When I am dreaming, I am almost always shuffling my feet through the dust. Sometimes I look down and watch how it settles on the toes of my boots, like I've been standing still too long. I can feel the comfort of my IBA around my torso, weave my fingers through the loops that hold my gear to my vest. My medical pouch is full of sand. Sometimes, with all the shit I have to carry, I think about taking out one of the plates to make my IBA a little lighter. I've already given up on my side plates - they'll sit in a duffle under my bed until we're ready to go back to the world. It isn't safe, I know, but being constantly on guard has a way of wearing on you and making you stop caring as much. If I get shot, then I get shot.
We were joking, when the IDF was really bad around Easter, that the Iraqi barbers who worked in the palace were actually the mortar team that was responsible. They worked in the palace with us and the State Dept., so they knew the rhythm of the work day - when the most people were in one place. We'd look in the mornings to see if they'd posted a sign: Closing at 3:00 today, or whatever. They're leaving early, we'd say to each other. That means we'll get attacked later this afternoon. It wasn't funny, but it was funny.
If we got attacked while at work, we had to move to the secured part of the palace - right near the cold sandwich bar. I took to making myself an soft serve cone while we waited for the All Clear. If you don't eat ice cream during an attack, the terrorists win, we'd say to each other.
The IDF was an annoyance - I just sat down at my desk! Fucking insurgents, I was trying to send an email to my father. And I'm getting sick of soft serve. If I was in my trailer, my day off or sleeping or whatever, sometimes I wouldn't even try to run for the Duck and Cover bunker. I'd just lay there, waiting for the sirens to stop.
I don't think I can tell you what those moments felt like. Not paralyzed - I just felt made of air. I felt like I literally weighed nothing, like I wasn't a solid form anymore. I felt like I could lift up and float away. I couldn't hear my heatbeat anymore, I stopped having conscious thoughts. For that split second, I was as closer to death than I was to life.
And just as quickly as it comes, the sensation is gone - replaced with a nauseous urge to start moving at lightspeed. Colors are vivid and the air smells so great and the ground has never seemed so solid beneath my feet. Have you ever realized that you are alive? That's what it is. You're alive and that's the most beautiful thing in the world.
Even thinking about those sirens is bringing tears to my eyes. Sometimes the sirens were worse than the sound of the explosions. Sometimes I'd lay in bed staring at the ceiling, hyperventilating long after the All Clear.
When I first got back, I spent a lot of time trying to sleep and not really sleeping. I drank too much and paid for it. I had to keep moving - felt weird and anxious and uncomfortable if I had time to rest. I'm a little better now, but loud or sudden noises still make me feel spooked.
Once, right when I first started at Fort Dix (about a month and a half after I left Iraq), I was getting my camera out of the back of the van to go shoot some photos at the counter-IED / IMT lane. I had my back to the lane, which was on the other side of some trees. I was changing lenses when one of the range cadre threw an artillery sim - it whistled and exploded - and I burst into tears.
I'm not afraid of the sound really, but my responses scare me. That empty, light feeling I was talking about? It's the greatest feeling, but it's also the most terrifying feeling I have ever experienced.
I'm not trying to tell you cool war stories or to make you feel bad for me. (I'll be the first to admit that I was lucky - I only had to deal with IDF, no direct fire.) I don't want you to try to comfort me, or even to talk to me about this. I just needed to write and feel like I'm normal again.
"will the wind ever remember
the names it has blown in the past?"
- Jimi Hendrix "The Wind Cries Mary" -