The Iraq and Afghanistan
Copyright © 2015
by Jonathan Pickering
Publishing by Jonathan Pickering through Amazon.com.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be recreated or shared in any form or by any means, electronically or mechanically, without the author’s consent except for review purposes.
For more information about this book please visit www.2020narratives.com.
My Pledge 9
We Said “No” 12
Thunder Run: Invading Iraq 20
The Second Battle of Fallujah: My First Firefight 29
Hearts and Minds and Toy Guns 45
The War from Inside Camp Liberty and Back Home 53
Sand in his Crack 59
EOD Pressure and Fighting a War of Attrition 69
A Year in Rocket City 79
Helping to Start From Within – Aiding Women in Afghanistan 87
No Black and White: Negative Experiences with the Afghan Culture 91
Surviving the “Surge”, Green on Blue Violence, and Trust Issues 95
The Frustrations of Tracking the “Bad Guys” in Afghanistan and Other Issues 107
Chasing the Rabbit 116
Women Get Purple Hearts Too 122
They Have Been Fighting Since Before I was in Diapers 129
Gray Scale 139
Dealing with Suicide, PTSD, and Working as a Veteran 143
Friendly Fire and Battling PTSD and the VA 150
Take a Knee, Drink Water, and Face Out 163
Nobody Can Heal by Themselves – An Examination of the VA 171
I trace the beginning of 20/20: The Iraq and Afghanistan Narratives to a party in late 2007 at my alma-mater, Emerson College. I remember little from that night except being completely dumbfounded by a comment a peer made. Hanging out in a poorly lit kitchen, sipping keg beer, people were talking about the problems we faced as a nation and as graduates. After griping about the economy, climate change, and a few other issues, I spoke up and said, “And don’t forget the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Without pause, someone emerged from the crowd and responded: “Yeah, but they aren’t like, real wars.” Those surrounding me quickly agreed.
It was at that moment that I got a glimpse of the level of confusion and apathy some have toward our military presence in the Middle East and the issues that surround it. As a young writer, ready to change the world with my new BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, I was driven to learn all I could about these conflicts.
I always considered the events surrounding Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom to be important, ever-evolving issues. Even today, as both wars begin to fade into history, their effects remain. In Iraq, ISIS continues its atrocious rampage, spilling into Syria and beyond. In response, the U.S. is sending our troops back to train Iraqi forces and engage in select combat mission in order to fight this wicked group of zealots. In Afghanistan, alongside the Afghan National Army, the U.S. military battles for supremacy over the Taliban as the United States continues to remain, train, and assist ANA soldiers while Special Forces patrol for insurgents with no clear end for a full-scale U.S. withdrawal in sight.
Yet, there is little wonder why these wars lost headlines sooner than they’ve concluded. These wars are perplexing, have had little tangible impact on the majority of Americans, and have run concurrently as two of the longest wars in our nation’s history. Added to this fact, there are other reasons why these wars are far from popular, or even relevant conversation topics. Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom were composed of an all-volunteer military, compounded by an all-time high of contracted logistic and security forces. Politicians and the media seem bewildered and conflicted over how to address the public concerning these wars and what they mean to our country and others. And finally, there are new economic, social, and martial conflicts to focus on. For these reasons and more, the American cultural landscape seems to have a general disinterest concerning these conflicts and its military as the 21st century dawns.
In recent history, some of the public’s maltreatment of our military after our troops returned from Vietnam was patriotically noted, and for the most part, discarded as an improper way to address our military personnel. However, ribbons on our bumpers and a sweeping appreciation for everyone in our armed forces doesn’t diminish the fact that our national connection with our military, its resonance, and how it affects our political and cultural identity, as well as those around the world, is weaker due to how we have chosen to use our military post-9/11.
As evidenced by the young party-goer and many other examples across our nation, the need to understand these conflicts and their impact is readily apparent.
The only place I could think to begin to understand these wars was by going to those whom our nation has so paradoxically embraced as heroes, yet have not bothered to truly understand: our veterans. By speaking with a cross-section of the men and women who served during these conflicts from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, I aimed to glean a better fundamental understanding of these conflicts. I started by having in-depth discussions with veterans I knew personally, then moved to the use of social networks, various military and veteran websites, personal connections, and other means, to get in touch with veterans that had stories to tell. It should be noted that I used pseudonyms for my subjects to protect their anonymity.
