Like many veterans throughout our country’s history, I needed mental medical attention but did not seek help
A soldier crochets a garden of hope in the battlefield of despair.
Pistol? Check. Body armor? Check. Yarn, hooks, crochet books? Check. My Combat Crochet Basic Load (CCBL) was prepped for battle. I was ready to go to war—again. Operation Iraqi Freedom was not my first rodeo. I was a paratrooper in an airborne unit during Operation Desert Storm, and I knew the Hollywood version of war was not the reality on the ground. The image of 24/7 action, with gunslinging GI Jane in constant combat, was not the average war experience. So I packed my duffel bags with military gear and carried my CCBL in my rucksack to keep my mind sharp and my hands busy, and to fill up the inevitable empty times. What I did not know then was that crochet would be my lifeline as the trauma of living with rockets, bombs, bullets, and bodies was destroying me from within.
I settled into life at my Forward Operating Base quickly— well, as settled as possible, with my life and the lives of others in constant jeopardy. I returned to my bunk after long, hot, intense days in combat gear and retreated to my world of crochet. I looked forward to the small piece of home I had with me. The crochet books were on my nightstand, and the yarn was in plastic bags inside my pillowcase to keep the sand out as much as possible. While I tried to wind down each night, I crocheted scarves, belts, bags, and flowers. When sirens wailed to alert us to incoming rockets, I would drop my crochet hooks, step into my boots, throw on my body armor, grab my weapon, and sprint to the nearest bunker. When the “all clear” sounded, I returned to my bunk, swapped my pistol for a crochet hook, and picked up my project from the ground like nothing had happened— yarn over, pull through. Projects were my hold on humanity when the inhumanity of war was all I saw. I drew comfort from the ability to create beauty amid the chaos.
As the combination of enemy actions and our daily operations piled up, I was breaking down inside. I had waged my battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) silently since Operation Desert Storm. Missile attacks, the sight, smell, and screams of burning people, piles of dead burnt bodies, direct small-arms fire, and sexual bullying and assault invaded my psyche and altered my world. Like many veterans throughout our country’s history, I needed mental medical attention but did not seek help. Returning to the same region, to a world again on the edge of hideous devastation, triggered the PTSD symptoms I had tried to suppress for eighteen years.
I would not admit to myself that I was suffering acutely from PTSD, but my symptoms were overtaking me. I started having flashbacks to Operation Desert Storm because mentally I could not tell my wars apart. In Iraq, when missiles were identified as locked on our position, the overhead alarm systems would blast, “Incoming, incoming. Take cover, take cover.” Instead of seeking cover in the clearly marked, sandbag-reinforced, cinder-block bunkers in Iraq, I would search in vain for the underground bunkers of Operation Desert Storm that did not exist in Baghdad. I stopped eating in the dining facility because I could not stand being around crowds of people. I walked into oncoming traffic because I confused cars with camels. My ankle was severely injured during a mortar attack, but I did not tell anyone; I was afraid they would send me home, and I desperately wanted to stay and continue to serve. My PTSD symptoms were out of control, but I did not want to admit any weakness—even an ankle injury—for fear my fragile state would be exposed. Inside, I was a muddled mess.
Night after night, I sat on my bunk holding on to life by participating in the wonder of yarns blossoming into flowers and other projects. Creating with fiber became my personal oasis in the desert of my disintegrating self. Crocheting helped stop the memories—the sight and screams of dying burn victims, AK-47s aimed at my face, and more—from replaying in my head. It directed my mind to a calmer place. Yarn over, pull through… My hands were moving. I was still alive.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, I crocheted flowers for many friends and comrades. On a mission in Mosul, Iraq, a vehicle bomb exploded, and members of my unit were hurt. My friend Hamila was alive although injured. I crocheted a flower, wrote a note on an index card, and tied it to her doorknob to greet her when she returned from the hospital. War destroyed; I created.
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A LONG, TENUOUS PROCESS
Finally, the command surgeon recognized my symptoms, and I was medically evacuated by air to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., for chronic, polytraumatic PTSD recovery. All I could take with me when I loaded the medical evacuation helicopter was the uniform I was wearing and the rucksack on my back. In it were the hooks, yarn, and two crochet books (Couture Crochet by Lily Chin and Crochet Garden by Susann Thompson) I had deployed with. As the helicopter lifted off in the cover of darkness, I watched enemy rounds from Sadr City lighting the sky like a fireworks show. I had no fear of being blown out of the sky because I already felt dead inside.
Recovery has been a long, tenuous process and is far from over. I expected to get to Walter Reed, see a therapist, and voilà! I would be fixed. It did not work out that way. During my twenty-five-year career in the army, I mobilized four times, two of which were wars. I experienced severe traumas in both wars from which I needed to heal. Emotionally, I was as wounded as a physical amputee, but my amputations were invisible. There was no direct line of sight to my wounds; therefore, there was no easy application of tourniquets and bandages. My mind was the equivalent of a bombed-out pile of rubble in need of the psychological parallel to major reconstructive surgery. It took time to clear that rubble and start piecing myself back together again. All the while, my pain, though invisible, was devastating.
During art therapy while in the PTSD Combat Trauma Recovery Program at Walter Reed, we were given this assignment: “Use any medium and this blank piece of paper to show where you are and where you want to be with your PTSD.” I crocheted a chain, then a row of double crochet. I cut it in half and set the first half to the side. Using the second half, I crocheted a flower. Then I taped both halves to the piece of paper. The first half of the thread was me before trauma, the blank paper between the two halves symbolized my war-torn self demolished in the face of man’s inhumanity against man, and the flower symbolized that hope prevails on any battlefield as evidenced in the beauty and tenacity of flowers. I did not talk much back then; it was crochet that gave voice to my internal thoughts.
