I Will Do No Harm

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Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday as I watched the death toll rise to over 4,400 from the 7.8 earthquake that rocked Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh and India, my heart was so heavy. Over a million people are desperate for food and shelter in the aftermath. I thought about the Nepalese Gurkha guards that protected us at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Their gentle, sweet smiles welcomed me every day as I passed through security points. I also saw them when we were under threat and they instantly went into the warrior mode they are famous for. Willing to lay down their lives to protect us, they made me feel as safe as I could be in the war-torn country of Afghanistan.

Then images of looting and physical violence in Baltimore raised my anxiety level. To someone with PTSD, these scenes bring on flashbacks, increase the startle reflex and entice nightmares to creep into fitful sleep. Every time I heard a loud noise I would jump. Even my allergies got worse and I had to use my inhaler several times.

Stories of political misconduct and conflicts around the world also filled the news. Around the globe, I saw atrocities, persecution of Christians, poverty and disease. I watched as hundreds of refugees fleeing the spread of terrorist groups in Africa drowned when their overloaded boats capsized.

I was so overwhelmed with all this devastation and violence that I just wanted to go to my camp and retreat from the world—forever. I can so understand the desire of disenfranchised people to go live in the woods in a little shack, far away from the world and the people who live in it. I was there.

Then an amazing thing happened. On Fox news a feature on peaceful protesters walking down the street singing “I will do no harm to anyone until the day I die.” I was riveted as I watched the dignity and calmness of these people as they walked down the street. Over 10,000 people participated in nonviolent protests. I watched over 100 religious leaders walk arm in arm – Catholics, Protestants, Muslim and Jewish—all united to face the violence with prayer. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched them kneel in the street to pray as one. As they continued to march their numbers swelled as others joined them, even some of the looters stopping to walk with them. I saw reports of members of the community boarding up business and trying to protect what was left from the rioters. I saw an elderly Vietnam veteran who stood up to rioters and backed them down.

This is the news I needed to see. This is the goodness and the best of people that reminds me that courage and faith will always prevail in the fight against evil. This is the hope of humanity. It balances the violence and devastation that the media likes to highlight. I have to believe that heroes will always stand up and face down evil. Everyday people that became extraordinary in the face of adversity. I realized I cannot go hide in the woods and isolate myself from the world. I can’t save the world but I can try to make my little corner of the world better. That is all I can do and maybe, that is enough.

Night Terror

Scared girl running in the forest

Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes the known. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Run, just keep running. I can’t breathe, my side is hurting and my heart is beating out of my chest. I know if I stop, I will be killed and no one will know where I am. He is behind me. I can hear his footsteps running in the leaves and if I slow down he will be on me. Can I hide? I don’t see anywhere. There’s a big rock. No that’s too obvious. He can come around and see me and I will be helpless. I will die. I don’t want to die.

There’s an old house in the woods ahead. If I can make it there maybe I can lock myself in. It hurts so much to breathe. My lungs are burning. There it is! God, please let me make it inside. Be careful, the steps might fall in and I will be caught. Run across the porch into the door. Slam it shut and lock it. The lock is old. I hope it holds.

Check the windows and turn the locks on top. This one is rusty and hard to turn. I know he is outside. Panic. Please turn. Finally! Now check the back door. It doesn’t have a lock! The screen door has one. Pull the screen closed and latch the hook in the eye. Drag over that desk and put it up against the door.

Did I check everything? Go room by room and recheck the windows and doors. Heart pounding. Am I safe? I am so scared. I think I have the house secured. Breathe. Breathe. Turn around and see if there is a phone to call for help. He’s standing there, his big belly stretching a faded old red shirt out over the top of his jeans. His unkempt red hair curls onto his shoulder. He is holding a gun pointed at me. He looks at me and says, “And there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”

Wake up! Wake up. My eyes snap open. My breath is coming fast. I am drenched in sweat. My body is shaking with fear. It was a dream. Just a dream. Slow my breathing. In out, in out. Tears roll down my face. Too afraid to go back to sleep now. Look out the window at the moon. It is big, round and hopeful. Just focus on the light. Lose yourself in the light.

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

I Went to Church

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The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened. They find themselves unable to communicate their condition to those who remained at home, resenting civilians for their blind innocence. – David Brooks

This past Sunday I went to church. “What’s the big deal with that?” you may ask. Millions of people all over the world attend church on Sundays. For a person who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), going to church or any place where people congregate can be daunting, if not impossible.

I have attended church ever since I was born and it has always been a place where I found peace and guidance. Raised in a Southern Baptist church I love the old hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Softly and Tenderly”. Most of my social encounters as a child involved church. During my career in the Federal government I lived in many places all over the country. People ask me how I could ever feel at home. I tell them I always found a church to attend. When you attend church you have a family; a family that drives you crazy and you disagree with on occasion, but when the chips are down they are there for you and you for them.

When I was deployed to Afghanistan I attended church services. At my forward operating base in Kapisa Province, a chaplain would come once a month from Bagram Air Base to hold a service. Not many people attended but a few did and “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.” When I moved to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul I would go with a group of people in an embassy van to Camp Eggers, a NATO facility, on Sunday nights for services led by the U.S. military. Several people who had musical instruments provided music and those services were so special to me, a welcome break in my 12 hour/6 day work week.

