Whenever the question, “Why?” nags at me, I still follow childhood protocol and “go look it up”. Lately I’ve read volumes on TBI and PTSD. Hey, there’s a fine line between “well meaning” and “well educated”. I see our wounded soldiers not as cold statistics, but as human beings finding their way toward happier. My research has had an unexpected side effect: I can relate.
Soldiers deployed in a war zone are on high alert 24/7 for extended periods of time while searching for possible threats. While being shot at or worse. Trying to protect their buddy. Looking everywhere. All. The. Time. They get home, but some keep looking. Civilians start to look at you funny when you admit to “seeing” more than everyone else. The medical term for that behavior when it won’t shut down is hypervigilance. The problem isn’t just a soldier’s inability to reset to the “Off” position…it’s how friends and family handle it.
Ironically, we expect soldiers to be trained professionals, yet we want them to leave vigilance on the battlefield. But it’s an occupational requirement, a learned behavior ingrained so deeply it becomes second nature, like breathing. It’s the ultimate survival skill and makes perfect sense to me. Unfortunately not everyone sees it that way. I don’t know if the world is too busy being self-involved or just quit caring. Over and over I’ve witnessed an attitude of, “Hey, it doesn’t effect my world, so you people need to just ‘get over it’”. Attention world: that phrase is like a match to gasoline. Plus, it’s demeaning. Does brushing off a soldier’s observations as “nuts” make people feel their world is safer? Do they truly believe soldiers leave their souls at the door when they pick up a weapon? If the cool, calm, trained observations made by soldiers are considered nuts, then they have someone else in their ranks.
Some of you know I was once a Dispatcher for the State Police. The most difficult thing for me to embrace was the law enforcement mentality I dubbed, “Either/Or”. Issues were either black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. There was no gray area, because that’s where hesitancy and danger lived. Such a clear cut definition is meant to aid in making quick decisions under fire. Lately, we’ve read how that has backfired when common sense was left out of the equation. But for the most part, there’s a good reason for it. From day one it was made perfectly clear where we fell in the chain of command and how we were part of the team. I can still hear the Captain explaining the job I had just accepted. “You are the lifeline. With the single push of a button, you have the power to save an officer...or get him killed.” Until I began working with our soldiers, I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained my training was.
I left law enforcement, but it never left me.
If you’ve trained hard for an intense job, it goes deeper than you realize. 30 years later I can still tell you the radio call signs for our station. I don’t just notice things, I make mental notes. When something looks out of place or brakes squeal towards a crashing conclusion, my initial reaction is to check my watch. As a Dispatcher, I lived by the clock. I had to note times for giving out a call, to which officer, when he arrived, what he asked for, give the times back to him for his report and note when he was done. Multiplied by 10-25 officers spread over four counties. Usually working by myself. Being observant and keeping detailed records became part of who I am.
My officers taught me two rules: #1 Listen to your inner voice. It senses when something is wrong, even if you can’t see it. It protects you. If it’s screaming, pay attention! #2: Say something with authority and people will believe you.
Rule #2 came in handy the night I unlocked the door for one of my officers only to discover a bloodied drunk, who’d been in a fist fight in our parking lot. He towered over me, yet when I barked at him in no uncertain terms to stay right there while I called someone to assist him, he did just that. Quietly. Slamming the door shut and locking it, I walked away with a new skill I still use. And yes, my “inner voice” yelled at me all the way down the hall for being dumb. I still listen to it too.
Odd, ingrained parts of my job still surface. I say “Zero” when giving out a number instead of “O”. When spelling out something over the phone, I revert to letters followed by words. I can’t simply say, “ABC”…it comes out, “A, alpha, B, baker, C, Charlie.” I still use “correct” instead of “right” so there’s no confusion while giving directions. It took me forever to stop saying, “Affirmative” when I meant “Yes”…which was especially confusing to anyone working a drive through window.
To this day, I will not sit with my back to a door. I’m not paranoid. I just want to know who or what is coming my way. To me, that’s pro-active. Prepared. Ten times better than being “reactive”, where decisions made in the heat of the moment without all the facts could get you, or someone else, killed.
So, does utilizing learned behavior from so many years ago make me nuts? Or does my training, as deeply engrained as our soldiers’, make me prepared for whatever life throws my way?
My inner voice says it’s the second one.