Seeing the Elephant

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By: Kevin R. Flike

I had always wondered how I would react when I saw the elephant (seeing the elephant is a Civil War term for a soldier who experiences combat for the first time). For two years in the Special Forces Qualification Course (Q-Course) and my first six months as a Green Beret, I played out combat situations in my mind and thought about what I would do. I treated all of my training like it was real, however, the thought lingered in my mind; what is it going to be like when it is real? I could run through as many drills as I wanted to, but until my blanks turned into real bullets and paper targets turned into real people who were trying to kill me, I was left to wonder.

Upon graduation from the Q-Course, I heard rumors that some 1st Group companies were deploying to Afghanistan; I made it my mission to be in one of those companies. After graduation I told one of my instructors that I was trying to go Afghanistan. He replied, “Flike, be careful what you wish for because you just might find yourself in Afghanistan wishing that you could cut the buttons off your shirt so that you can get lower to the ground during a gun fight.” He was right, this happened multiple times.

My initial efforts to go to Afghanistan were in vain; I was assigned to a battalion that was not going. I was furious, I craved combat, I needed to see if I measured up. I felt like I had been practicing for a football game for over two years but never had the opportunity to play the game. Little did I know that I would be spending the better part of the next two years in Afghanistan. In August of 2009, while deployed in the Philippines we found out that we would be heading to Afghanistan in January for a seven-month deployment. Finding out that I was going to Afghanistan was one of the happiest moments of my life because I knew I would finally see the elephant. While I was going through Special Forces training, I used to pray to God that I have the opportunity to go to Afghanistan and face hardcore combat.

About a month and half into my first deployment to Afghanistan, my team went on a mission to conduct a key leader engagement (KLE) with village elders in a notorious Taliban stronghold. As soon as we turned off of the main road to enter the village our convoy started to receive mortar fire. When the first mortar dropped time stopped for me. I sat in the gunner’s turret stunned for what seemed like hours (only seconds). I had waited, trained and prayed for this moment for over two years and all I could think was “wow, so this is what its like.”

Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) and machine gun fire accompanied the mortars. This went on and off for the next five hours. Every time a mortar landed I held my breath and flinched. After I heard the explosion I would feel my arms and face to see if everything was ok. I had absolutely no clue where the machine gun fire was coming from. I had never been apart of something so chaotic; I had no clue what was going on. This was when I first learned that combat is pure chaos. Once everything thing died down, we returned to our base.

I had finally seen the elephant, it was awesome and I mean that in the true sense of the word, it inspired awe in me. There was just one problem; I did not fire a single round. I was manning the 50-caliber machine gun in our convoy’s rear truck and I never had a clear field of fire and therefore did not get to shoot that day.

I went to bed that night so excited that I could not even sleep. For the next two years in Afghanistan my mind, heart and body ached for more combat. If we went out on a mission and a firefight did no break out, I was upset instead of happy. There were many more times that I was involved in firefights, however, I was never satisfied. No matter what happened, it never lived up to my expectations. I wanted to see more of it and I wanted it to be more intense than the last time. It didn’t matter if it was an intense 20-minute ambush or a 10-hour fight in 130-degree heat. I always thought there was another team or unit out there that had been in a worse fight than I had and I was upset about that. I never came to grips with this until about a year after I was shot.

I started to realize that I had some incredible experiences in combat and did get to see quite a bit of it. The best way that I put it for a friend was that “I will not be satisfied until I storm the beaches of Normandy or Okinawa.” Well that’s never going to happen, so I will have to settle for the experiences that I’ve had. I heard a great quote from a man that I have already forgotten, “the worst gun fight was the one that you were in.” This quote is so true. I learned a valuable lesson from all of this; don’t measure your experiences against others. It did not matter if I had been 1,000 fights or zero. What I really needed to ask myself was, “did I give 100% and did I learn and fully appreciate this experience?” When I realized this and applied it to my life I started to enjoy things much more. I encourage everyone to view his or her life experiences in this manner. Please feel free to post in the discussion forum or the comment section about your first time in combat or how you learned to fully appreciate the experiences that life presented you.

Kevin R. Flike is currently a graduate student pursuing dual masters degrees from the MIT Sloan School of Management (MBA) and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (MPA) with an expected graduation date of spring 2016. Prior to grad school Kevin served as a Special Forces Engineer assigned to the 1st Special Forces Group and deployed to the Philippines, Thailand and twice to Afghanistan. On September 25, 2011 during his second deployment to Afghanistan, he was shot in the lower abdomen and was medically retired due to his injuries.

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