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The Morning Routine

Portrait of Navy Corpsman Samuel Abel
Portrait of Navy Corpsman Samuel Abel

For Navy Corpsman Samuel Abel, getting ready for school today is very different than his childhood

The Morning Routine
The Morning Routine

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the show that brings you stories from the lives of American veterans told in their own words, directly from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall. Sam Abel is a big guy, both physically and personality-wise, and I wouldn’t want to make him angry. But, I would also never call him intimidating. He has a huge laugh and an air about him that broadcasts good intentions, which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn his role in the military was as a combat medic. He makes tense situations better, like when he was stationed at Twentynine Palms, he kinda became famous for buying the largest outdoor pool he could find at the Yucca Valley Super Wal-Mart and actually creating a tradition of pool parties, complete with margarita machines and shopping cart jousting matches. He was like the Sergeant Bilko of Twenty-nine Palms in his own words. But he also saw a lot. That’s part of being a medic, and one of the reasons I love his story so much is because he is able to do what we writing teachers are always trying to get our students to do, which is show instead of tell. There’s been a lot said about what it’s like to live with hypervigilance and other traits associated with Post-Traumatic Stress. But Sam’s story is a teachable insight into what daily life was like for him when he first came back. I’ll let Sam tell you the rest. SAM ABEL: Hello, my name is Sam Abel, and this is Waking Up for School. Crack. The door to the helicopter locks to the open position. The latching sound resonates in time with the throbbing of the rotors and the whine of the turbine engine. A hot wind envelops my whole body and never goes away. Neither does the earth and the grit, like an old wool blanket that you can’t shake off. Crack. Again the door locks opens. This time the sound in my ears is louder, sharper. It lingers, beating to the drum of the blades. The high-pitched screech is searching for the last corner of my brain that hasn’t been reached yet. I can feel my heart shaking my lungs as I dig deep for breath. Crack. I smell blood. Crack. Beep. It’s my alarm clock. I swallow to purge the copper taste that still lingers from my dream. I am awake. The back of my neck is stuck to my pillowcase. Sweat has locked it in place like a warm palm on a frozen door handle in winter. Only willing to release if applied with the right amount of pressure. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. I listen for the sound of rotor blades. I listen for the whine of churning engines. I listen. Beep. Only my alarm. I am awake. I feel the heat of my body dissipating even as I swing mechanically for the alarm clock. It’s autumn, and the timid cool of the season’s change is discernible at this hour. I dread the moment my feet contact that cold bedroom floor, a relic of my childhood past. As a kid, morning was my time to dream, where I could linger in a state of hazy opportunity fantasizing pulling off my first kickflip or lunchtime snack trade. Not having to exert any effort into completing the tasks ahead but rather relishing the certitude that, of course, everything would work out as designed. The moment my feet hit the floor though, fantasy swiftly turns to reality and begrudgingly I must go forth to showers, breakfasts, bus rides to school, teachers, lunch lines, etcetera, etcetera. It’s funny to me that I am still in school. It’s fall and I am three weeks into my courses at community college. It has been eleven months and twenty four days since I left the military. Now in my second semester, my days are once again filled with the same activities of my childhood, only without innocence. Everything is different. Everything has changed. I can feel my body trying to adapt to my conscious state, my anxiety snapping on and off like a broken lighter of a rusty grill as I ask myself the same question I ask myself every morning now, what are my goals, what is my mission. The nerves of youth have evolved into a crippling need for a plan. I must know every step required by my day now before I take it. Every event must be analyzed beforehand and every move taken deliberate. Nothing can be casually approached, because I know what complacency can do. I have seen it. Shower, that is my first task of the day, although just getting out of bed will be tough. The security of my bed is known to me. The floor invites confusion, it invites chaos. The cramped shower is not inviting. The hot steam filling my lungs and constricting the blood vessels in my chest reminds me of boot camp, breathing in CS gas in a darkened room with one light above, mucus flowing from my nose, past my lips as they sound out my third general order. The beating of the water drops from the shower, rhythmic, dull, constant, are like the rotors of the helicopter. Hot air is swimming around my face. I am a product of that heat. I have become it. Crack. Every drop of water slamming into the white acrylic bottom of my bathtub is another helo door locking back. Another round being fired downrange. Crack. Crack. The bullets fly. Thump, thump. The rotors turn. And the hot, sticky water beading off my skin drips downward. I smell blood. Crack. The box of cereal lands on the countertop. It’s breakfast time. Breakfast is no longer an enjoyable break in the morning routine, it is a function. My body is a machine, and a machine must have fuel to run. I know this. I know this because I am a mechanic. I am a mechanic of the human body. And just like a machine, the human body when it is broken can be fixed. Just like the mechanic, the medic fixes it. I can re-inflate the lung of a nineteen-year-old marine after it has been pierced by a 7.62 millimeter round hurled from an AK-47. Like a mechanic’s, my hands work off muscle memory, locating the entry site from the pool of blood collecting under the cover of his BDU. Listening for the muted gargle of air escaping his lungs. Smelling the sweet copper stench of blood mixed with lingering sulfur. Watching pinkish bubbles foaming forth from the glistening black hole in his chest, about the size of the milk bubbles of collecting on the edges of my cereal bowl. One of them pops. Crack. I drop my spoon. What’s next. To school, yes, I must plan my way to class. I have to catch the number forty-four bus southbound from the bus stop, sixty seven paces from my apartment. The bus leaves at 0843. I must leave my apartment no later than 0836 to allow for any unforeseen deviance in the schedule, because complacency kills. Crack. The door of the bus snaps open and I wait for a frail woman clutching a brown tote and a copy of the day’s newspaper to disembark. I wait, listening to the whine of the bus engine, smelling hot fumes reeking of petroleum. A hydraulic valve releases a hiss like it’s whispering at me. Like the hiss of the stretcher as the medical team raises the bed up level with the helicopter door, ready