I’m running on a track built into Commo Hill and I’m trying to concentrate on my breathing. We’re in the middle of our Iraq deployment, and our platoon sergeant, Sergeant Petry, has suddenly decided that he wants the entire platoon to prioritize scoring three-hundreds on our PT tests, so the squad leaders have created a workout schedule for all of us. It’s not enough that we have above-average scores already—no, he wants us to be the top of the top of the top, and he wants us to prove it with back-to-back PT tests.
Sergeant Petry’s decision trickles down to the squad leaders. His whim, their responsibility. My squad leader, Sergeant Graves, is pissed that he doesn’t get to use his free time to talk to his girlfriend on Skype anymore—that, instead, he has to now use what free time he has, whatever that even means, to train us to get one-hundreds in push-ups, sit-ups, the two-mile run. On the first night of our group workout, he fumes and paces and ultimately decides that what we all need to focus on is our run times.
The Hill, he says.
For someone who inhales a pack a day, he has the lungs of a track star and he smokes us every night. He expels his anger and energy through cardio, and he makes us do everything. He says, Let’s do thirty-sixty-nineties. Then he says, Run a mile then actually run three. Sometimes, he splits our group in half and has us running alongside each other. He says, Runners in the back run up to the front. A loop within a loop. We run to a rhythm of him yelling Hurry the fuck up, his only method of motivating us.
Every other day, we’re on Commo Hill and the days that we’re not, we’re in the gym right next to Commo Hill. There, Sergeant Graves times us and says, Thirty minutes on the elliptical, then thirty minutes on the treadmill, then thirty minutes on the bike. CrossFit has taken hold of some of the HR specialists and it’s got them running in and out and around the gym and flinging their bodies in the air from the pull-up bars. When they do this, Sergeant Graves gets even more pissed off. He says, Jesus fucking Christ. He yells, Ignore these stupid fucks and when one of them looks at him, he says, Mind your fucking business. He does this while we work our way through the rotation of cardio machines. The days we’re in the gym are also muscle-failure days so after that first hour and a half, we work on arms chest back abs legs.
This is so fucking stupid, Sergeant Graves says each time he decides we’re done for the day, and each time he says, 5 p.m. outside my CHU tomorrow. Don’t be fucking late.
Above Commo Hill is the Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar Intercept Land-Based Phalanx Weapon System. We all just call it the Phalanx. It doesn’t resemble bodies in formation. It looks like a massive weapon, which it is. It shoots down mortar rounds midair, the explosions looking like fireworks. When we hear Incoming, incoming, incoming and we’re on Commo Hill, we slow down to a jog and meander to the nearest bunker. We smoke against the walls and talk about the next day’s mission until it’s safe for us to go back to our combat housing units or, in our case, to go back to Commo Hill.
Which brings me back here. I’m running on a track built into Commo Hill and I’m trying to concentrate on my breathing. Tonight, Sergeant Graves has allowed us to run together but at our own pace, so we are scattered. We’re joined by other people, not the HR specialists, no, they’re still in the gym, but people from some platoon from some battalion from some brigade. Either way they’re not ours. I hear footsteps approaching behind me. Because I’m well acquainted with the gait, the rhythm, the breathing of my squad I don’t need to look behind me to know that this person is a stranger. And he’s running after me.
In New York I tell my therapist that I’m overly cautious. I say things like, I’m always on edge and I can’t bring myself to go outside when it gets too dark and I think I might be losing my mind. It’s a loop of I should not be feeling like this and her saying Why not and me saying Because. We stare at each other and she asks me to tell her—only if I want to—if anything has happened to me recently to provoke these feelings. I have to force myself to say it out loud: Christina Yuna Lee, Michelle Alyssa Go, GuiYing Ma. What I don’t say is that I am always worried—worried that my appearance will provoke someone in passing, that something will happen and it will be too late for me to react.
She nods. She is always nodding.
She asks me if I’ve been doing that bilateral hearing thing we talked about during our first visit and I say yes but I forgot to bring AirPods or earphones to listen to them with. I don’t tell her that I had looked up “bilateral hearing” after our session and saw it was related to EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I don’t tell her that I’ve had experience with EMDR, and by that I mean getting out of it, so I could convince the therapist working out of the Troop Medical Center that I was fine to deploy again. Okay let’s try something else, she says, and takes out a pen for my eyes to follow and asks me to concentrate on it, which I do, because I actually want to get better this time.
She says, Sit back and get comfortable. She asks me to concentrate on the tip of the pen and to focus on where my anxiety is located on my body. I’m silent for a while before she asks me how I’m feeling.
