One morning on deployment in the Afghan theater of operations, five of us—my crew of two flight nurses and three medics (including myself)—loaded into a small pickup truck to cross the base. My heart pounded and my mind raced. Our aeromedical crew stayed together for every moment of our seventy-two-hour alert shift, ready to grab our gear when notified of a mission, but more often moving together to the gym or the PX or the chow hall. This morning we were going to tour a bomb-laden fighter plane. We could take photos and even write messages on bombs that would soon be delivered to their targets.
We stood under the plane, posing for photos, grasping marking pens as we took our turns going up the ladder to the bombs. The internal discord I felt in that single moment was parallel to my experience of many years of military service. From the outside there was an appearance of unity. Standing under the massive munitions, my crew and I all wore the same uniform and insignia. In the Venn diagram of my life, where do circles of Buddhist practice and military service intersect? How do I mindfully and authentically stand in that intersection?
With my self-identified “liberal” friends, I like to pepper the description of my Air Force duties with words like “noncombatant” and “humanitarian,” as I look for the affirmation of their nodding heads. It brings me a little temporary comfort to downplay my dilemma and justify my role to others and perhaps to myself. But the truth is, whether I am in a room full of flag-waving soldiers wearing a combat uniform or in robes at a Zen retreat, I am simultaneously a member of the armed services and a spiritual being. I believe this is true for every service member.
My first enlistment was in what I, and the U.S. government, called “peacetime,” before September 11, 2001. When I was twenty-four, the Air Force National Guard seemed like a perfect option. I could get specialized medical training without taking out more student loans. With the idea of responding to natural disasters and providing first aid to military trainees, questions about “right livelihood” and “nonharming” were far in the background. But then came September 11, just after my training was complete. I was called to active duty and deployed to operations in Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks on the U.S.
In the following six years, I was on active duty in combat zones in and around Afghanistan and Iraq as much as I was at home. It was painful to feel that I was a cog in the wheel of war. Even as a noncombatant, I was contributing to suffering. People of the Middle East as well as men and women in the armed forces of many nations faced the physical, social, and psychological traumas of bodily and systemic violence.
As my first term of enlistment expired, I had completed one humanitarian mission during the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuations but had otherwise seen myself as an asset of war. I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted. Despite the respect and appreciation I often received for my service, the gloss had worn off my once-sexy role of flight medic. I wasn’t sure that service would stand the test of “right motivation” and “right action.” I left the military with no plan to return.
Two years later a friend and former military colleague called to ask if I would reenlist to help with a new aeromedical unit in the Air Force Reserve. Without a pause I said that I would. Each time I saw a story about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was clear that, regardless of my presence or absence in the combat zones, the wars and the suffering of war went on. Despite my work with peace and justice organizations and many hours of meditation, taking off my uniform did not bring a sense that I was contributing to peace. Until I was asked directly to return to the work of the armed services, I could avoid the question. Now my immediate response surprised me. I was back in uniform, but there was a change.
The uniform’s brown and green camouflage pattern had given way to a sand-colored pattern. But there also had been a shift in my inner state. I noticed that my ability to contribute to war or to peace was now present in each moment, dependent on my awareness, intention, and engagement. I could continue to think of myself as a trained, machine-like asset of a military unit, or I could be a whole person, mindful of every interaction I had in combat. In a sense, both capacities have a purpose. The quick decisions and intricate plans and training of the machine-like asset are needed to execute missions and patch up wounded soldiers’ injuries. And there is deep value in the mindful presence of the whole person who can truly be with someone whose pain and fear needs more than morphine and sedatives.
Thanks to my dharma practice, I now had a choice of responses. I could do more than just attend to the bodies of the injured. A coworker talked about how she prepared for a mission by putting her feelings in a box and closing it before takeoff, knowing that she would have to open it again later. This might be a useful method in the short term, but I have come to think that the dulling of emotions when I am closest to suffering leaves me cut off from my sense of humanity. Eventually, there will be a price to pay.
My next deployment felt like a trial. Our crew was assembled from Air Force bases around the globe. One of the soldiers was concerned that because I did not identify as a Christian and did not pray to God for protection from the “enemy,” I put our crew at risk under fire. I listened to such concerns, sympathizing with the fear and uncertainty I heard. My openness was tested. Despite religious differences, no one had ever questioned my commitment to the mission or my patriotism. We did, after all, wear the same uniform.
One day as we flew from a NATO post in Afghanistan in a crowded plane full of combat wounded from several nations, a patient grabbed my arm. He pulled me down by his stretcher, my ear close enough to hear him shout over the engines of the C-130. “Am I gonna be all right?” My mind quickly calculated his injuries and his vital signs, and the easy answer came right away: “Yes.” But as I noticed myself seeing him as a set of organs and wounds, more difficult thoughts and deeper questions arose. I asked him, “How are you doing?” He said he was worried about how his mother would react when she saw him at the hospital in Germany. Together we considered that she might be distressed, angry and afraid, and that she would love him.
Every day and every mission I face a series of internal questions: Am I doing the right thing? Am I open in this moment or just going through the motions? Am I stuck on the notion of being a “hero”? Is my work really of benefit to others, or is it a way to placate my sense of helplessness when I read the news? Conclusive answers don’t come easily, but these questions serve as bells of mindfulness. As I receive my orders and perform my duties as best I can, am I able to recognize my intention and offer compassion to all?
There are also times when I am less aware and much less skilled. Greed, hate and delusion give rise to irritability and ego. I can become intolerant of my intolerant crew members and insensitive to the mental-health needs of our patients. When emotional fatigue has walked the edge of depression, I’ve found excuses not to attend the meditation group I helped to establish on the base. I have begun to see that at home in the Midwest or abroad in Afghanistan, my own inner battle is to face my ignorance and make space for compassion. The opportunity to directly serve in the combat zones and to work with others in circumstances of suffering and stress—those are my great teachers.
When the morning came to stand on the blazing Afghan tarmac and lay hands on the bombs that hung below the belly of that fighter jet, I knew I had choices. I could stand aside from the members of my crew, my statement as an outspoken pacifist. I could retreat in prayer as they scrawled their messages on the bombs. This probably would not have surprised my crewmates. But I chose to come forward. I climbed the ladder with a marking pen in my sweaty palm. Each rung on the ladder was a moment, and there was a breath. I reached up and put my hand on the rough surface of the weapon, and still I did not know what I would do. Other messages expressed racial and religious slurs and overt rage. It all read as pain to me. I took a moment to practice tonglen—giving and taking—opening to the suffering of those who built this bomb, those who would deliver it, those who would suffer the death and destruction it would bring. And those in my unit who had left their harsh messages. Even if I abstained from writing on this bomb I would not be separate from it or from all those people. I took up my pen. With just a few lines, I drew my own image of nonduality on that one-ton bomb and descended the ladder.
I think about this event, although it is not a moment that changed my life or set me in a new direction. I don’t regret that I was there or what I did. Nor am I proud of it. It was a moment that simply brought more questions into view. I understand that each of us sees the world in our own way, even when wearing the same uniform and performing the same tasks. And I see that on the deepest levels, and at heart, nothing is separate. How shall we live?