Once when the service was over and another woman and I were waiting for our ride, I heard rapid gunfire off to the left. When we got into the van we were prevented from taking the usual route back to the embassy. We were stopped at one checkpoint and it was obvious that something was up as the guards were in full tactical gear and on high alert. One opened the door and screamed at our Afghan driver, “You’re not going anywhere! We’re on bulldog! We’re on lockdown!” Not a novice to such situations I settled back to wait for whatever was going on to be resolved. The woman with me had never been exposed to this level of alert and she got out of the vehicle yelling at the guard to tell her what was going on and demanding we be allowed to go to the embassy. I grabbed her arm and told her to get back into the car. I explained that we needed to be calm and let the military do their job. She was visibly upset and close to tears. After about 10 minutes we were allowed to go to the embassy where we went through another checkpoint where a bomb sniffing dog checked our van for explosives and then a last checkpoint where the hood was lifted and we went through a much more thorough check than usual. I asked the guard what was going on. He said something was happening at the CIA Annex, which is adjacent to the Embassy. It turned out to be an Afghan employee who had worked at the annex for two years had shot a civilian contractor and a gunfight had ensued until he was shot and killed, hence the gunfire I had heard. As you can see, even going to church in Afghanistan can be fraught with danger.

When I returned home to Maine I found that integrating back into “normal” life was not so easy. Being in a crowd could bring on debilitating panic attacks and it was difficult for me to sit with my back to a door. I went with my daughter to her church and I was so nervous I was shaking inside. I sat in the last row in the seat farthest from the door, hoping that out of my peripheral vision I could see if an armed person came in and I would be able to disable him before he killed anyone. I knew people would think I was insane if they knew I was having these thoughts in this beautiful, peaceful church. Finally, feeling I could not breathe, I left the service early to go sit with my daughter who was teaching in the children’s church. That was over two years ago and I have not been able to attend church until this week.

I had not planned to go to church Sunday. I was happily enjoying my morning when I felt the need to attend. I quickly got dressed and starting looking up times for churches close to my home. Several started at 10:00AM and I was too late for those services, but one church a little farther from my home started later. My plan was just to sneak in inconspicuously, get the closest I could to the back then slip out after the service. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church I noticed it didn’t have a front door. I saw some red double doors under a carport in the back and tried those but they appeared to be locked. I walked around the church thinking there must be a door I just didn’t see in the front. As I tiptoed in my high heels across the grassy lawn I realized there really was no front door. I continued around the building and a side door opened and a man stuck his head out. “Where is the way in?” I asked. He said to go back to the double red doors. “They’re locked, “I told him. “No, they just stick.”

By the time I got in I was late and everyone turned to look at me. I slunk to the nearest pew, totally embarrassed. Then the preacher started asking me questions. “Are you in the right place? Is this where you meant to come?” On and on. I just wanted to grab my Bible and leave but I was immobilized by my discomfort. We sang several songs and they made me feel a little better but when the preacher gave his sermon several things he said just rubbed me the wrong way. This is what I had been afraid of; that I would not be able to sit quietly and I would make a scene. “Just leave,” I kept telling myself, looking uneasily over my shoulder. Instead I turned to the book of Matthew and began to read the words of Jesus. His teachings of love and acceptance calmed me enough to allow me make it through the rest of the service.

When church was dismissed I shook hands with the preacher, my insides shaking from pent up emotions. I noticed a bench along the back wall that would have been perfect to sit in had I the opportunity to scout it out in advance. Although everyone was very welcoming, I don’t think I’ll go back to this particular church, but I will try again. While it had been a stressful situation, arriving late and having the focus turned solely on me, I felt triumphant in the sense that I toughed it out. I didn’t jump up and make a scene when I disagreed with the preacher. Nothing bad happened. No one came in and shot up the church. I survived, just as I survived going to church in Afghanistan in spite of real danger.

PTSD robs you of simple pleasures like attending church, or fairs, or concerts, or movies – any place where there are a lot of people. I made a tiny baby step Sunday toward claiming my freedom to enjoy all those things again. It will be a long time in coming and I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely safe in a crowd, but I can see a future where I can sing “I’ll Fly Away” without actually flying away.

I Am an Author!

The Jar of Goodness

Writing is its own reward. – Henry Miller

Today is a day I have dreamed of for a long time. I published my first book! I have wanted to be a writer all my life but just never seemed to have the time or energy. Mostly I was hampered by ghosts of the past that whispered to me that I could never write anything anybody would want to read. My lack of self-worth killed any literary efforts I might have started.

I did a lot of writing in my professional career and I enjoyed it, but it was technical or informational, never the writing that would put my soul out there for everyone to see. But still the dream lingered, an ember buried deep in my subconscious.

After returning from Afghanistan I retired and while I had the time to write I was so psychologically crippled all I could do was just try to survive. Luckily, I was referred to a wonderful therapist trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) a method of trauma recovery that allows traumatic memories to be processed on a rational level. By listening to bilateral binaural tones  I was able to process so much of my painful past. While I will always have vestiges of my traumas, they no longer debilitate me as they once did. An unexpected benefit has been the unlocking of my creative process. Not only can I write, I have to write. My brain is full of ideas for books and short stories. I started this blog which allows me to give voice to my opinions and to provide information I hope others will find useful.

My ebook is called the “Jar of Goodness” and it is a collection of short stories that tie together to tell a story of Tad, a seven-year old girl who is looking for acceptance from her father. My blog followers may have read two stories from the collection, “The Jar of Goodness and The Bull Snake”. While I set this book in the 1950’s and it reflects my memories of growing up during that time, it is completely fictional. It was fun to recall my childhood and add elements to give a sense of place and time into my stories.

My book can be found at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00WBZSSUG/ref=rdr_kindle_ext_tmb for $2.99. If you buy it I hope you will let me know how you like it. I would welcome your feedback. I want to thank my friends and family who have supported me in achieving this dream. You know who you are and I love you. And a special thank you to Jessica Wilson, LCSW, who helped me come to know that I worthy of the jar of goodness.

I am working on my second book, a memoir of my experiences in Afghanistan. It is called “Small Gifts from the Heart” and I hope to have it done by June 1, 2015. You can find excerpts from it on my Wednesday blogs. I have a third book, “Evil Lies in Wait”, a psychological thriller, that is also in the works. I am finding so much joy in writing and I hope I have many more years to explore this new chapter of my life.