to be ridden by a nineteen year old marine. As ready as he was for his first ride in the car his parents bought him when he turned sixteen. That is how ready I must be today. Ready to ride that bus. Ready for anything to happen. Ready for that moment, just after the crack, when the tires start shrieking, and the glass starts breaking, and the metal starts twisting and tearing. Metal propelled haphazardly through the air, racing, twirling, searching. Seeking out a lung for it to perforate. Always you must be ready for an IED, because complacency kills. I am awake. And now what, after the bus. I must know this before my feet hit the ground. Even before my bedtime sanctuary is abandoned. As a child, getting ready for school was much more linear. I made sure I had my lunch, my books, my homework. I tried not to forget my sweatshirt in my locker. I’d try to get picked for the good team during kickball at lunch. Now I must try not to get picked for anything at all. I try not to draw any more attention to myself than I already do, five years senior to my average classmate and with my arms branded in military tattoos. I stand out. In Iraq it was never good to stand out. In Iraq we wore combat boots to support our ankles, to protect our feet, to kick down doors. Now I choose footwear that makes the least amount of noise as they batter against the linoleum floor of the classroom. My legs churn up and down, pumping like the pistons of a turbine engine, my heels launching and landing with a rhythmic thud on the cold ground. I can hear the rotors. I smell the chemicals used by the morning janitor to wipe the floors clean. The smell of the chemicals used to wash the blood from the floor of the tent hospital. I can feel the hair on my arms rise up as I think of the tension in that casualty-receiving bay. The confusion, chaos, the noise and the movement. Like walking through the courtyard on campus. Everyone going somewhere. Everyone doing something. What is my something. What is my mission now. To get home. To leave this school that reeks of ammonia and blood. This campus that’s teeming with people that I don’t know, whose missions are a mystery to me.Yes, I must get home to my bed, my sanctuary, to sleep. I need more sleep. Crack. The textbook on the desk next to mine slams shut. Class is over, it’s time to go home. Home. Yes, it is time to go home. Time to go to my apartment, sixty seven paces from the forty-four bus stop. It is time to come home, in, out of the throbbing heat. In from the gritty air that smells of JP-5 and rubber. Yes it is time to come home. To come back to a life of friends and family, safety and comfort, kickball and paper bag lunches. I come home to my apartment, and my marines are there waiting for me, laughing, drinking. All of them, stuffed into my shabby living room as if we were back at the barracks ogling the new boot’s Facebook pictures of his girlfriend back home. All of us there, even the ones who didn’t come home. But no, that is not right. That is not home. That is just a dream, a hazy half memory of a time before. A flickering thought of what would never be. My home is my bed, my blankets. There I am safe. There I am home. I am alone. I am awake. Crack. My feet touch the bedroom floor. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Sam Abel, thanks for being on Incoming. What are some of the things you feel like civilians get wrong about veterans? SAM: I think when it comes to PTSD and some of the symptoms associated with it- hypervigilance, I think it’s easy to peg every veteran into the same mold. I think that everybody’s story, everybody’s experience, everybody’s different and therefore, everybody’s response to them is different. I think for me, it was very different being a combat medic and being around a lot of violence and death, as opposed to other people’s experiences being in direct combat where it was very frightening and very action packed and in a sense that they did not know which day was going to be their last. It’s hard to explain to a civilian what it’s like to go through any one of those multiple experiences and then come back home to movie theaters and Starbucks and class and riding a bus and just the simply daily life. It’s so much more colored than it was before, because nothing is the same and it never will be again. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Do you mind talking at all about what led you to finally seek out treatment, yourself, individually? SAM: Sure, yeah. I had been going through a very difficult time for years and years coming back and I think that for a lot of veterans and a lot of people that experience post-traumatic stress, whether it’s combat, non-combat, whatever it may be, it’s hard to admit that there’s a problem, and I feel like it was ok, or at least normal that what was happening to me, the emotions I was having, the problems that I was having, was just that’s normal, that’s just life, that’s just what we go through. It took a pretty significant amount of not normal things to happen to me to push me to the point where I said look, I think this is something that is maybe a little bit beyond what the average person or maybe not average but the non-traumatized person might be dealing with going through living with, so, once that realization really hit in conjunction with the idea that I really want to live a better life, I really don’t want this to define me. I don’t want to be a young man who went to war and in his early 20’s and he’s stuck like that for the rest of his life. I didn’t want that for myself, I wanted a future for myself. I wanted to know that I’ll never be who I was, but I want to be okay with where I am going and who I will be. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: If you were to be approached by somebody about to get out of the military in say 2 weeks, what’s your first piece of advice you would give them. SAM: I think the biggest thing for someone getting out of the military right now is to look at the future. Plan for the future now. It’s to get involved with the VA, get involved with veteran communities, whether it be Wounded Warrior, whether you have disabilities or not, getting out-it’s so important to maintain that camaraderie, that brotherhood, what it was that held us together in the military through the toughest, toughest of times. For a lot of us getting out is the tough part. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Sam Abel, thanks so much for being on Incoming. SAM: Thank you. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, Kris Apple, Kristin Sheldon and Alan Jones. Our theme music is by Tim Koch, aka 10:32, courtesy of Ghostly International. Leah Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and special thanks to Grand Poobah and Program Director at KPBS, John Decker, whose bearded benevolence is the reason we have this opportunity. If you have a story or you know someone who does, please go to SoSayWeAllonline.com and check out our many other programs in the San Diego area. While you’re there, if you like what you heard and you want us to keep making episodes, please, click on donate. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk again soon.

