We were about a month into our yearlong deployment in Iraq when one of our sergeants stood up from his laptop and said, “I don’t know why I just keep eating these cookies! I don’t even want them, but I keep eating them.” While watching movies on his laptop, he had consumed nearly an entire package of Double Stuf Oreos (about 40 of them, roughly 2,800 calories). I was struck with a possible reason why and blurted out, “Dude, it’s because you’re depressed. We all are here – all the time.”
This memory from 2005 hit me the other day as I myself was in the midst of over-consuming. Our first week of self-imposed quarantine here in Cincinnati was filled with carbs, alcohol and over-indulgence as the impacts of the pandemic played out across our tv, social media and ever-present handheld devices. I realized that I was doing the same thing – seeking solace and a momentary, albeit fleeting, joy in food, too much food.
Then the parallels between my deployment and the current situation started to hit me. In Kirkuk, we were sequestered within our company-sized patrol base in the midst of the city, ensconced in our little compound, which I dubbed ‘Kirkuk Minimal Security Prison.’ Within the base’s 20-foot-high blast walls we slept, ate, recreated and worked out. The only times we could leave were for official business, either for mounted or dismounted patrols or via convoy to pick up supplies. We tried to be cordial with our neighbors but certainly always kept our distance. We hoarded our food, at least the precious CARE packages from home, while our meals were ‘take-out’ from the main base in town, delivered every morning and night by a small convoys of HUMVEEs. Talk of casualties was common. As we patrolled, we ‘kept our interval,’ keeping enough distance between individuals to keep us collectively safer from the potential dangers around us. (Recently, on a socially-distanced hike to celebrate our cousin’s 40th birthday, I was struck how we were all doing the exact same thing.)
The most significant parallel though is the specter of death being that much more prevalent – and thus that much more top of mind. I’ll be the first person to tell you that our location in Iraq was a good one as Kirkuk was relatively quiet. Still, we left the patrol base every day, or stood exposed in guard towers, and faced the reality of getting killed or maimed by snipers, rockets or mortar rounds, Improvised Explosive Devices, accidental discharge of our many weapons, vehicle accidents, and a host of other possible maladies. Now, in the comfortable confinement of our homes, we’ve faced with a similar emotional burden, now recognizing that any stranger on the street might come bearing the mechanism of your premature demise. It’s a significant emotional weight to bear at any one point. And over time, it gets heavier and heavier still.
It’s all certainly enough to make you constantly, regularly mildly depressed. David Kessler, an expert on grief, pointed out in the Harvard Business Review, that we’re all constantly grieving for what we’ve lost lately – which is significant. We’ve lost much of our freedom of movement and all certainly lost long-planned special moments. Our family is no different than any others in that we’ve had to cancel important business trips, our daughter’s 13th birthday party, and a long-planned trip to see family in Florida. Meanwhile all our summer plans are in jeopardy, floating in a constant mental purgatory between, ‘Let’s just cancel it now’ and ‘Let’s just wait – and hope.’ Kessler also notes that we’re all mired in ‘anticipatory grief’ too, which is, “[T]hat feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday.”
And the parallels to my deployment in Kirkuk continue in how I’m coping with the situation. In Iraq, I focused intensely on each individual day. Looking too far back or, worse still, too far forward to when we’d be freed from that duty, was just too hefty a burden to add to my already overwhelmed soul. I’ve developed the same focus here now. When we had access to Wi-Fi there, I enjoyed video calls with my wife and newborn daughter. Here, I’m organizing small groups of friends for virtual video happy hours, where we gather ‘round the computer, beverage in hand, to catch up, laugh, and commiserate. Our gym there was limited, but I worked out regularly, often having to get creative with workouts, to help keep me sane and focused – and help keep me from succumbing to the effects of all the CARE packages I’d been sent from home. Here, I quickly assembled a minimal home gym to do the same. I ran there, I run here.
Here though, the temperature isn’t 120-degrees – or higher. My running routes are varied and not mind-numbing repetitive laps of .4 miles on gravel, through doorways, and along razor-wire-topped concrete blast walls. Instead of missing my (then) new wife and wondering about my brand-new baby, I have my family close by and am relishing the additional time I’m getting with my teen daughters, knowing that they will be off to college in a few short years. I have, for now at least, an apparently limitless supply of foods to choose from and comfort items to order online, any of which can be here within a day or two, if not even an hour or two. And while the specter of COVID-19 is certainly real, the chances of it seriously affecting me or my family are, statistically, very limited (especially as we continue to shelter in place). And that’s a far better feeling than looking out over a cityscape, wondering where the sniper’s bullet will come from, imaging a rocket spraying your squad bay with jagged and deadly shrapnel, and knowing that someone out there might, right at this moment, be intentionally burying a deadly bomb in the street to set off as you drive over it, intent on blowing off your legs, burning you beyond recognition and/or simply killing you outright.
Not everyone has a veteran’s (admittedly skewed) perspective though. And no matter your perspective, this period of time will be challenging, particularly to those who suddenly find themselves without regular income, and more so as it continues to drag on. But it is a time to explore different opportunities as this challenge forces us to get creative with our time and our diversions, pushes us to measure our emotions and our responses, demands that – for the good of all – we treat each other kindly and with respect, and, ultimately, allows us to come out the other side stronger, more resilient, more resourceful and with an ability to laugh off things that once felt monumental.
Just please, be sure to ration those Double Stuf Oreos. The serving size is two.