A tank in the distance

We were driving around the countryside looking for polling station locations when I saw a tank in the distance.

In Bosnia in 1996, there were many tanks – international forces were stationed in many areas to support peacebuilding after a terrible civil war in the Balkan country. This one was still hazy in the distance as we got closer to the small building that apparently was the local polling station.

I still don’t know how to explain my intense sense of panic.

I had been in the country for six weeks, travelling with a driver and interpreter. In our area, much ground had been extensively mined and burned over by retreating forces. When you spend your time working with people primarily through interpreters, in an area where you always have to watch where you step – actually, as well as metaphorically – you can come to feel disconnected from yourself in odd ways.

And somehow, I found myself – for a few minutes, at any rate – feeling as if this was still wartime.

We stopped at the school. Soon, as the tank got closer, I could see that it was a French tank, in desert camouflage paint. The tank pulled up, and soldiers got out. For a few minutes, there was some confusion. They thought my interpreter was the election observer, and I was the interpreter. Once that was resolved, we had a bit of a chat, and then we were both on our way – us to visit another polling place, the tank to continue its patrol of the area before heading back to the French base at Mostar.

I didn’t remember that time until years later, when I was watching the movie Saving Private Ryan at the theatre in Yellowknife. There is a scene, in that movie, where a tank comes trundling over a bridge towards a soldier crouched down on the other side of the bridge.

And bam! The panic of seeing that tank approach, years before, hit me. I am not sure how I managed to stay in my seat. I could feel my heart pounding; I wanted to get up and run.

Mostly when we tell stories about our time on overseas assignments, we don’t share stories like that. We tend to focus on our achievements, our solutions, and our capacity – not the times when we felt insecure, or panicked, or completely at sea. It is easier to share stories where we are in control, not the ones where we felt vulnerable.

So I rarely if ever tell this story.

But not so long ago, I did. It seemed to have been drawn out of me, by the subject we were discussing. And it had a completely unexpected result.

It encouraged someone else, who had served overseas as a soldier, to share a similar story of an experience he had when he returned home. He had reached out to help me, in a powerful way. Somehow, shared vulnerability had created a powerful moment of connection. And I felt a tension relax in the room.

It hadn’t occurred to me, in Bosnia in 1996, that maybe what I had experienced might be a manifestation of PTSD. I hadn’t even heard of the term then. Once PTSD became part of our lexicon, I connected it primarily with military service overseas in conflict situations – when one was under fire, having to deal with IEDs or bombs, having to fire at others, having to ride in tanks or hide in bunkers.

But maybe our experiences did have one thing in common – a feeling of intense vulnerability, in a situation where one wasn’t in control of much – if anything. And maybe that was why it had been so hard for me to remember it – I didn’t feel comfortable with having felt so vulnerable and so frightened, even if it was only for a few minutes.

A few years ago, at a seminar at my university, I was part of a panel with soldiers. Being a civilian working in a post-conflict situation, with little institutional support, is a different experience than being part of military service – I wondered if we would have anything at all in common.

When I spoke about doing election observation, in other countries, I mentioned how, after I got back to Yellowknife, I didn’t use paths through fields for almost a year. I walked only on the paved sidewalk or the road. In Bosnia, where no one knew what areas had been mined but where, if there were mines, they were likely to be along the roadside and near bridges, one had to be careful. I remembered a Swiss commander who told me that his men even had to pee on the road, not go off to the side.

The next morning, at coffee, a Canadian colonel came over and said that when I told that story, he was instantly back in Bosnia, where he had served as a peacekeeper. It seemed as if that one story had created common ground between soldier and civilian – a ground that is not always there.

As I get older, I am less inclined to draw big and overarching  lessons from stories. I pretty much just tell the stories, and let others draw their own conclusions. In this case, the lesson for me was that sharing vulnerability can sometimes create common ground in a way that sharing stories of strength may not.