The Transition Home

Taking off the Armor

Available From: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/taking-off-the-armor/

I trembled when I felt the suction of the sterile brace over my right eyeball. The brightly lighted operation room faded to black as the blood ceased to flow. My left eye, still functioning for the time being, followed the surgeon with a paranoia I had not felt in months. My Army-sponsored Lasik eye surgery was supposed to be a relatively simple procedure. The surgeon would cut a flap into my cornea, imprint the prescription on its inner surface, and finally replace the flap with a few steroid drops. I’d jump up, throw on some sunglasses, and would probably see 20/20 in a few days. But this wasn’t what I signed up for.

A sharp swipe of a needle quickly struck the contour of my eye. I felt it pierce the surface of my cornea, and I whimpered. Dear God, was I supposed to feel that? Should I say something? I still couldn’t see in my right eye. With the wet sensation around my brow, I believed I was bleeding.

To a third party, and even to myself as I write this, I might seem unnecessarily dramatic. After all, Lasik is a routine procedure. My doctor had performed thousands of these surgeries. It’s easy to say that my fear was in vain in retrospect, but in the moment, I desperately feared that the needle and blood I felt meant something went wrong and my eyesight was at stake.

A montage of images from the most impactful events in my life flashed through my mind, most from my recent tour in Kandahar. I remembered seeing the delicate smiles of children, finding humor even in their war-torn home. I recalled the crying girl, about 7 years old, who knelt by my side during a firefight in Zhari. I saw the way she raised her hands toward her mouth, as if to cover the cracks in her brave exterior. I remembered dozens of explosions, the bravery of my men and images bemoaning the confusion of combat. I saw the faces of lifeless friends, and the purging of emotion from the losses thereof. My eyes had served me so well in my life.

Overcome with fear and vulnerability, I lost control of my nervous function. I began to shake and twitch on the operating table as waves of post-traumatic stress unleashed itself in my body. But then something magical happened: a moment of kindness and warmth that I will never forget. A nurse sitting to my left reached for my arm. She held my hand, and squeezed it with reassuring compassion. My left eye shot to her face. Though her mouth and hair were both covered, I could tell she was a middle-aged woman, akin to my own mother. Her eyes darted to meet mine with an empowering stare as if to say, “Don’t worry, Rajiv, everything is going to be all right.”

I took a breath. In. Then out. My body slowly began to relax. My arms rested by my side, and I indulged in a rare feeling of delicate protection in the arms of another. It was a dramatic transition from terror to trust and security that I hadn’t felt in years. I felt like a small child, trusting my own mother and father as I received my first booster shot at the age of 5. As the surgeon regained his tempo, I finally sat motionless on the table, amazed at how quickly this woman’s touch calmed me down.

Communication through human touch transcends anything that can be said or heard; it’s therapeutic. I considered my weakest moments in Kandahar: the losses and injuries of my good friends and colleagues; devastating violence that haunts me to this day. There was no one who held my hand then. There was no one to wrap their arms around me and bring me back to that childlike sense of trust and security. Instead, I stomached that grief into a protective wall of masculine armor and walked back into the fight with my soldiers.

As soldiers, we fortify this masculine armor in combat to protect ourselves from the emotional demons which would otherwise consume our hearts and prevent us from executing our missions. We do it because war is tough and we need to be tougher. When we come home, we try to take that wall down and regain the ability to share and trust with our loving families. But to modern soldiers, the act of accepting compassion remains an implication of weakness. This isn’t because of our society, or even because of our institutional military — but simply because of the individual identities we hold as soldiers. We’re tough guys; tough guys don’t need hugs.

Well, it wasn’t until my Lasik surgery when I realized just how badly I needed that hug — and still need it. It took a lot more courage to admit the weaknesses of my masculine wall than it did to patrol the Zhari district for a year. For me, a weakness in that wall was a weakness in my character. It meant accepting my inability to cope with the combat I had seen, knowing that so many soldiers have withstood much more than I had.

For many junior leaders, admitting weakness means an admission of selfishness. Every hour spent in a counseling session means an hour spent away from training my men for their next tour in 2012. Every hour spent managing my anger means an hour away from the planning and resourcing needed to take care of my platoon. It means more work for my soldiers and platoon sergeant. Thus, like many leaders, I let my anger simmer, my focus wanders unchecked, and in my weakest moments, my heart goes without that much-needed hug.

Just because a soldier doesn’t have a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t mean he does not have life-altering post-traumatic stress. The war zone is not limited to the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. The fight does not end for a soldier when he comes home. He may shed his helmet and rifle, but he still carries his armor. The enemy no longer wears a uniform, but remains an elusive demon that reappears at the most inopportune times in our life. Each day we thank our soldiers for being strong for us. But, for our soldiers’ sakes, we now need to ask them for a different kind of strength: the strength to take off that masculine armor and accept weakness as one’s humanity. As our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to close, and our focus turns to our veterans’ well-being, we must remember that it’s not about giving soldiers hugs, the hard part now is making them accept the hugs.

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8 responses

  1. Rajiv,

    Thank you for the courage to lay aside your armor and share your heart with us. This is a wonderfully moving and transparent account of a different kind of battle that is being fought largely invisibly for many warriors. You have courageously led the way.

    Al

    11 January 11 at 20:39

  2. William (Bill) Kinzie

    Rajiv,

    Our military needs to hear this again and again. We’re good at creating efficient hunter killers as all soldiers must be to survive and win battles. Unless the military is a life career never to be left while alive, that should probably be the mode for that life. It is not a normal mode.

