to December. I'm back home, talking to a colleague in his office. For some reason I've decided he's the one I'll tell about my dreams. I need to share. They're haunting me. Incredibly violent dreams. Night after night.
They aren't even remotely similar to anything in my normal experience. Sure, I had had the occasional violent nightmare, but usually I was on the receiving end, running in fear to escape some cruel threat. In these I'm the one doing violence.
In one, I'm a terrorist. I hijack a commercial airplane, strangle a female flight attendant with my bare hands. My own hands. I wake up frightened of myself, for myself.
My friend is a psychologist and statistician. "You know I'm studying PTSD?" he says. He's been working on a big research project on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He pulls a huge textbook off the shelf above his computer, lets it fall open on his desk and starts flipping pages. It's the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, published by the American Psychiatric Association. "Recurrent distressing dreams",he reads aloud.
I walk around the desk, look over his shoulder. There's a long checklist of symptoms. Suffer enough of them and you're diagnosable with PTSD.
The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others.
The person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
We keep looking at the symptoms. There are many. You don't have to have all of them to get diagnosed. A few jump out at me.
Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma)… [Shown by:] Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma.