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What Combat Taught Me About Living Through a Pandemic

April 1, 2020
By Scott Radcliffe

I have a relatively unique background for the communications space. I did my time in college at West Point and then became a tank and scout platoon leader while I was deployed to Baghdad and Fallujah, Iraq for 13 months starting in early 2004. Not long after coming back from Iraq in 2005, I was sent to New Orleans as a part of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. It took the threat of a staff job to move me into communications as the Multi-National Corps-Iraq commanding general’s speechwriter during the 2007 “surge” in Iraq. Over the last few weeks, people have asked me to draw on that experience. It honestly took me a bit to get into the right frame of mind to have something productive to say. But I am finally to a place where I can take from those experiences and apply them to our world’s situation now. So what did I learn that might be useful to others in these times?

1) Create a sense of normalcy: I was single without a family to worry about when I was in the military and I had the benefit, in most cases, of being able to focus on some well-defined tasks at hand – namely keeping my guys safe. That said, if I allowed myself to get preoccupied thinking about the state people were being forced to live in on a daily basis in the places I was deployed, and of course the truly terrible circumstances commonly attributed to “combat” we faced every so often — things could get pretty bleak pretty quickly. I remember very clearly making a deal with myself during both tours in Iraq so that I could sleep at night — I simply didn’t allow myself to think about the very real possibility that a mortar or rocket could come crashing through my window at any moment. It’s tough to get used to a dramatically new way of life, but you’re allowed to feel “ok” even in the face of some pretty adverse circumstances.

2) Getting acclimated is hard: I imagine most would see transitioning to a literal combat zone as a bit of a challenge, but it was almost harder hitting the ground in a devastated American city. We got our orders to go to New Orleans about two days after Hurricane Katrina hit, so we had an idea of what we were getting into. Though we knew where we were going, the truth is we really didn’t have a clue what we were going to be doing when we got there. On top of the physical transition, selfishly, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about being asked to deploy again after coming back from Iraq less than five months earlier – and I knew my men felt the same. We spent the first few days living in a parking garage simply figuring out how we could be most useful. Before we could get going, we had to figure out how we were going to live without taking resources away from the people we were there to help. This was a bit dispiriting. Once we got oriented and determined where we could actually help and get to work, it ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

3) You’re allowed to laugh: I recently had an exchange with a colleague that started this whole train of thought. He shared with me an article that was a little on the dark side, but that also had a tinge of humor. He commented that “the gallows humor is strong” to which I responded, “sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.” One of the defining features of my time deployed, particularly as a platoon leader, was when we’d be on long missions or in an all-night observation post, keeping ourselves occupied with jokes that would probably seem pretty dark to someone listening in. As dark as they were, the jokes helped loosen what could be very tense situations. Even beyond the dark humor, especially when surrounding circumstances are scary, allowing even a moment to laugh is important.

4) Hang on to “green shoots”: In 2004, when I was about to brief my platoon about an assault mission into Fallujah we were hours away from executing and a very distinct thought crossed my mind at the time: “Man, I’m really glad I’m doing this in an Abrams tank and not some soft skin HMWWV.” It may not always be much, but when you allow yourself to find what I call “green shoots”— reasons for hope or even optimism — it can mean the difference between staying functional or not. It’s not always easy, and yes, even the combat veteran authoring this post has had his moments recently, but finding those green shoots to hold on to can sometimes be the only way to keep going.

5) It’s ok to be happy: This can be exceptionally hard, and the year ahead for almost all of us will no doubt be a roller coaster at best, but it is important to allow yourself to be happy in the spots you’re able to, especially when there are terrible things happening around you. It doesn’t always have to be huge. I remember setting off on some particularly grueling patrols and reminding my guys that it was Friday, which meant it was fried shrimp and steak day at the dining hall and we had something to look forward to when we got back. Other times it was me waking up early to catch a Detroit Tigers playoff game (as a lifelong fan I promise you, those are rare opportunities). In the end allowing myself to enjoy those moments truly helped me get by.

When I think about the situation we’re in now, the aspect that gets to me most is the utter lack of control. Even while deployed I felt I could do quite a bit to make sure my 15 to 30 soldiers got home safe. Or that I had the ability to do something tangible to help the people who lived in the district of Baghdad I was assigned to patrol. After reflecting on my former life, I realized the best thing to do is allow ourselves some respite from these hard times, control what we can control, and each do our part to stay safe and healthy. We’ll get through this.