By Master Coach K
Approximate Reading Time: 4-7 min
A few bullets hit a mud-brick wall. Crack! Crack! We duck, look for cover and train our rifles down the streets of a small town in southern Iraq. Did that really just happen?
We’re part of a convoy: infantry troops and light armor vehicles (LAV). It’s about midday and relentless heat is beaming down from a flaming orb in the sky. We’re wearing heavy body armor. We smell dirt, sweat, and open sewers. When the bullets go flying some locals keep walking around; they haven’t quite registered what’s going on as well. Seconds later, further bullets crack and an explosion rings out. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) has been launched at the LAV right in front of me.
Now we all take things a little more seriously. So do the locals.
The rocket was launched by an insurgent hoping to kill the crew of the LAV. The vehicle is outfitted with a type of outer cage engineered ‘to catch’ the RPG and prevent it from detonating. The projectile explosive went from flying through the air to hitting the cage to lying on the ground.
From there, things get loud. The LAV returns fire with its 25mm cannon. Shouts of “MOUNT UP” are yelled. Rifle scopes are trained on potential insurgents. Still, there’s lots of civilian activity - people on rooftops, people standing in the streets. No visible weapons, no threat, no shooting. More gunfire or rockets could come from almost anywhere.
Our convoy is here providing protection for a meeting regarding funding for local schools. None of us were aware that a funeral for a high-level insurgent happened to be occurring one block away. Great timing.
Thankfully this TIC (troops in contact) incident didn’t result in any casualties.
During my deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing a long list of close calls. From IEDs (improvised explosive devices) blowing off vehicle wheels and bullets peppering the rocks near my head to RPGs exploding around our position and a bunch of other similar high-risk situations. I say good fortune because I’m still here.
Near-death experiences and being around death
The topic of death can be a scary one. The discontinuation of our ‘self’ - our ego as we currently know it. What happens next? Whether you are religious/spiritual or not, it can be a truly anxiety- inducing subject; also losing the people we care about and the huge variety of traumas that surround our loss. No wonder we often plunk our heads in the sand to try and ignore or forget. No combat zone experience required - we’re all facing this. All the time. In some shape or form.
My close calls have pushed me to face the concept of death quicker than I would have otherwise. They’ve taught me to be incredibly grateful for the days I’ve been able to experience. Most importantly they’ve taught me to be compassionate.
Compassion is what helps me deal with death and people in a way that generates a very positive feedback loop. And it’s sustainable.
Other ways of dealing with fear of death can be less sustainable - substance abuse and addictions; abuse of self; abuse of others and at worst, suicide. We humans are imperfect and latch onto security or distraction however they present themselves sometimes.
I feel something we need to remind ourselves of is that every single person we meet might be dealing with losing a loved one or a friend. Maybe they’re suffering from the pain of not feeling loved or lacking a sense of security in life. Or in the simplest form, a fear of the unknown. We’re all doing our best in this crazy existence. We all deserve compassion.
By being compassionate to one another and helping each other deal with death, loss and just living day-to-day, we safeguard ourselves. Humans like to reciprocate. Being there for others builds up our own web of support for when we need it. It’s part of our evolutionary social makeup.
What does that compassion look like? It might be as simple as giving someone a hug or being someone to walk with, cry with, chat with, dance with, cook with, work out with, laugh with or simply sit with. It can be whatever it needs to be in that moment. Whatever helps someone in that moment.
One caveat - we have our own limits of ‘giving’. We need to recognize that being compassionate to ourselves first is most important. This doesn’t mean wallowing in our own crap or demanding compassion from others. It means acknowledging that we aren’t perfect! Still, we deserve to be loved and we deserve to be present. With that foundation we’re a better source of compassion for others; without it we’ll just end up exhausted.
You may currently suck at being compassionate (to yourself and others) and that’s okay. Practice, fail, practice, and you will get better. You showing up will be mirrored by the people around you! (FYI - mirror neurons in the brain help facilitate this)! It’s very handy because riding the rollercoaster of life together is a lot more enjoyable if you or the person sitting next to you isn’t an asshole.
Hug people. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it!