I know there's are lot of cliche information out there about veteran at concerts or in large crowds and most of it is true. Some of the time.
Veterans, specifically those with post traumatic stress and/or military sexual trauma, can experience difficulty navigating crowds. In most cases it reminds them of something bad that happened that was out of their control, likely due to too many variables in the equation of impending and/or executed doom. Multiple variables can cause a cascade of questions. Who is a threat? Military-trained profiling begins. Who is in charge? Some security, are they well trained? Cops, will they make it worse or better? What is that sound? So many sounds at concerts to identify and categorize as threat or non threat. Will this sound or smell bring me back to the desert…?
Instinctually, I start scanning. Not in a hypervigilant way; let’s say in a keen observational way. Scanning comes with a requested definition. Scanning is identifying, evaluating, targeting the threat and releasing information of everything in front, rear, side and diagonal of my view for about 50 feet and all side alleys, entrances, doorways and garbage in the road or walkway. I do it like a reflex, though if pushed for too long it exhausts me. In those moments of exhaustion I’m reminded of convoys that lasted all night with no refuge from the danger and impending death.
My scanning starts the moment we got out of the car. It’s Camden, NJ so it's not exactly unwarranted scanning.
The six block walk is uneventful, including a homeless guy with an orange tabby kitten sleeping in his lap. After the concert I'll look for him to give him the $2 in my pocket but he'll be gone.
I received free tickets from Vet Tix for this concert; Alice in Chains and Korn. I dislike metal detectors so I went to long lengths to not set off the one at the venue's entrance. No purse, no metal but my necklace, no earrings, no wallet. Just cash, ID, one credit card and my chapstick, all of which I take out of my pocket before walking through. Whew! No beep, beeping for me. Of course, my husband always sets it off with his body jewelry, aka nipple piercings. I give him credit for rocking them at 50 years of age.
As we circulate through the crowd, I notice how incompetent people are at walking. I admit I am guilty of this as well because I have a tug o' war in my head: do I take the right of way always and shoulder check people or do I attempt some version of politeness? I actually found politeness makes things confusing, so if I bump into someone I just say "excuse me" or "sorry" if its another woman.
I do my best at this point to turn the scanning down to more of a whisper than a roar. We pay $50 for some food that will give me a stomach ache the next day and finally make it to our seats.
I am grateful to miss most of the screaming from the opening band, Underoath. We put our earplugs in but I find that to be too dulling of the sound, so I take the ear plug out of my left ear (the one with the hearing loss) and it is all nice and evened out. I laugh to my husband and say maybe it wasn’t the best idea to expose the “bad” ear to more sound but it creates the perfect level of loud and I can still feel the eternal beat of the shrieking guitar. I love to sway to Alice in Chains; it is one of those bands that breaks your heart and puts you at ease, all in a bar of music. We sway through Alice in Chains and my feet begin to ache but to sit down near the beer farts and humidity is a limited affair.
Korn is on next. On the way to the bathroom between the sets, we navigate the vomiting audience members. I can't help but let out a little cheer of encouragement. Everyone is drunk or high for the most part, but something about head bangers all in the same communal space is actually kinda chill.
The design of lights and large TV projections in the shapes of rectangles and squares built up all the way to the highest rafter of the stage grasps my interest. The melodic balance between screaming and singing keeps my attention as I watch the glow of the lights, the flicker of seemingly random lines, colors and electrical currents of rage and sadness. What impresses me most is the ability of the lights to stay perfectly in sync with the beats in the songs. During the headbangy parts, the seizure-inducing strobe lights compliment the rhythmic nodding of heads throughout the crowd.
Walking back to the car I feel more at ease, less scanny, because Korn gave the audience that tribal feeling. We were all in it together, fighting the same demons and trying to navigate a system designed to tear us apart. Similar to that moment in combat when you realize you would give your life for that person standing next to you, uniting us in life and death. Just as Korn and Alice in Chains unite us with rhythm and poetry.
Jenny Pacanowski is a poet/combat veteran/public speaker/workshop facilitator. She is the founder and director of Women Veterans Empowered and Thriving; a reintegration program for veterans that utilizes writing and performance to empower their experiences and provide daily skills to thrive! Jenny’s work has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Turner Classic Movies, The Chew and Thriver Thursday with Robin Roberts from Good Morning America. Jenny’s unique style of poetry ignites the stage. She collaborates with multiple organizations and institutions that strive for awareness, advocacy and useful programs for veterans and their families.