Aside from transcribing and editing the conversations that would make up the final narratives, what editorial liberties I have taken come in the form of footnotes and segues to illuminate particular parts of any given narrative. Added to this, I include brief introductions to describe the interviewee and the general content of each narrative.
Before attempting to compile this text, I knew very little about the details surrounding these wars. Coming from this simple perspective, the aim of this compilation is toward those I reflected before I began this journey: people that may have little to no knowledge of these events.
Now, in late-2015, having spent years gathering information and veterans’ stories while exploring what these conflicts mean, I have come away with little I fully understand about our country and its connection to its military except the following:
Bobby Muller, a Vietnam veteran and author of the introduction to the collection of military stories entitled What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It penned by Trish Wood, identified the problem in our national mindset toward understanding our conflicts and our military when he wrote: “The wars our country fights are our wars. We, as people, are responsible for them. The failure of many Americans to appreciate what’s involved in fighting a war is a source of frustration and alienation for those who have served […] and it’s not just happening to them, it’s happening to us” (Muller, xviii).
Here you will find what I hope will aid in remedying what Muller says is, “happening to us”, this separation between soldier and civilian.
As a writer, my hope is that my readers find the stories presented here as important as I do, and can take from them some small piece of knowledge concerning what war means to our military and our country. Understand though, this compilation is only a small example of all the countless stories that exist from these conflicts. All the veterans featured here deployed to one or both of these wars. Yet every veteran, offering their story in this compilation or not, fought their own version of Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and took back with them their own distinct saga of life in the war zone. So many stories have yet to be told. More importantly, so many wounds have yet to heal.
The stories presented here are not my own. These are the stories of a handful of men and women whose job it was to serve our country, often times putting their life at risk to do so. As the editor of this compilation, I offered these men and women nothing more than a chance to tell others what they experienced. In doing so, the tellers of these tales have offered much of themselves by sharing something so intense and honest.
Given the fact that these are not my stories, and that those whom I interviewed gave much of themselves in first bravely serving our country, and then, with another kind of courage, opened up to tell their piece of history, I have pledged to donate all of the profits I receive from this publication to two veterans associations.
The organizations I will donate profits to are the Veterans of Foreign Wars (www.vfw.org) and the Disabled American Veterans Charity (www.dav.org).
Both of these organizations have a long history of helping veterans in a variety of ways and are at the forefront of healing the wounds of America’s wars.
These organizations and I have not had, nor will have, any contact concerning my work. Neither are these organizations aware that they will benefit from the publication of this text.
It is my hope that the money offered to these groups by way of this compilation helps to alleviate some of the trauma caused by man’s most horrible act. Although my donations may be just a drop in an extraordinary large bucket, perhaps many such drops will eventually work to fill it up.
The Iraq and Afghanistan
Refusing orders in the military is treasonous. The punishment for refusing an order is severe, including the possibility of a long prison sentence or even death. 40 year old Army Sergeant Aaron Horford knew these risks and decided to refuse one of his orders anyway. What would push a soldier to give up on his duties?
Horford answers this question by detailing the horrors and inner turmoil he went through answering the call to arms after 9/11 and his experiences during his first tour out of Tallil Air Force Base in Iraq as a Motor Transport Operator. The most poignant moment of Horford’s tale comes when he enacted a rare piece of military jurisprudence. Horford and “17 or 18” members of his convoy team refused a mission they deemed “unlawful” and saw as a “suicide mission”, forcing an investigation into his command and putting him and his unit at risk for treason charges.1
Horford details his anger over being used as a “pawn” in the Iraq War and how his experiences turned him away from the military he had been a part of for almost two decades. However, despite all the personal difficulties caused by his service which remained with Horford once he returned home to his family in Florida, Horford was dutiful to his military contract.
Horford also briefly details his struggle to get help with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)^1^ and explains his frustration with the Veteran Affairs (VA) system, the national organization that allots veterans their medical care, disability checks, and other benefits. Although he has issues with the system, Horford is largely thankful that there are safety nets for veterans in place.
The first time I enlisted, I was in college, I was 22 [in 1991 as part of the Army Reserves. Horford served during, but not in, Operation Desert Storm]. I was 32 when I went back in after 9/11. I was quite a bit older than most soldiers. Most of them were 18, 19, 20. I was 32, had a family, was college-educated, so I was a little different. An 18 year old doesn’t have any sense they could die.