Why Can’t We Be Friends

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Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there have been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.

It is distressing to daily see adherents of the three largest religions in the world being slaughtered and condemned in the name of religion itself. Religious intolerance is nothing new. It exists in every religion, every denomination and every sect. We see intolerance with Catholics against Protestants, Sunni against Shia Muslims and Reform against Orthodox Jews. I was raised in the Baptist faith and even within that belief you have conservatives, moderates and liberals who vehemently defend their points of views.

I have been unable to attend church since returning from Afghanistan. First, it is difficult for me to sit in a crowd of people with my back to the door due to my post-traumatic stress, but the second reason is that organized religion no longer appeals to me. I used to take comfort in being with fellow believers. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Matthew 18:20. I never totally agreed with everything in my religion. I do believe women can be deacons and preachers.  After all, it was to women who Jesus first gave the Good News –Be not amazed: ye seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who hath been crucified: he is risen; he is not here. Mark 16:6. Not only did he give them the Good News but he commanded them to go tell the disciples. If Jesus entrusted women to give one of the most important tenants of the Christian faith to his disciples, who would be tasked with spreading the Gospel to all corners of the earth, then I believe God can still call women to his service today.

I don’t judge or condemn gays. While I hate abortion I still think it is a women’s right to choose – I just wish women would understand that innocent babies shouldn’t have to pay for what they perceive as a mistake. I believe the Old Testament is a wonderful book of history and it contains wisdom we can still live by today, but I also believe that when Jesus came to earth as a man he negated many of the complicated rules of sacrifice and worship set forth in the Old Testament. Jesus became the sacrifice and if you read through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teachings, then you see Christianity in its most pure form. I turn to it often when I feel weighed down by lengthy sermons that go to great lengths to interpret his words. I don’t believe his teachings need to be interpreted. They just are. He reached out to common people and spoke so that anyone could understand his teachings.

If you look at a comparison chart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam you will be astounded that there are more similarities than differences. They are all “Abrahamic” religions that trace their origins to Abraham in the Hebrew Bible. A really good site to compare the history, tenets and beliefs of these religions is: http://www.religionfacts.com/islam/comparison_charts/islam_judaism_christianity.htm.  It is very interesting reading and may help to clear up some misconceptions.

Now instead of the comfort and peace I once felt in church I can only see the divisiveness and intolerance. I just cannot emotionally take on the negativity at this point in my life. I miss the fellowship of other believers and knowing that I have that support system. I miss the songs of my childhood; the old songs from the Baptist Hymnal are so precious to me. I cannot hear The Old Rugged Cross without tears coming to my eyes and my heart soars when I hear I’ll Fly Away sung with full-bodied gusto. Every week I say this is the week I will go back to church, but every week I know that I am not ready. I am still too fragile because I have seen firsthand the atrocities that are committed because of religious intolerance. I am afraid, not of the church or the congregation, but of myself. I am afraid that I will not be able to turn the other cheek when I hear hypocrisy or judgement of others and that I will rise from my seat and unleash a tirade against the perceived offenders. Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with that judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. Matthew 7: 1-2. I know I should not judge, but I do and until I feel like I can attend worship with a loving and forgiving heart I choose to do my worship in private.

As I am facing the demons of PTSD, I can feel myself getting stronger in some areas and weaker in others. It is a long, painful and lonely journey and by the grace of God I will find my way back. What I pray for every day is for the believers of the world to coexist in peace and tolerance. Pope Frances recently said, “Fanaticism and fundamentalism, as well as irrational fears which foster misunderstanding and discrimination, need to be countered by the solidarity of all believers.” If the people of the world cannot do this, then we are on a path to self-destruction and I do not believe that is the goal of any religion.

Maine-The Way Life Should Be

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Did you ever see a place that looks like it was built just to enjoy? Well, this whole state of Maine looks that way to me. – Will Rogers

Maine is a state that always had an allure for me. It conjured thoughts of cool summers, busy harbors and snowy winters. My husband Bill has a neurological disorder and hot weather makes him miserable. In February of 1994, it was over 100 degrees for over a week in South Georgia and he was going down before my eyes. On a visit to his neurologist I asked if we moved to a cooler climate would it help Bill’s condition. He said it might but he couldn’t say for sure. I was willing to do anything to make sure Bill didn’t deteriorate any further and working for the Federal government I had the opportunity to apply for jobs in other states. That night we made a list of 37 states with cooler climates we thought we would like to live in and I started to apply for anything I was remotely qualified for.

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About five months later I got a call from a representative of the USDA in Maine offering me a job which I eagerly accepted. He said, “You know, your accent is going to stick out up here.” Without missing a beat I replied, “What accent?” We made the arrangements to move and my husband two daughters and I drove to Maine and I remained there for eight years living in Northern and Downeast Maine. We left Maine for other opportunities but we always felt like we had left a piece of our hearts there. My oldest daughter, her husband and two children still lived there.  In 2009 with retirement nearing, my husband and I decided we wanted to go back to Maine and make that our home. We went back to Presque Isle in Northern Maine where we first lived and when I saw the town again I was so overwhelmed with a sense of returning home that I was moved to tears.

The worst thing about living in Maine for me is the long, long winters. We always have a white Halloween and the snow doesn’t leave until May. And by snow I mean a lot of snow. We don’t measure it in inches, but in feet. But I learned to snowshoe and cross country ski and even in the late spring when I think I will scream from the claustrophobia of interminable winter, the sight of snow falling gently outside my window still captivates me with its beauty.

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Maine is the most easterly point of the U.S., and Eastport, Me is the first place in the country to receive the rays of the sun each morning. The Appalachian Trail ends on beautiful Mt. Katahdin that rises 5,268’ above the forested Maine woods. Almost 90 percent of Maine is forested and it has as much coastline as California. And Maine even has a 40 acre desert that was created when a glacier slid through Maine leaving behind sand and mineral deposits about 11,000 years ago.

