Finding the line
In those rare silent moments of life, where my thoughts are free to go to my soul's darkest retreats, I often ponder what makes a good life and where mine lives against that ideal. A life stretched to its limits is not lived in peace and serenity. It involves feeling the extremes of emotions, with a good dose of self-examination and a backlog of tales to impress your friends. Yet, stretching to those extremes invites loss. It invites fear. It invites the darkest demons of our nature to rise to the surface. It beckons us right to the line between healthy and dangerous, and rarely tells us when to stop.
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As a young man of 27, I flew the first relief missions over the northern coast of Japan after a tsunami struck Fukushima Daichi province. We knew in those moments after the tsunami that people would need help. The magnitude of what we didn’t know weighed on my heart more than the reality of the situation. Where were these people? What did they still have? How could we best help? As those questions tinged against the metal walls of the USS Ronald Reagan, I created the best plan I could. The lightness of my plan contrasted with the gravity of the moment, but I had no other option. Use our radar to guide the helicopters in a lane towards shore; relay what they learned back to the ship for the next crew. The next morning I briefed my crew and set off on a period that would redefine my life.
My crew and I donned our gear and climbed the stairs to the flight deck. Emerging from the boat's inner cave, my eyes struggled to adjust to what I saw while my brain struggled to adjust to what I didn’t see. The black steel expanse stood empty except for four helicopters and our E-2 Hawkeye. The typical fighter jet Tetris was absent, and my confidence was missing with it. Only then did the magnitude of what we were walking into hit me. Today was no typical morning. We were going on a mission we hadn’t trained for in a place we were not supposed to be. I prayed a silent prayer to the gods of flight for strength.
In place of my burning bush, a pimple-faced 19-year-old emerged from under the airplane. As he rushed through all the updates I would need, the world spun and my stomach clenched. How could he be so calm when I was so lost? Couldn’t he see the fear tattooed on my face? With every detail, the smell of jet fuel and impending vomit grew stronger until I was saturated. I needed him to finish so I could throw up. At last, sitting in the pilot’s seat, my stomach settled enough that I could run through the pre-flight checklist.
Against the rage of my emotions, the flight crew worked in silent synchrony. They fueled, started, and readied the plane for our mission. I couldn’t think, but I could still act. Was this what Jimmy Doolittle felt like, waiting to launch over Japan 60 years prior, knowing he may never return? I parked that thought. I had to go.
The ship signaled it was time to go. I started my dance. My mind dropped all fear. I advanced the throttles to full. The familiar rhythm settled my bones. I wiped out the controls. The gauges looked good. I had done this a thousand times. I gave the salute. My legs buzzed with the emotion of what was to come. Pray everything goes well. And then my body was slammed into the back of my seat and my puny lungs were denied another breath of air. A safe launch. We were off. At that moment, the fear returned. Off into what?
What lay ahead was more than I could imagine. I still process it today. I see the houses floating in the ocean as we climb away. I feel my lungs clench while my eyes discover the brown scar on the side of the mountain where 1000 years of history were erased. I taste the panic-induced bile as I scramble to relay the horrors from helicopter to ship. I hear the urgency in the medic’s voice as he begs for the next flight to bring morphine and two body bags.
Even landing denied me relief that day. Before I could offer thanks to those same gods, I was whisked into a room and stripped of my gear while faceless suits penetrated my personal space with their Geiger counters. The oxygen was sucked from my lungs as I saw the replay on Fox News of the Fukushima reactor experiencing a catastrophic meltdown. One mile from where I was flying. In that instant, I realized I had just spent 3 hours in a radiation cloud. I would spend another 30 days in it. Those dreams, a mix of nightmare and pride, may never release their grip on me.
I often reflect on my time in the Navy. We make sense of our lives through stories. I’m still figuring out how those flights fit into mine. I live with the honor of being able to make a difference. I swell with pride at having made history. I feel the chills remembering my sailors standing up to help, knowing the radiation might cost them their future.
Yet, I also live with the shame of my rage when my part of the relief effort ended. I wasn’t done being the hero. I still don’t know whether the pride I felt was more about getting to be the hero or getting to help people. I’ve spent years in therapy trying to understand who I am and what my life is when those experiences are no longer in front of me. I conquered my fears over and over, but I’ve forgotten what I am interested in, what I care about, and who I am. I’m approaching 40, and I feel lost in a way I never did in my 20s.
By my final flight of our relief effort, things had become routine the way life does. We still cracked morbid jokes about glowing in the dark, but we had TLDs to catalog how much radiation we absorbed. I still smirked when giving directions to Russian and Korean helicopters, only a month ago my enemies. Now many of those pilots had become my friends. I teased my fighter pilot brethren, who, instead of flying, had leveled up their video game skills and movie quotes.
More than an experience, those flights are a part of my identity. I’ve relived those days so many times that I’m scared I’ll never live up to them. I’m scared that the best years of my life are behind me.
I’m worse at relating to people than I was before. I can’t possibly do justice to the intensity of that experience, so it’s easier not to try. I hide that part of myself from people rather than feel pity in their eyes when I talk about radiation or trauma. I don’t offer them the opportunity to know me. Those relationships I desperately yearn for are always just out of grasp. Even with my comrades in arms, I still can’t quite find that fellowship. We all process in our own ways and mine is to bury it until a teacher or a dose of mushrooms rips it from my locked heart. I’m not sure those friends could ever understand.
I may never comprehend the implications of that month in Japan. A few years after leaving the Navy, my son was diagnosed with a disability. Did my time over Fukushima do that to him? Will I be able to live a full, beautiful life, or will the radiation catch up to me when I should be enjoying the golden years of my marriage?
The ship filled my windscreen as I readied to land. My mind settled into a determined focus on life or death. All that mattered was flying a safe pass: meatball, lineup, angle of attack. Then the ship’s wire tugged us backward as it always had. I was safe on deck.
I thought that signaled the end. It was only the beginning. The beginning of the nightmares in which I still see those houses and that empty mountainside. The beginning of my cold sweats reliving the meltdown of that reactor. The beginning of the questions which I may never answer. Was that time in my life worth it? Would I do it again?
Thank you. You and all the many international helpers who were there doing, while we watched.
Your story is so well written, I wouldn't know where to start with the hope that you will be around many years to continue to share. Stay healthy. From there all else becomes possible.
"stretching to those extremes invites loss"
"I often reflect on my time in the Navy. We make sense of our lives through stories. I’m still figuring out how those flights fit into mine."
"I still don’t know whether the pride I felt was more about getting to be the hero or getting to help people."
"I don’t offer them the opportunity to know me."
"I conquered my fears over and over, but I’ve forgotten what I am interested in, what I care about, and who I am."
This essay has so many gems; there's so much here that could be mined further via short stories and longer-form writing that plenty could relate to. Solid stuff and I look forward to reading more. 🙌