Sometimes life can be a real son-of-a-brick, enter the ultimate uninvited guest, COVID-19. Speaking of Bricks, I have officially given the Coronavirus the face and personality of that ruthless gangster from the classic movie “Snatch”, Brick Top. I can’t think of a better persona for it? If you have not seen the movie Snatch, well..there’s your homework assignment.
The Nemesis Arrives
Brick Top showed up out of nowhere. Everything seemed fine. Then, we heard the doorbell ring and thought it was Amazon. But it wasn’t, it was “The Rona” (aka Brick Top), who then punched us square in the face. Life can certainly be cruel and ruthless like our cockney-speaking pig-feeding nemesis, Brick Top. So, what do you do when you get punched in the face? For starters, you recognize you’re in a fight. No room for denial at this point. You may have been that guy before, but time to snap into reality. Second, you need to punch back. How do you punch a virus? We’ll come back to that. First, a little more context.
We have all heard the Mike Tyson quote about thinking you have a plan until you get punched in the face. Well, its even worse if you never had a plan, or the right mindset. Moving forward, hopefully, those that suffered from normalcy-bias will have a new outlook on contingency planning. As for getting punched in the face, both literally and figuratively, it doesn’t mean the end of the world. Additionally, I like to think that all adversity has some good to offer. I’ve written articles before on this very thing. Good things will come and in many forms, both seen and unseen.
Welcome to “The Suck”
When I deployed to Iraq in February 2004 as a government contractor, I was getting the proverbial punch to the face quite often. I was part of a 6-man team assigned to protect U.S. State Department personnel in Maysan Province, a hotbed of fighting in the south. Our team consisted of all seasoned former-military guys, exactly the reason we were hired and selected for such risky work. Our small team was led by a retired Delta Force commando, while the rest of us consisted of three Marines, one SEAL, and a Green Beret. In those early days, we were still waiting on our weapons and armored vehicles to arrive in-country, all stuck in the logistical pipeline and tangled up in bureaucratic red-tape (insert toilet paper joke here). So, we were running around with locally-sourced AK-47s (we modified them and attached modern optics), RPMs (Soviet-made belt-fed machine guns) and soft-skin (unarmored) BMW sedans. Talk about feeling punched in the face. It is quite nerve-racking racing around hostile-areas, full of threats, with no armored vehicles and weapons that had not exactly been well-maintained. However, this was a group of guys with a particular mindset and who were trained to “Improvise Adapt and Overcome” (an old Marine Corps motto). That motto is very applicable to the predicament we all find ourselves in with the Coronavirus, or Brick Top for the purposes of this article.
“He Hates These Cans!”
Our team was based out of a very small forward operating base consisting of a small piece of real estate in the city center of Al Amarah. It was a government center on a plot of land the size of a few football fields. It was surrounded on two sides by the Tigris River and had a giant water tower as the centerpiece, serving as an excellent aiming point for enemy mortar teams. That water tower would haunt us for months to come.
At somewhere around 100 personnel, we were co-located with our State Department masters, a platoon of British soldiers and another small protection team made up of former military guys from the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Soon we would find ourselves under such frequent attack that we were all locked in that small area together. For weeks, we repelled attacks from all sides. If it wasn’t mortar fire coming from across the river it was RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and small-arms fire coming from the alleys across the street. When the enemy finally got their mortars semi dialed-in, our sleeping quarters and kitchen started taking direct hits. I remember toward the beginning of the attacks, I was walking to the dining facility along the river’s edge and a mortar round landed less than 20 feet away, luckily in the water. Another time, I was walking down the stairs from a fighting position (aka bunker) when an RPG came zipping by and hit the wall of the bunker.
It was weeks of gunfights and dodging mortar rounds. It progressively got worst when the food supplies were affected. Strangely enough, the thing that bothered me the most was the deteriorating food situation. The company hired to feed us was a total train-wreck, I had food poisoning the first week I was there. Once the attacks amped up, the Pakistani cooks refused to work and left the compound. Then the kitchen got hit with a mortar round. Out of all the mortar rounds and RPGs fired at us, thankfully no one was killed inside the compound. However, they sure had a knack for jacking-up our stuff, especially the kitchen and our sleeping quarters. It made me think of that scene from the time-honored movie “The Jerk”, when Steve Martin is being shot at while working as a gas station attendant. However, the lunatic shooter has horrible marksmanship skills and was hitting the oil cans next to him. His character, continually naive, yells, “He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!”
So I guess we were safe as long as we steered clear of the kitchen or our beds. As bad as it may sound, many of us were finding humor in much of what was unfolding around us. This is a common reaction during stressful situations and it’s actually very healthy. Kind of like all the COVID-19 memes and jokes floating around, or some of the content in this post. It’s good medicine, embrace it.
Now, back to the battle. Everyone stopped sleeping in their thin-skinned trailers and instead were trying to stake out a home in the main 2-story cement building. Things were cramped and tempers were flaring. Guys were sleeping under desks and all kinds of creative locations. It was very crowded and at times the Brits, Yanks, Kiwis and Aussie residents would all share some colorful commentary with each other. Probably similar to being stuck in the house with the family for more than a week.
Some of this behavior is actually reflected in the book “Sniper One”, written by Sgt. Dan Mills, the British soldier in charge of the sniper team co-located with us. He even mentions yours truly in the book while outlining our battles in Al Amarah and how at first we were all getting on each other’s nerves. However, it quickly evolved into a brotherhood of men who would assembly daily on the rooftop to fight against a common enemy. Sounds kind of relevant to our current situation, huh?