I wanted to train to be a nurse. I wanted to do something productive to help. I really didn’t want to kill anybody, but I wanted to help. I also wanted a set of skills so that when I came out I could use them for a job. I thought nursing would be great for me, but I didn’t get nursing.
Horford was trained as a Motor Transport Operator, learning how to drive massive rigs through different terrains as part of a larger convoy. Horford was selected for this because he spent a brief stint driving a truck around a college campus in order to pay for his education as part of the Army Reserves.
I initially reported to Fort Stewart, Georgia, home of the 3rd Infantry. I spent two months in Fort Stewart for initial training going through mobilization stuff, getting our shots, combat training, learning how to convoy, just all the basics. Then, I was sent to Kuwait where I underwent more training, additional convoy skills, what to do when you come under fire. After two weeks in Kuwait we sandbagged up our trucks. Basically, we didn’t have any armor at that time, so we used sandbags; put them all over the floor of the truck, on the door, on the roof. That was the first nine months. Then after that we got our hajji armor, which are steel plates.
In Iraq, IEDs were the weapon of choice.^^2^^ There were TCNs, third country nationals, that would be with us. The roads got so bad that these TCNs refused to go with us. Our mission was to drive these roads. We transported food, water, military supplies. The truck I had was very old, beat-up, falling apart.^^3^^ When we put those sandbags on, our truck had a soft-top, and about an hour to two hours into a convoy the weight on the roof was so heavy that the soft top was wiggling back and forth and the entire structure collapsed on us while we were driving. We had to pull over to get this shit out of it. When we were pulled over, my unit just kept on going. I was like, “Come on, what the fuck?” My unit was horrible and this kind of thing became the norm for us.
Part of the problem too was, we would be driving down a road, and there was always so much dust. It was so heavy and so thick that you can’t see three, four, five feet ahead of you. So, you are just praying the guy in front of you doesn’t stop. Meanwhile, convoys are coming the other way. They come so close that we would always break our mirrors off on other trucks. Also, our equipment was in such disrepair that out on the road tires would go flying off their axles, flat tires were constant; grease and oil from the bad axles would go flying everywhere all over the truck. Anytime we went out on the road something was going to break. We had to start cannibalizing our equipment. This truck is still working, this one isn’t, but we had to keep moving.
Our routes, they were like spider webs depending on where your assignment was. We would load up with our fuel at Tallil and usually you could make a run within a day. If we couldn’t make the run within a day, we would stop at various FOBs along the way.^^4^^ We would bunker down for the night and continue the next morning, then we would turn back to our home point. Sometimes though, we would spend two or three weeks out on the road for one mission before returning to our barracks in Tallil.
In my case, when we did the convoys, there was a lot of kids. They would line the roads and its 120 to 130 degrees [Fahrenheit] out there on the roads. I would see these families and these kids and they would have absolutely nothing. […] That impacted me. I wanted to throw food to them or water or anything I could do to help. But, orders came down not to help them. But when you see such suffering, I don’t know how anybody could drive by without wanting to do something. […] It just didn’t seem it was registering [with the U.S. military] what was taking place with these families and these kids. It wasn’t Saddam forcing them out, it was us. And what are you going to do, where are you going to go?
You go into the cities, the cities are crowded and dirty and they smell; poverty everywhere. Out in the desert, you see camels and these lines of people, but there is nothing out there. I labeled them as nomadic. And every once in a while you would be out on the road and come across these Iraqi children and one of them would have light skin and red hair; that hit home for me.
The first tour, we lived out of a tent on the road whenever we would stop at an FOB. It’s dusty and so hot, so I longed for a shower, you just were always dirty. They were still building up the amenities when I was over there. It improved throughout the tour, it was a work in progress. By the end of my first tour in Iraq they were tremendous. We got better food; we got moved into trailers.
We were told we couldn’t fly the flag on our trucks because we weren’t an occupying force. Driving through the cities you would see, particularly the younger men, they were not happy to see you and you could tell. They would make gestures toward you and that sort of thing. We were very, very fortunate in the sense that the civilians we came in contact with, they weren’t running up to say, “Hello”, but they weren’t getting in our way either.
