Peace in the Desert, Veteran Paranoia, and the Hills of Palouse

Peace In The Desert

I spent last week visiting the Desert Southwest, a place near and dear to my heart. I don’t normally talk about my personal life here, but the trip itself was beautiful. The desert in May is in full bloom, not desolate like many assume. The peaceful scenery of Mesa Verde National Park, of the ruins of the Anasazi civilization dating back millennia, worked like meditation to clear my mind.

Spruce House, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Veteran Paranoia

Prior to this trip, like any trip I take, I over-prepared. I drafted a project plan, and packed things that I had only a remote likelihood of needing. One of those things was a full trauma kit. My wife watched as I slipped foam and metal SAM splints, tourniquets, quick-clot bandages, and medical tape into a bag that also included camping and survival gear. “I know it’s paranoid,” I said to her, “I just feel like I need to bring it.”

The Hills Of The Palouse

Cresting the hills of the Palouse as I returned home, just north of the Columbia River and the Oregon-Washington Border, I could see a cloud of dust plume up from the side of I-84. Ahead of me, drivers slammed on their brakes. A vehicle had flipped. The driver, an intoxicated woman who wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, was ejected.

Responding to a vehicle rollover on I-84, near the Washington/Oregon Border

I hesitated when I saw the driver laying on the ground. The avoidance of violence and stress that I seek, post-Iraq, was telling me to drive on. I don’t want to do this, I thought. I don’t want to see this. I pulled over, and grabbed my trauma kit from my camping/survival bag, and ran down the median of I-84. Other volunteers – one, a dentist, a few paramedics, and a nurse – also stopped. We began working on treating the woman, cobbling together solutions to her head wounds, for immobilizing her neck, and for her degloved foot, with its multiple fractures, missing toes, and exposed metatarsals and tendons. In shock, the driver kept trying to get away, moaning that she thought we were trying to kill her. I worked with another volunteer to elevate and treat her foot. I could see the yellow of subcutaneous fat exposed from a bone-deep laceration that passed the driver’s ankle. There was a smell, a greasy combination of raw meat and fat. I remembered that smell from Iraq.

I don’t want to do this, I thought. I don’t want to see this.

After she seemed stable, I stood up. I realized none of us had approached her vehicle. I tried to peer in from the passenger side, but the curtain airbags blocked my view, so I went around to the driver’s side. I tried calling out, “Anyone in here?” I tried banging on the window with the pommel of my pocket knife before realizing I should try the door handle. I opened the door just enough to wedge it against the ground, so that, if I went into the vehicle, it wouldn’t roll over on me. I then crawled into the vehicle. I could see a faux fur-lined child’s coat resting on the inverted ceiling of the car, and felt nauseous. I started moving the scattered possessions blocking my view out of the way, trying to see if there was someone in the gap between the back and front seats or in the gap between the dashboard and the front seats. There was no one there. The dust and chemical residue from the airbag deployment made me cough. I grabbed a purse that was laying on the ceiling and threw it out the door behind me. After moving the purse, I saw pills on the ceiling in a little plastic bag. I picked them up. Kratom, I read. I grabbed a utility bill that I saw next to the pills. It had the driver’s name on it.

I realized the vehicle was still running, so I tried to remove the key from the ignition before realizing that the vehicle was still in drive. I shifted it into neutral, unable to move the shifter to park, and turned the engine off. I paused for a moment, looking at all the possessions scattered on the ceiling of the vehicle. I shimmied out of the driver’s side doorway. I could see a young trooper from the Washington State Patrol had arrived. He was taking notes while contacting emergency medical services on his radio. I handed him the kratom. “What is it?” He asked. “Think of it as something in between weed and meth. It’s an opioid,” I said.

Kratom can cause effects similar to both opioids and stimulants. Two compounds in kratom leaves, mitragynine and 7-α-hydroxymitragynine, interact with opioid receptors in the brain, producing sedation, pleasure, and decreased pain, especially when users consume large amounts of the plant.

National Institute On Drug Abuse, DrugFacts: What Is Kratom (Rev. Apr. 2019).

After the emergency medical services crew arrived, the volunteers worked with them to prep the driver for transport. I took a step back. I don’t need to be in their way, I figured. I snapped a photo of what I saw. At least I have that, I thought.

I kept thinking about how self-conscious I was about packing my trauma kit as the paramedics prepped the driver for her ambulance ride and the trooper read the driver her Miranda Rights. After Iraq, I was driven by a sense of anxiety to create a replacement for the IFAK, the individual first aid kit that I carried in Iraq, along with additional trauma care items. When others noticed me prepping things, I was embarrassed. I was “one of those” veterans; “I don’t want to be not ready if something happened,” I would explain to people.

A veteran waits outside one of the buildings at the Puget Sound Veterans Administration, American Lake, WA.

I think I had gotten used to the paranoia that made me carry these things as just that: paranoia. Yet here I was, and I needed those things. I thought of the woman’s foot, the exposed muscle, tendons, and bone, and the dangling, nearly-amputated toes. I thought of the smell. I know in the past this would have been soul-shaking for me to see again after Iraq.

I walked over to the trooper, now accompanied by an older member of the local Sheriff’s Office. I fished out a card from my pocket and handed it to him. “If you need my name for the chain of custody on the Kratom,” I said, sheepishly. I didn’t know if he needed it. I didn’t know if handing it to him made me seem like some weekend warrior who wished he wore a uniform again. He shook my hand and I drove off.