Incoming

Visit the Incoming homepage for more stories and info on the series.

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JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the show that brings you stories from the lives of American veterans told in their own words, directly from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall. Sam Abel is a big guy, both physically and personality-wise, and I wouldn’t want to make him angry. But, I would also never call him intimidating. He has a huge laugh and an air about him that broadcasts good intentions, which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn his role in the military was as a combat medic. He makes tense situations better, like when he was stationed at Twentynine Palms, he kinda became famous for buying the largest outdoor pool he could find at the Yucca Valley Super Wal-Mart and actually creating a tradition of pool parties, complete with margarita machines and shopping cart jousting matches. He was like the Sergeant Bilko of Twenty-nine Palms in his own words. But he also saw a lot. That’s part of being a medic, and one of the reasons I love his story so much is because he is able to do what we writing teachers are always trying to get our students to do, which is show instead of tell. There’s been a lot said about what it’s like to live with hypervigilance and other traits associated with Post-Traumatic Stress. But Sam’s story is a teachable insight into what daily life was like for him when he first came back. I’ll let Sam tell you the rest.

SAM ABEL: Hello, my name is Sam Abel, and this is Waking Up for School.

Crack.

The door to the helicopter locks to the open position. The latching sound resonates in time with the throbbing of the rotors and the whine of the turbine engine. A hot wind envelops my whole body and never goes away. Neither does the earth and the grit, like an old wool blanket that you can’t shake off.

Crack.

Again the door locks opens. This time the sound in my ears is louder, sharper. It lingers, beating to the drum of the blades. The high-pitched screech is searching for the last corner of my brain that hasn’t been reached yet. I can feel my heart shaking my lungs as I dig deep for breath. Crack. I smell blood.

Crack.

Beep.

It’s my alarm clock. I swallow to purge the copper taste that still lingers from my dream. I am awake. The back of my neck is stuck to my pillowcase. Sweat has locked it in place like a warm palm on a frozen door handle in winter. Only willing to release if applied with the right amount of pressure. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. I listen for the sound of rotor blades. I listen for the whine of churning engines. I listen. Beep. Only my alarm. I am awake.