Whenever you convoy, there were always people begging. That was really, really tough on me. You know, I had my son, and I was thinking of my kid in the face of these kids. What was interesting was, the Iraqis would set up stands on the side of the road to sell bootleg cigarettes, even drugs, alcohol, pornography, all these things we were told we couldn’t have and they sold it to us. So you would be driving down the road coming back towards the base and they would run up to your truck trying to sell you this stuff.
[Our commanders] would send us on these runs with the wrong fuel. And when we got to our destination, our fuel would be rejected. What it is, the more miles a unit logs, the better an officer looks. They were sending us on these runs with the wrong fuel knowing it was pointless just to log miles. They would give us JP-8 fuel which was used for aviation instead of the diesel that the tanks, trucks, and everything else would need.
So, our equipment was falling apart, it was barely, barely serviceable at all. [Also], we had no armor even though we heard orders come down that nothing is supposed to go off the base without being armored up. Our company ignored it though. Then we were given the wrong fuel over and over again.
[Because of these circumstances] there were about 17 or 18 of us that ended up refusing orders. We were ordered to do a convoy, this was eight or nine months in, and we said “No.” They said, “Here are your orders, go do it now,” but we just stood in formation.^^5^^
After being detained for insubordination, Horford and other members of his unit were punished.
What they did was to reduce me in rank. They dropped me down to an E-4, they took half of my compensation per month and now I’m supporting my wife and kids back at the house, so you are essentially punishing my family when it’s me that did this. I found that to be outrageous. It really pissed me off. They also gave us some extra duties like KP [kitchen patrol].
They stood our unit down. They did a detailed analysis of our reports on the fuel; the bad gas. Our reports also said our trucks were in dire need of service, so they got fixed up. The chain of command in our company got relieved. The captain had to go, the first sergeant had to go. We got a new captain and first sergeant. It was really, really ugly. So, when we were all done, getting ready to go home, for those of us that were involved, they just didn’t give us any accommodations medals or letters of valor we were entitled to due to our insubordination.
I returned home after that then ended up going back to Iraq in 2005 where I was supposed to be a Human Resources Specialist. I had switched my occupation. But the guy they had working as part of the helicopter convoy, he couldn’t do it, he was going to mess things up. So, I volunteered for that position and I loaded and unloaded helicopters. The work wasn’t bad, it was just that most of the transports would come at night, so I ended up working all night and sleeping during the day. Only, I didn’t really sleep much my second tour because there would always be mortars going off and it was just insanely loud all the time, so I couldn’t sleep. That was really hard on me.
Because of what I went through, I can’t work, I can’t be around people. If not for the benefits that were given to me, I’d be homeless. As hurt as I am from what happened, I also have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the support I have received. So, it’s a mixed bag. It takes a long time for veterans to get through the disability process. A year, two years, in some cases three years to get benefits. When you are really messed up, you’ve got nothing else. It’s a tough system to get through, but I’m so glad it’s there.
I’ve done a lot of driving to deal with everything. I lived on the road for a while and met other veterans and other people. You see the poverty that is out there and it correlates against what we did and all this money that we wasted. It’s just sickening. The military had always been to me, a bastion of hope, integrity, and honor. It became clear to me that we were a baseball bat. You are either going to comply with [the] will of the United States and corporations, or we are going to club ya [sic], and that’s what we did.
We went over there with this idealized set of values. We were told weapons of mass destruction, we are bringing democracy to the people, a better way of life, but then we get over there and we soon realized it wasn’t about that, it was about oil and greed. It becomes really, really hard to accept that you were a part of that; that you were a pawn. It was a lie. Then you come back and you see these occupy movements and how much the wealthy benefited from the Bush administration and how high our debt is. [Bush] dismissed all his generals that opposed him, that told him, “this is ludicrous,” and he fired them.
We went in with this philosophy of shock and awe. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, they were told if you are going to take over this country, this is how many troops you are going to need. But they said, “No, we can do it with smaller numbers.” So, they sent in cruise missiles and took out the entire infrastructure of Iraq. We dismissed the entire bureaucracy and it descended into chaos. What do these people expect from that? They created a power vacuum. And nothing was in place to manage the resources that were available and manage the distribution of food, water, and electricity to people. We went in and we created chaos.