Famous Mainers include poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, actor Patrick Dempsey, director John Ford and author Stephen King. And our most famous native son is Leon Leonwood Bean, founder of the retail giant, L.L. Bean. And we were blessed with the nation’s youngest ambassador, Samantha Smith, 10, who wrote to Soviet Union leader Yuri Andropov expressing her fears about a nuclear war between his country and the U.S.  Andropov wrote her back and in 1983 she and her parents were guests of Andropov for two weeks. Tragically this brave young girl was killed in a plane crash when she was 13.

Maine’s motto is “The Way Life Should Be.” That about says it all. It has outstanding natural beauty and wildlife but Maine’s people are its greatest asset. While someone who was not born here will always be “from away”, the people are welcoming and easily make a place for you in their communities. They make the best neighbors in the world for slightly socially awkward people like my husband and me.  They are there for you when you need them, but don’t force themselves upon you. They are rugged individualists who respect the right of people to be who they want to be.

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Two summers ago we bought 80 acres and put a cabin there and it is our goal to eventually live there fulltime. It has a beautiful stream running through it and I love spending every moment I can there.  I suffer from PTSD from working in Afghanistan for over two years and it is my haven. It is the only place in this world that I feel completely safe and at peace. We usually go early in the morning and my husband cuts wood and I clear brush. We have established a series of trails for hiking and snowshoeing and while it is exhausting work to clear the land, it frees me like nothing else can. To take a tangled mass of overgrown brush and turn it into a beautiful trail through quiet evergreen woods, revealing beauty as I go, is a metaphor for my life at this point in time. Just as I am clearing out the unwanted vegetation from my land I am clearing out the mass of tangled, thorny memories locked in my brain and making room for beautiful new memories to grow. Maine is doing that for me. It is my chosen home for the rest of my life. And although every year around March I really hate the lingering winter, I know that summer will be here again and I can walk my trails and think this is the way life should be.

The Waiting Room

 

The Waiting Room

  By Kathleen Gunderman

I wake up slowly to the sounds of moans and crying. I am reluctant to open my eyes. I don’t know where I am or what has happened, but I know something bad has happened. Did I get blown up by a roadside bomb? Did I get shot? Am I dying? The anguished crying finally makes me open my eyes into a slit. Through a haze that slowly clears I see a young girl sitting hunched over in a fetal position. Her thin arms encircle her legs and her head is resting on her knees.  I can see her shoulders shaking and her breath is coming in heaves. I crawl over to her and put my hand gently on her back. She recoils from my touch and scuttles crablike away from me with terror in her eyes.

“It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you,”I assure her. I sit down across from her and quietly wait for her to calm down. Her breath is shallow and quick and I am afraid she is going to hyperventilate. Her greenish brown eyes are ringed in white as she looks at me with terror. I think back on my military medical training and I give her a smile and start to talk to her in a soft voice.

“Breathe slowly, Honey. Breathe with me–in, out, in, out. That’s it. Just take deep, slow breaths with me.” I exaggerate my breathing so she can see and hopefully mimic me. Gradually I can see her start to relax a little. Her small, clenched hands start to lose the whiteness that stands out on her knuckles. Her shoulders begin to unbunch from her neck. Although her eyes still look at me with fear they no longer have the deer in the headlight look. She watches me intently a few moments before looking down towards the bare floor and taking a deep, ragged breath.  Her body seems to sag and she slowly raises her head and looks fearfully at me, unshed tears glistening on her lashes.

“Please don’t touch me. Please don’t hurt me,” she says in a small wounded voice.

“I won’t hurt you and I won’t touch you again. I promise.”

Everything in my being wants to embrace this wounded child but I know I must not. Obviously, someone has hurt her badly and I don’t want to increase her fear. She is too fragile.

I take a few minutes to look around the room. It is bare and roundish, seemingly devoid of any windows or doors. How can this be? How did we get in here? There must be a secret opening that I can’t see. Looking up I see only a hole in the ceiling that seems to have a flickering light emanating from it. It seems to have an electric short as the flashes of light are erratic. It gives the room a dim light that casts eerie shadows. Reluctant to startle the girl with any sudden movements, I slowly rotate my head to the right and to the left. I jump as I see there is someone else in the room. It is a young woman who is watching me with cynical brown eyes. She is twisting a lock of her blonde hair around her index finger as she sits with her back to the wall.

“Where are we?” I ask in bewilderment.

She stares at me a moment before she speaks. Finally, she says, “I don’t know. But it’s a bitch.”

“How long have you been here? How did you get here?”

She sighs and says “The girl was here when I got here. She doesn’t talk much so I don’t know how long she’s been here, but it’s a long time, I think. I’ve been here a long time, too. There’s no way to tell how long. As for how I got here I just woke up in here like you did.”

I shake my head confusedly. “But surely you have some idea who put us in here? What do they look like? Why have they put us in here?”

“I don’t know what they look like. I’ve never seen anyone and I don’t know why we are here.”

I am starting to get angry. “Well, surely you’ve seen them. They have to bring you food and water. Nobody would just keep us in here for no reason.”

She shrugs her shoulders and sits up straighter and says angrily, “Listen, I have never eaten or drank a thing since I’ve been here. I’ve never seen anyone. I don’t know why we’re here and I don’t really care anymore. All I know is that I want to be left alone.” Tears spring into her eyes and she quickly looks away from me.

