In Harm's Way

“Man, my PTSD’s really affecting me hard today.”

He said it three times in the space and time it took to cut an 8-foot 2-by-4 into four very specifically-sized lengths for a backyard fence gate repair project. Operating a high speed table saw in the chaos that is Saturday morning at a big box home improvement store is stressful. Before you even get to the PTSD.

Add to this milieu dozens of kids and their parents/grandparents perched on upside-down orange buckets hunched over a makeshift plywood worktable, cacophonously hammering away. Bring the kids in to build a birdhouse and maybe Mom and Dad’ll buy a gallon of paint on the way out.

Manhattan, Kansas is a college town, but it’s also an Army town. Our community is just a Flint Hill range away from Fort Riley, home of the First Infantry Division. ‘Infantry’ is just what the word implies: face-to-face, tip of the spear, at the front. 

In the thirteen years since 9/11, thousands from the Big Red One have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, experienced terrifying events and made their way back. Many stay after their hitch and get jobs cutting 2-by-4’s. 

He’s measured and marked the 2-by-4 but can’t get the table saw to work. Eventually it will take his supervisor and then her supervisor huddling, pushing buttons and jiggling cords to achieve the desired objective. Then something went awry in the actual cutting process and the lengths are off by a half-inch.

I’m no head shrinker, but I know Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event. Add layers of noise, helplessness, frustration, a table saw and you can only imagine how this poor guy is feeling.
“Were you in the Army?” He asked me after his second PTSD mention. It was not a ‘then how the hell do you know how I’m feeling?’ question. It was more of a ‘if you’ve walked a mile in my combat boots, then maybe you can understand.’ 

“No, I wasn’t. Have some friends who served.” Seemed like he wanted more from me. Empathy is intuitive, but it’s also something I can work on intellectually and spiritually. 

As a species, I am optimistic we will eventually evolve to a point where we need no longer ask the youngest and strongest among us to sacrifice their health, well-being and in far too many cases, their lives.

God didn’t ask us to organize in nations and religions. We humans did that.

That evolution surely won’t take place in whatever time I have left. Now the template’s pretty clear. If there’s a threat to security – existential or otherwise – young people will be sent in harm’s way. They will experience terrifying events. The kind of things those of us who fill our weekends with ballgames and backyard fence gate repairs can’t even begin to fathom.

Was my guy’s thrice-mentioned PTSD suffering a cry for help? To a middle age precipice-approaching total stranger? Maybe a realization he understands his condition, knows how it manifests itself – to telegraph to me that we’ll get this 2-by-4 sliced up right, but it may take a while? 

If it was the former, did I do enough? In the moment, I did what I could. Thanked him for his help, his service and encouraged him to have a good rest of the day.

Then I went home, fixed my back yard fence gate and vowed to do more.