What War Reporting Taught Me About Resilience
How a bathroom break in rural Afghanistan turned into a life lesson.
Posted Feb 22, 2021
War reporting is so uncomfortable. Forget the big moments, like bombs going off or missiles being launched. The thing I feared most as a female reporter, embedded alone with U.S. forces, was the bathroom situation.
When you are out on patrol in rural Afghanistan, there is no running water, much less a local Starbucks with a toilet that flushes. So, I always planned ahead: I went just before leaving the base, and I didn’t drink much, so I could hold it in until I returned. My plan worked until the day we went to Shwak, a small village in Paktia Province, not far from the Pakistan border.
That day, I woke up at 5:00 a.m., ate cold eggs, drank a sad cup of lukewarm instant coffee, and made one last pit stop before leaving the base at 6:00 a.m.
The Humvee rumbled and bumped over rocks the size of watermelons and up mountain passes designed for donkey carts. By mid-day, I knew I had good elements for a story, but newsgathering wasn’t my immediate concern. I was hopping from leg to leg while the guys started unzipping their pants and shooting arcs of yellow urine into red Afghan dirt.
At one point, I tried to run off behind a tree, but the soldier responsible for my safety yelled, “Ma’am! I need you to stay within arms’ reach. This is al-Qaeda country.” Popping a secret squat in the Hindu Kush would not be possible.
After five hours of holding it in, I made a choice. “Private, I’ve got a problem.”
“Let me guess,” he asked with a wink and a grin, “does nature call?”
“How did you know?” I responded.
“The whole platoon has been placing bets on when you would go,” he said. “One guy said you must be wearing a diaper!”
Now, that was an idea I should have considered.
The private escorted me up a nearby hill, scouted the area, and guarded “the pee zone” with his M-4 at the ready.
As I pulled my zipper down, a big squirt came out. Great. I had just wet my pants.
I was mid-pee when suddenly the commander shouted from the valley below: “Mount up! We’re heading back!”
The soldiers walked toward the Humvees. Oh no. I needed more time. The private peeked around at me as I sat in my finest yoga squat and yelled, “Just a minute, sir!”
At which point, 11 men in U.S. Army uniforms and 15 Afghan villagers looked up.
The private pointed at me, his thumb jerking, “The reporter is taking a piss!”
Seriously? A mixture of humiliation and anger rolled over me like an ocean wave, trapping me, breathless, underwater. I could see the men laughing as the weight of the body armor pulled me down as I struggled to rise, fighting for my balance and self-esteem.
As any female war reporter knows, crying is not an option. Instead, I took a deep breath and waved at the 25 guys in the valley below, telling myself, “I’ve got this.”
With those words, the oddest thing happened. I bounced back. I felt liberated. I stopped caring about what the villagers and soldiers could see. Now they knew how hard I had to work just to pee, something they took for granted. I felt a deep wave of gratitude rush through me, like a cool drink on a hot afternoon. My anger turned into an appreciation for having access to running water and bathrooms with walls in my so-called normal life.
When I opened the door of the Humvee, I saw a small bag of peanut M&Ms and a bottle of water in my seat. It was a clear message: I was not alone. I exhaled. I was tired of feeling like an outsider, as the only woman in the group and the only journalist on the base.
The pressure of presenting my best self every waking moment wore me out. None of the three soldiers traveling in my Humvee mentioned my yoga squat or pee velocity. For a moment, we understood and respected each other, thanks to a shared experience.
After I returned to the base, my manager at CNN’s international desk in Atlanta requested a story, which added another five hours to my 12-hour day. “I’ve got this,” I told myself.
The next three weeks brought all sorts of discomfort. From temperatures that dipped below zero to 3:00 a.m. live reports and a random monkey bite on the back of my leg, I powered through. When my four-week assignment came to a close, I didn’t want to leave. Feeling like “I’ve got this” was addicting.
Most of us view stress as bad. It can cause PTSD, high blood pressure, and other debilitating and life-threatening conditions. And I don’t want to underplay the effect traumatic events can have on people, especially on U.S. forces who are braver than I am and who go out on patrols every day for 18 months, missing their kids’ first words, first steps, and other once-in-a-lifetime milestones.
But for me, the stress of war reporting changed my mindset and gave me the opportunity to build life skills. Simply put, I started to feel more confident, resilient, and grateful in everyday life. Now I view stress as an opportunity instead of a dead end.
When I face adversity, while I feel anxious and unsettled, I invite myself to think about how I might grow and what I can learn. That makes me feel more in control of the choices I can make.
I’m often asked why I volunteered to report from Afghanistan or Iraq. As a journalist, I wanted to do my part in keeping the world informed of unfolding events in faraway, dangerous places. Yes, war reporting is nerve-racking. But these days so is everyday life.
It’s hard to appreciate the tough times when we are in them, fighting to find our way out. But these uncomfortable moments give us the opportunity to learn how to tolerate distress and to develop the resilience we’ll need to get through future challenges. After surviving the stress and losses of this year, I have to believe that when we face the next hardship, we will be stronger and more resilient. We will know we’ve got this.
Sum It Up
There is a benefit when we experience difficult times. While tough moments don’t feel good, the process of going through them can be a catalyst for positive psychological growth and well-being. Psychologists tell me the benefits include becoming more grateful and more empathetic and developing a deeper sense of self and purpose.
Three ways to build resilience from stress
1. Take control.
Choose how you want to react to a situation. University of Wisconsin psychologist Shilagh Mirgain works with clients to cultivate resilience and suggests viewing difficult experiences as growth opportunities. She says, “Ask yourself, what do I want to be about in the face of this difficulty? What do I want to stand for? What would the person I want to be do right now?” By taking control of how you respond, you are likelier to experience positive psychological growth.
2. Write it down.
Use a journal to help make sense of a challenging experience. Mental health experts suggest writing down your thoughts and feelings. It’s called “therapeutic journaling,” and it’s a tool that helps people better understand and accept what they are feeling.
You might consider writing anything that comes to mind for five minutes or write a letter to yourself. These tools can help you re-frame your experience and view it from a different and healthier perspective.
3. Don’t forget to laugh.
Find something funny about a tough experience and laugh it off. Let’s face it; life feels less stressful when you can giggle, especially with a friend. Research shows that humor is no joke when it comes to health benefits. According to this report from the Mayo Clinic, laughter can change your heart rate and blood pressure and leave you feeling calmer and more relaxed.