In late-2007, I returned from a 15-month deployment to Iraq with 2-27th Infantry Battalion. We were stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry, a relatively remote base, responsible for a large area east of the Tigris River and south of Kirkuk. It was a dangerous mission complicated by the fact that our Area of Operations served as a fault line between Sunni Muslim insurgents to the south and Kurdish paramilitary in the north. We were sometimes-mediator, sometimes-target for one or both of those groups. We were incredibly isolated, kept in a constant state of readiness, and far from the people we loved. About the only thing we could count on was uncertainty, bad chow, and sand.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Iraq lately and about how being in combat, on an isolated base, far away from friends and family, is a little bit like living through the pandemic. Are we being shot at? No. But we all live with a little bit of anxiety in the back of our minds that something invisible or unpreventable might hurt us or someone we care about. That anxiety takes its toll.
Are we completely cut-off from our friends and family? No, not completely. But many of us haven’t seen our parents, extended family, or friends in over a year. And Zoom and FaceTime are poor substitutes for a handshake or an embrace or just making small talk with a stranger in the grocery line.
Are we being asked to assault fixed positions, cordon and search, or conduct combat patrols? I certainly hope not (although I’ve had a few depositions where I have considered one or more of these tactics). But sometimes just getting through today and tomorrow and the day after that feels like drinking the ocean.
Thankfully, the President has announced that there will be enough vaccine for every adult in America by the end of May. That’s just around the corner. It’s right there. We can start making plans again. Vacations. BBQs with friends. Birthday parties. Sporting events. It’s all in front of us. Tangible. Palpable. Soon we can slough off the pandemic malaise that has been slowly, persistently, grinding at us all. Right?
It reminds me, a lot, of when I learned what day I would be redeployed from Iraq and sent home from combat for the last time. Redeployment Day. R-Day. It’s easy to hang a lot of hopes on something like that, even if it still seems a bit uncertain.
By the time everyone is vaccinated it will have been about 15 months since Ohio and many other states went on lockdown, about the length of my last combat tour. And like coming home from a warzone, I think there will be a lot of pent up energy and excitement over a return to “normal” activities. We’ll be buoyant. We’ll be free. We’ll be safe.
But here’s the thing. All the same anxieties and challenges that we had before COVID-19, will still be waiting for us when COVID dissipates into the recesses of the past. That stuff has been there all along, taking up silent space. It hasn’t gone away. We’ve just carried it in a different place – put it somewhere else while we fight the close fight of a global pandemic. And when the afterglow of our collective R-Day wears off, when the tickertape parade gets swept away, we’ll need to be ready to confront whatever lies ahead and whatever we inevitably retrieve from those dusty shelves of our past worry. Some of us won’t be ready. We’re all a little different now. And transition is always the most dangerous time. That’s what I’ve been thinking about.
In Iraq, we lost more people in the month after redeployment than we lost in the last month of combat. The reasons are predictable. Substance abuse. Domestic violence. Accidents. And a bevy of undiagnosed mental health issues. It didn’t have to be that way. It just always is. I think the reason for this is pretty simple. Combat was something we were good at, trained for, maybe liked a little bit. It wasn’t supposed to be fun or easy. It was the mission. And when coming home didn’t live up to the expectations, didn’t match the spotless picture in our mind, the disappointment broke many of us.
Our motto in 2-27th Infantry Battalion is Nec Aspera Terrent, which translates to “Frightened by No Difficulties,” and is often stated as “No Fear on Earth,” or just simply, “No Fear!” Our insignia and mascot is a Wolfhound, which was earned while fighting in Siberia during the Russian Civil War. A fitting slogan and symbol for the fearless. But what about the unearthly fears? What about anxiety, depression, loss, loneliness, despair? What good is bravery and strength and courage, even that of a Wolfhound, in the face of the incorporeal? As far as I’m aware, there’s not a vaccine for that.
And here’s where the analogy between COVID and war breaks down. When I joined the Army in the aftermath of 9-11, I did it by choice. Every single one of my fellow Soldiers volunteered. Many of them, myself included, signed up knowing we would go to war. But unlike my military brothers and sisters, no one signed up for this global pandemic. We are all conscripts. There may be deniers, but there are no conscientious objectors, no medical disqualifications, no deferments. The frontline is your front door. You didn’t volunteer for this. No one did.
So here we are. At the end of another 15-month deployment. I know I’m exhausted. And I bet you are too. But COVID-19 deaths are going down. Hospitalizations are going down. Infection rates are going down. And daily, millions of people are getting the vaccine, their own personal R-Day. That’s all fantastic. But it’s not over. It won’t be for a long time, no matter when you are told you get to “go home” (or leave your home). Are we equipped to confront what comes next? I certainly hope so. We will be if we are honest with ourselves and each other.
Here’s what you can do. You can watch yourself. Watch your loved ones. Watch your friends. Watch your co-workers. And if you see something, say something. Offer help. Get help. Ask for help. Even if you don’t think you need it. Even if it’s a little scary. It’s okay. This is how we get through today, tomorrow, and the day after that. This is how we drink the ocean. Together. One sip at a time.
We know that prior to the pandemic, more than 1 in 4 attorneys struggled with depression and nearly 1 in 5 lawyers reported symptoms of anxiety. More than 1 in 10 had suicidal thoughts. We know the pandemic has increased rates of mental illness globally. If you are struggling, know that you are not alone.
For anyone struggling or who knows someone who is, there are resources you can reach out to. Calfee has programs for its employees. Your employer probably does too. Ohio lawyers have access to the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offer important information about COVID stress, helpful links, and emergency contact information.
We’ve been in this together for too long to fail now. Let’s do our part to prevent this global pandemic from turning into a worse mental health crisis. And once we can safely leave, let’s make sure we all get back home again. I know we can.
And from someone who still feels like a Wolfhound now and again, No Fear!
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