In June 2005, I was returning to the United States from my first deployment. As soon as my unit landed, there was a lot of fanfare from the public. I truly felt like a “hero” because our unit helped facilitate the first election in Iraq. My job as an electronic technician, was to maintain communication between the pilots patrolling the election and the tower directing traffic. I felt responsible for contributing to the security for people desperate to get out of an oppressive regime. I wholeheartedly believed I was deserving of praise.
It was easy to get addicted to the deployment lifestyle. I was obsessed with living on the edge. I liked being able to say that I had risked my life to promote freedom. The “risk” of near miss mortar strikes gave me a rush. I began to think our unit was impermeable to harm. My errant thinking was based on our dedication to ensure the election went through. I thought God was protecting us for our benevolent actions.
Our unit received two weeks off to relax and adjust to life at home. During this time, my roommate Janelle and I found a nice townhouse in our price range. I was so occupied with moving, that I did not take the time to process all that happened during my deployment.
Once the dust settled and it was time to go back to work, I just shut the door to my room and would not come out. I remember sitting on the corner of my bed looking at the wall and crying. A switch had been turned on. There was some sort of disconnect that I could not reconcile. The fact that I could not control what was happening really knocked me off balance. It must have freaked Janelle out because she came in and asked what was wrong. I told her that, “Nothing matters.” Janelle wanted to know what I meant.
I believed that everything we did in the shop was irrelevant. We were doing paperwork and it was literally to make the time pass. I thought it was a waste because people were dying and I had to focus on god damn equipment status tag being filled out properly. This drove me nuts because the equipment I tagged was not used in theater. In my mind, I had taken moral responsibility for the people of Iraq. I did not register that they did not know who I was or even appreciated the role the military had played in their “freedom.”
Janelle convinced me to take a pottery class, so that I can channel my frustration. She said she was in class and it kept her emotionally stable. I followed her advice and took Ceramics I at the local community college. I threw myself into making coasters, ducks, and faces. Janelle was right, it felt good to stick my fingers through clay rip it apart and make something. I can’t thank her enough for her salient advice. Unfortunately, she was not around for my meltdown after my second deployment. Her contract was up and she opted not to renew.
I moved in with my boyfriend Josh, who happened to work in the same shop. Our next deployment was coming up and we decided to elope before we did our tour. The second trip to Balad was less stressful because I knew what to expect. There had actually been improvements in the infrastructure, so I took it as a sign that “we” were making an impact. I got high off of the twelve hour workdays and near miss mortar attacks. Several months had passed. It was time to go home and adjust to married life.
I remember lying in bed, turning to look at my husband and my neck being stiff. I blew it off as having a crick. The pain radiated from neck to my chest. I thought “What in the hell is going on?” It was so intense I thought I was having a heart attack. Then I dismissed it because I was lucid. I went to the hospital and was asked “Are you feeling anxious?” by the doctor. The physician could not find anything wrong with my heart. To be honest, I didn’t understand what she meant. I just knew I couldn’t relax. She made an appointment with Mental Health.
I was terrified going to mental health would ruin my career. So I sought counseling from a minister. This came back to bite me in the ass. I had a flag on my security clearance for NOT going to mental health and I was required to speak to a psychiatrist. She diagnosed me as having anxiety disorder.
Talking to a spiritual advisor was very helpful to me. I was taught how to handle the stress of coming back from a deployment while adjusting to my role as a wife and step- mother. I believe in prayer, but God doesn’t always answer immediately. I needed to learn how to cope. Seeing the psychiatrist gave me tools to manage stress.
Therapy taught me to “stay in my lane”. It is easy to be overwhelmed by taking on too many problems. I had to learn that it was irrational for me to “save the people Iraq from Saddam Hussein”. I was one person. My job was important, but not anymore important than the people working physical security or providing nourishment to the troops. The job of protecting Iraqi people was not my responsibility. I needed to concentrate on doing my job to the best of my ability and trust those above me to do their jobs.
My anxiety is now manageable. Now that I have the tools to cope with anxiety, I fight daily to keep a positive attitude. I have established a healthy eating habits coupled with long vigorous walks to stabilize my mood. Once a week my husband and I go hiking. There is something magical about being in a lush forest. It does wonders for my soul.
Erika served ten years in the United States Air Force. She is currently the writer and co-creater of the online web series The Sweet Grass Cafe. Erika uses satire to discuss controversial issues such as the refugee crisis, climate change, the overburdened foster care system, and the legalization of marijuana. She will receive her Master’s Degree in Liberal Arts from Tulane University May 2016.