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Waiting out a pandemic that feels like war: Insights from an Iraq War veteran

Our best and strongest resource is one another.

I was a young Army lieutenant deployed to Iraq during the war's early hostilities. I didn't know it then, but it would be the first of several deployments for me. What made that first tour different than the ones that followed was not knowing when it would end, the agony of wondering when my comrades and I could pack up and go home.

That long-forgotten sensation—the uncertainty, yes, but also the stress, dread and ennui—has landed again like a mortar. Who knew a virus could replicate the soldier's experience?

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That first year of the Iraq War was a weird time for the military. It was before the brass had developed its now-familiar 12-month unit rotation tempo. In the weeks preceding the invasion of Iraq, the expectation among the tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines like me, waiting nervously in tent cities across the barren sands of Kuwait, was that the conflict would be quick. More like Grenada than Vietnam.

Here's how we thought it would play out. The invasion order would come down, we'd cross the border, slog through the southern desert, then jump onto Highway 1 and hightail it to Baghdad. Resistance might be ugly—Remember Scuds? Saddam’s chemicals?—but we trusted our training, ourselves and each other. Word was we'd be home in a month. Maybe six weeks.

Well the invasion came and went. There was fighting, death. But liberation, too. A country freed from totalitarian bondage. We'd "won." It was time to go home now, right?

Wrong.

The word was that we were looking at a summer homecoming. That was in April. By the Fourth of July, when daytime temperatures hovered around 115 degrees, when a sip of water from a bottle left in the sun for too long would scald your mouth, that was when we learned we might be home by Christmas. Might.

And now a full-blown insurgency was just beginning to kick off. We became deflated. Demoralized even. We became obsessed with one question only: WHEN. When do we go home?

We thought: Look, we're soldiers. This is what we do. We fight the fight. We fulfill our duty. But please, just give us a date. Even if we are not meant to return this year. Even if we are here for the duration. At least that's something. At least it's clear.

Frustration turned to rage for some. Embittered by the slow pace of progress. Resentful of leadership. Worried about each other. I saw the toll of an open-ended deployment begin to affect the mental health of many around me. One of my unit's soldiers died by suicide that terrible summer. I never found out why, though there's never just one reason. The waiting certainly couldn't have helped.

Fast forward to today. A pandemic is upon us. Millions of us wait and worry, working away the hours, willing away the sickness from our seclusion or isolation or quarantine, or whatever other terrible word you can find to describe your particular circumstance.

In my case, my wife and I are working from our home outside Philadelphia: my wife for a major telecommunications firm and I for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a D.C.-based nonprofit that supports grieving military families. My particular focus—what feels like a calling really—is in caring for survivors of suicide loss.

My wife and I have three daughters under 6 years old. They're great kids, thank God, but bursting with the energy of a thousand summer suns. They haven’t been to school in weeks. We all miss our friends from church and the neighborhood. My father is hospitalized back home in New Orleans. He's in bad shape. Leukemia, not coronavirus. Not yet. My mother is barred from visiting, lest she contaminate him. A visit from me is completely out of the question. Just one more indignity amid countless other tragedies in a nation of sorrow.

One of the worst parts of this experience is the fear that if something bad happens to us or someone we love as a result of this crisis, then we might not be able to find help in an overburdened system produced by the very same crisis. That is the cruelest irony of this whole situation. And yet…

...there is hope.

If you feel like your life has become "Groundhog Day," just know this. It will end. If there is anything my deployments taught me it’s that. And If you are worried about someone you love, I also want you to know that you are not alone. I get what you are going through. As a veteran, I get it. As a parent, I get it. As a member of a team at TAPS that works with bereaved families who have lost a loved one to suicide, I get it.

For now, I'd like to offer a few suggestions that may make this period a little easier to endure.

First, our best and strongest resource is one another. Soldiers have known this for eons. There is no better solution to navigating hard times like war or pandemics than to keep a caring and reliable cadre of fellow travelers. Lean on others, even if you can’t physically be with them.

Second, since it goes without saying that forced isolation makes traditional social supports exceedingly difficult to continue, let alone cultivate, I propose you make use of all the gifts that modern technology does afford us. Talk to your folks on FaceTime. Celebrate birthdays on Zoom. Seek out new communities online. These virtual gatherings can renew your spirit.

Third, on the flip side, now is a time you might consider rediscovering old modes of communication, too. Where once a text message to a friend was good enough, try giving that person a call instead. If the content of your email is not urgent, then consider writing a letter and dropping it in the mail. You may be surprised at the ways in which these traditional methods of connecting are not only good for our relationships but can help replenish our inner lives. Just try putting a pen to paper for someone you love.

Finally, the greatest lesson I learned during that uncertain, seemingly interminable first year in Iraq is that this too certainly shall end. And when it does, I believe strongly that no matter how things shake out, this crisis will present opportunities to each of us that we never dreamed possible.

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
  • Matt Mabe is the director of strategic operations for suicide prevention and postvention at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. From 2002 to 2010, he served as a U.S. Army engineer officer, including three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.

    Editor's note: It is unclear if COVID-19 has affected suicide rates, if at all.