What is the military for? To train you to survive extreme conditions. To teach you how to prepare, how to react, how to adjust, how to improvise, how to recover, how to improve. There’s a reason for the week-long, month-long exercises that lead to year-long deployments; for the sleep deprivation and the food limitations and the outdated equipment. The military teaches you to double-check, triple-check, quadruple-check; it has you living by phrases like Don’t expect what you don’t inspect or Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups. It’s where you learn that there’s little room for failure or for mistakes, because either one could mean death.
How to extricate yourself from the training is another question—really, what to do when there is an inability—an impossibility—of disentangling yourself, when it has served as your foundation for so long that you don’t know what else to do. How to train yourself to go back to who you were before—not to be paranoid, not to be suspicious—how to tone all of it down.
My first morning-slash-night in Baghdad, I couldn’t find the bathroom. When I asked the person who had assigned us to our combat housing units, she pointed me in the general direction of where they’re supposed to be, which was not helpful because every single building in combat housing looks alike. The housing units and the bathrooms are all made of shipping containers. Forty-foot-long shipping containers. And they are all a shade of beige.
Combat housing units are split in thirds, with two people per third. Two twin beds, two wall lockers and (if you’re lucky) two side tables. The rest of the shit in there you barter for, like the TV my first roommate got us in exchange for the cigars she had brought from somewhere else or the mini-fridge the former residents left us or the DVD-VHS player we inherited from some people in the CHU next door. There are three cutouts in each room: one for an AC unit that almost always shuts down in the middle of a sandstorm; one for a small window that sometimes opens; one for a door that shakes the entire container when you open or close it. The bathrooms, on the other hand, stay whole.
The neighborhood of around a hundred combat housing units is surrounded by concrete walls and so are the bathrooms and the showers. Each concrete wall is spaced out so you can exit and enter, but right beyond that exit/entrance is another concrete wall. From above it looks like it’s completely enclosed. A massive walkway—wide enough for a military vehicle to pass through—separates our living quarters from where we shit and shower. Against the concrete walls of the combat housing units are streetlamps that occasionally go out. But it doesn’t matter. The walls are so tall that when you enter the bathrooms or the showers enclosure, it immediately gets dark.
Now that you have the lay of the land, imagine this. Having to piss because you’ve been traveling all day then having to walk on rocks (because rocks prevent sand from flying everywhere) outside the concrete walls then having to walk through a massive walkway with empty unlit bunkers jutting out on each side then walking through another concrete wall where you see stairs leading up to a shipping container but can’t tell if it’s for you or not. There are no signs but you’ve heard that the showers and bathrooms for women are marked so you keep walking along the perimeter of the wall.
It’s dark. You are squinting at the doors and don’t know if you’re imagining a sign or not. You’re not but it’s not the right sign for you. It says Broken—Use Other, and anyway you think you can hear men’s voices coming from inside so you keep going. You realize each shipping container alternates: showers, bathrooms, showers, bathrooms, showers, bathrooms. The men’s voices echo and now you actually can’t tell if you had heard it from inside the shipping container or whether the noise is outside—whether it’s in one of the bunkers or bouncing off the concrete walls by the CHUs.
You feel like someone’s watching you, but you know they can’t be, because of the rocks. Thank god for the rocks—I mean, good luck to your ankles if you actually needed to make a run for it, but you know, because you’re stepping on them right now, that the rocks are loud enough that they’ll rattle if someone else steps on them.
You don’t find the bathrooms that first night. You end up getting the fuck out of that fucking maze and pissing, finally, in a bunker hoping nobody finds you. You don’t tell anyone because why would you snitch on yourself like that and because there’s nobody to tell who would understand anyway.
The next morning you will make sure to take advantage of the sunlight to find the shipping containers you will be taking showers in and going to the bathroom in for the next twelve months. You will suck your teeth when you realize you passed them last night.
I’m just thinking about how this is ridiculous.
My therapist is still holding the pen in front of her even though I’m shifting my gaze between her and the window.
How is this ridiculous?
I talk about the memory loss that is chipping away at me and then about the mood swings and irritation and sleep problems.
I talk some shit about my previous therapists again and how one of them focused too much on connecting everything to combat-related trauma and how the other focused too much on proving himself because he was insecure about not having served in the military.
I talk about the shortcomings of the VA—such an easy target for my ire—and about how little people know about their benefits after they leave and how I am always getting lucky because I have the patience to stay on hold for hours at a time or the audacity to chase people down if I need answers and, when none of those work, the right amount of energy to call every politician in my state and to ask them how they’re going to help me.
I say, I feel like I’m taking someone else’s hard-earned benefits.
