For modern military Veterans, September 11 is a day to pull the events of our lives into perspective. For myself and others who watched the events on television with alarm and then waited anxiously for the phone to ring, it is a day to examine (or avoid) that gut-wrenching anxiety all over again. In slow motion a seemingly unavoidable chain of events rear up for us all, events which eventually sent my own unit to Kuwait in support of the invasion of Iraq. These were days which left me wondering what it all means and left many others looking for help.
Sophocles long ago wrote about the transformational effect of military service, the constant struggle to bridge back over to the mainstream experience. Then, as now, some drink, some rage at the sky or wallow in despair; the lucky ones battle to find relevance in the events to the whole fabric of their lives. I found my way to understand my summer in the sand on a drive along the lake one night.
Like all good mothers, when several motorcyclists whizzed past, I began to preach driver safety. Suddenly, I connected with a fact about helmets I had long forgotten, about British surgeon Hugh Cairns, who had attended a particular motorcycle accident victim in May of 1935. After his patient died, he became an avid proponent of motorcycle helmets, uncommon in that day. I found that remembering Dr. Cairns connected me to a trip to the drive-in with my mother, and that memory bridged, finally, with the hot morning when I was woken up in Kuwait by claxon horns announcing that we were under attack. My children did not see my face as the neurons in my brain made these lightning-fast connections, nor could they fathom the value that uncovering these foreshadowing’s had in finding a new identity for myself.
The name Thomas Edward Lawrence may not ring many bells with readers (you might know him better as Lawrence of Arabia). An Englishman who served during the Arab Revolt (1916-1918), he led Arabs to an overthrow of the Ottomans. I knew about him because my mother, desiring to expose me to good literature, art, history and politics, had dragged me at age fourteen to watch David Lean’s epic, “Lawrence of Arabia” at our local drive-in. Trapped in the front seat I had no option but to let the story in. Later, when other girls whiled the hours away learning make-up techniques or reading teen magazines, I was combing city libraries for books on my new hero. The bastard child of a lesser Welsh noble who’d run away with the nanny, Lawrence was a noble, but not quite. Outside looking in, he struggled, he starved, went to college, studied archaeology, became an Army officer … I thought his struggles were marvelous, and brave.
While reading Lawrence’s book about the revolt, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, equipped me in some ways for Kuwait, there would be no donning robes and sailing over dunes for me. Indeed, while the historic view I had of the region helped me accept my role there and appreciate British coalition troops at our joint base, the WWI hero never came up in conversation. While others, like General Petraeus, were searching for valuable strategic insights in Lawrence’s text, I was sorting through items at a small bazaar and purchasing white Arab garb and headdress to send home.
I did not understand then, but I do now, the lessons to be found in Lawrence of Arabia’s post-war saga. Like many soldiers, the hero suddenly found himself redundant after his mission. Having led warriors into bloody battles, he had trouble just keeping up with the dishes. He not only suffered “readjustment” problems before that was a popular phrase, but he was hounded by paparazzi hoping to capitalize on his next amazing adventure. Most demoralizing for him was his realization, which Vietnam veterans shared, that what he thought his mission was and what his government thought it was were at variance. Speeding along on his motorcycle in 1935, he may have been trying to outrun his own hype, but whether it was depression, a death wish or PTSD that brought him into fatal contact with an oncoming car, one thing is certain: a helmet would have saved his life but not his floundering soul.
Interestingly, unlike Lawrence of Arabia’s experience, others were more eager to pretend my deployment had never happened than even I was, and life cooperated by pushing in its new demands. Still only able to digest the experience in small bites, my personal archeology uncovers more pieces to the puzzle, and more puzzles. Cleaning a shelf, I come across a stuffed animal given to me as small child. Other girls got Barbie Dolls, I received a toy camel. “How does this stuff happen?” I ask.
Perhaps it was all coincidence; a teenage crush with a movie star turned into an obsession, a random toy. Maybe my summer in the sand was just the natural consequence of the economic situation which drove me to a military career in the first place, as it had been for Lawrence. Perhaps I was just following the example of forebears who had served in the military, or living out their stories. Most likely, it is all of the above exerting their subtle influences as I find my way back every year to remember and appreciate that the price of peace and safety is paid in the tiny moments and tiny choices which every veteran makes.
Kathy L. Baumgarten, Retired USAF, is staff writer at the American Military Retirees Association. You can learn about her stories at www.strictlyaloner.com ..