the sound of fighter jets fill the sky. i'm walking home from dropping off my laundry, but for a tiny instant i wonder "am i in ashdod, or back at FOB Hit?"
it's been five and a half years since I came back from iraq. in that time, i have worked hard to recover mentally from the trauma i endured. in my second tour in iraq, we took indirect fire from mortars and rockets regularly. it became part of the norm. every now and then the sirens would work, and we'd have a second or two before the impact. but more often than not, they wouldn't work at all. or maybe they'd go off and then no impact.
anyway, once i returned home, i lived with the remnants of my tours in iraq, summed up nicely in a four letter acronym. PTSD. i would be on the lookout for suspicious cars and people. always listening, wondering when the next mortars are going to impact. if i heard a book thud on a floor in the next room, i thought it was a rocket. fire alarm sirens made me think i was at the FOB.
the battles that were raging in my head spilled over into my interactions with others. this meant my family and closest friends endured my verbal assaults. this meant i could make no new friends, and if i was ever in a confrontation, bad things happened.
but i sought treatment. and stuck with it. and five years later, i travelled to israel for a five month program volunteering in ashdod, israel. it was the culmination of my recovery: i made new friends, i learned a new language. i lived on my own for the first time since i returned from iraq. i was whole. i was new. i was me.
the program ended, i returned home, but decided i wanted to do another five months. that the amazing transformation i experienced could be continued. so i returned to israel.
six days after i returned, a rocket was fired from gaza that impacted outside of ashdod. i didn't hear the sirens. i was in a car with a friend on the way to a bar, and as he was walking in the parking lot, i heard him say on the phone to his mom, in hebrew, that he didn't hear anything. the sound of his voice and the insistence on not hearing anything made me immediately guess what happened. there's no reason i should have guessed that. there was no violence or attacks in the first five months, why should my mind have gone there? but it did go there, and worse than that, it was right.
so for the first time since iraq, i was in a place which was in range of enemy fire. the thing is, i was in range for the entire first five months. which i knew in my head, but hadn't really worried about it because it was an abstract idea.
two days later, a bomb goes off near a bus station in jerusalem, the first attack in jerusalem in several years. the next day we were scheduled, and went on a trip to jerusalem. life goes on here in israel they say. we can't let the terrorists win. we have to live our lives.
on the way home from jerusalem, we get news that more rockets have landed in ashdod.
now the peace and tranquility and splendor of israel, of ashdod, of the place where i had come back to being me - it's all gone.
i was supposed to run that friday in the first jerusalem marathon. i didn't.
back in ashdod, at the new school i was teaching at, we held several bomb drills. i can only say that in the event of a rocket attack that impacts the school, it will not be pretty.
but life slowly gets to a sense of new normalcy. when i go running, i wonder what i'll do if i am out on my bike or running and the siren goes off. i wonder if the siren will be loud enough. will there really be forty-five seconds from siren to impact, as we're told? i lower the volume in my headphones when i run, in case i need to hear the siren.
those were the only real conscious effects on me at that time. the other effects were subconscious: out of the blue, weapons started appearing in my dreams. an RPG laying against a wall, having nothing to do with the dream it's in. in another, i'm with my nephew at cub scouts, and in my pocket is a pistol. totally non sequitur to anything else in the dreams. my quality of sleep diminished by more than half right away. but nothing so drastic that i consciously understand the effects right away.
the days go by, and two weeks later, i am in tel aviv for another marathon. i run a personal best, but all the while looking and wondering "if we get attacked, what the fuck do i do?" but we don't get attacked, and i return to ashdod that night in such high spirits, thrilled i am in israel, running races and loving life.
four am that morning, as i am about to close my eyes and sleep, the siren goes off. i jump out of bed immediately, and put some shorts on. i yell to my roommate, who sleeps with earplugs. everyone in the apartment gathers in the bomb shelter.
just an aside, yes, apartments here in israel come with bomb shelters. both encouraging to be prepared, and sad in the necessity of it.
as we gather in the bomb shelter, i hear the impact. the rocket lands south of the city limits. we stay in the bomb shelter for about five minutes or so, and slowly leave, trying to figure out if we can get back to sleep or not.
