This time three years ago, I was in a bad place. Well- who wasn’t? The country elected a malicious, narcissistic, sexist pig into the highest office of the land. But on top of not knowing what the hell was going on with the country, it was an added layer to watch my country tear itself apart from the other side of the globe. This time three years ago, I was deployed to the great state of Kuwait, which is dry in every sense of the word.
I imagined that the deployment was going to be my adventure, and in some ways it was. Not many can say that they stood in the Kuwait towers, had the pleasure of eating pizza made by Italian soldiers or swam in the Red Sea. Being able to travel to a distant land is an adventure in itself. But some days, even now, I wonder if it was worth it. I made some money, saw some things and have the benefit of saying I’ll have my B.A. debt free. It should be a no brainer, but it isn’t.
I should probably answer the questions everyone goes to. No, I didn’t kill anyone, most service members today don’t see combat. Nor was I sexually assaulted, but harassment comes with the territory of being in a career field that has women outnumbered 10 to 1. All in all, nothing truly terrible happened; In some ways that was the worst part. Because there was no definitive cause for my anger.
Was it the boredom or stressful workload? I could point to the leadership that was at best arrogant or ignorant, and at its worst, both. Maybe it was the empty promises given- that I would forward deploy or that we were working on something that made a difference. Being away from family is hard but being away from them with the looming political divide made the concept of home seem even farther away.
Four months in was when I noticed my chest pains. It felt like a hand was constantly squeezing on my heart from the moment I woke until sleep stole me away. There wasn’t a point that I didn’t feel the tension radiating within me. In addition, I could never tell if I had sand in my mouth or if I managed to chip a tooth with the clenching of my jaw.
“This will go away when I get home,” I thought. “It’s just this place, these people, the job. I’ll feel better once I’m stateside again.”
But it didn’t go away. Not when I landed in the Nutmeg state, nor when I settled back into my home base for decompression. Surely, it would be gone when I got back home.
Even in my own bed I would wake up with the familiar discomfort. But that wasn’t all I brought home with me. I never had the patience of a saint, but my fuse was shorter than ever, even with the people I loved. Especially with the people I love. My days were spent indoors, in isolation and usually with a bottle of some sort. Rum mostly, though Vodka and Bourbon were also close friends.
“There’s a veteran hiking trip you should go on,” my mom pressed on me over the phone. “I think it would be good for you.”
All I could do is sneer. I had just got back home from being in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of military people. That’s the last thing I needed, but I didn’t tell her this. I knew she just wanted to help.
“I have a friend from work going. She isn’t military, but she is the only girl going,” my mom said and I felt a sense of liability. I had no idea who any of those people were going to be, but I knew what it felt like to be the only woman in the room– I couldn’t fathom the weight of being a lone woman in a forest.
So, I agreed to go. I bought the necessities; a good pair of hiking boots, a sleeping bag and pack that holds a water bladder, and some clothes built for the outdoors. It set my bank account back a bit, but I told myself that it was for a good cause; an investment of sorts. Days later, I carpooled with the woman who unknowingly guilt tripped me into the trip.
We drove 400 miles to go for a hike. It seems like a joke, but Shenandoah Valley isn’t just a leisurely stroll in the woods, nor is any hiking trip for someone whose closest experience to camping is sleeping in a military grade tent. Uncle Sam would provide wherever you were stationed- but for the next four days I would have to rely on myself and the other unknown hikers in the group.
By the time we arrived, the woman who started out as a stranger had already evolved into what seemed to be a lifelong companion; one with whom I still keep in contact. We linked up with our guide, a man who looked like he could take on any of the black bears that roam the national park. It had been some time since I had been intimidated by a person at first sight, but Aaron turned out to be a big factor in releasing that tension in my chest, not just for coordinating the hiking expedition through the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors program, but in his words on the trails.
“Everyone goes into the service for a reason, but everyone gets out for a reason too.”
The three other guys on the trip were also veterans whose experiences matched my own. Frustrations with leadership, seeing unsavory folk rise in rank and other questionable actions within their service time. It’s the first time in a while, I felt as though I was not alone.
It’s astounding to me that while we hiked miles from civilization, I felt more at home than in places I should call home and that the five people I’ve known for only days have become better confidants than my family. What I presumed to be an isolating experience brought me back to society. As I breathed in the crisp Virginian air that had yet to welcome spring, crossed frigid streams in my ragged Tom’s or trudged up the false summits the pains in my chest had receded to nothing more than a memory.
Coming out of the woods, society did not pull back any punches. It was April 13, 2017, when we emerged and the “mother of all bombs” was dropped in Afghanistan. What cleansing the dirt and trees gave was somewhat sullied by pundits on a diner TV saying how presidential Trump had become with a weapon of war. It’ll never cease to amaze me how much those who haven’t worn a uniform praise the violence it brings.
Before we would go our separate ways again, Aaron warned us that the coming days reintegrating back into life would be difficult- providing me a better notice than the military briefings I received at the end of my deployment. He was right. I would later find myself wishing that I had a tent over my head instead of a roof, that waking up to the sounds of a babbling stream were far more preferable to alarm clocks and noisy commuters outside. Even my favorite dishes could not stand to the culinary standards of the jerky and cheese wraps we would scarf down while at rest.
I’ve returned to the safety of the trees a few times since then, never more than a day or two at most. Those chest pains have also come to haunt me, but only for a moment or two because I can call upon the peaks and riverbeds to put me at ease.