By the time I was five, half the age of my sister whom I idealized the attention of, I became worried about being cast aside. I competed for attention I didn’t receive, except for the momentary curiosity I became while I told stories. But there was more to it. Somewhere inside me I felt to share a story was a gift. By opening my mind, I showed friends and family they mattered.
Early on my stories were of fantastical animals, wilderness, and adventures weaving rapidly through forests or canyons as a hawk or falcon as a means of escape from an under-engaged life. There seemed to be no end to my ideas, and the quicker I pulled a story from my imagination the quicker I could exist in another. It seemed my stories took me places no one else could imagine, places where I could launch myself into adventurous acts of harrowing kindness to the benefit and praise of all, or learn something new about myself.
Writing, therefore, I knew was the only career for me. I needed to imagine or live a life worth writing. Even more, I was certain if I didn’t place my stories on paper I’d lose them and never have the chance to share where I’d flown in my thoughts or otherwise. Yet the older I became the more I needed to experience life for real, and I dreamt of stretching my wings to see what the remote world had to offer.
As a teenager I turned my interest away from writing, and toward visiting those remote places and experiencing life with the people who inhabited them. Somewhere along the way I learned that the military might offer a less restrictive form of flying and this might take me partway to where I wanted to go. So at nineteen I began warrant officer training and entered the Army’s rotary-wing flight school. Through this period I produced nothing of depth as I wrote only to relax and translate the beauty of flying for others between beers. Had it not been for September 11th 2001, I would have probably pursued writing travel narratives, continued flying other peoples’ airplanes, hiked or bicycled across the country, and possibly been quite happy.
But after the two airliners struck the World Trade Center in New York, flying instead took me deeper into the military. I began teaching reconnaissance, emergency procedures and other combat skills for the Army’s rotary-wing flight school. At twenty-two I was the youngest flight instructor in the school, much younger than the mix of West Point graduates and officers from NATO nations, as well as from our Middle Eastern and South American allies. My responsibility was to expose my students to as diverse an array of conditions and criticism as possible in less time than I had available. My students weren’t going to be given even the few years I’d had to learn the fundamentals and sensibilities of piloting a complex helicopter. I needed them to learn all of the tools necessary to return from war before they found themselves in one.
I loved teaching, I loved the challenge of it, but in January 2004 I deployed to Iraq where I would experience a side of the world that few see outside of movies or news reports. Writing became my limited connection to humanity as I sat beside the Euphrates River, amid the ruins of ancient Babylon, walked through Baghdad, hunkered behind blast walls in Fallujah, or inspected bullet holes in my aircraft near Mosul. During my days at airfields I jotted notes about the people and places I’d seen, but each night I flew back into combat.
When I returned to New Orleans, I submitted my resignation from the National Guard and thought I was ready to weave these stories into a longer narrative safely perched along Lake Pontchartrain. Hurricane Katrina complicated this. I was recalled by the Guard as the storm approached. During the week that followed I flew from before sunrise until well after sunset every day, searching flooded neighborhoods for survivors or bodies. My crew and I rescued over 300 people each day until nobody remained but us.
Finding my wounds from Iraq and Katrina too fresh to write, I was stuck on a question: How could I get past the shame of feeling weak and broken for what I did, saw, and felt when all I wanted so badly to do was just bury the memories deep enough that no relief could reach them, because I believed no relief was possible? I began a search for a form of fine art, meditation, and rehabilitation to practice, and through this, more than anything else, I acquired a sense of self and a sense of calm to write from.
Though even now in the tranquil city of Iowa City, Iowa, my reasons for writing have been forever morphed into a necessity of survival rather than a pleasure. Writing has become an often agonizing task that I would prefer let go. But if I set down my pen for long, nightmares that have plagued me from both Iraq and post-Katrina begin taking over my mind, creating a veil of hopelessness that shuts me out from the rest of world.
Not knowing how to live with this, I struggled for years to even pick up a pen until I met a handful of active writers in my new community. With their good-natured but insistent tutoring and mentoring, along with a supportive therapist, I’ve completed the first draft of a memoir focusing on my life as a helicopter pilot during the Iraq war and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, juxtaposed with learning to finally cope with the traumas of both experiences seven years later.
Piecing fragments of my past into a story set within my past showed me who I was then, and how to separate the reality of my choices from the guilt, shame, and fear that was crippling me. This was the first successful therapy to help me come to peace with my war.
In the first draft of anything I write today, I search for where my pain has hidden inside. I attempt to separate truth from delusion, and begin to forgive myself. The revisions and rewrites that follow are my search for the path to others like me. In my first full-length book, as well as with many of my stories, I’ve tried to shine a light on aspects often ignored or unspoken about life after war. I’ve pushed myself to show how generic treatment modalities typically used for trauma left me and many of the twenty-two million veterans in America feeling alone, and less than human.
As a nation continuing through our sixteenth year at war with no end in sight, I pray my writing can make a much needed impact on the way veterans are regarded and permitted to heal. There is no way back but to accept that as a teenager I chose to enter the Army and become a pilot in order to have the rich adventures I could write about. But over two decades later, the only way I can live with my memories of war and trauma is to let them exist in front of me where I can’t deny their existence, set on paper for others to know they are not alone.