This morning, I awoke (as per usual these days) to the sound of birds and not to my 6:30 a.m. alarm. Those fleeting moments of blissful ignorance passed, and I then remembered…”Oh yeah…Coronavirus. Pandemic 2020.” What a crazy time in which we find ourselves: toilet paper hoarding, involuntary homeschooling, working from home, not working at all, and a general feeling like we’ve been tossed into the twilight zone head-first. For many people, the first week or so was a bit romanticized. I excitedly brought out a huge dry erase board with the irrational hope that our three children would be excited to share what they chose for their 45 minutes of daily exercise and which three chores they would complete that day. Needless to say, the board of aspirations has not been updated past Day 4. There are a lot of things I have enjoyed…a slower pace of life, trying my hand at a few new recipes, and the time to complete several tasks that I have had on my to-do list for a few months. But this repetitive Groundhog Day life that we are all living can get a bit old…quickly and often.
Speaking of work, I love my job. I am blessed to have it and can’t imagine life without it. I’m a clinical psychologist, and have spent the last 15 years working with Veterans who have experienced traumatic events. It is the greatest gift…not just because it allows me the opportunity to give back to those who have served, but more importantly, because it has provided me with the most amazing gift of perspective. Trauma psychologists know that what usually works best to treat the wounds of war is to be there with our service members as they tell their sacred stories, discuss their thoughts about the things that have happened, and reflect upon how they have been affected. This means that I have had a backstage pass to what it really means to live in a combat zone….to hold a buddy’s hand while he takes his last breath, to make life-or-death decisions in the midst of utter chaos, to watch a fellow solider be placed on a medevac and then return to the fight, and to struggle with the rules of engagement with restraint while simultaneously swearing to God that if you could just do your job, you could solve the problem in front of you.
In recent weeks, I have been approached by several individuals who have asked, “What advice do you have right now during this time of uncertainly and stress? How do we get through having to stay at home?” Again, I call upon the gift of perspective. In other words, don’t ask me. I might have “Dr.” in front of my name, but I’m certainly not an expert…I have not lived through war. As we all now find ourselves “fighting a war against an invisible enemy,” it seems to me that we should ask those who actually have. So I reached out to several combat Veterans I have the honor and privilege of knowing, and from whom I have learned so much, and I asked them for their answers. As predicted, they quickly, graciously, and humbly provided their helpful input. As a result, I present to you, “Operation COVID-19: The Top 11 Things Combat Veterans Want You to Know About Living Through the Pandemic.” (I just couldn’t cut their answers down to 10, and there are too many Top 10 lists, anyway).
1. “Only expend energy worrying about something in proportion to the control you have over it. I would have been a wreck while in Iraq if I had walked around thinking everything I heard or saw was an incoming mortar round or a hidden sniper. Similarly, I know I may get sick with this virus and it could happen, but I’m not freaking out about gas pumps, having a runny nose, or seeing someone cough. What good does that bring? I’m being smart and doing what I can to keep myself and my family safe but I’m not going to ruin my life over this. S@*% happens, and worrying about what tomorrow will bring doesn’t do anyone any good.”
2. “When this is done, you will appreciate the little things. In war, I learned how much I had taken for granted a warm meal, a comfortable place to sleep, and comfortable shoes. This is the biggest gift that challenges like this bring us – you become grateful for the things you have always taken for granted, and you end up appreciating them more in the end.”
3. “Keep a routine and compartmentalize. One hour, one meal, one day at a time. Stop panicking about how many are going to be sick in two weeks or a month. Get up, exercise, take a shower, eat breakfast. Do that today, and then do it again tomorrow. Keep your routine. Find a hobby, and I don’t mean five hours of internet poker.”
4. “Be careful where you get your information and don’t believe any over-sensationalized hype. Your crazy Uncle Larry is not a good source of information, and for the most part, neither is social media. Look to credible sources. That being said, be aware of your surroundings. Not because we are in the middle of a pandemic, but because this should be practiced in everyday life. Just don’t become paralyzed by it. Stop thinking that a virus is literally planning your demise. “
5. “Take this time to square away and field day (clean) your area. There is always something to fix or clean at home. Along those lines, the topic of survival should come up in conversation at home. Don’t be afraid to talk about it, but use it as good training. No need to freak the kids out, but teach them basic survival skills. Don’t worry if you don’t know them yourself – read about the basics and you will learn a lot. Make it fun for your kids to build a fort in the house or the backyard, let them make a compass and teach them how to use it, and have everyone make their own mask. There are plenty of survival skills you can learn together as a family. Even if you don’t use them now, they may be useful later on. Teaching survival skills is really just teaching someone how to value their life and the lives of those around them.”
6. “In the military, we all have a MOS, or a specialty. Everyone in your family has a skill or knowledge that can be passed down or even up. Teach kids how to work with their hands. Far too many kids these days do not possess the basic knowledge of how to repair things, to change a tire, or to build something. If they don’t, it’s our fault for not teaching them. Take this time for yourself to learn, and teach, a new skill. Turn off electronics and get creative. Create a new game or activity you can do by yourself or as a group. I can’t tell you how many times in Afghanistan we would be on an LP/OP (listening post/observation post) for days and my guys would create a game or something just to pass the time. You are much more creative than you think you are, and this is the perfect time to discover that.”
7. “Embrace the Suck. This whole thing does suck, but if you have a poor attitude, your morale and morale of those around you is going to plummet. Just as in a combat zone, the same can happen in your own home. This is not good for you or for anyone else, so if you find yourself getting down, for your sake and the sake of those around you, find something that brings you a healthy joy. Exercise, read a book, or try your hand at some form of art. While serving overseas, we had to do that at times to take our minds off the situation, and now so do you.”
8. “In Vietnam, many of us used marijuana and drank whiskey to cope. Don’t follow our lead on this one. In other words, use healthy coping skills. Find a good distraction, find a release for your anxiety, and eat good food. It’s okay to have a few good drinks if that’s something you do, but only in moderation. Don’t create a problem now that you will have to fix when this whole thing is over. Some of us made that mistake.”
9. “Remember that no generation escapes difficult times, and teach this perspective to children. We are living in history right now. Your children will remember this time and will tell this story to their children, their grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren, so make it a positive story. Do what you can now so that they can look back and say, ‘Yeah, it was tough, but we had each other.’ That’s exactly how I look back on my time in combat.”
10. “Practice service above self. This will not only make you feel better, but will help those around you. Do something good for someone else, even if it’s a complete stranger. Mow the neighbor’s yard or make a grocery run for an elderly person in your area. Do something for someone other than yourself. Trust me, it’s just as contagious as this virus and will spread through your community, as well.”
11. “Take this time to perfect the skill of learning how to find positives in everything. Serving overseas brought some of the absolute worst times of my life, but it also brought some of the best times. I have so many amazing memories of time spent with those guys, and I’m closer to some of them than to some members of my own family. One day in Iraq, our squad conducted a “Gatorade patrol” and we started taking mortars that pinned us down in a wide open field. If we would have kept moving, we would have increased our chances of getting hit. So, we hunkered down and found little divots to lay in and started passing around a chew tin and making fun of each other as usual. Looking back it would have been easy to start freaking out, but like any other day, humor and our camaraderie kept us together. We didn’t have any control over the mortars and where they landed. Enjoy the moment, and enjoy the small things. Cherish this time together. Those of us who served in combat faced the reality that we are not immortal, but we also knew that we would not be alone in our struggle and that our buddies would be with us. We are ALL going through this together. You are not alone. We don’t leave anyone behind, and neither should you.”