“B—but, we have to eat? This makes no sense.” My mind is whirling as I try to process this information. Am I losing my mind? Is this a dream or a hallucination? I take several deep breaths and assess the situation. I know I am in the military. Okay, that’s a place to start. The most logical explanation is that I am having a dream. No, it just doesn’t feel like a dream. It feel’s real. I pinch myself hard and it hurts. Rubbing the red mark on my arm I look around the room again. It seems to be a round ball with a flattened floor. No windows, no doors–an impossible room. My next best scenario is that I am unconscious. Yes, that has to be it. Something has happened to me. I’ve been hurt in some way. I take my thoughts back but I can’t pinpoint any one event that happened. Whatever happened, it must have been sudden because I can’t remember much of anything before I woke up in here. But why are this child and woman in here, too? It just doesn’t make sense. I can’t think any more. It makes my head hurt. Maybe if I sleep I’ll wake up and everything will be clearer. I curl up on the floor with my head cradled on my arm and allow my eyelids to close out the anemic yellow light.

Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!

“What the hell?” I am jerked out of a deep sleep by a loud banging noise like a giant pendulum hitting a cast iron bell, bouncing from one side of the room to the other. It is terrifying and I put my hands over my ears, but I can still hear the child screaming. She looks like someone who is being electrocuted. Her muscles are contracted and twitching. Her eyes are bulging from their sockets and her hands are clenched so tightly I can see blood dripping onto to floor. The woman is frozen in horror with her back pressed against the wall.

“What’s happening?” I shout at her over the deafening cacophony.

She is shaking her head back and forth and doesn’t seem to hear me. I grab her by the shoulders and shake her, screaming in her face. “What is it? What’s happening?” She seems to be in shock and I slap her face. Her head stops shaking and she looks at me with naked fear on her face. “What is it?” I ask again. Tears are streaming down her face and she screams, “I don’t know! I don’t know!”

“You’ve never heard this?” She shakes her head again and collapses to the floor, curling into a ball.

I turn my attention back to the child whose screaming is tearing through me like a knife.  I start toward her but stop as I see her terror increase. A feeling of helplessness comes over me. I don’t know what to do. As I watch her my jaw drops as I see her start to rise toward the ceiling. I can’t believe what I am seeing! Her screams are now one continuing howl and her body is contorting as she slowly rises up. I run towards her and grab her around her kicking legs. I can feel a powerful force pulling her through my arms. I hold on tighter but her body seems to stretch like chewing gum and as she reaches the ceiling her head disappears through the hole and her screams become muted, which is even more horrifying. I can’t hold her and the rest of her body is quickly sucked through the hole with a sickening wet sound followed by the quick snap of an electric spark.

I fall to my knees, my eyes riveted to the hole. The banging abruptly stops and the sudden silence is so palpable I scream. “What the hell is going on?” I put my face in my hands and begin to sob. “No, no, no, no….”

I wake to find I am still lying on the floor. My face feels tight and I reach a trembling hand to my cheek to feel dried tears on my face. I don’t know how long I have been asleep. Time seems to have no meaning in this hellhole. I am numb. I can’t feel anything anymore. I just want it all to go away. I can make no sense of what I’ve seen. It has to be a dream. It HAS to!

I look over at the woman. She is sitting with her back to the wall, her hands resting on the floor by her sides. She is looking at me, but her face is blank and I’m not sure see actually sees me. She, too, has rivulets of tears down her face.

“It was a dream, wasn’t it?” I ask her. The little girl…?” I can’t even bring words to mind to describe what I saw.

“No, it wasn’t a dream, she says in a flat dispassionate tone. I’ve been here for a long, long time. I’ve never seen or heard anything like that. I’ll miss her,” she says with a catch in her voice as fresh tears brim over and slide down her cheeks. “She was so scared. She told me one time her uncle had done things to her. She wouldn’t tell me what he did, just that he hurt her. She blamed herself. She said if she had been a good girl this wouldn’t have happened. She didn’t stop it so she knew she was bad. But that wasn’t true, was it?” she asks at me in despair. “I tried to tell her that, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t believe it. Oh, God, I feel so tired.”

“I’m tired, too,” I say. What happened can’t happen, but it did. Dear God, have we been abducted by aliens? Is it possible? I just can’t believe that, but I don’t even know how to explain the little girl going through that hole in the ceiling.

With a shudder I look up and see the hole is pulsating with garish light like an electric eel. I move closer to the woman and put my back to the wall trying to distance myself from that hellish, snapping beam of light.

“That noise – what could that have been? It was deafening. All I could think of, and I know this sounds crazy, is that we had been abducted by aliens and put into here to be tortured. I can’t make sense of any of this.

The woman wiped tears from her cheek with the back of her hand. “I’ve never heard it before but it was the worst thing I’ve ever heard. It terrified me. But I think I know where we are. It isn’t aliens. We’re in hell. This must be hell.”

Hell. Yes, this place is hellish, but–the child. Surely a child wouldn’t be in hell? I shake my head. I can’t think straight. My brain doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. All I want to do is sleep. I shake myself and try to focus. I look at my companion. “What did you do before you came here? What’s your name?”

“I don’t know my name. I remember being beaten by someone and then being raped. I don’t remember anything but that and I can’t talk about it, so don’t ask.”

“But, surely you remember your na….?” I stop as I realize I don’t know my name either. All I remember is being in the military. I remember hearing staccato bursts of gunfire and the shrill screaming of incoming rockets. I remember being afraid-–a lot, but I don’t remember anything else. Not even my name, I think, wonderingly. Maybe I am dead, but was I so bad I deserve to be in hell? I don’t think I was. I can’t think anymore. I am too tired. I am just going to sleep and I hope I will stay asleep a long time.

“No! No! No!” The screams of the woman wake me and the banging is back with renewed vigor. The metallic clangs echo deafeningly in the confined space. I have tried to remain in control through this whole ordeal, but now the screams are tearing painfully from my throat. I can’t stand it anymore. I am suddenly filled with a blinding rage. A mist of red descends upon me and I start flailing and hitting blindly into the air, screaming obscenities. I want to hurt someone! I want to kill someone! Kill it! Kill it! Stop! Stop! Stop!”