I feel the heat of my body dissipating even as I swing mechanically for the alarm clock. It’s autumn, and the timid cool of the season’s change is discernible at this hour. I dread the moment my feet contact that cold bedroom floor, a relic of my childhood past. As a kid, morning was my time to dream, where I could linger in a state of hazy opportunity fantasizing pulling off my first kickflip or lunchtime snack trade. Not having to exert any effort into completing the tasks ahead but rather relishing the certitude that, of course, everything would work out as designed.

The moment my feet hit the floor though, fantasy swiftly turns to reality and begrudgingly I must go forth to showers, breakfasts, bus rides to school, teachers, lunch lines, etcetera, etcetera. It’s funny to me that I am still in school. It’s fall and I am three weeks into my courses at community college. It has been eleven months and twenty four days since I left the military. Now in my second semester, my days are once again filled with the same activities of my childhood, only without innocence. Everything is different. Everything has changed.

I can feel my body trying to adapt to my conscious state, my anxiety snapping on and off like a broken lighter of a rusty grill as I ask myself the same question I ask myself every morning now, what are my goals, what is my mission. The nerves of youth have evolved into a crippling need for a plan. I must know every step required by my day now before I take it. Every event must be analyzed beforehand and every move taken deliberate. Nothing can be casually approached, because I know what complacency can do. I have seen it.

Shower, that is my first task of the day, although just getting out of bed will be tough. The security of my bed is known to me. The floor invites confusion, it invites chaos. The cramped shower is not inviting. The hot steam filling my lungs and constricting the blood vessels in my chest reminds me of boot camp, breathing in CS gas in a darkened room with one light above, mucus flowing from my nose, past my lips as they sound out my third general order. The beating of the water drops from the shower, rhythmic, dull, constant, are like the rotors of the helicopter. Hot air is swimming around my face. I am a product of that heat. I have become it.

Crack.

Every drop of water slamming into the white acrylic bottom of my bathtub is another helo door locking back. Another round being fired downrange.

Crack. Crack.

The bullets fly.

Thump, thump.

The rotors turn.

And the hot, sticky water beading off my skin drips downward.

I smell blood.

Crack. The box of cereal lands on the countertop. It’s breakfast time. Breakfast is no longer an enjoyable break in the morning routine, it is a function. My body is a machine, and a machine must have fuel to run. I know this. I know this because I am a mechanic. I am a mechanic of the human body. And just like a machine, the human body when it is broken can be fixed. Just like the mechanic, the medic fixes it.

I can re-inflate the lung of a nineteen-year-old marine after it has been pierced by a 7.62 millimeter round hurled from an AK-47. Like a mechanic’s, my hands work off muscle memory, locating the entry site from the pool of blood collecting under the cover of his BDU.

Listening for the muted gargle of air escaping his lungs.

Smelling the sweet copper stench of blood mixed with lingering sulfur.

Watching pinkish bubbles foaming forth from the glistening black hole in his chest, about the size of the milk bubbles of collecting on the edges of my cereal bowl. One of them pops.

Crack. I drop my spoon.

What’s next. To school, yes, I must plan my way to class. I have to catch the number forty-four bus southbound from the bus stop, sixty seven paces from my apartment. The bus leaves at 0843. I must leave my apartment no later than 0836 to allow for any unforeseen deviance in the schedule, because complacency kills.

Crack.

The door of the bus snaps open and I wait for a frail woman clutching a brown tote and a copy of the day’s newspaper to disembark.

I wait, listening to the whine of the bus engine, smelling hot fumes reeking of petroleum.

A hydraulic valve releases a hiss like it’s whispering at me.

Like the hiss of the stretcher as the medical team raises the bed up level with the helicopter door, ready to be ridden by a nineteen year old marine.

As ready as he was for his first ride in the car his parents bought him when he turned sixteen.

That is how ready I must be today.

Ready to ride that bus.

Ready for anything to happen.

Ready for that moment, just after the crack, when the tires start shrieking, and the glass starts breaking, and the metal starts twisting and tearing.

Metal propelled haphazardly through the air, racing, twirling, searching.

Seeking out a lung for it to perforate.

Always you must be ready for an IED, because complacency kills.

I am awake.

And now what, after the bus.

I must know this before my feet hit the ground.

Even before my bedtime sanctuary is abandoned.

As a child, getting ready for school was much more linear.

I made sure I had my lunch, my books, my homework. I tried not to forget my sweatshirt in my locker. I’d try to get picked for the good team during kickball at lunch.

Now I must try not to get picked for anything at all. I try not to draw any more attention to myself than I already do, five years senior to my average classmate and with my arms branded in military tattoos.

I stand out.

In Iraq it was never good to stand out. In Iraq we wore combat boots to support our ankles, to protect our feet, to kick down doors. Now I choose footwear that makes the least amount of noise as they batter against the linoleum floor of the classroom.

