Chapter 8 New Cold Adventure
I did not ask for the things that I’ve been through, and I certainly did not ask my mind to paint and repaint the pictures in flashback form. ~ Michelle Groth
I am not sure that the average person understands the physiology of PTS or how it comes to be. The fact is I still feel that there are a lot of theories in the medical world and of course everyone believes their theory is right.
During my long list of treatments, I have heard a lot of descriptions and each one seems to have its points of validity. After years of learning, I have concluded that how people get a PTS injury can be unique to the person, but the source is always the same.
One of the best explanations I have come across is something like this- When a person is exposed to a traumatic event the brain processes the information as danger. It then reroutes the processing of that memory of the trauma to protect itself. The rerouting of this information results in a shortcut that directly affects the person, these effects come in that the brain never really gets the information filed and so the memory is essentially stuck in limbo. In this limbo, the memory can quickly resurface and cause physical reactions such as anxiety, depression and a list of other physical effects.
In my case, I have learned that after being exposed to a bunch of traumatic events my brain pretty much rewired itself in the effort to protect me. When I retain information instead of the information following predestined paths things have changed and this change has evolved into a physical difference in my brain. Because of the massive back log in my ability to process the information I am quickly overwhelmed and am not able to manage things like stress well.
***This explanation is a combination of a lot of conversations I have had with medical personnel and others who battle PTS. In no way am I an expert, this is just the way I was able to understand what happened and why it still affects me.
As my time in The Old Guard ended and I now really look back at my time there it was such an impressive opportunity. I did all I could to take advantage of it but maybe missed some opportunities. No matter what I was off to my next adventure.
In February, only three years and a couple of days away from when I arrived in D.C. I was facing my first PCS (Permanent Change of Station). I would like to say the process was seamless and simple but that is far from the truth. Not only was getting information a challenge but the Army neglected to inform me of all the briefs I had to attend in order to accept an overseas assignment. Because of where Alaska’s is geographically located it is considered overseas, Hawaii is the same way.
I trudged through the process and off I went to my new assignment in Fairbanks Alaska. Arriving in Fairbanks was a culture shock at its finest. I arrived around 3 pm in the afternoon and the sun was setting. Getting off the plane I never really received the full impact of the weather in the great white north. One of the positive aspects of arriving was the terrific USO at the airport. Not only were signs and directions east to follow the staff there was amazing. With just a couple of phone calls, Fort Wainwright had a van on its way to pick us up and take us to temporary lodging. When we received the call that our van arrived, we bounced up and headed out the door, as the sliding doors opened the blast of bitter cold hit me in the face. As someone who had lived in very cold environments, you would figure I would know better than to not be prepared. Being in a light sweatshirt and a ball cap when it is 15 below zero is just no very good planning. I am pretty sure the private who was driving was thinking what an idiot he is.
By 3:30 pm when we arrived at temporary lodging it was already dark, and the temperature had dropped another 10 degrees. Simply put it was bitter cold, so cold that any moisture on your body would freeze the moment it was exposed to the air. The process at temporary lodging was nothing more than checking into a hotel. Because military lodging is not always as convenient as a hotel, especially at a post like Fort Wainwright where everything was 10 years behind the rest of the world we found that we were being put in old World War 2 era apartments that had been converted for short term stays.
The first night was rough, between jet lag and a new place, sleep was not to good of an option. With my internal alarm clock dialed in at 5 am which with a time change made it 3 am I was up to face my first full day in the Tundra. Since it was 40 below and dark as can be, the only real option was making a pot of coffee and chill. By 8 am the plan was in place to work on getting transportation and taking our first adventure around town. At 8 am it was still darker than midnight and cold and when I say cold it was bitter cold, fortunately, I had packed for right gear so 20 minutes of bundling up we called a cab.
Waiting for the cab meant standing outside, inside would make you sweat and sweat and cold is a pathway to frostbit. Luckily Fairbanks is a pretty small place, so the cab only took a few minutes to arrive. During the ride the cab driver was a wealth of information, he was a native to Fairbanks and had all the ins and outs. It was during this chat while we were driven to Wal Mart that the reality of daylight was gently briefed to me. The cab driver informed us that during the winter in Fairbanks the sun did not make an appearance until a little before noon and would vanish again before 4. Now let me tell you about CULTURE SHOCK. We had asked him about a place to purchase a real cheap temporary car, his chuckle of nothing is cheap in Alaska would soon be proven right.
Our short shopping trip to Walmart resulted in a few grocery items and a bill well over $100.00, it quickly became apparent we may not have planned well for this change. The driver was nice enough to take himself off the clock and take a flat rate to drive us around town for the morning. We made a few stops at car lots, but it quickly came to be that we needed to reformulate our plan.
About the time the sun decided to make its appearance it was back in the room with a local paper and a notebook. The rest of the day would be searching the want ads for a cheap car, finding cell service and reworking the budget so we could survive.
When you PCS in the army it usually involves taking some leave i.e.… vacation. Because there was so much excitement to get to the new land, I chose to forgo the vacation and just use a few extra days to adventure around the Fairbanks area and get to know the new hometown. The fact was this plan was probably going to have to change, between not having set aside enough money to eat and get our hands on a vehicle plus get new phones and so on and staying in rough lodging the plan had to change.
The decision was made that I would sign in to the new unit a week early, this would get us situated to get housing sooner plus would start the new pay scale that included COLA (Cost of Living Allowance) which would take some of the pressure off. So that night was spent pressing a utility uniform and shining boots, (Traditionally when you sign in to a new unit you do so in dress uniform, in Alaska because of the harsh conditions you are told early to sign in wearing a utility uniform so that you could dress warmer). Signing in was a pretty easy process, as soon as orders were dropped off and information was passed, I was officially signed into the 172nd (Separate) Infantry Brigade, soon to be the 172nd SBCT (Stryker Brigade Combat Team).
Not all was so good though, it would be another day before I could start in processing, this meant more time in rough lodging and with no way around the bitter cold new town.
With only a few extra bucks to work with we decided to go out and eat, the reality this was probably bad decision making but in fact, became one of the luckiest nights we had. Sitting down at the local “Nice” restaurant we were approached by a nice gentleman who could just look at us and know we were new to town. Of course, the haircut gave me away, so he knew I must be part of the new swell of soldiers coming to build up the new unit. He himself was a retired Infantryman who did his last assignment right there in Fairbanks. We invited him to eat with us which he accepted, during dinner he told us he had an older SUV he would sell us super cheap if it would help, he also made some calls and had arranged us to look at some houses off post that would help with our living arrangements. The best part he paid for dinner drinks and all so the night was a true blessing.
The next morning he met us at the temporary lodging we were staying in driving an older Jeep Cherokee, it ran pretty good and most important it started and the heater worked (cars do not like to start in that kind of cold, if you forget to plug in the block heater you may not be driving for weeks). A small $1000.00 later we had our car and were on track.
Next, we will talk about the pitfalls of new units, long hours of processing and learning to function in extreme weather. We will also show examples of how the world had not changed from years past, discrimination, judgment, and hatred amongst the ranks. We will also talk about the stress of the change taking a psychological toll and not being able to talk about it.
Above we talked about what causes PTS, or at least how I have made myself understand it. I imagine a few wonder about some of the things I do to cope, that is a long list but the number one thing I use is recognition. When I know things are taking a bad turn and the anxiety, anger, and irritation are starting to elevate I immediately accept that it is happening and find some place to process the feelings. Sometimes this is a few minutes, sometimes a week, and on more than one occasion it has been a month or better.