Yesterday’s announcement that a Blackhawk helicopter crash in Southern Afghanistan killed 11 people made my heart quicken and stutter, just like it always does. Even though my husband was piloting a commercial flight somewhere over Japan, I still lost a moment in the gap between irrational fear and reality. As I read the details, I wondered if that feeling would ever really go away.
I thought about the day in 2010 when a helicopter crash in the same region killed nine coalition troops just a few days after my husband left for the desert. My reaction that day, at the outset of our year-long deployment, was to make a pact with myself to avoid the news completely.
Then I recalled that day in 2011 almost one year later when a Chinook helicopter crash marked what is still the biggest single loss of U.S. Special Operations personnel in history. My husband was still deployed, and though my initial distress flicker was the same, my reaction was very different. I slammed my coffee cup on the kitchen counter just before being overtaken by a wave of helplessness that caused me to sob into my own sweaty hands.
But yesterday, after the sadness for the families sank in, I debated the ratio of what was asked as compared to what was gained, and found that it was too unbalanced for my liking. Perhaps the time since my husband returned dampened my patriotism for a moment. Maybe knowing he was is in a position of relative safety changed my intermittent perspective. Either way, I didn’t feel as grateful as I had been before, during the deployment. I felt lost and distant.
I tapped the virtual world for help. This war has dragged on so long that I wasn’t even sure where news like this stood, anymore. Americans have become numb to the repeat stories of maimed veterans and fatherless children and unemployed heroes. I knew people were passionate about Chick-fil-A, Paul Ryan’s ability to both polarize and motivate voters, and Prince Phillip’s bladder infection. But I wasn’t sure whether this horrible war news was even on the rest of the world’s radar. I wasn’t sure whether war was personal any more.
I chose to share that moment on Twitter, plinking out my thoughts in 180 characters. It was worthy of so many more, but I just wasn’t sure what to say about it. The only reply came from a member of the media I know and respect who covers military-related issues, and who knows the depth of military family struggle and sacrifice:
There were no more messages after that – from anyone. I sat staring at my response for a while. I ran through scenarios in my mind. What other experiences might compare? Which situations cause that same constricting wheeze in my lungs, that same vein-gurgling pop and flush that surges through me whenever there is breaking war news? I wanted to find the non-military version. I wanted to give it a label or a feeling or an understanding. I wanted the gap between me and “the civilian world” to be infinitesimally smaller.
The problem with statements like “I don’t know how you do it” and “I can’t even imagine” and “those of us in the civilian world” is that they begin with the assumption that we are somehow intrinsically different. We aren’t. You’ve had this feeling that we talk about – fear of “the knock.” You’ve experienced it through a combination of events:
It’s partly the feeling you have in that moment that you’ve seen a human body damaged in an unnatural way. It’s partly the confusion you get when you first hear a serious diagnosis for someone very close. It’s partly the guilt of being thankful for your own child’s health when another is dying. It’s partly the moment of relief when a group of friends rally around you to help you dump a boyfriend or study for your hardest final or talk you through an upcoming biopsy. It’s all of these at once; a swirl of the uncomfortable and unpredictable that is completely out of your control together with an undampened human rationalization commonly labeled “hope.” And it involves life and death. It is such a strong imprint that once you feel it, similar news becomes the trigger for the same series of physical and emotional responses. The feeling doesn’t change just because you’ve anticipated it, or considered it, or talked about it. It’s new and yet familiar each time.
This time, I don’t want to cry or ignore the news or slam my coffee cup onto the counter. Instead, I want to do something; I want to say something. I want to find a way to make this news familiar and sticky, not slick and cold. I’m exhausted by what stands between those who say they could never understand and those who think their experiences are too unique to be understood. The so-called “military-civilian divide” is my responsibility. Not the media’s. Not Hollywood’s.