Commentary: What you hear in a war zone
March 23, 2009
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq - While living in Portsmouth, Ohio a few years ago, I had an apartment located no more than 150 feet from a rail yard. My first few weeks living there presented a small challenge. I had a hard time sleeping through the screeches, bangs, bumps and grumbles in the night as rail workers prepared trains for their departures across the country.
Over time, my mind and ears seemed to filter out the once annoying sounds, and I slept peacefully. In fact those sounds became so common-place that it almost seemed possible to hear a mouse skitter across the kitchen floor or a mosquito buzz around the room over the industrial sounds coming from the rail yard just outside my front door.
In some circles, this ability to filter out ambient noise is also called Mommy-Daddy deafness: a syndrome affecting children who are able to tune out their parents voices and peacefully go on their merry way, as if their parents aren't actually talking-but I digress.
Today, I discovered that I am once again filtering out the noise of unwanted sounds to allow me a peaceful night's sleep, and further, to filter out the everyday sounds of the military operation going on all around me.
At 5:30 this morning my unit met for another installment of early morning physical training. My platoon sergeant put us in a PT formation, got us all stretched out, warmed up and ready for an unexpected 3-mile run around Z lake here.
That's when it hit me. As I ran, I noticed a few things. I could hear the breeze rustling the reeds that line the lake shore; I heard a duck and a bird squawk on the shoreline. I could hear my feet strike the pavement and the crunch of gravel underfoot as I ran. I could hear my breathing and the rhythmic jangling of my dog tags bouncing between my chest and shirt. I could hear the voices of my Soldiers yelling encouragement across a small span of the lake. What I heard were the peaceful and pleasant sounds of a morning run along a beautiful lake. It was invigorating.
Here is what I did not hear, though I can promise you these sounds fill the air around us 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The "whomp, whomp" of helicopters flying overhead. The constant drone of hundreds of diesel generators all around the base. The revving of engines from humvee's, MRAP's, Strykers, buses and cars. The scream of jet engines from Baghdad International Airport. Whining sirens from convoys headed outside the wire. Automatic weapons fire from distant combat engagements off post and test fire pits at entry control points. And a cornucopia of everyday sounds and noises that are the constant audible backdrop to our life here.
Somehow in the past few weeks my mind has made a change, like the change that occurred years ago in Portsmouth, Ohio. All those noises that, when I arrived, were so obvious to me, that at times raised my adrenaline level, or might have made me duck and cover, have become almost silent to me.
And again, just like those days back in Ohio, when I could hear the small noises over the rail yard next to my apartment, it's the noises that aren't normal that raise my attention now. I had always wondered about that before coming here. How it was that our ground pounder's, military police and ordnance Soldiers could know when something bad was going to happen or how they knew when not to go around a corner, go into a building or avoid certain areas of the city or road. It's all about filtering; knowing the difference between normal and not normal.
It's a strange shift in reality when the sounds of a war zone actually become peaceful. When what once brought fear brings comfort. When what used to keep me up at night now lulls me to sleep.