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Twice Bitten


By Dr. Mike Colson

The sun is right where it ought to be at 3 o’clock PM on a Saturday…dead center in the windshield and blazing the eyes of a GWOT vet traveling west. The terrorist appears seemingly from nowhere. The RPG is aimed right at the GWOT’s vehicle and impact is going to be immediate and intense. The GWOT’s body is already at the ready. Testosterone, so necessary in keeping him alive during attacks, rushes in, and training and survival instincts takes over. With his left hand gripping the wheel he waits for the propellant flash, scans an egress path, and with the off hand snaps his weapon to condition one...and nothing happens.

The war’s been over for more than a year. RPG’s are now the worry of other soldiers still in the field. The terrorist was a traffic cop aiming a radar gun. And only a last split-second impulse stopped him from cutting across two lanes of traffic…but the testosterone was in the GWOT’s system and more than an hour would pass until his heart rate would return to normal.

The GWOT, of course, is you and me…returnees from the Global War on Terrorism with a default upload of personal OIF/OEF stressors. The trick to survival in the past – in combat - was to memorize organizational procedure and quickly learn the nuance and language of combat arms, movement, and security. One hiccup, though, in this regimen, is what to do with the 70 pound Alice pack that held your life’s possessions. Rule of thumb: Make sure it had ever single thing you’re required to have by regulation – but in reality – only carry everything you need. GWOT’s learn pretty early on that you HAVE TO learn to think about what is important. Then, develop a plan of attack. And finally, figure out a way to get stuff done. Success and survival depend on it.

I am a GWOT; so let me give you my own 7o pound pack example. When I went to the field, it was essential for me to have both sides of a shelter half. Sixteen-hour plus days spent moving from unit to unit mandated I rest well; which means alone. Churchill’s “History of the English-Speaking People” and a small Bible, an Army surplus rain slicker, deck of cards, writing set, Ziplock bags, and assorted bits and pieces were also needed. That meant the extra uniform, boots, and field jacket – all required - didn’t make the cut.

Being careful to isolate the main mission, plan well, and setting off in the right direction are second nature to all of us. We all have been tested and found able to carry a regulation pack. What appears to be less well known or appreciated is that many GWOT’s can be weighed down by their own OIF/OEF trauma; I.e. the guy with the RPG masquerading as a State Patrolman. Of course, this is to be expected. Vietnam-era veterans with similar challenges wove that trauma into the fabric of our American veteran guidon years ago.

Here’s a word to the wise; GWOT have their own set of regulations, which like many adapting positions in any organization, requires flexibility. In the Marine Corps we jokingly called this Semper Gumbi - which is funny as long as everyone is laughing. The GWOT’s pack today probably includes guidance from higher authority (spouse, children, employer, and the community-at-large), from which she/he makes sure that everything required, and everything needed to survive, is carried. What that means in reality – i.e. that extra pair of boots – is that something is going to be left behind. If what the GWOT chooses, out of necessity, to leave behind are those intervention options, tools, trust relationships, and freedom to heal so necessary for trauma sufferers – then are we not setting ourselves up for failure?

My own military history records multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and fourteen years of previous service working with war refugees and orphans in war-torn southern Africa. I am a GWOT and have been proud to serve. But, prior to starting my post-war life - and in-between combat tours - I was diagnosed and eventually began treatment for PTSD. The disability gives me foundation when I speak about readjustment challenges facing America’s newest combat veteran. And…it also makes carrying that Alice pack tough at times.

One of the key factors I find in myself and fellow GWOT vets deployed into combat zones is a belief that a betrayal (of sorts) has taken place. It might not be rational, but it exists. Whether true or not, the sufferer is still prone to be distrustful of others, react before deliberation, work as a replacement for balance, and ultimately suffer through the nights and dreams alone. I know this because I have had my own struggles…and suffer.

It is my belief that compassion and understanding, along with openness, frank commentary, and one on one communication allow for wholesome and long-term personal and professional relationships to develop. GWOTs, like Vietnam veterans before them, are trying to find their footing in a complicated times. Is it not time to consider how you are carrying? And, in that spirit work hard to find and pack what you need to survive first, and succeed in good time.