Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sky vs The Arctic

I'm back...

...from the worst experience of my life. I cannot convey in words the amount of suck involved with the 12-day long Cold Weather Leader's Course. And I'm not just being a wuss (although there's that too) - I've tried to explain to people that my body does not respond to cold like the average human's. In fact, my entire life has been one big foreshadowing of my time in the arctic. Let me count the ways:

First, I told my recruit that I would fight and die anywhere the Army sends me. Jungle, desert, woodland, plains, mountains - ANYWHERE. Except please don't send me to the Arctic.

Despite the promises I made to myself, I ended up going to a college where Winter lasts 3/4's of the year.

Then in ROTC, while everyone else was offered Airborne School and Air Assault School, I was offered Northern Warfare School. I politely declined.

Then when selecting my preferred assignment just before graduating, I put Hawaii as number one. Knowing that there was a very slight chance I would get that assignment, I thought long and hard on what I would put for number two. Something inside me just kept pushing me towards Alaska. I thought, "Yeah I know people who have been stationed in Richardson and loved it. It's OCONUS but also CONUS (kinda). Let's do it."

I didn't know that there were TWO Army bases in Alaska. Richardson is at the southern end of Alaska, where it's still a temperate climate. WAINWRIGHT, however, is sub-Arctic and in the middle of nowhere. So naturally that's the base I was assigned.

Then of course, I end up in CWLC anyway, despite my best attempts (over the years) to stay away from it.

Why this aversion to the cold?

I've thought about this one long and hard as well. I've come up with a few possible explanations.

Firstly, my body just doesn't react well to the cold. I don't know why or when it began, but my body just rejects the cold like bad milk. In fact, the FIRST day I was at CWLC I got "Frost Nip," as the medic called it, which is apparently the step just below frostbite. The ends of my fingers were turning black, and the rest of my hand was paper white. My fingers were on fire.

Secondly, I think the thing I fear most in life is the cold. Maybe the one thing I fear physically in life. I mean, I've been in combat. The first time I went on patrol I was anxious and excited. That was what I had been training for for four years. This was the moment to find out what I was made of. I was ready. When the bullets started flying, it was a huge adrenaline rush, a wild experience. I was afraid yes, but it was a controlled fear that was tempered by years of preparation.

Spending a week in the Arctic scared me like combat never did. I realized that I was seriously afraid of the cold and tried to figure out why.

Firstly, my body. See above.

Second, I didn't understand how to survive in it. My inexperience with severe cold left me ignorant, and I think that ignorance scared me more than anything. That plus my sensitivity to cold left me anxious about serious injury.

Lastly, cold represents emptiness. A lacking. Loneliness. It is the absence of warmth. The absence of light. The absence of energy. It is an absence. I don't know how much that contributed, but it's a psychological factor that I think I was uncomfortable with.

In the end, I think that's why I chose to be stationed in Alaska. I had to face it. I had to face the Arctic. It's the one thing in the world I never wanted to do, so naturally I set myself up to do it. And that's why the capstone of my victory over the Arctic will be Polar Bear Diving in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Once I've been baptized by ice and snow and glacier, then - and only then - will the transformation be complete. Only then will I have faced my fear and stared it down. Only then will I be free from Arctic's hold on me.

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