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14 August 2015

Now What? / The Manual? Pfft

I'm still in something of a "now what?" mode; I signed new lease for my apartment. This will be year two of living here, which for me lately is pretty stable. I wonder if I should be celebrating or something-- maybe a shot from that small bottle of Jameson's in my cupboard. I haven't touched it in several months. Perhaps signing an apartment lease does qualify as a special occasion, one worthy of a toast. During my visits to the Vet Center last year, I established the goal of being stable (continuing to get to work, keeping my apartment, continuing to survive, etc) for a full year. That was a year ago, and now with signing a lease for another year, I've accomplished that goal. So, sláinte.

At several points in my life I have had a plan, that for the next n years I would do x. After x was accomplished (or finished), I would then do y. This was useful when someone would ask where I wanted to be in n years, because I already had an answer. I'd worked it all out, mapped out the route, figured out the roadblocks and how to get around them. Whenever I start telling myself this, I'm reminded of the unit I was in when I went to the Desert-- there was A Deployment Plan, which the unit had meticulously crafted and practiced over the years. It specified every detail of THE deployment, the one that all of the training was for. The "real world" deployment, where all of the paperwork wouldn't have "EXERCISE" in bold letters at the top. There was a Mobility office, and a Mobility (note the upper case "M") NCO that was in charge of the Plan (note the upper case "P"). 

During the first few hours of the implementation of the Plan, which actually happened twenty-five years ago this week, it became readily apparent that if my unit were to follow the Plan to the letter we'd never actually make it to the Desert. We'd probably never even make it to the planes that would carry us and our tons of stuff. So the Plan became a lot simpler, very quickly. Pack anything and everything you might possibly need to get set up, pack so that it won't move even a millimeter between here and the Desert, and let's go. We'll figure out the rest when we get there.

It should be noted that I'd just arrived a couple of weeks ago at my new unit-- I'd just PCS'ed in from Turkey, hadn't even really unpacked, and had barely begun in processing. I hadn't done any of the "wartime" ancillary training that the Air Force required. But, then again, I'd just spent 15 months in Turkey (which until Desert Shield was almost as forward deployed as one could get) dealing with exercises and MOPP suits and NATO. I'd also worked on the same components that my new shop was responsible for, although used in a different system/mission. In that sense I was probably as prepared as I could possibly be to deploy to the Desert. (Except for desert camo uniforms, which I had to go to Supply and get. The only sizes they had in stock were Large-Long, and I'm Large-Short, but whatever.)

The situation was also strange for me because I didn't really know anyone in my unit that well. I'd met all of the people in my shop, and had the tour, but I didn't know any of the operations people who made up the bulk of the other passengers on my flight. These were the people who used my equipment, my customers, but I hadn't met most of them. All of the people in my shop were on other flights. When I finally did land in country, I sort of had to wing it for a couple of days until all of the necessary stuff got matched up with its right people. That's one of the things I ultimately love about the military though-- sometimes, shit just needs to get done and it doesn't matter if you're trained on doing that particular task or not. You're here, you're going to learn how to do it, and then you're doing it. I found myself putting together equipment I'd never seen before, with people I didn't know, in a country where I didn't speak the language that was about to be at war. (The tasks an airman finds himself or herself doing in such situations are sometimes fun and interesting, and sometimes they are not.)

There were a lot of things I didn't like about being in the Desert. I'd just come back to the States, for one, and I had sort of planned on my life being a little bit more stable for a while. It's hard when you're a long way away from everything (and everyone) you know and love for over a year, and there's all of the things you can't do until you get back, so you make up this huge list of all of the things you're going to do when you do get back. All of those cool plans had to be put back on hold, and worse yet, indefinitely. My orders to the Desert said six months, but after being there for a couple of months we heard the news that XII Corps was being moved to the Desert from Germany. With that news, "six months" changed to "indefinite". 

There were times when I felt angry. Why me? Why all of this shit? I'd gone back to the States and gotten married in the middle of my tour in Turkey, and I was quite honestly quite tired of being alone. I later found out that nearly everyone, at some point, felt the same way about being in the Desert, even the most dedicated career airmen. There were a lot of people who filled out their retirement papers in the Desert and became civilians soon after they got home.