    We need to understand how to undo those efficiencies and recreate a whole human again, for those who reenter civilian life. You have described the syndrome well, illustrated it with a hospital tale from your own experience, and hinted at the direction the regeneration should take.

    As always, I enjoy your perceptive blogs. They serve to
    remind me of the complications of American military life,
    where orders are to be obeyed in 99 % of the situations, but where, if one is to be truly American he stops or must consider not be an automaton but a human being before he
    causes death and harm to civilians, especially children and
    innocent women.

    Perhaps it is children and women who can be part of the therapy that helps a soldier shed the reflexes necessary to
    soldiering.

    11 January 11 at 21:35

  3. I know the feeling Rajiv….once in surgery and suppose to be out; I could see the green curtain in front of me and the light the Dr. was using. I could feel my skin being cut, though it didn’t hurt. I was afraid that if I spoke, he might jump and really mess up the surgery! The guy watching over the dose of knock me out juice wasn’t paying attention….I slightly moved my fingers and we looked into each others eyes…he jumped to attention as he realized I was not out and then thankfully I was! It wasn’t suppose to happen like that and things turned out alright except for the unease I felt. Funny, how we can be such babies sometimes over the small stuff and step up to the plate on harder stuff! Lol…..we are a goofy people!
    Each soldier needs to stop and smell the roses, receive those hugs, and take the time to heal. We are reminded of that here; as a soldier who had been in Iraq and made it home couldn’t sleep night after night as memories haunted him. He committed suicide and now family and friends have the sleepless nights and are haunted. Forever haunted wondering what they could have done to help him and to help the others who struggle day in and day out. During world war II our soldiers went off to war with a back ground of faith to draw upon. Then prayer and The Bible were taken out of school….now our young soldiers aren’t equiped with the Armour of God and that can make all of the difference in the world. Drawing on God’s word, His Strength, His Healing….it is still available today; but our youth has been robbed in being taught it.
    Take the time Rajiv and remember it takes a man to know when to ask for help. It isn’t a sign of weakness, but one of strength. People care and those hugs can be the healing embrace that makes all of the difference. God’s blessings to you.

    11 January 11 at 22:04

  4. Tony Nadal

    Sometimes it takes a long time to admit one needs hugs and to realize the stress that combat generates. It’s taken me forty years.

    12 January 11 at 16:20

  5. Meredith

    This was such a beautiful post and midway through I turned on the waterworks (still flowing). Your description of the wall of armor really got me, and I was imagining you there in Kandahar confronting so much violence, probably going months without a hug or a squeeze of a hand. I would really like to see this post widely circulated and for starters I’m going to forward it to my dad. Thank you Rajiv for your openness and eloquence.

    16 January 11 at 01:47

  6. Hello sir,

    I’m from India and happened to chance upon your blog recently. Your story is an inspiration to me, and many others. I’m in my second year of college in India, and plan to join the Indian military after I graduate. But the problem was my vision. I’ve been myopic since 11 years, with -4.5 in both eyes, and this has been hampering my dreams of making it to the military. But recently, the Indian Armed Forces started allowing people who have undergone Lasik surgery. Therefore, I decided to go ahead with the procedure.
    I was operated on last monday in Chennai, India. The procedure was mostly no-issue, except for the fact that I was somewhat tensed. But the post-op care is what is somewhat off-putting, but I’m managing it. I hope you are recovering well too, and I wish you all the best! Please keep posting regularly, as your posts serve to inspire many others…whatever the context or situation. Keep going sir!

    Jai Kanth Panthail
    Visakhapatnam, India
    http://www.aoak.wordpress.com

    16 January 11 at 14:59

  7. Vanessa Roesler

    Rajiv: When I read the title of this message I almost passed it by. It didn’t sound like a blog that held any interest to me…Armor….Tanks etc.

    Thank you for sharing this. It would be great if others in the unit could share some type of human touch that could be accepted. I know that may not be possible..

    I had a couple of experiences when in the Army with human touch or compassion outside of the normal professional interaction. One example: four people were in a military vehicle suverying a training site. As we drove we saw two large trucks racing down the road we were on. The driver save all our lives by somehow driving into a ravine and then back out and kept going. Both trucks collided into that ravine. Of the four people, two were women, two were men. We got out of the vehicle and were able to laugh shakily and pat the driver on the back and say thanks.

    Thanks for letting me share.

    18 January 11 at 22:37

  8. VangalSam

    I an Indian but an Australian citizen now. I have fair exposure to the defence force personnel due to my job as an engineer in the Austarlian defense system program offices.

    I always admired the work ethic and commitment of the persons in uniform I used to work but always felt that the human attributes such as comeraderie and standing up to collegues was a bit partial. There was a slight them and us (civilians) attitude about them. My analysis and reason for their attitude was that Australian defense personnel were lacking real war experience. Even the token representation by them in the Afghanistan and Iraq efforts involved periferal functions like protecting the Dutch army hard core fighters or handling airport navigation and similar tasks.

    I could now appreciate what a hard core training followed a tour of duty in the US army means and its impacts on the regular fighters. Perhaps such intense combat involvement also has a side in shaping the individual making the human in him more balanced while being tough.

    I love reading your blogs for its maturity and the unique angle which is not quite visible to civilians in the outside world. It makes one value the liberty and freedom made available by a commitment and sacrifice by a few in uniform and in real combat roles..

    24 January 11 at 06:05

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