If you take a look at this picture, it’s me… true story. In it, I’m all dressed up and ready for the worst shit humanity ever created. Within the first 72 hours of the start of the war with Iraq in March 2003, one of the biggest fears we had were missiles tipped with weapons of mass destruction (and if you recall history, we went into Iraq on that very sales pitch). In those beginning volleys, dozens of these attacks occurred. I was in Kuwait, in a tent city off of the runways of Kuwait City Int’l Airport (keeping the airport free of chemical weapons contamination was ultimately our mission early on). US forces had just started the push north and hadn’t yet secured Baghdad, so this airport was an incredibly important logistics hub. This picture was taken in those early hours, by my platoon sergeant, in a concrete bunker lined with sandbags, during a SCUD missile attack. I was 26 years old and wondering about what this whole event held in store. While our Patriot Missiles knocked down the vast majority of Saddam’s SCUDs, the stress of breathing for hours in a restrictive apparatus resonated with me for a lifetime. It’s much like being claustrophobic… the strain of it all gets into your head. But, since masks hadn’t been a part of my life since those days, I never really put much thought into it. At least until Covid, and only more lately…

As we have crossed the year mark on the Covid pandemic and masks have become my everyday, every once in a while I find myself consumed in the anxiety of breathing in the required, restrictive breathing apparatus. I’m often surprised at the unlikely times it happens. Walking to breakfast, sitting behind my computer at work, chatting with friends… any of these activities can find me feeling overwhelmed about the difficulty in breathing through a barrier. These activities aren’t strenuous, so it took me a while to figure out why sometimes I struggle with the panicked anxiety in peaceful situations. After I made a conscious effort to work at identifying what I was feeling, it always led back to the guy in this picture, sitting in a bunker waiting for an explosion of lethal chemical contamination. It’s strange how the mind works. It’s always surprising how traumas creep in from time to time, just when we think we have it all worked out. I hope this pandemic can come to a place where the mask isn’t such a requirement of every waking moment in this prison, but just like the bunker, you just have to wait and hope… and control your breathing when the mask anxiety grabs you.

by Rory Andes

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