Stumbling Upon Mindfulness: One Veteran’s Afghanistan Experience

By Reg McCutcheon, Lt Col USAF (Retired)

Tree at Sunset
Flickr [Sunset Tree by der LichtKlicker, February 5, 2016, CC BY-ND 2.0]
I personally define mindfulness as the space between cause and effect where our expressed differences define our relationship with the present.  I know it’s not the definition with which you might be most familiar, but my mindfulness journey is rooted in a story of chaos, desperation, and survival.  This is my narrative of how I accidentally discovered mindfulness and how it created in me a new perspective and an enlightened way to experience my circumstances.

As a retired military officer with over 30 years of service, I have seen many things during my career.  But the single most life-changing experience for me was a combat tour in Afghanistan in 2011.  Although I was 25 years their senior, I approached this experience with many of the same feelings that our young men and women experience during their first time in a combat zone – energized and ready to “go, fight, win.”  I shared in their desires to do my part.  But by the end, many of us left with conflicting feelings of confusion, loss, remorse, and regret.

We were confronted with the harsh reality of that environment very soon after our arrival.  Just four days into our tour, a single rogue attack on our base took the lives of nine fellow soldiers, all within the perceived safety of our walls.  One was a friend of mine named Ray, with whom I had trained and traveled just weeks and days before the attack.

I responded and coped with this event by increasing my focus and pace, and I soon fell into a pattern of working 14-16 hour days, 7days a week.  I told myself that if I stayed busy, then the time would fly by and I would be headed home soon.  But I was beginning to feel the breakdown of my own connectedness and I needed to catch my breath.  I look back now and see that, like everyone else, I was playing a mental game with myself in a world that really required a new way of thinking and experiencing the moment.

As a military officer, I am familiar with the works of military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, who coined a term “the fog of war.”  It is a cornerstone concept at every level of command and in senior leadership training.  But a lesson plan about combat operations and real live war are two very different things.  After a particularly challenging day, I was desperate to clear the fog in my own head and experience some separation.  I often did this with the aid of my iPod, listening to various podcasts and music as I would lie in my bunk.  I would have my trusty ear buds perfectly placed, the world securely muted outside this metaphorical cone of separation.  But on this one evening, the damned thing would not work no matter what I tried.   So I found myself lying there frustrated, angry, and tired.  All I could hear were the sounds of my heart beating faster and louder and the air passing through my nostrils.

In retrospect, I believe this was an existential moment, as I realized at that point that I had to make a different choice.  I had to use whatever resources were available to me, but that amounted to a non-functioning iPod (with ear buds) and solitude.  In the stillness, I began to focus on my racing heart and the pace of my breath.  I slowly began closing off the outside world, which left me to deal with the inside.  I started by feeling my breath slowing and listening to my heart following that lead.  I began to feel a sense of control over my anxiety and adrenaline, and a sense of calm for the first time in weeks.  Little did I know that my iPod malfunctioning was actually a gift that had provided a way out of the fog and a path to resolving the present.

Let me also say here that I had no knowledge at all of what mindfulness actually was or how it could be used as a therapeutic technique.  I just happened upon this in a moment of desperation.  But I began to take those times of solitude as an opportunity to experience what I was really feeling and examine moments between cause and effect.  Over time, I rarely played the iPod anymore and just left its ear buds untethered, listening to my breath and heart providing a predictable rhythm in a chaotic place; a gift of insight through reflection and projection.  As I left Afghanistan, I thought of this exercise as something I had only needed to survive war and shifted my focus to getting home.

In reality, I needed mindfulness all the more when I returned stateside.   Back home, people are twice as aggressive and truly just focused on what they have going on.  They talk over you, they speed past you, cut you off, and are sometimes selfish, inconsiderate, lack good manners and that’s just the people in our families.  The combat experience is a bell that cannot be un-rung when a soldier steps back on American soil.  There is something – actually, many things – unique and different about veterans who have been exposed to the challenges of war.  As soldiers, we are trained to be the “biggest, strongest, and baddest” fight force on the planet.  But with all the bravado and armor outside, what is fragile and delicate inside cannot be ignored.  The dilemma for a returning combat veteran is that the fragile inside wants to come out and experience the world it once knew, while the armored outside wants to retreat from a world that it doesn’t know.

For me, emotional confusion came from these ongoing contradictions, and my frustrations grew as a “fog of war” had turned into a “fog of being home.”  I “checked out” at times and was not always intentional in my actions and reactions.  I sometimes didn’t recognize consequences, and I found I was not driven by the same motives, ideas, or beliefs that I once was.  I was having difficulty taking moments in context, slowing things down, and processing them appropriately.  I had lost my relational insight.  I cared about things that didn’t matter and didn’t care about things that did.  Mindfulness for a warrior is survival-focused; for a citizen, it’s relational-focused.

Eventually, with the help of a supportive spouse, things equilibrated.  I went back to what had worked for me in the chaos of Afghanistan.  I found that a mindfulness journey at home was filled with many more insights than just survival.  Over the past few years, I’ve been able to build up my focus and my mindfulness journey to capture what I believe is the center of being – the present.  For many, the time it takes to make a choice – the space between action and reaction – is inconsequential and but a nanosecond.  But for those who practice mindfulness, choices are so much more meaningful and are not measured by time but by space — the space between cause and effect where our expressed differences define our relationship with the present.

Mindfulness allows me to slow down to capture a moment’s essence and meaning, so that I can create the effect I desire within myself in relationship with everything around me.  I believe it’s in that state in which we are all able to make the best choices.

Your success depends on your next move, statement, or expression…they all hinge on your relationship with the present.


This post was written by Reg McCutcheon. Reg is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 30 years of military experience.  He is currently a MFT intern at Valdosta State University and holds a bachelor’s degree and masters in business.  He is a graduate of the Air University Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and Squadron Officers School.  In addition he has graduated from several USAF occupational schools, to include Undergraduate Missile Training, Undergraduate Space Training, and Senior Leader Development Training.  Reg’s awards include three combat medals: Bronze Star Medal, NATO Medal, and Afghanistan Campaign Medal.  He also received two Meritorious Service Medals and three Commendation Medals during his career of leadership and dedication to the Air Force.

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