Ten days before I was shot, my team embarked on a mission in the treacherous and un-forgiving mountains of northeast Afghanistan. During the helicopter flight we learned that another unit was in contact with enemy combatants on the objective; our landing zone would be hot. Also, we would be landing on a completely opposite landing zone than we had planned for. Plan nothing; react to everything. This is a motto I had come to live by.
Disseminating this information to Afghan squad leaders through interpreters, hand and arm signals, and a limited knowledge of Afghan Farsi was a difficult task. The sickening smell of diesel fuel permeating the cab of the CH-47 (Chinook) helicopter and deafening roar of the engines further complicated the issue. After informing the Afghans of the situation on the ground, my teammates and I came up with a new plan and undertook the difficult task of once again relaying information to our Afghan counterparts. When we landed, one of our helicopters was almost shot down by a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG).
The fighting was sporadic during the next few hours and was more intense for some than others. One squad had the dangerous and difficult task of eliminating a Taliban machine gun position. Half way through the mission a little boy informed the Afghan Commandos that shrapnel from a Taliban RPG had wounded his mother and sister. The boy led the Commandos, my teammate, and I to the wounded civilians. We set up a security perimeter and began treatment.
I tried to act calm, cool and collected; I was distraught on the inside. I had run through training scenarios 100’s of times but I had never trained for this situation. During my training I had always treated grown men, not a mother and her three-year-old daughter. I would have done anything to take the pain away from them, especially the little girl. I worked on the patients until my medic made his way to our position and took over. The wounds were not life threatening and easy to patch up. My teammate told the little boy that he was very brave for finding us and leading us to his mother and sister. The boy was not more than eight years old.
Once our medic took over, I went back to clearing the village with my squad. We eventually found ourselves at the opening of a crevice. It was reported earlier that there was enemy activity in this area. The walls of the crevice were about 10 feet apart and about 40 feet high. My teammate and I took point with a squad of Commandos behind us, another teammate and squad of Commandos pulled security atop of one of the crevice walls. Almost immediately we saw a blood trail and knew that there were combatants in the crevice. My fight or flight response had been on for hours, but it was at its peak now. Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I traversed through the crevice. We came across a combatant that was missing his head (this must have been from the 30mm rounds from the helicopter gun run). We continued to follow the blood trail. I turned a corner, locked eyes with a combatant for a tenth of a second (it seemed like hours) and placed a few rounds into his body and one well aimed shot in his head. The man’s head exploded, spilling his brains on the crevice wall and partially on me.
Days like this were few and far between, but they still happened. While in Afghanistan I lived with my fight or flight response on all the time, I was in a perpetual state of heightened awareness. The thought of death always lingered in the back of my mind. Even when I was safe at my base, I knew it was only a day or two until we went out on another mission. I went to bed every night wondering if the next mission would be my last. This is an incredibly stressful way to live and evokes many different feelings and emotions. The author Tim O’Brien from his book The Things They Carried best describes this experience:
“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
All of these emotions came to a head at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany and continued when I was transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. This was the most intense and confusing period of my life. I had never been more thankful to God that I was alive. I was the happiest I had ever been because the chaos, the madness and uncertainty was over, my life was my own again and I would not have to go bed at night wondering if I would die the next day. I was upset with myself because I was happy that I was not in Afghanistan; my buddies were still there and I was mad that I was not.
I cried all the time for over two weeks. Anything and everything set me off. I cried to everyone: the Priest, the chaplin, my mother, my father, my wife and my nurses. I kept telling stories and saying things like “God will never forgive me for the things I have done,” and “everybody thinks that I am a great guy but if they only knew the things that I have done and seen then they would never respect me.” I cannot imagine what this experience must have been like for my wife, parents and brothers. I am just now fully grasping what they went through. They are some of the strongest people I know and I hope that I never have to go through anything like that.
During this time period, I knew that I had started physically healing, but at the time I did not know that I had also started my emotional healing process. By not holding back any of my emotions and continuously talking to people, I had begun the road to emotional healing. If you have not started your emotional healing process then I encourage you to start. Just talking to someone and telling your story (stories) is a great place to start. For further discussion on this topic I have started an “Emotional Healing” thread in the discussion forum. Please feel free to post about how you have started your emotional healing process or what might be holding you back. Next week I will be talking about the first time that I thought I was going to die and the thoughts that were running through my mind. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org