I keep punching my invisible enemy until I fall exhausted to the floor where I start to sob uncontrollably. Why, why, is all I can say? The incessant banging is driving my already fragile mind mad.

“Oh, no! Help me! Help me?” I look up and see the woman. She is being pulled to her feet and her hands are scrabbling in vain to find something to hold onto. She is being pulled up like a puppet on a string until her toes are just barely touching the floor. She is babbling hysterically and I leap to grab her. I wrap my arms and legs around her and scream, “I’m not letting you go. I WON’T let you go.” I am desperate to keep her with me. I cannot face being in this hellhole alone.

Her head is now at the hole in the ceiling and I can hear the bones in her head crunch as they are being crushed.  She starts to scream–raw, primal screams that tear through my soul. I renew my grip but she seems to become nebulous in my arms, disappearing through my fingers like smoke and I fall to the floor, my hands still grasping for substance. She is gone with only a static flickering to mark her passing. She is gone. I sob and I feel so totally alone and helpless. Why is this happening? I just can’t take anymore. I just can’t.

I awake to the knowledge that I am dead. I know it with every fiber of my being. This room with no ingress and egress is some kind of holding area–a waiting room. I know, too, I am going to be pulled through the hole in the ceiling. I am calm now. I am ready to go. I can’t stand to be in this barren room with only my own tortured thoughts for company. My ears strain for noise and I feel like someone who is waiting for a phone call from a reluctant lover. “Ring. Please ring.” But the silence denies my pleas.

I awake from a fitful sleep filled with monsters and despair to the long-awaited banging, clanging noise. It is tolling for me and I stand and walk to the center of the room. I look up and I can feel a slow, but steady pull. I close my eyes and lift my arms to welcome the force that is lifting me up. I feel my feet being lifted off the floor until only my toes are touching. I can feel my muscles straining, straining until I can feel them begin to tear. My joints snap as they are dislocated from their sockets. I didn’t want to scream but I can’t help it. It hurts so badly.  The pain is unimaginable. I can feel my body elongating and the electric charge above me is increasing with frightening intensity. Oh, it hurts, it hurts! I can’t take it any longer. Hurry death! Hurry! Just stop this pain. I can feel my head hit the ceiling and I panic because I know this is going to be beyond anything I have ever endured.

My skull starts to crumble and it sounds like someone walking on gravel. My body feels light now, but the pain that I thought couldn’t get any worse only intensifies into a never ending thread of agony. I must be going to hell and this unspeakable horror must be my punishment. “Oh, God, what did I do to deserve this?” I can feel my body shifting and morphing as it moves through the hole into a narrow tunnel. Electric charges are shooting through my body and I am quivering with suffering. I am almost all the way into the tunnel and the pain is lessening as my body no longer seems to be a corporeal being. The banging has been replaced with the whir of electricity and as the last of my body passes through the hole the force flings me at light speed through a snapping, popping, curving tube and I can see a bright light ahead of me.  The light becomes all I can see and it welcomes me. Like looking into the sun, I feel warmth on my face and I am gently deposited into another room, similar, but larger than the room I have left, amorphous, ringed in mist.  I look around the space that is bathed in a white, glowing light. I am not afraid anymore. The pain is gone and I feel peaceful. Yes, I am dead, but I am glad to be dead. I welcome it. This isn’t hell, its heaven.

My fear and helplessness are gone, replaced by strength and a sense of calm. I am happy to realize that the child and woman have gone on before me to their well-deserved peace.  Maybe I’ll see them again and we can get to know each other without the traumas that caused us so much pain for so long. Yes! I can see them smiling at me from the mist ahead and laughing, I run into their open arms, leaving the waiting room behind.

Epilogue

 

“So how are you feeling?

I take off my headphones, take a deep breath and tell my therapist “I’m tired. I’m very tired.”

My therapist nods. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a very effective, but exhausting form of therapy because your brain is working very hard to bring trauma from your limbic system where it is stored to your cerebral cortex where it can be rationally processed.“

“When I first started EMDR I never knew I would have so much physical and mental pain. This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life but I can’t believe all those memories don’t hold the pain they once did. I feel free for the first time in my life. And I can’t believe it happened so fast. It’s like therapy at warp speed!”

Smiling, my therapist says, “Yes, the use of bilateral stimulation such as eye movement or, in your case, tones, creates neural paths that allow those traumatic memories to travel from the emotional to the rational parts of your brain. It is particularly effective for people like you who have multiple traumas to deal with.”

“Well, I can’t thank you enough. I don’t feel weighted down by my experiences anymore. I feel reborn and I can’t wait to see what my life will be like without all this emotional baggage.”

“I want you to call me if need me. You’ve worked very hard today and you really need to use your coping skills to help you with any residual emotions that may come up. Now, if you’ll just step out into the waiting room, I’ll schedule you an appointment for next week.

 

For more information on EMDR visit www.emdr.com

 

 

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footprints on the Heart

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Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France

The other night I was comforting my sobbing daughter as she was facing the possibility of having to put her beloved cat to sleep. My heart was breaking for her because I know the pain and guilt that comes from having to make that decision. When I worked as a veterinary technician we euthanized pets every day. It was humbling to see how everyone in the office treated each pet with such love and respect. I would sing to them as we prepared them for their eternal sleep. It was particularly hard to see the grief of the families. Without exception they all had a sense of guilt that they were “killing” their loved one. I told them that we love our pets and give them a good life and we have to love them enough to let them go when they are suffering.

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Scout, the comedian of the family. Rescued from a meth addict.

So many people have come into my life during my 60+ years and I have to admit I don’t remember most of them but I can honestly say I remember every pet I have ever had. My very first memory is of playing with our family dog, Minksy. One of her puppies, Penny Louise, was my companion from the time I was born until I turned 16. Each cat, dog, hamster, rat, etc. that I have been blessed to share my life with has left indelible footprints on my heart. To no one else in your life can you go and get such unconditional love and acceptance.

