When I was in the service, my first set of orders sent me to a unit in Frankfurt, Germany. My Army job, a photojournalist, meant that I wasn’t necessarily going to spend a lot of time in Frankfurt. No, I didn’t. I got enough time there to make it count, and make some memories, but a good chunk of my time there, I wasn’t. More often than not, I was on temporary duty (TDY), deployments with my home unit, or I was given orders that attached me to an entirely different unit for a short amount of time – hell, I even did a stint with the United Nations.
When I first left CONUS (Continental United States, for you civvies), my Oma (maternal grandmother for those keeping track) mailed me a care package (she was a young woman during WWII, and supporting the troops was a thing you did – before it became suave post 9-11). Inside the care package was things from Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan that I couldn’t find in Europe – Better Made Potato Chips, one-liter of Vernors pop, to recall some of the more squee-making moments of unwrapping it. She shipped a little homemade stuff, too, including The Pillow That Would Go Everywhere. Oma had the foresight to cover the homemade pillow with an early desert-camo pattern. One of my first assignments was to go to Operation Provide Comfort (aka Eagle Flight). That was an operation that had troops, and my mission, crossing from Turkey into Northern Iraq every day. Although I was in jungle BDUs (battle-dress uniform – the acronym for my uniform, remember this is pre ACU (Army Combat Uniform), although in my career, I would own many of those, Oma somehow knew that pattern would become the Army’s dominant fashion.
The pillow went, too. Just small enough (13.5 ” x 13.5″), to fit in my ruck, and/or A bag. It was not a b-bag item. I would give up any number of protections required in my A Bag – the first bag you’ll get off the supply aircraft, which you still might not see initially (or in some cases for weeks) upon landing in-country – to make sure I had that pillow. By the end of my career, it was always in my OS gear (on-Soldier).
I never had any leader – enlisted or commissioned – give me flak about having that comfort item. My naïve servicemember self said it was because of the camo pattern. However, I think they knew that The Pillow That Would Go Everywhere was something from faraway home and kept any deployment craziness in check (What’s deployment craziness, you ask – another post). Regardless, I took it everywhere…
At one count, I had about 17 different deploymentsTDYs before I left Europe – although that count would be higher if I counted each time, not just each destination, then that number climbs higher. Please realize that the longest one was six months. It wasn’t like the current service climate where a deployment is going to take up to a near 18 months, on-average 13 months. No, some would be like 45 days; others would be six days. It just depended on the mission. The point is that I was packing a bag often. The pillow was always there. In between it sat on my bunk – or in my family quarters later in my career – always. It would constantly take me back to Michigan, just for a moment, and, obviously, make me think of my grandmother taking the time to send it to me. Oma left us a few years ago, but she inadvertently left me something that would come to mean a lot.
When I got back to CONUS, the pillow was still there. It was there through range training (which would eventually steal my hearing), through death-by-PowerPoint meetings within The Military District of Washington, through laughable field exercises and not-so-laughable field exercises, through September 11, 2001 and its follow-on two weeks of hell, through a broken neck and surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and through the hardest decision of my life to leave the service a few years later, but not before going back to Iraq.
When I left the service, the pillow came as well. It followed me into civilian life, a transition I think I only now have truly made (almost a decade later). It followed me through a nasty divorce, single parenthood, becoming the parent of a #LifewithAutism child, a new partner, a move across country, the realization of many epiphanies, through illness, through grief, loss, laughter, and love. You know, truly, through it all.
Since 2010, when I began to address my latent PTSD (also another post, but you can read this excellent one about it here), I pretty much sleep with that pillow every night. It’s held up remarkably well given all its washings, sun-dryings, and daily use.
Why am I telling you all this? Because, you need to know that The Pillow That Would Go Everywhere is a symbol. It’s a symbol of my survival. The survival of so much – multiple stories all tacked up in each little spot and swirl and color in that dessert camo pattern. I look at that pillow, and I see my adult life in a .gif, as it were. What it shows me is pretty amazing. Some folks have a coin, or a necklace, or a photo, or something seemingly more solid as their survival symbol. I have a pillow, made by one of my ancestors.
Each night I curl up with that pillow with the thought that no matter how bad my day, how I feel I succeeded or failed, how many smiles or tears the day contained, The Pillow That Would Go Everywhere reminds me that I am strong, that I am a survivor. It reminds me that a good night’s sleep – heck, even a nap – is all I need to don my emotional armor, and fight another day to live the life I want. It shows me where I’ve been, and where I can go. It whispers to me a gentle reminder that this life itself is full of small comforts which rejuvenate our souls, and to take notice – to take notice, and survive.
So here’s to the symbols, the reminders, the little things that help us conquer each day in this thing called human life.
What is your symbol of survival? What is its story? Tell us here!