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Episode 4: Back To School

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Samuel Abel & Liam Corley

4: "Back To School" with Samuel Abel and Liam Corley
Episode 4: A veteran goes through the motions of school, but with the weight of war on his mind. He also shares how PTSD colors life in surprising ways. And a militarized academic discusses writing as therapy for veterans and the importance of waiting in the military.

Justin Hudnall: 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: Sam Abel, thanks for being on Incoming. What are some of the things you feel like civilians get wrong about veterans? Samuel Abel: 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: Do you mind talking at all about what led you to finally seek out treatment, yourself, individually? Samuel Abel: 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: 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. Samuel Abel: 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: Sam Abel, thanks so much for being on Incoming. Samuel Abel: Thank you. Liam Corley: Hi, I’m Liam Corley, and the name of my piece is Getting the Good News. Etched on a wooden table, the number of the Edwards A.F.B. telephone exchange waits to serve an unprepared traveler collapsing sweaty and unkempt in the reupholstered Lazy Boy implausibly sent from Muskegon to the southwest corner of the U.S.O. lounge adjacent to the PAX terminal at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. Clean, bright, and efficiently organized, the U.S.O. reeks of a panting desire to please, the mindless exuberance of a dog capering at dawn when its keeper comes to rebuke its barking. The movie looping on the wall is either the superhero saga du jour or a commando film composed of erotically gleeful scenes where the fitfully socialized anti-hero straps on a variety of armaments and an improbable amount of ammunition, though even ten times the amount depicted would be necessary to sustain the soundtrack of staccato blasts that lurch the film from conflict to conclusion. Over all this waste drones the emptiness of waiting. The absence of a soldier between transports cannot be explained by comparisons to wastelands of rock and sheer precipices, nor to outer reaches of space defined more by unending cold than astronomical location. The soul is frigid, the mind supine, the senses alert and morbid, drowsy and yet longing for a reason to move. The roar of departing flights is a mockery of escape. The only things flying today are F/A-18s "bringing the good news" to embattled Taliban caught some valleys away in a compound with someone else's women and children. As news of successive flight cancellations spreads, those assembled disperse in shock waves of embittered expectation. Only the most experienced make the quarter-mile trek in which every step declares surrender. Deafening fans blast out all thought. Day and night merge within the corona of light leaking through tent seams and door-flaps. The soul goes numb. High in the sky, the keening of Rolls Royce jet turbines reminds the ear that even objects of steel and destruction know how to mourn a people cut off before the advent of a rosy-fingered and resplendent dawn. Justin Hudnall: Did you feel like you couldn’t criticize one way or the other unless you were participating. Liam Corley: Oh no, no, we’ve got a great tradition of people criticizing whether they’ve got skin in the game or not in this country, and I think that’s fantastic. I think it has more to do with my sense of complicity. I did a column actually in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this because you know a lot of academics are like, “I don’t understand how you can join an organization committed to killing people.” That’s a great question. But I think pretty much anyone who benefits from living in this country bears a degree of complicity with anything that we’re responsible for on the world stage. Some people want to keep that complicity at a distance, they claim they didn’t vote for that or they don’t support that, but we receive the benefits whether we vote or support it or not. And so that made me feel I really couldn’t say, naw, naw, I’m not a part of this. Because we all are, and that’s actually been part of my reentry and my experience overseas was realizing just how intimately connected home front and battlefront were, both in the minds of people but also that’s sort of the key to both good policy and good mental health. Justin Hudnall: Can you talk to me about your creative writing- when that starting becoming present in your life and how that played a role after your joining? Liam Corley: Yeah, I mean as a literature teacher I have a love for language and a great appreciation for what other people are able to accomplish. I thought of myself as a poet in college and I took a class from someone who at that point was the poet laureate, and I realize at the end of it that although I had some gift towards eloquence I really had nothing to say, and that’s kind of a problem. Because great literature doesn’t just go down smooth, it packs a punch. And I realized, well I need, A) I need to live more and B) if I’m fortunate I might develop some wisdom in the process of that. Interestingly enough when I came back from my deployment to Afghanistan, I really hit some serious writers block as an academic. Just a contrast between the type of voice I had to use in the military and the type of voice I use as an academic. And that’s actually kind of professional suicide if you’re in publish or perish as a professor, so I needed to find a way to work through this. I ended up writing a lot of poetry because it was a venue within which I felt free to be both creative and also deadly serious where I could try on a personae and that freed me to begin to express a lot of the questions and observations and just the scenes that stuck with me from my deployment. Justin Hudnall: What do you think has changed about society where the people who have seen really intense situations are putting