In World War II, our troops were only supposed to have 40 days of combat exposure at one time. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our tours were in years. And it was dangerous every day and even at night when you go to bed, you aren’t safe. From this, we have more military people suffering from PTSD than ever before. And part of the reason for that is it was so nonstop with no break and it takes a toll.
I’ve gone through the VA system, the Army has retired me. This is a chapter in my life I am ready to close. I don’t want to deal with the military anymore. I didn’t do anything I’m ashamed of, especially since I didn’t have to kill anybody, so I don’t have that nightmare. When I did get back, there were a lot of problems, especially issues at the VA. It’s just that I want to close this chapter and focus on my kids and be the best father I can without thinking about all this stuff.
On March 20, 2003 the United States invaded Iraq. One of the people leading the charge was 19 year old Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Burke. Leaving a wife and small child at home in Illinois, Burke and his tank unit rumbled over the Kuwaiti border along with 148,000 other U.S. troops, 45,000 British soldiers, 2,000 Australian soldiers, and a host of smaller coalition forces. A joint attack force of 70,000 Kurdish troops, commonly known as the Pershmerga, also invaded from their bases in northern Iraq.4
Burke discusses being part of the “tip of the spear” as some of the most forward advancing units during the initial invasion of Iraq, pushing from the southern Kuwaiti border to Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, and beyond. This initial ground assault was labeled the “Thunder Run”.
Burke details his first combat deployment, being part of the initial invasion force, heading north to Baghdad, and being involved in one of the major firefights for the capital. Following the capture of Baghdad, Burke talks about the peaceful atmosphere that existed, if only briefly.
Jumping ahead in time, Burke explains his short time spent in the volatile city of Fallujah, a constant hot spot for insurgents throughout the war, detailing how his unit used offensive rules of engagement to aid in quelling the emerging resistance that would, months later, explode into a full blown insurgency.
My first deployment started in 2003 when I got deployed to Kuwait. […] We trained the Kuwaiti Army because they had bought a bunch of our old tanks and vehicles. So, we went out there for six months to train them. We had been out there for a couple months when we got the call. […] I was in one of the first vehicles to cross the border.
We had actually known we were going to be [invading Iraq] for a while. Nobody came out and said it, but we, being the infantry, we knew. We noticed our training regime starting to change a little bit and we knew.
The best way to describe what was in my mind was, fear, apprehension, and a few days later, and please pardon my language, “fuck it let’s get it done and over with.”
It’s not like you see in movies where people find out they are going off to war and write letters and all that, it’s not like that. We didn’t have time to do that. […] And once the date of March 19 got closer, we moved out of the bases we were in, in Kuwait City, and set up an operation point on the border of Iraq and we were there for about a week. […] It was our four Bradley [tanks] sitting on the border.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Me and one other guy were laying prone in a tank track berm^^6^^ along the border. It was night time, I want to say between 9 and 11 p.m. We were sitting there listening to our comms^^7^^ [sic] and everything and then our stomachs sank because what we heard overhead was this strange whistling noise [of the U.S. cruise missiles firing into Iraq]. It was the start of shock and awe.^^8^^
As soon as daylight broke we were across the border. And as soon as daylight broke, we actually came under SCUD missile attacks. However, they went overhead and into Kuwait City itself. They were aiming for Kuwait City because they thought we were still there, they never knew our exact positions, we were moving too fast. They didn’t even know we were on the border and we had been there for a week.
Once we got ready to go in, we all loaded up, [and] we ended up not having to do anything because the Air Force flattened them. So, basically, for the first week, week and a half, it was just sitting in the back of our tanks, rolling on up [north] through Iraq. […] These were the areas when I was first confronted with the death and carnage of war. We would roll into a town that the Air Force had just leveled [and] if there was any military vehicles or weaponry, you would take it out, dismantle it, disarm it, and we would push through the rest of the city while the next group came up.
You see it on T.V., but when you see buildings that are bombed, it hits you in a guttural way that you never expect. It’s almost primal. And then, [there are the] town folks coming through. Al-Nasiriya was a prime example.^^9^^ We were sitting there pulling security, and we see donkey carts and cars coming through. A car was leaving the city, and it had its trunk open. It had two bodies wrapped up in rugs and the rest of the family’s body parts laid up on top of the bodies.