A Hard Beginning makes a Good Ending
The weeks-long battle culminated when coalition forces launched a 2 am assault on the enemy around our position. We headed up to the rooftop with the British sniper team to assist and get a front-row seat for the big show. It was quite a show-of-force combined with an array of sights and sounds. The C-130 Spectre gunships circling above us were the real stars of the show, raining steel down on the mortar teams across the river. British tanks and armored vehicles whipped up and down the streets, flushing out insurgents. To say there was not excitement in the air would be a bald-faced lie. Our small group had been living inside that postage-stamp-sized location, cooped up and contending with death every day for weeks. It can be psychologically draining living under those conditions and very celebratory when it finally ends.
With every grunt from the C-130’s above and the corresponding explosion from their impacts on target were met with our yells of celebration and high-fives (real ones, not virtual). Like all adversity, it came to an end, and we were stronger after enduring it. Despite the seemingly dire situation we were in, there were plenty of hilarious moments and many life-long friendships made. These proverbial punches to the face bonded us and bred camaraderie, a force much more powerful than any punch to the pie-hole. That is actually what is happening right now in Italy and practically every other country throughout the world. Adversity, loss and pain will forge us. It will give us wisdom, strength and grit. I eventually left that assignment after a long 3-months. It was off to Baghdad for more adventures.
So, how do you punch a virus? The short answer; the same way you do with any other type of adversity or challenge…adopt the right mindset and get busy. I mentioned earlier about the Marine slogan, “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome”. Leave it to Marines to create a more humorous way to say it, “Semper Gumby”, meaning “Always Flexible”. They took our famous Latin motto, “Semper Fidelis”, meaning, “Always Faithful” and incorporated that lovable and flexible 50’s clay-animated icon, “Gumby”. You would often hear one Marine state how a particular situation sucks, followed by another Marine sarcastically responding with, “Semper Gumby”.
Marines pride themselves on “embracing the suck”, basically demonstrating fortitude in the face of tough circumstances. Improvise, adapt and overcome are essentially a mindset that Marines adopt so they can thrive in the chaos of combat. In war, things are always going sideways on you. If you don’t have a method to deal with those types of obstacles, you will be frozen and ineffective. Since we are combatting a virus, let’s break it down and modify that credo to our current situation with that brutal, heartless and rude nemesis – Brick Top.
A Formula for Adversity
I’m sure many of you are already improvising after one week of being stuck in your homes. Maybe you ran out of toilet paper and are improvising by using 220 grit sandpaper discovered in the garage. Well, maybe we’re not at that point yet. Being able to improvise on the fly is a great skill to have. You suddenly discover all the MacGyver-like uses for duct tape, you can practically make an improvised-anything out of that stuff. With Brick Top lurking around outside, we need to embrace our skills of improvisation to the fullest. Problem; you can’t go to the gym and take advantage of the variety of equipment you never use anyway. That’s OK, build a circuit course out in the driveway with different stations to rotate through. Last week, I had my family rotating through each station every 30 seconds. First, it was push-ups, then sprinting the length of the drive-way and back, then punching the heavy bag, then some curls with some old dumbells we dug out of storage. Use whatever you have available to build your own circuit. Bottom line, you need to exercise. When we were under attack in Al Amarah, we still found ways to exercise. It is necessary to burn off that stress and keep the heart and mind in tip-top shape.
A Word on Stress
All joking aside, after a week in the house, your number-one concern will be stress. It is a silent killer and is already hard at work. You probably feel its effects in your neck, the knots in your back and possibly your outward demeanor. Get outside and burn some of this off every day.
Strangely enough, you may feel like you’re doing less stuck in the house, but somehow experience more fatigue. Likely you are stressing throughout the day. Your brain knows something is wrong, so it releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to deal with any threats and tissue-repair needs. The problem is you’re on a constant drip-feed of those as your worry throughout the day. So, the backlash that follows will include fatigue. Saying, “relax and don’t worry” is easier said than done. Making my earlier point about the necessity of exercise.
This is your new normal, adapt to it. Keeping some structure will be immensely important. You will feel the lure of giving in and letting everyone go to their corners for countless hours. Don’t do it, it can lower your spirits and gradually let depression slip in. For example, don’t lounge around all day and night in your underwear, pajamas or bathrobe. Get up like normal, get fully dressed, then do something constructive. This is all about armoring the mind and staving off deep-seated bad feelings that will only compound if left unchecked. Kids especially need that structured framework. As tempting as it is, keep them off those devices for hours on end. Create a schedule, incorporate others in chores or tasks they would not normally participate in. Time to learn some new skills!
Throughout history, every crisis has spit out a more resilient version of mankind on the other end. Just like World War II molded and defined the greatest generation, we will do the same with this virus. We will become better people for it. There will be tons of good unforeseen by-products. Just like in war, there are beautiful things that are born; new loves, new technology and new wisdom. That’s the silver lining to this calamity. Unlike my writing, life is not one long run-on sentence anyway, it is a series of chapters. Broken up to reflect how life is a bunch of starts and finishes. Then, woven together to become your story. Your story cannot be told in one breath where there are no sudden gasps, chokes, or studders. How boring would that be? With this framework, we have the ability to start again in the next chapter. Even if this current chapter totally kicks our ass and we lose jobs, possessions and God forbid a loved one. The next chapter allows us to literally start from nothing and write that great comeback. That’s the human spirit, we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time.
The Darkest Hour is just Before the Dawn
Brick Top, like all villains, eventually comes to their demise. Yes, there are a couple of exceptions. Crystal Lake just can’t seem to eradicate Jason and Michael Myers is a constant aggravation. But, we’ve learned to live with them. However, the night will end and the sun will rise. Then, with much elation, we can all celebrate and bounce back. And you too can do the Steve Martin dance at dawn, just like we did on that battle-torn rooftop back in 2004.