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Monday, May 26, 2014

White cloud, survivor guilt, and Memorial Day

White Cloud: (adj, coll.): In EMS, a provider who, when on shift, seems to be followed by an aura of calm, attracting simple & straightforward EMS calls such as uncomplicated psych transports, stubbed toes, and limited numbers of calls per shift. (contrast "Black Cloud", a provider who seems to attract whirling chaos, sometimes seemingly attracting multiple-person-ejected motor vehicle collisions, cardiac arrests, and assorted other complicated, brink-of-death EMS calls while on shift; sometimes called a "crap magnet" or other, more scandalous, phrases).

Survivor guilt: (syndrome): The guilt felt by survivors of a tragic event (combat, hostage situations, natural disasters, etc.), often manifesting as a miasma of "why me? why did I survive when _blank_ did not?" thoughts.

Memorial Day, in the United States, is a holiday set aside to memorialize the lives of those who gave "the last full measure of devotion" to preserve the rights and privileges of all Americans. As a veteran, I find Memorial Day a particularly sobering day, partly due to an acute understanding of the sacrifice made by the fallen. As with many of my brothers and sisters in arms, I also feel a deep regret about having lived while others did not. Survivor's guilt, they call it. A manifestation of PTSD, according to the DSM IV. I don't know about all that, but what I do know is that it's very real, and sometimes disabling.

I have not, myself, been disabled by it I don't believe, although there have been Memorial Days in the past when I certainly tried to drink away the guilt.

I have not, myself, tried (or even really ever thought about) harming myself due to a sinking disgust with being alive when many others died, but I know there are some who have.

One of my best friends from Basic Training, a second-generation Greek-American by the name of John Alexiou, died in a training accident in Grafenwöhr when his tank's loader forgot one of the basic rules of being a loader for an M1A1 tank: never hot-seat rounds. The 120 mm round used in the M1A1 is a combustible case cartridge, designed to mostly disintegrate when the round is fired leaving behind only the base end (and in the sabot round, part of the primer containment section), which drastically reduces the amount of space a spent round takes up after firing. One of the side effects of having a combustible case cartridge is that if handled improperly, it can be set off prematurely. When fired, the 120 mm main gun gets incredibly hot, and the base end (called the aft cap) is often a couple of hundred degrees Fahrenheit when it pops out of the breech; hot enough to ignite the combustible case of the round. The story is that the loader was hot-seating rounds—that is, keeping a round in his lap after loading the first round in the main gun, to cut down how much time it takes to load the second round—and then the aft cap of the first round got stuck in the deflector. The training standard is for the loader to call "AFT CAP AFT CAP" and begin an immediate action drill (IAD) to fix the stuck aft cap by disarming the main gun, and using a (GLOVED!) hand to pull up on the deflector while simultaneously adjusting the aft cap to clear the obstruction. To perform this IAD, the loader must stand, and if you have something in your lap it has to go on the floor of the turret. If that something is a main gun round, and when you dislodge the hot aft cap it bounces into said main gun round, said main gun rounds can cook off.

In this case, that's exactly what happened. The aft cap ignited the case cartridge, and killed the Tank Commander (SSG Carlos Williams) as well as SPC John Alexiou who was in the gunner's seat at the time (I seem to recall the driver was also killed, but that the loader survived and was badly burned, but another source seems to indicate the loader was killed which makes more sense to me).

I did not lose any of my fellow 1st "Tiger" Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment troopers in Desert Storm. One—I believe it was Kelly Ouderkirk, the platoon leader of the scout platoon my tank platoon supported—was injured in a Bradley rollover on the first night of the ground war. That night, one of our approach roads was very narrow, with a sharply sloped shoulder leading down an approximately 15' embankment on both sides, and his driver misjudged the location of the shoulder. Fortunately, he returned to lead his scouts before our major assaults began, and did a fantastic job.

Two hundred ninety-four US service members died during the first Gulf War; one hundred thirteen of them by enemy action. Thousands more have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since, and hundreds of thousands more before. That I survived, and many did not, pops up from time to time in my head, and colors the things I do; what I believe I can do to best assuage my own guilt, and honor the memories of those who have not returned, is to do what I can to make this America one to which they would have been proud to come home.

So this Memorial Day I again resolve to do—in my small way—what I can to keep America a strong nation, one compassionate toward those who are beset by misfortune ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses") yet relentless toward those who would seek to destroy it. And for John, my friend who awaits me at Fiddler's Green, I hope you will approve of what we've done here in your absence.

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