pen to paper pretty quickly into their readaptation into civilian life? Liam Corley: I think there’s a combination of trends here. On one level obviously American society’s a lot more confessional now. I think that coming out of the 60’s and 70’s people are just a lot more open about aspects of their personal life and some of the reticence that might have marked earlier veteran generations just culturally is less enforced, less inculcated. So I think that’s one facet of it. On the other side, we really do have a tremendous number of resources being channeled toward veteran writing as a form of therapy. There’s a understanding in humanities counsels and VA’s and lot of nonprofits, So Say We All included in that, there’s an understanding that if you can write your story, you’re more likely to get a handle on it yourself. And so there’s a real mixture. Some of these organizations to help veterans write like Words After War really do have more of a high literary mandate. But the vast majority of them, Veterans Writing Project, Warrior Writers, these really sort of straddle the fence between therapy and artistic output. Justin Hudnall: One of the aspects from your piece I wanted to ask you more about is the aesthetics of waiting and the role of it in your life as a military officer. How do you write about waiting? So many people are taught to write. The emphasis is placed on action and character. One of the things I really love about Getting the Good News that really encapsulates what, to many people that have served in the military or traveled abroad or served with an agency abroad knows is that concept of hurry up and wait. You spend a lot of time watching the paint peel. What are the aesthetics of waiting that you were able to fixate on to actually write about? Liam Corley: That’s a great question because it is a hallmark of military life. In theatre, travel anywhere takes forever. For me the key element had to do with the balance between being ready to do something. You’ve got people who will carry a few hundred pounds of personal gear a mile unassisted to get on a flight. So there’s this incredible urge to do something, but this complete surrender to a larger process that really doesn’t care how much the individual wants to do something. I mean at the level of craft I have a lot of really long sentences in this piece, long words just piling on, clause after clause in the way military bureaucracy will just pile on form after form or checklist after checklist, and you can just go wrong at almost any point, just fall off the cliff and that’s the end of that process. We’re not flying today. So I mean it’s probably not advice I would give students learning to write, hey make it as long as possible and just sort of have this sense of getting lost in the sentence. But amazingly you get to the end of it, it hangs together and makes sense I didn’t like the process but it’s complete now. Justin Hudnall: My last question before I let you go here, can you talk to me about the surrealism of USO’s? Liam Corley: The people who work there are fantastic. I know that in my piece it sounds like I am very unappreciative of it, but it is pretty amazing. Almost like you step into somebody’s kitchen and you know someone is being a hostess. It’s so unlike the battlefield setting. It’s unlike being at ever other place you’re going to get food, the fact that there’s just lounge space. I mean there’s not a lot of lounges when on a fire base or some small military outpost. The surreal-ness I think comes from all of the efforts that the hosts make to make it seem like home. And it’s not home. And everyone who’s in them is usually desperately wanting to be home. And there’s all these lazy boys and movies and things that either depict where they’re at from sort of the perspective of home or they might find in a home. It’s really frustrating to be close but still caught in a simulacra of what you want. I think that’s where some of the frustration that’s expressed in the piece with this setting is that it’s not what the person wants. And that’s hard to sort of absorb just like the ordinance that falls and it is hard to absorb. You know one thing that I didn’t read aloud, is the note that I have at the bottom of the piece where it actually explains what “Getting the Good News Is”, because it’s an idiom used to describe the delivery of bombs during a close air support flight, which of course is going to get priority over any other kind of flight when you’re in theater. But it’s really illustrative of the dark humor of soldiers. It’s really derived from tent revival preaching. “Get the Good News!” That there’s some conversion that’s being claimed and I think that’s just really dark to think that blowing up someone is a form of conversion. It’s a very forceful, persuasive technique. Justin Hudnall: The evangelical crusade. Liam Corley: Right and I think that’s where it sort of loops back on itself because you know, the Taliban are caught some valleys away receiving ordinance, and the people waiting in line get sort of the ordinance of, “you’re not flying today.” And both are sort of blown away by this and devastated and left to deal with the aftermath. Justin Hudnall: Liam Corley, thanks for being on Incoming. Liam Corley: Appreciate it. Thanks so much, Justin! Justin Hudnall: 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.

The fourth episode of Incoming begins with combat medic Samuel Abel explaining the moment-by-moment process he talks himself through on a daily basis while navigating the rigors of attending college, all the while carrying the triggers, memories, and ghosts from his time served in-country.

Then, Lt. Cmdr. Liam Corley, an active duty academic and intelligence officer, examines the very specific and unique situation of waiting, seemingly without end, among the bizarre creature comforts that can only be found in a war zone at a USO, waiting until the bombing runs let up just long enough to allow for a flight off that will take him back home from Afghanistan.

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