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Struggling with the war within while being deployed

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- I'm sitting here in Iraq, in the middle of a war zone. The funny thing is, I volunteered to do this and for my own personal reasons. There are tough days when I wonder why I did this and ask myself "what did I get myself into?" As war wages on outside the "wire", I'm here at LSA Adder, Ali AB, Iraq, helping many people wage the war within. To deal with what it's like to be in a stressful environment every day.
I'm a mental health nurse deployed here in support of the Army as part of a Combat Stress Control team. Our job is to help soldiers deal with the stressors they face here every day. A lot of my job has to do with redefining the "norm". It's "normal" not to sleep well when you're deployed. It "normal" to jump when you hear loud noises since sometimes that loud noise can be an IED going off next to you or a mortar round being fired at the base. It's normal to become irritated with the "buddy" you work and live with 24/7. Many feel as if they're "losing it" because they just don't feel like themselves. Just knowing that what they're experiencing is considered "a normal response to an abnormal situation" puts their mind at ease. It also helps to know that these responses may continue for a period of time once they return home, and a period of adjustment back home is expected.
I've found that war brings out the worst in all of us. Problems faced on the home front are only exaggerated by deployment. Unfortunately many believe that getting away or ignoring problems will make them go away. But the opposite is true. Things we would typically do at home to cope we can no longer do here in the desert. Deployment takes problems that have been simmering on the back burner and brings them to the front burner and to a rolling boil. So Combat Stress Control is here to help those who've had difficulty with anxiety or depression, struggling with how they've been feeling even before they deployed. Unfortunately, by delaying help, they've only made their situation worse. Deployment alone can bring on feelings of isolation, fear, anxiety and depression. It can also significantly magnify these feelings for anyone who's already been struggling. Our job is to support them through the deployment, and send home those that need to go home.
This environment also brings out the best in all of us and the problems we encounter here in the desert can sometimes put life in perspective, and help us realize what is truly important. There are situations where Combat Stress Control is limited in its ability to help, when it takes the combined strength deep within every soldier to get through the darkest days. The hardest thing anyone here has faced is the death of a fellow soldier. Especially if you're one of the unfortunate ones to have seen it all unfold in front of you, or if it was your roommate, the guy sitting right next to you, or if you were the medic that tried to save a life. This happened here only a few weeks ago. Listening to those who experienced this first hand was the hardest thing I've ever done. I can only imagine what it's like to actually live it.
It's difficult to put into words the bonds I've witnessed forged by those who have gone through such loss together. They are bound by a shared grief, a shared trauma and a shared guilt. Their concern is not for themselves but for each other and for those lost and the families left behind. They've all asked the question "what could I have done differently?" or "I should have done more" or "I should've been there". I've watched them come together to memorialize those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, remembering their lives, not just their death, and supporting one another through a grief I hope I never know.
Combat Stress is there once again to "normalize" their experience to a situation that is not and never will be normal. We talk to them about what to expect over the days and weeks to come. But we do so little in comparison to what they do for each other. In spite of the everyday difficulties we all face, it is apparent to me that we all have it within us to be there for each other and to support each other through the worst of times. I believe it was their shared grief and understanding that made each day tolerable and brought them to the next day.
As a military member, it's important to remember that we're all eligible to deploy at any time. Take care of yourself and take care of your family, it will make your deployment so much easier. If we've done that, deployment can be a time for personal growth and development, facing challenges many of us have never faced before. I'm thankful that I was prepared and that I've got strong support back home. Because I've learned that for some, deployment can be a time of isolation, pain, even profound grief, and a time when we need to rely on each other to get through each day. Mostly, I'm thankful for the opportunity to be here for those who have been through so much pain and sacrificed so much for the freedoms we enjoy every day.