And, there were a lot of times in the Desert where I was scared and frightened. Yes, the Persian Gulf War was a relatively short war compared to others. It turned out that way, but while it was happening we expected and were prepared for a much longer war. We expected more casualties, lots more. We expected that we'd be hit with chemical weapons. We expected, and we trained for, a disaster to happen. That's how it works-- you train hard, you train for the absolute worst that can happen, and then when something does happen you're ready for it. That doesn't mean you're not scared, it just means that your brain and your nervous system and your muscles know what to do. 

I'm going to skip ahead a bit now, from August 1990 to March 1991. In doing so I'm skipping what is essentially the meat of the story, and certainly all of the events that are involved in my PTSD, but there is a method to my madness.

When I came home-- after the parade through Sumter SC, and after all of our equipment came back, and after we'd cleaned sand out of every crevice and crack and place that sand could be-- when I came home life returned to something that most people would call "normal". It was all new to me, since I'd spent such a short time at my actual duty station before shipping out for the Desert. A lot had changed during the time I was gone, changes that I didn't know had happened and changes that I recognized but didn't understand. 

Once the excitement died down, which it gradually and eventually did, I was able to settle into a routine. A chapter in my life-- Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf War-- had closed. Whatever else happened after that-- when things broke, or someone needed an airman to do something, or whatever-- things had become a new level of boring. Once you've done the thing you've trained to do, once you've seen the worst of it, the daily ticky tack stuff isn't as exciting any more. It's still important. The business of the military is that as one action winds down, you start preparing for the next action because it will surely come. But it's not the same.

The military, in 1991, drew down. A lot of the people that had made the Persian Gulf War happen became civilians in the years after we came home. I was one of them. There was a new thing, a "transition assistance program", that tried to make it easier for all of us that were getting out to become civilians again. How to look for jobs, interviewing skills, networking skills, resumes, transferring military skills to civilian work. Some of it helped, some of it didn't, more on that another time. 

I won't make the claim that being homeless is as bad as war-- maybe it is, maybe it isn't, there are so many variables-- but I will say that being homeless is in some ways equally as profound. In a war you have the people you work with, the people who support your mission, you have (hopefully) the country behind you. People always say "Support the Troops" and some of them even do, or at least they try. People don't generally support the homeless. People consider the homeless with different emotions, sometimes pity but mostly scorn. If a homeless person is a veteran, sometimes that matters but mostly it doesn't. Either way it often doesn't change anything.

I'm angry a lot lately; I have a short fuse, and I've found myself walking with a chip on my shoulder. It's not me. I'm not like that, and I don't like having such a short fuse. I know it's the PTSD. I know I'm still angry about everything that happened that made me homeless in the first place, and I'm still especially angry about how Porchlight treated me while I was in VA transitional housing. As much as you could say that being homeless means that your life is (at least temporarily) ruined, being evicted from a homeless program and then being forgotten about is even worse. It turns out that there's no one to complain to-- people say they're heartbroken to hear my story, but no one can (or will) do anything about it (including people at the VA). 

Sorry doesn't cut it, especially in terms of everything that Porchlight evicting me has actually cost me. No one's ever going to pay me back for that, though. I know that. It's hard to accept, hence the anger lately. While I'm willing to accept that people are generally good, I've seen evil-- stared it in the face, eye to eye. I know evil when I see it. There are people who are truly evil. People who would put a veteran on the street and forget about them are in that category.

Which (indirectly, I admit) brings me back to the question: now what? There's no manual for making the transition from being homeless, being screwed over, being homeless again, and then not being homeless. Much of my life-- an abusive childhood, a broken home, the Persian Gulf War, a broken marriage and divorce, being homeless-- has been about relying on myself and what I know, and what I can figure out on my own. Since being in the service, I've used the things the military taught me to survive every day. I'm not sure that I know what a "normal, stable life" looks like, or feels like.  