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away but how about a pet? A number of studies have shown that having a pet in the home helps ward off allergies for young children. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention and the National Health Institute both conclude that people who have pets exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and people who have had heart attacks have better recovery rates. Pets are better than antidepressants in some ways. They not only give us unconditional love but they give us a sense of purpose and combat loneliness, particularly among the sick and elderly. They help bring out feelings of love, give us companionship and make us laugh with their antics.

Animals provide support as service dogs for people with physical limitations and emotional traumas that make it difficult to function in social situations. Veterans and others traumatized by war can use service dogs to facilitate the difficult transition from the battlefield to the “normal” world. The dogs can draw out the most isolated personality and helps to assuage the emotional numbness and hypervigilance that are common with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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GG (Good Girl) is the watchdog and protector of the family. I brought her back from Afghanistan.

Animals have been used to assist the military throughout history. Dogs, horses, mules, camels and even elephants have been used for protection and transportation; as late as the Afghanistan war when the first Special Operations Forces rode horses through difficult terrain on dangerous secret missions. Some unconventional animals have been used as well to support troops. Sea lions have been trained by the Navy to find swimmers near piers and ships or objects that were considered suspicious or a threat. Dolphins are trained to sense mines in water and alert their handlers. Cats are present on many bases around the world to reduce disease-spreading rodents and poisonous snakes. When I was in Afghanistan the commander on our base ordered all the cats to be killed. Two weeks later a poisonous snake was found outside my tent. At ISAF, the facility that houses the international forces in Kabul, cats patrol the base and are kept healthy by military veterinarians. On the adjoining U.S. Embassy campus, cats have their own territories and provide a much needed touch of normalcy to a stressful working environment.

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Blu, the baby of the family. We rescued her from an abusive situation.

During WWI and WWII, the U.S. military enlisted more than 200,000 pigeons to help relay messages. One pigeon, Cher Ami flew 12 important missions before being struck by enemy fire, although he was shot in the breast and leg he was able to deliver his message, which was found dangling from his battered leg. Because of his efforts 194 soldiers were rescued. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for heroic service. Sgt. Stubby, a pit bull stray smuggled by soldiers overseas, was the most decorated war dog of WWI and the only dog to be promoted to sergeant through combat. He served in the trenches in France for 18 months and participated in four offensives and 17 battles. Rats are now being used to detect and report land mines in Afghanistan because their weight doesn’t set off the explosive device. While at the Embassy in Kabul bomb sniffing dogs protected me every day.

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Busta, the matriarch of the family at 16 years of age. She’s a grumpy kitty but we love her.

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Thomas who was rescued from a shelter is my sleeping buddy.

From war heroes to family pets, animals have had a longstanding communion with humans. We give them food, water, shelter, medical care and they give us love, companionship and acceptance. It is not surprising that we develop bonds that even death cannot break. Capitan, an Argentinian dog ran away from home after his master died and even though he had never been taken to the cemetery he was discovered laying on his master’s grave and he remained there for six years until his death, cared for by the cemetery staff. So it is no surprise that I can remember every pet I’ve ever had. They didn’t die; they just went to sleep in my heart.

And The Rockets Red Glare

Kathy

The truth is no one ever believes for a minute–no matter what danger you’re in–that you yourself are going to be killed. The bomb is always going to hit the other person. – Agatha Christie

Every Wednesday I am going to include an excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts From the Heart”. Hope you enjoy.

The first time I am in a rocket attack, it was about 8:00 PM. I am in my bunk at Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier absorbed in a murder mystery. The women soldiers in the tent are chatting, reading and getting ready for bed. The sound of outgoing mortar rounds has a deep, bass boom. After a while, I don’t even notice them any more. It is like an ambient sound machine that lulls me to sleep at night. This night I hear a high, whistling sound racing through the night sky above our tent. Although I have never heard it, I know instantly it is incoming. We all freeze, some with their mouths open, silenced in mid-sentence by the screaming of the rocket, waiting to see where it will land.

BOOM! It doesn’t hit our tent. Then, as one, chatter breaks out. A soldier asks me, “What’ll we do? What’ll we do?”

“Well, you’re the military. What do we do?” I reply.

The Captain gets on her phone and talks to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). They tell us to get in our body armor and go to the French bunker. Now the bunker is over on the other side of the base. I have already put on my old flannel pajamas and gone to bed. In our pre-deployment training they told us the biggest danger in a rocket attack, other than a direct hit, is getting hit by flying shrapnel. I elect to stay in my bunk. My only concession is to put aside the murder mystery and read the Bible. I think about putting on my armor, but I have already washed my feet, the last thing I do before getting in my bunk because the floor is dusty, and my armor is across the room. I decide to take my chances. The others head out to the bunker.

After a few minutes another rocket comes squealing over. BOOM!! This one lands outside the fence.I read the 23rd Psalm with renewed vigor. That little frisson of fear that comes with being in the line of fire is skipping across my nerves. I am alone in the tent and I feel very far from home. What I wouldn’t give to be in my cozy Maine home with my family right now.

The one good thing about the Taliban rockets is that they are mostly surplus that the Russians left behind when they withdrew from Afghanistan. They are old and often duds. Forty-five minutes after the initial rocket screamed over our tent the French return outgoing mortars and it is very likely the insurgents are already gone. They send off volley after volley of rockets which seem to say, “Our rockets are bigger than your rockets.” It is an emotional balm to help sooth our jangled nerves. Many of the soldiers are outside watching the rockets streak their yellow light towards the mountain towering over the base, cheering as each round blasts a hole in the bare, gray shale mountainside. It is like a Fourth of July celebration and makes everyone feel better.