My legs churn up and down, pumping like the pistons of a turbine engine, my heels launching and landing with a rhythmic thud on the cold ground.

I can hear the rotors.

I smell the chemicals used by the morning janitor to wipe the floors clean.

The smell of the chemicals used to wash the blood from the floor of the tent hospital. I can feel the hair on my arms rise up as I think of the tension in that casualty-receiving bay.

The confusion, chaos, the noise and the movement.

Like walking through the courtyard on campus.

Everyone going somewhere.

Everyone doing something.

What is my something.

What is my mission now.

To get home.

To leave this school that reeks of ammonia and blood.

This campus that’s teeming with people that I don’t know, whose missions are a mystery to me.Yes, I must get home to my bed, my sanctuary, to sleep. I need more sleep.

Crack.

The textbook on the desk next to mine slams shut. Class is over, it’s time to go home.

Home. Yes, it is time to go home.

Time to go to my apartment, sixty seven paces from the forty-four bus stop.

It is time to come home, in, out of the throbbing heat. In from the gritty air that smells of JP-5 and rubber.

Yes it is time to come home. To come back to a life of friends and family, safety and comfort, kickball and paper bag lunches.

I come home to my apartment, and my marines are there waiting for me, laughing, drinking. All of them, stuffed into my shabby living room as if we were back at the barracks ogling the new boot’s Facebook pictures of his girlfriend back home.

All of us there, even the ones who didn’t come home.

But no, that is not right. That is not home. That is just a dream, a hazy half memory of a time before. A flickering thought of what would never be.

My home is my bed, my blankets. There I am safe. There I am home.

I am alone.

I am awake.

Crack.

My feet touch the bedroom floor.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Sam Abel, thanks for being on Incoming. What are some of the things you feel like civilians get wrong about veterans?

SAM: I think when it comes to PTSD and some of the symptoms associated with it- hypervigilance, I think it’s easy to peg every veteran into the same mold. I think that everybody’s story, everybody’s experience, everybody’s different and therefore, everybody’s response to them is different. I think for me, it was very different being a combat medic and being around a lot of violence and death, as opposed to other people’s experiences being in direct combat where it was very frightening and very action packed and in a sense that they did not know which day was going to be their last. It’s hard to explain to a civilian what it’s like to go through any one of those multiple experiences and then come back home to movie theaters and Starbucks and class and riding a bus and just the simply daily life. It’s so much more colored than it was before, because nothing is the same and it never will be again.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Do you mind talking at all about what led you to finally seek out treatment, yourself, individually?

SAM: Sure, yeah. I had been going through a very difficult time for years and years coming back and I think that for a lot of veterans and a lot of people that experience post-traumatic stress, whether it’s combat, non-combat, whatever it may be, it’s hard to admit that there’s a problem, and I feel like it was ok, or at least normal that what was happening to me, the emotions I was having, the problems that I was having, was just that’s normal, that’s just life, that’s just what we go through. It took a pretty significant amount of not normal things to happen to me to push me to the point where I said look, I think this is something that is maybe a little bit beyond what the average person or maybe not average but the non-traumatized person might be dealing with going through living with, so, once that realization really hit in conjunction with the idea that I really want to live a better life, I really don’t want this to define me. I don’t want to be a young man who went to war and in his early 20’s and he’s stuck like that for the rest of his life. I didn’t want that for myself, I wanted a future for myself. I wanted to know that I’ll never be who I was, but I want to be okay with where I am going and who I will be.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

If you were to be approached by somebody about to get out of the military in say 2 weeks, what’s your first piece of advice you would give them.

SAM: I think the biggest thing for someone getting out of the military right now is to look at the future. Plan for the future now. It’s to get involved with the VA, get involved with veteran communities, whether it be Wounded Warrior, whether you have disabilities or not, getting out-it’s so important to maintain that camaraderie, that brotherhood, what it was that held us together in the military through the toughest, toughest of times. For a lot of us getting out is the tough part.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Sam Abel, thanks so much for being on Incoming.

SAM: Thank you.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, Kris Apple, Kristin Sheldon and Alan Jones. Our theme music is by Tim Koch, aka 10:32, courtesy of Ghostly International. Leah Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and special thanks to Grand Poobah and Program Director at KPBS, John Decker, whose bearded benevolence is the reason we have this opportunity. If you have a story or you know someone who does, please go to

SoSayWeAllonline.com and check out our many other programs in the San Diego area. While you’re there, if you like what you heard and you want us to keep making episodes, please, click on donate. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk again soon.