Rule Number Two

I picked up my copy of this book when it came out last year. My wife read it - and loved it - immediately. It matched what she saw whenever she went to the CASH on her base in Afghanistan. I've picked up the book any number of times since then, but I could never quite bring myself to read it. I was absolutely positive that reading the book was going to hurt. I read the book today. It hurt as much as I thought it would. And now I feel forced to do something that's probably going to sound a little strange.

I don't quite know how I'm going to do this, but I'm going to try to convince you to go out, buy, and read a book that just left me feeling tired, drained, depressed, guilty, very angry, and just a little bit jealous. And no, nobody is paying me to do this, and yes, I'm totally serious. I hated the way this book made me feel, what it made me think, and the memories it brought back. But the book stirred up..... scratch that.

I was going to say that this book stirred up some strong emotions, but that's not what it did. It didn't stir up emotions. It ripped off a scab - and a scab that I really didn't know was there.

If the book wasn't as well done as this one is, it would have hurt a lot less.

In January, 2004, Heidi Squier Kraft was an active-duty Navy psychologist with two fifteen month children at home. In January, 2005, she was an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran on her way out of the Navy. Rule Number Two is about the things that happened in between. My wife is an active-duty Army flight surgeon with two children at home, and is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. She loved the book in large part because it was written by someone with experiences that were very similar to her own. And that's exactly why this book was so hard for me to read.

This is one of those books that's going to be different things for different people. (Since this is a book by a psychologist, I'm forced to compare it to a Rorschach test in that regard.) If you don't have close experience dealing with the effects of a combat deployment, I suspect that you'll be struck by how well Dr. Kraft captures the painful insanity of war. You might also be struck by the strength and grace exhibited by the Marines she cared for, and by just how resilient they were in the face of horrific experiences.

For me, though, this was a book that was about how Dr. Kraft changed through the course of her deployment and her return home. Nothing captures these changes more than her response to incoming fire.

"The idea of sleep was a joke. I lay wide awake on my cot, too paranoid to permit myself to blink. I listened to the distant shouting of men's voices and the occasional popping of gunfire. Several times during the night, the anxiety overwhelmed me. I got up and knocked on the door next to mine in the barracks, behind which my psychologist colleague and friend Jen was also wide awake. The two of us sat, arms wrapped around each other, shivering, for what seemed like an hour but may have been ten minutes."

(page 33)

"The rockets stopped. The four of us got up and walked to the head at the end of the passageway. We all wore either workout clothing or scrubs - with flack jackets and helmets, of course."

(page 213)

"While I procrastinated going out to meet my first patient, a large metal storage rack that was being moved on the floor above us crashed to the deck. The sound was deafening, a terrible crack of metal and concrete that caused my window to shudder in its sill.

I froze.

My heart seized. I clutched the medical chart I was holding so tight that my fingers blanched. I darted looks out my window at the blue fall sky and up at my white ceiling. I stood and walked to my open doorway, looking into the hall for signs that anyone else had heard the crash. Our doctors, corpsmen, and admin staff moved through their morning routines as if nothing had slammed into the ceiling above our heads. I bit my lip, battling tears of frustration. I knew it was just me. I knew it was the war, still with me."

(page 228)

Insane experiences change people, and they create bonds between people who go through them together. And now we get to that whole strong emotions/shredded scab thing.

Twice now, my wife and I have been forced to lead very different lives for months at a time. She's missed out on a lot of normal family life, especially with the kids. She's been gone for a bunch of birthdays, first days at school, new teachers, new friends, school conferences, doctors appointments, the ordinary illnesses and minor injuries that happen as small children become slightly larger ones.

At the same time, the kids and I have missed experiences involving rockets and mortars. We were there for the memorial service for the battalion commander, pilot, and soldier that Blackwater killed, but we weren't there as she and the pilots from his unit listened to the futile SAR effort that was going on in the valley that the plane should have been in. We missed out on feeling relief watching the attack helicopters swoop by overhead, as she continued working to save a patient.

I've missed her war. She's missed mine.

Twice, now, we've been able to fit things back together after she got home, and emerge as a strong, functioning family. But the process hasn't been easy, and it certainly hasn't been comfortable. She was changed by her experiences, and I resented that. My wife caught a lot of passive-agressive anger from me, particularly during and after the second deployment. Reading Kraft's book made it easier for me to see just how much anger I was really dishing out.

And all of that has caused the depression, pain, and anger to rear up again. But that's good, because the jealousy I was feeling comes from the knowledge that she's out, and will probably never need to go through that again. My wife is still in, and will be on active duty for a long time to come. There's a very good chance that we'll do this again someday, and now that I'm a little farther from the deployment, it's a little easier to at least recognize what I'm feeling, and how that affects how our family works.

Sometimes, it does get better if you pick at it.

If you read this book, you'll get a unique view of the whole modern military experience. You'll see the stresses that troops are subjected to in the field, and the wonderful ways they find for dealing with the stress. You'll also see just what they're forced to leave behind, and how that effects them. Both perspectives are valuable.

In fact, if I could get President-Elect Obama to read just one book, I think it would be this one. If he's going to be the Commander-in-Chief, he should get to know all of the costs involved in putting troops in harm's way. Not because he should never send them into the face of danger, but because it might just reinforce the importance of making sure that whatever might be achieved is worth all the costs.

4 responses so far

  • erline says:

    This is why people should refuse combat and military duty in the first place. Why subject yourself and your family to this?
    Why support this? If you don't go, and there isn't enough staff, well, the tolls will be higher and maybe someone will get the picture. Right now you enablers are flooding my place of work with perfectly healthy, young, confused amputees who are mentally F-ed up for good. No one comes out of that unscathed. There are already more than enough (as in, we can't treat them all) baby boomers, the progeny of another horrible war, who need rehab for their strokes & post-polio syndrome & Parkinson's, etc. I have no sympathy for intelligent, well educated people who CHOSE the war machine for their alma mater. Those of us who stay behind will, as always, pay the price to clean up your "patriotic" messes, rehab your sisters & cousins, while your parents & grandparents wait in their diapers for us to get around to showing them how to walk again.

  • Mara says:

    Wow, erline, that was easily the least compassionate thing I've ever read, and I read the news every day. To blame a flight surgeon and her husband for the warmongering of the Bush administration is ridiculous.
    I can only imagine how difficult it must be to go into combat and how difficult it must be to be the person who stays behind. There are a great many people who are going to need psychological care over the next few years, and a lot of family counseling.

  • iRobot says:

    I can see both sides. You sign up, you feel obliged to do what the brass tells you to do. but..who else but us as a nation failed to stop W when he stole a country, let 911 happen, started and f-ed up a war? I guess you could have mass groups of people refusing to go to war, but I have a hard time blaming them. To do that would have massive consequences, going jail one of them, while what did we civilians do but sit on our asses, go shopping and inflate a real-estate bubble? nothin' that's what! W had already f-ed up the country by 2004 but people were to scared of the terrorists that W let attack us to throw him out of office.

  • Lynne B. says:

    As abrasive as it was, I have to agree with erline's comment. We are not in a draft situation. Everyone going over seas CHOSE to go - even if you didn't want to go to Iraq, you must have known that joining the army included the possibility of deployment. Given that she is married to you, I have to assume that your wife is a reasonably intelligent person. She is responsible for putting herself in that situation and she is responsible for enabling Bush's war of terror. I wish that more veterans would take responsibility for their choices rather than hiding behind the social commandment that we must never ever criticise veterans.
    Of course, I'm not speaking of those who had no other choice - people of low intelligence, low income, people who had no viable career alternative.