Chief Master Sergeant Damian Orslene, or the “Chief” as his friends know him, is traveling to Colorado to compete in the 2012 Warrior Games as a member of the Air Force Warrior Team.
We sat in the kitchen, my Bride holding one of my hands while I quietly worked the laptop’s mouse with the other. We had left Selection Camp knowing, unofficially, that we had made the 2012 Air Force Warrior Team, and had received a Congratulatory email confirming it, but we’ve been around long enough to know that nothing is official until the Air Force puts it in writing, so it was nice to see the official release with all our names on it. But, that isn’t what had our attention at the moment.
Our attention was focused on the final list of events each Athlete was selected to participate. It is a bit of Black Magic to try and get everyone into an event they want and still try to do what is best for the Air Force Team. I am continually amazed at how our Coaches pull this off. Lori’s grip on my arm got a little tighter as we got deeper and deeper into the list. “So you got the Bike, Discus and Shot,” she said. “Yes, my injuries are unique and qualify me to be able to throw from the chair.” “Have you ever done that before?” she asks. “No Babe, Until Camp I’d never even seen it before.” She squeezes my arm. “So you have a lot of work to do and getting out there as soon as you can like you did last year will not only help you acclimate, but help you learn what you need to do well from the chair.” I nod. “I can’t go” she says in a whisper, “I have school. They’re doing me a huge favor in letting me take my finals early just so I can come for the Games.” “I know” She pushes a sheet of paper covered in numbers across the table at me. It is the cost of shipping my oversized bike to Colorado, and the cost of a rental car, and expenses that with us building a house, we just don’t have right now. I had already been through them. I knew where this was going and was trying desperately to come up with any other solution but none came. I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She squeezed me hand.
“So I’ll drive,” I said. And she nodded. “Are you sure that’s what you want to do” she asked? “Heck No! It’s not what I want to do!“ I exploded standing up upsetting the laptop, my pent-up emotions spilling out of me like erupting lava kept far too long below the surface. “I had a hard enough time just driving to the Louisiana Rails to Trails by myself and you had already gone with me the week before. We’re talking about me driving alone for days to Colorado! Are you nuts! No I don’t want to do this.” And My Bride didn’t say anything…just waited. I stared out the window. Another very big breathe, and even longer sigh to let it out…“I set a personal record in every individual race I swam last year and got a Bronze Medal in the Relay. I was never out of breath in any basketball or volleyball Game. I’m a year older and the competition keeps getting younger. Going to Colorado early, works. We proved it last year. If we are going to do this, then we have to do it all the way, “Go Big or Go Home.” I hung my head, like a man hearing the judge’s words sentencing him to his own execution… “I’ll drive.”
It seemed so easy that night, to think, heck it’s a week away, we’ll worry about it then, we so much going on to get ready. It didn’t seem like it was all that big a deal at seven days away, and man nothing to REALLY worry about at five days away, but when we turned the corner at three days away…we had one of those OH MY GOD moments, and then at two days, suddenly the garage was full of bike parts and our bed was so full of winter clothes, workout clothes, bike outfits, four different kinds of shoes, that for the next two nights we slept in the extra bedroom and I found myself finding reasons not to go to the garage, avoiding it all together…and a great DARKNESS started to build. Tuesday was departure day. I didn’t sleep Sunday night. I could feel the fear building inside me. To an outside rational person it might appear silly for a grown man to be afraid to drive alone. On an adult level I know there is nothing to fear.
It doesn’t matter what I know, or read, or listen to. Somewhere inside my TBI/PTSD brain lives a darkness that is afraid to drive long distances alone. It creates anxiety in me unlike anything I have ever experienced. It has driven me to tears. I hate it. It is real. Monday found me slowly starting to unravel, and the plan for me to drive 1,300 miles, 23 hours in two days was quickly becoming unmanageable.
Lori, who is taking three college classes, handling all the details of our building a house, doing our taxes, while simultaneously taking care of me, stopped everything and came up with Plan…well by then it was probably Plan D. The drive would take three days instead of two, two short days so I wouldn’t get exhausted, leap frogging from Barksdale Air Force Base to Sheppard Air Force base so I would feel secure and have things I was familiar with and then only one long day to finish with. A good plan.
At 0100 Tuesday morning we had finally secured the bike in the bed of the truck covered in tarps, but still needed to pack. The plan was go to bed, get up pack the truck and get out of the house by noon. Yep, Good plan. Tuesday morning I woke up full of fear. Twice I had to go to the garage for something and found I decided to go do something else. Lori asked me to take something to the truck and I told her I was busy. Noon was quickly approaching and I had packed but still had not loaded a thing in the truck. I stood in the doorway leading to the garage with my hand outstretched with my stomach so knotted that I thought for sure I would vomit right there. “How #^@#@ ridiculous is this! “ I screamed and stormed to the bathroom to soak a washcloth and place it on my neck. I was visibly ill. Lori found me and took me by the hand and led me to the garage. I stopped at the door. “Come on” she urged and pulled me through.
There was something in her other hand but I couldn’t see what it was until we got to the back of the truck. It was a magnet. “I bought this for you” she said “I want you to read it every time you come to the truck because it’s the truth. It doesn’t matter what you do at the Games. You have already won by overcoming this. I have seen you do wondrous amazing things. You can do anything you set your mind to. YOU ARE MY HERO!. You are Damian Orslene for God’s sakes! Around here that means something.”
Tears sprang to her eyes and she choked with emotion as she continued “ I know that inside you what you are going through is very real, and horrible and I have seen you fight it and struggle with it, but nothing has ever kept you from your goals. Nothing. Not Katrina, Not Iraq, Not even your own body…you can do this. We’ll take it one step at a time. But I know what kind of man you are. I’ve seen you standing with your hands on your hips, and your teeth clenched so tight I though your jaw would break, and through sheer stubbornness you could pull off miracles for people. That man is still inside there. He just needs to be stubborn for himself today. You can do this Honey, I know you can.”
I Cried. She cried. I didn’t leave at noon, it was a lot closer to 1530. But six hours, two rainstorms, two gas stops, two Big Gulps, more crying, many phone calls and a whole lot of worrying later…I am typing this from lodging at Barksdale AFB. I made it all by myself…but I was never alone. I could feel my Bride’s love and strength every step of the way.
Leg One down, two to go. All wondrous things have started with just that courageous first step…but my friends…that is one hell of a first step.