The World Had Moved On

WHERE-are-we-going (1)

By: Steve Machuga

How did video games help me with my anxiety? Well, I wouldn’t call it “anxiety” but more “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “PTSD” as all the hip kids are calling it nowadays. I spent 2003-2004 deployed with 3rd Stryker Brigade of 2nd Infantry Division to Iraq as a member of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While I was a military intelligence officer and spent the majority of my time at headquarters, I was also attached to a command of staff weenies that was looking to get their combat stories.  I got the distinct impression my wiry-accountant of a battalion commander thought he was Patton, striding around the command tent with cigar clamped in his teeth. The commander wanted to be outside of the wire every chance he got, and when he was outside, he would take someone from the intel shop with him. He wanted a mobile headquarters, even though we were unable to actually do anything intelligence-based while driving around.  So there I was, a captain riding airguard in our colonel’s Stryker around the southern half of Iraq, trying to pick a fight.

When I wasn’t riding airguard, I would sit inside the dark hold of the Styrker, waiting for the whole side of the thing to explode in on me. Insurgents were just starting to learn how to defeat our RPG cages and armor with Iranian vehicle-killer IEDs, which would shoot a finger-sized piece of depleted uranium through a track and suck everything out the other side in a vacuum. It was the stuff of nightmares, making you hope you would only get shot in the face. We drove past the wreckage of a tank that had driven off a bridge by mistake, and thought of that entire crew crushed inside of the crumpled remains of an Abrams.  Bullets shot from long range would strike their targets before you would hear the sound of the crack of a rifle, and snipers were a regular fear of anyone poking their head and shoulders out of an armored vehicle. While we were driving around the Baghdad bypass on our way to Baqubah escorting a line of fuel trucks, a failed suicide bomber hopped the median and drove his little hatchback into a Stryker vehicle two vehicles up from mine.  The driver obviously didn’t know the first thing about being a suicide bomber; he had filled up his car with old mortar rounds and then drove himself into the side of one of our vehicles not realizing that the explosives needed to be primed in order to explode. Looking back, the dark comedy was there.

When you would go on these day-long road trips of doom, if you weren’t providing overwatch, you would just sit in the dark, with nothing better to do but let your mind wander. I found myself constantly just waiting for death.

The one that really put the fear of God into me was when I almost bought it on my birthday. I was walking to a shower trailer, realized I had forgotten my toiletry kit, and went back to get it only to miss a mortar impact just outside of the shower trailer. It took a few minutes for me to realize I’d missed getting turned into a fine red mist. It’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. You start second guessing every decision you make from then on out.  “Should I go to the chow hall now? Should I wait a minute? Should I skip chow? Should I just hide under my bunk for the next six months?”

When I got back home from Iraq, there was a bizarre feeling I got when I stepped off the plane at Fort Lewis, Washington. The world had moved on, and an entire year had passed while I was wasting my time in Iraq. It felt like I was being let out of prison. The transition back wasn’t exactly easy. For the longest time, trash pickup day was a problem for me. In Iraq, the roadsides are littered with trash – a great place for bad guys to put improvised explosive devices (roadside bombs). One of the jobs as an airguard was to try to see if any piles of trash or dead animals on the side of the road had wires running out of them leading to a grinning insurgent with a detonator in his hands. It was absurd, but there I was in residential neighborhoods checking piles of trash as I would slowly creep by in my car. I knew I was home, but I would still find myself checking skylines and roof tops for insurgents silhouetting themselves against the background holding sniper rifles or rocket propelled grenade launchers.

And what got me through it all? Video games.

When I was able to get away with it during our long road trips of doom with my commander, I would pull out my Nintendo DS, my copy of Final Fantasy Tactics and get lost in the 200-hour turn-based strategy game.

In response to my birthday mortar near-death experience, I ended up dropping close to $4000 on a top-of-the-line Alienware laptop for gaming that night when I went to the internet café on base.  YOLO, indeed.  I would spend the rest of my time in Iraq playing Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, a game I would have never imagined playing all the way through back home.

I got home only few weeks prior to the launch of that game that would change online video gaming forever: World of Warcraft. I drove out at 6AM the morning the game launched to pick up a copy at a local Walmart. The guy whose house I was staying at during the time would remark as to whether or not I had moved in the twelve hours when he left for work from the time he got home again.

Later, I would discover that video games are a way doctors are starting to treat post-traumatic stress disorder by forcing the patient to take part in a “highly engaging visual-spatial task.” Because your brain is too busy figuring out how to get past that platforming section or how to defeat that end boss fight, it’s not wasting cycles freaking out about someone firing a mortar into your living room.

Video games have been the one constant in my life; no matter what I was doing, I was never too far away from a console or gaming rig of one kind or another. I have had a joystick in my hand since the moment I could hold one, and I thank god for the thirty years of “highly engaging visual-spatial tasks” that have gotten me through the bad times.