The deflections work and soon I’m swept into these tangents. She asks me to elaborate each time. She says, Where are you feeling that and focus on that location and how are you feeling now until I’m here, saying, I’m sad and angry and guilty about feeling sad and angry about everything that’s happened and that’s happening.
I say, This is ridiculous, I mean, not wanting to leave my apartment when it gets dark, I mean, I’ve been through worse, right, I mean, why this level of panic and terror, I mean, when someone is walking behind me I can’t really calm myself down, I mean, it is actually crazy for me to be this hypervigilant, I feel like I’m overreacting.
She says, I don’t think you’re overreacting at all. I really, really don’t.
What could the military be for? To follow through on its promise to take care of you once you’re a part of it. To watch out for you. To prepare you for your return to civilian life before the expiration of your term of service; to walk you through each step, each benefit, one by one; to say, You’ve earned this. There’s a reason so many veterans talk about the labyrinth that is the VA system and complain about its abrasive civilian employees, or recite the motto, in all its variations: Delay, deny, until they die or Delay, deny, wait till they die or Delay, deny, and hope you die—referring to the long and arduous claims and appeals process.
How to stop running. How to ask for help—you were trained to do a lot, but not this. How to admit you need it, to say it out loud: I don’t think I’m handling this too well. I don’t think I’m handling this at all.
I run until I recognize the back of someone’s head in front of me. It’s Sergeant Graves, who’s in the cool-down part of his run, and who is patting his pockets to find a cigarette. I am careful to keep my distance because he’s the type of person who would hit you if you ran up on him and caught him off guard. I keep my pace but wait until he sees me in his peripheral vision to close that distance. I’m out of breath when he does. He doesn’t greet me, just nods, the lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
I dry heave when I slow down next to him, and because he sees that as a symbol of trying your hardest, he actually pays me a compliment. He says, Good shit, Cueps. Someone tuts behind him, most likely because he can’t smoke on the Hill, and he turns around and says, Mind your fucking business.
When we see the rest of the squad he says, Cuepo almost threw up, not in a funny way but in a You all better have almost thrown up too way. When we’ve all finished stretching, lighting up, smoking our cigarettes, Sergeant Graves does a quick head count and we all walk to our CHUs together.
Walking to and from places together is necessary. When Abney was my team leader, he carried a notebook of everyone’s locations, knocking before opening the door to our CHUs to check in and make sure we were where we were supposed to be. When West was my team leader, he had all of us sign out of a whiteboard that he stuck to his door with tape and a marker that hung on a 550 cord. Now that Kenobbie’s my team leader—well, the change is much easier because he’s also one of my close friends. We go almost everywhere together, so he can always keep track of me. The point is, everyone has to be accounted for at all times, so that if there’s a mission or a meeting or a motor-pool visit or a medical situation, anyone could track anyone down.
But it’s me, in particular, that they need to keep their eyes on. A rumor, lore, some game of telephone gone awry—nothing to prove it, but it got around a few days after the pissing-in-the-bunker incident:
A female Air Force officer is taking a shower in the shower shipping container. It’s the middle of the night. She dresses up. She collects all of her things. She is in her shower shoes which are really just rubber slippers. She holds the bucket that has all of her toiletries in her right hand. She opens the door with her left hand. She recognizes the smile the beard the face of the civilian contractor because she’s seen him around. The civilian contractor and his smile his beard his face are waiting outside the door—like, directly outside the door.
Here the stories diverge. One version says he tries to drag her back into the showers. Another says he tries to drag her out into the dark against the concrete walls. Another says he tries to drag her underneath the stairs. Either way he is trying to do something to her.
Here the stories converge. The Air Force officer’s left hand is free and it unclips the knife that is on her PT shorts and she stabs him in the gut and runs and tells her leadership and he runs and takes his contractor vehicle to the Green Zone where the hospital is and he gets treated for a penetrating injury and then he gets arrested because of the stab location.
After they hear this rumor, lore, game of telephone gone awry, Sergeant Petry and Sergeant Graves and Sergeant Grace and Sergeant Olszack and Sergeant Tabor tell me and tell everyone that I cannot, will not, will never go anywhere by myself. They say she cannot go to the DFAC by herself she cannot go to the gym by herself she cannot go to the PX by herself she cannot go to the hill by herself. They say, Okay, except the bathroom, but you need to tell us when you do. And then they tell me that my knife is now an inspectable item.
This essay is part of our new issue 27 symposium, “What is the military for?” Click here to see the rest of the symposium.
Art credit: Megan Rye. The Alamo; oil on canvas; 78 × 103 in.; 2007. © Megan Rye, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York.