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It's been a couple (or a few) days since I wrote the first part of this post. I left it as a draft for a while, because I didn't want to just post it as it was. I haven't edited it since, but I'm adding to it now.

One of my therapy tracks at the VA Hospital is ending-- the intern I've been working with is done with her residency at my local VA Hospital, and she's headed to another VA Hospital in a different part of the country. We're meeting one more time after my Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy group next week, although there won't be a lot to say. I've had a lot of people come and go in my life, and at this point once someone is identified as not going to be around for much longer my trust in them gets cut off. It was nice knowing you, and nice working with you, but I from here on I'm just another veteran that you saw (briefly) when you were an intern back in the day.

The interns that run the PE group I've been going to for the past few weeks are finishing up their stays here as well; one is going to another VA Hospital in the same state, and I haven't heard where the other is headed. I'm not sure what will happen to the PE group. It's a "drop-in" group, meaning that you don't need an appointment, you just show up. The highest number of people that have attended since I started is three, which was this week. It's at 1500, which I know makes it difficult for veterans with day jobs to attend (especially when a lot of them live outside the city, with a substantial distance to drive to get there).

The PE group is a good thing-- talking to other veterans about how I'm feeling, how I'm coping (or not), and comparing situations and responses really helps. PTSD can be very isolating-- one of the symptoms is avoidance, which is part of it, but it's not something that I can discuss with many people outside of the VA and one or two very close friends (who are veterans themselves). It's one of those things that you really can't understand unless you're dealing with it personally.

Prolonged exposure therapy uses the subjective units of distress scale (SUDS) to measure one's response to a particular situation. A '10' is something you can do without much problem or distress. A '100' is something where you freak the fuck out just thinking about it. Each of us participating in the group keeps a list of places, or actions, or situations rated from 0-100 that we're applying what we learned in the actual PE therapy sessions to overcome. Prolonged exposure therapy itself involves verbally describing a traumatic event in detail in guided sessions, recording yourself doing so, and listening to yourself describing the traumatic event daily. The more you face it, the less it affects you. It's hard as fuck, but it's worth it. It helps.

PE the drop-in group is meant to keep the momentum going, talking about what's going wrong and trying to apply the same strategy to those things. I don't know that saying I enjoy it is really the right thing, but I look forward to it every week. If nothing else, it's validation that the stuff bouncing around in my head isn't just me, that there are other people that have the same kind of stuff ping-ponging around. I'm hoping, and I'm going to express this feeling next week, that an intern leaving shouldn't mean that the group ends. If the PE group ends, I don't have another support structure in place right now to replace it.

Which means, yet another new provider. Which means that I'll get to tell my story, again, to someone who doesn't know me and probably doesn't give a shit once the session is over and I leave the office. It doesn't really matter how deep the discussion gets, it's 1600 or whatever time and hey, gotta go. I know I must sound cynical (this is a literary device to indicate to you, dear reader, that I am cynical about the VA). It's just that telling my story again and again to different people doesn't help much and in fact makes things worse. The staff at the front desk at the mental health clinic and I know each other by first name. I barely know the first names of the interns who are my providers, and it doesn't pay to learn them because they'll be gone soon.

What's wrong with this picture?

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Oh, and that college thing: classes start again soon. I'm still working out financial aid, so even though I'm a senior and a veteran I'm registering insanely late. There's not much to report other that that right now. It's still summer, at least for a little while yet.

I'm going to at least a few hackathons this semester. Hopefully getting back into a schedule that involves some travel will help-- I love going places in general, and to hack makes it even better. Last year, I was just there to hack, and learn. I didn't really put a lot of effort towards getting hired at one of the sponsoring companies, because I was trying to be stable for a year. Now that year is over, and I have a future to think about, so I'm actively trying to secure an internship. Not looking to get rich quick, not looking to get famous, just looking for a place where I fit in and can be productive even with a disability.

There's still no manual for any of this, so I'm writing it as I go along.

Not bad for someone who a year ago was sleeping on the street outside the building I'm sitting in.








  










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