the answer was no. ten minutes or so later, the siren goes off again. again we gather in the bomb shelter. this time we cannot hear an impact. we wait, and go back to sleep.
so now, twenty-four days into my second five month trip, things are slowly escalating, both in the attacks, and the impact on me. in the first attack, i did not hear the siren, or the impact, and it was not too big of a deal. in the attacks at 4am, i both heard the siren and one of the impacts. what's next in the line of sensory experiences? sight.
one week later, again on friday, i am running in ashdod. i have been running longer and longer, i find that it helps my mind, to work the body, and let the endorphins help the mind ease. it's 4pm or so, only a few hours until sundown and shabbat. i'm running on the extreme eastern side of the city, where to my right there is nothing but sand dunes. on my left, there is a wall that surrounds apartment buildings. so really, nowhere to go if i have to.
i'm running, and i hear in my headphones a tone that seems out of tune with the song that is playing. so i pop one earbud off, and i hear a siren. it doesn't sound like the siren from the other night, so i'm not too sure if it may just be a fire or something. but just as that thought goes in my head, another siren starts and then two more, and i understand that this is a rocket siren. but, like i said, i got nowhere to go. so i pop off the other earbud, and slow down to a jog, but thats about all i can do.
i'm also looking around, scanning for anything i can see. and at the same time, wondering if that forty-five seconds is true.
it's not. there may have been twelve to eighteen seconds between the time i heard the sirens to the impact. the impact that i saw. the impact that i felt. i saw the smoke rise up from the site, and it was real.
up until then, while increasing in its intensity, the attacks weren't quite real to me. but that day, that moment, the line between being back in Iraq, dodging mortars, to running in ashdod, well it got pretty damned blurry.
cars skidded to a stop on the street, the occupants running for cover. kids jumped off their bicycles and ran home. i kept jogging.
i started walking once i saw the smoke, kinda amazed that i just witnessed this attack in my city. the city where i live.
i got to the corner, and there is a woman walking with a bike, to another bike near me. i ask her in hebrew, if it is hers, and she says it's her son's. so i pick up the bike and walk with her for a bit until we see her husband and her son. she thanks me, and they leave.
at the corner, on a bench, sit two old men who are playing chess. it is obvious from their body language and lack of outwards signs of fear, that they are all too used to this and it's not a big deal. i find that disconcerting.
so the day ends without incident. i came home from my run, and used a skill i learned in the Marines to figure out the point-of-impact that i witnessed. it is a skill i never thought i would have to use again. it was way too close to me to be comfortable.
after that, the conscious effects came strong and heavy and haven't abated. my sleep quality is terrible, and i cannot fall asleep easily anymore. my dreams have an undercurrent of violence. i am edgy and irritable, and have taken my anger out on my friends. i am hypervigilant, always listening for sounds of rockets or sirens. i am no longer happy. i am a cranky angry mess.
i resemble myself more as i did two years or more ago, rather than myself as i was when i came back in the beginning of march. and i don't like that. i worked too hard for this to happen. i am angry it happened. i am sad it happened. i want it to stop, i want it to change, i want to be the healthy, happy person i was, not regress into the angry, bitter, messed up person i am now.
it has been thirteen days since the last attack. we've had the week off for vacation and i went to greece. i learned that i can be happy and enjoy myself, knowing that i am not about to see a rocket get dropped on my head. returning to ashdod, that knowledge is gone, because i just don't know if we'll get attacked today or not.
i've been sleeping during the day, and staying up at night. i've been isolating and avoiding things. i have not been able to wake up for work. i have neglected my studies. in all, i have achieved nothing productive or stuck to any sort of schedule since the last attack.
to be fair, i operate better on a regimented schedule, and having the vacation meant no schedule. i plan on taking it easy this weekend, and getting my body back into a rhythm in which i eat right and sleep when i should, etc.
i've been in this place before. i got out of it. i know what to do to get better. the question now is, do i do that here in ashdod? or do i go home?
my doctors say go home. at home, i cannot get worse. here, the next attack could really mess me up psychologically, much more than i am now. and then what do i do? but what if i go home and still feel like this? will i regret running away?
this is my existence.