Throughout my recovery, I continued making flowers and giving them away. I was a Wounded Warrior living among other Wounded Warriors and their families. We were united in hope. Sure, we shared the misery of grief, pain, and loss, but each one of us was fighting a personal battle to find healing and hope on the battlefield we had carried home with us. I gave crocheted flowers randomly. Without words, I could hand over a piece of sunshine, small enough for people to carry with them but big in meaning. I gave one to a little boy as he sat silently on his father’s lap where one leg was missing. He squealed, “flower,” then giggled and held the flower up to his father’s nose for him to smell. In a quiet waiting room filled with soldiers emotionally and physically injured in service, the boy garnered everyone’s attention and elicited a room full of chuckles. In that moment, we gave ourselves to the exuberance of youth and shared a moment of joy.
Unfortunately, PTSD continued to darken my days and invade my nights. I left my house only when I had to. I took the curtains off my windows, constantly checked rooms and closets, and closely monitored every road and path that led to and away from my house. (If an insurgent were to attack my residence, I would be ready.) I could not hum a tune because there was no music inside me. I suffered flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories. I sank into depression so deep and painful, I thought the only way to stop the pain was death.
I could not imagine a day without tears, pain, and wanting to die. My mental anguish was so horrific, I felt it as searing physical pain. My grief was so encompassing that death seemed a welcome friend. Yet I held to life, albeit sometimes by the tiniest thread. All the while, I crocheted threads into flowers, and although I could not see, touch, or smell hope, each flower came to embody it. My flower collection grew into a massive garden of hope. Slowly, I began to heal. Time passed, recovery continued, the Medical Evaluation Board that delayed my army retirement for nearly three years concluded its evaluation, and finally, I medically retired from the army in April 2013.
In the summer of 2013, I attended the Crochet Guild of America’s national conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was nervous. I did not know anyone and had never been around other crocheters, but that was not it. PTSD was my concern. I worried about public flashbacks, that my startle response might hurt someone (a touch without verbal notice can trigger hand-to-hand combat), insomnia, spontaneous tears, panic attacks that feel like heart attacks, and other symptoms. When people find out I have PTSD, they often tell me I look fine. I am far from fine. They cannot see my inner battlefield.
So, I made flowers, lots and lots of flowers. I crocheted on the flight to the conference, in my room, during meals, and while waiting for classes to start. Flowers. I even took a class on crocheting pansies. (Thank you, Jenny King!)
And on day three of the conference, I was taking a class from the lady in one of the Combat Crochet Basic Load books. I had learned that she was more than just a friendly face who writes books and serves as a virtual crochet buddy to lonely soldiers in distant war zones. She was no longer just the nice lady sitting on her sofa smiling serenely from a page of the book, I was not sporting the hottest new fashions in Individual Body Armor, and no incoming mortar rounds were detonating around me. It was surreal. I waited until the end when most of the class had departed. Then I said to Lily Chin as she walked toward the door, “It has been a privilege to meet you…” As I said this, I thought, Really, Sam? You can do better than that. How cheesy can you possibly be? Seriously. I would not have blamed her if she had rolled her eyes at me; she didn’t, of course. She is Lily Chin, after all, and probably gets approached by fans regularly. My mouth was already in motion—in for a penny, in for a pound—so I continued. “We impact people in ways we know and ways we don’t. You were with me during mortar attacks in Iraq. I took two books to war with me, and one was yours.”
I had learned from being in her class that she was a high-energy, fast-talking, tough New Yorker, and I did not expect her to be moved by any of this. I was telling her for my own reason: closure. The ravages of wars had devastated me and redirected the course of my life. I had medically retired and wanted to close that chapter.
Lily Chin stopped, looked at me with wide eyes and intrigue, and started asking questions. She was warm, friendly, caring, and exactly the friend I had imagined with me during mortar attacks and other times I could not sleep at night. I still struggle with PTSD. I have good days and bad days, and accept that it is an ongoing battle. I continue to crochet flowers and give them away at Walter Reed, the VA medical center, and randomly. I just wish I could give a flower to every military woman, man, and family member to carry with them throughout their own journeys.
I took my Combat Crochet Basic Load when I deployed to Iraq, thinking crochet would be a nice pastime to keep my mind sharp and my hands busy. Through hooks, yarn, and thread, crochet kept me company in Iraq, helped assuage the horrors of war, stopped tears of trauma throughout recovery, and continues on the path with me as I journey toward emotional peace, one beautiful crocheted flower at a time. The ugliness and destruction of war pale in comparison with the power and beauty that yarn, hooks, and crochet books can create.
Featured Image: Left: Alone in her bunk, Samantha (on a helicopter mission in Iraq) opened her copy of Couture Crochet (Interweave, 2007) to the picture of her “crochet buddy,” Lily Chin, and crocheted through the evening. Right: Samantha wears one of her Serenity Vintage creations. Photos courtesy of Samantha Nerove.
LTC SAMANTHA NEROVE, U.S. ARMY, RETIRED Samantha Nerove medically retired from the Army in 2013 because of injuries sustained as a direct result of combat. In order to help others with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other invisible injuries, she founded the Invisible Injuries Initiative to inform and move people to action. She also launched a fashion and accessories company, Serenity Vintage, that transforms vintage crochet items into contemporary fashions. Samantha lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, Jim Hanson, and Lily the cat. Listen to Samantha talking with Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation: www.npr.org/2013/01/24/ 170175685/a-closer-look-at-women-in-combat