As the deep bass “Whoof!” of the last outgoing rocket reverberates off into the distance, my tentmates troop excitedly back inside. We are all so glad that those two rockets didn’t have anyone’s name stamped on them. One Air Force nurse shares that when the first rocket came over; she was on the phone with her Dad, a Vietnam veteran. He could hear the whine of the rockets over the phone and had told her it was incoming. She now calls him back to let him know she is okay. Pent-up nervousness and adrenaline causes many of the women to laugh nervously. The Captain asks me if I am okay and I tell her I am fine. I have switched back to my murder mystery in an effort to release my fear. Murder mysteries always relax me.

“She’s not in the military and she is calmer than any of us!” she says to the others.

I just smile serenely, reinforcing this perception. What they don’t know is that I was probably more scared than any of them, but I am determined not to be seen as someone who panics at the first little rocket attack. I do have my pride.

When I transferred to the Embassy, I was in several rocket attacks. One time another civilian and I are having coffee outside the dining hall with two newly arrived civilians waiting to go to the field. We hear some booms in the distance. “Outgoing,” we knowingly say and go back to chatting, unconcerned. The newbies look nervously at each other. They’ll learn all too soon that you can get used to anything in Afghanistan. If awakened in the night by a rocket explosion, I turn my head to the side so I can hear better. If I don’t hear people screaming or a duck and cover siren, I go peacefully back to sleep. After all this is what I signed up for. I can’t afford to give in to fear and still be able to do my job.

It is only after I return to the peace and safety of home that the sound of fireworks and loud noises reduces me to a quivering mass of fear. The coping mechanisms I developed in Afghanistan don’t seem to work at home. Loud noises shouldn’t scare me anymore but the fear they bring is so much worse than anything I felt in Afghanistan. The horror of post traumatic stress is that normalcy has become the monster that lies in wait for me and it is a monster no amount of body armor can protect me from.

We Served Too

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Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world when he could do something about it, but I am afraid he might just ask me the same question.

While I was in Afghanistan there were several American civilians killed in reconstruction and stabilization efforts. Some I knew, some I only knew of, but each death filled me with despair. It takes a special person to voluntarily leave everything they know and work in dangerous areas of the world. Some people go for financial reasons, some crave adventure, but the vast majority of aid workers go because they have a sincere desire to help people who are suffering. When you make the decision to go to work in danger zones you have to accept and make peace with the reality that you could die or be injured. But seeing such a person lose their life is heartbreaking.

In 2007, 29-year old USDA Forest Service employee, Tom Stefani, was killed when an armored vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb. Working in Ghazni Province, he was developing and implementing an agricultural plan that included a poultry rearing facility, a cold storage facility and a grape production improvement project. While visiting an orphanage in Ghazni he learned that the children did not have enough toys and no playground equipment. He immediately launched a plan to raise money from family and friends for a playground for the orphanage. When Tom was killed his family created a fund to make sure his dream came true. In 2010, that dream became a reality as a playground dedicated to his memory was erected at the Ghazni orphanage and he would have been thrilled to hear the children laughing as they played on the equipment.

A fact that is often overlooked is that our wars are fought not only with soldiers, but with a great number of civilian workers going out alongside them. Civilian workers include military contractors who perform a myriad of tasks supporting military operations; government agency workers representing the U.S., journalists and nongovernmental (NGO) workers performing all kinds of missions — many of them humanitarian.

Most people don’t realize that in 2007 there were actually more civilian contractors in Iraq than combat troops and that in 2009 contractor deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq. According to a 2013 report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR): “In September 2007, the United States had more than 170,000 combat personnel in Iraq as part of the counterinsurgency operation, with more than 171,000 contractors supporting the mission.” To date, 1569 U.S. contractors have died in Iraq and 65 have died as part of the war in Afghanistan.

The cost of war is high in blood and treasure and it can be deadly for civilians who choose to do their part to serve their country, to not only ensure freedom but also to try to make life better for the innocents who suffer the wraiths of war—disease, famine, poverty, displacement and terror.

When civilians serve in high threat security zones they are often not working with the same pre-deployment training or the same support during and after their deployments that military personnel receive. Yet they too get injured and killed. And even when they return home safely — mission completed — they and their families can still suffer considerable psychological strain in the months and even years to come. But there is no Veterans Health Administration for civilian workers to turn to for support. And sadly we as a society are still slow to recognize our hundreds of thousands of civilians who serve in high threat and danger zones.

While our military serviceman returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced disgraceful delays from the Veterans Health Administration to get their claims covered — civilian contractors who return from the battle space with similar injuries — including limbs blown off, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression also have difficulty in receiving the help they need to recover.

In terms of psychological well-being, a 2013 RAND study, “Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Zones” found evidence for PTSD in twenty-five percent of their sample, depression in eighteen percent, and alcohol misuse in over half the sample. And longer deployments and increased combat exposure was associated with higher rates of distress.

Serving in a combat zone, high threat or danger zone is just that — dangerous — and it’s time we recognized the hundreds of thousands of civilians who risk their lives for others.  A new organization, We Served Too (WS2), has been formed with the mission to raise awareness; conduct research; develop education materials; support resilience, health and well-being; and to create a web-based community, support network and information resource for those who are serving or have served in conflict and high threat security zones.

We will never win wars by how much money we spend or by how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the on-on-one interactions that we share, interactions that civilians are in a perfect position to initiate. It is in the exchanged smiles, the touch of a hand, the expression of compassion where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists that real success can be found. We who served too don’t need parades or medals, but we would like to know that someone remembers that we were also willing to lay down our lives for our country. We would like to be remembered for reaching out to those who are suffering around the world.

I used to pass by the flag pole at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and see the memorial marker stone for Tom Stefani and many times I would pick a rose and lay it there because I wanted Tom’s family and friends to know that in the war torn country he loved, he was remembered.