The people were around [when the bombing began]. And what amazed me was, they were still gracious to us. They were still really nice. I think what it was, was they knew why we were there.
Eventually, Burke and his tank unit rolled into Baghdad. Below is Burke’s recollection of one of the most intense firefights for the capital city. Known as the Battle for Objective Curley, the battle took place between April 7 and 8, 2003 in the middle of downtown Baghdad.
There was a cloverleaf interchange [on the highway]. And you had my platoon^^10^^ and another platoon that had already rolled through [the interchange]. 1st Platoon rolled through and they got pinned down by enemy fire. Intel came in and we heard it was a platoon-sized element that was holding our platoon down. They had AKs^^11^^ and we have cannons? No problem. We rolled up in there, and the minute our first vehicle came to the cloverleaf interchange, the platoon-sized element of enemy fighters turns into a battalion.^^12^^ […] And it was everything. We were fighting the Iraqi Army, we were fighting Iranian freedom fighters and Syrian freedom fighters. The reason why [the freedom fighters] were there to fight was because they got their chance to get a shot at America and plus Saddam hired them.^^13^^
We started taking fire and we sent out a recon element from our platoon to go scout out and see where [the enemy was].^^14^^ Under [the highway] overpass, there was about a platoon-sized element of enemy forces dug into a trench. It wasn’t that deep, maybe only about six to eight inches. But it was just deep enough where we wouldn’t see them until we were right up on them. One of our recon guys that was sent out, he actually got so close he stepped on the barrel of one of the AKs of the enemy combatants. He and one other guy ended up getting pinned down under the overpass.
We had four Bradleys with us facing in multiple directions to where we were taking multiple sporadic fire. We had two of the Bradleys facing this trench. So, my Bradley Commander told us, “We have two soldiers out there, go and get ‘um.”
We dropped the ramp and my BC is yelling, “Dismount! Dismount!” And the second that ramp dropped and my feet hit the ground; you know in the action movies when you see people running through the dirt and you see the dust kicking up in front of them? That was exactly what was happening to us. The minute [the enemy] saw those ramps drop and saw us get out, they opened up with everything they had on us.
We took cover then we started laying down suppressive fire but it wasn’t exactly enough. So, we moved up onto the highway, up to the barriers on the on-ramp where we could have a higher elevation to see what was going on in the trenches below, so we could get a better sitrep.^^15^^
My squad leader wanted to get a better look, so he turns the corner on that on-ramp, exposing half his body. He takes a machine gun burst. And I don’t know how he did it, but he only got hit one time in the arm.
So, now we are dealing with, we still have two guys pinned down, our squad leader is shot in the arm; we are fully in the chaos of battle now. We are getting shots from 360 degrees, and we are trying to figure out the best way to take the enemy out.
We have to get over this on-ramp, and then this two lane road, with a space in the middle between these two lanes. Me and [a] specialist, we end up coming up on the on-ramp which was really bad because we were at the highest point in the battle exposing ourselves. We came up, crossed the on-ramp and gave each other covering fire. And [the enemy was] able to shoot up in-between the two lanes.
We ended up getting behind the enemy [from an elevated position] and we just started laying rounds into them. I went through 300 rounds, and [the specialist] went through three belts [from his heavy machine gun] which is over 600 rounds.
After that, we had our sister battalion from the one-six-four come in and give us covering fire because we were taking a lot of sniper fire from a nearby high-rise building. And, I’m sorry to say, but a lot of [enemy] lives were lost. But, God, it was awesome to see.
There was this bus that was coming down the highway that was filled with more [enemy] fighters in it. They were basically trying to reinforce the fight that was going on. And they had this 50 foot long white bus flying down the highway trying to use speed as their security to not get hit or anything. Our [other] sister battalion, the one-six-three, sees this bus coming from a mile away. They dump a main [tank] gun round into the bus. There wasn’t a big explosion, because the tank round was so powerful it just sheered the bus. But, at the same time, the kinetic energy traveled through the bus and flipped it.
The official counts were we had killed 350 enemy combatants. […] There was nobody left to fight after we were done, we cleared the entire battlefield. […] And this is still something that freaks me out. Total battle time for our platoon was about seven and half hours. My time, five minutes.
After these major battles were done, there was a change; something different was in the air. And it was a really good feeling. We got through it. We only lost two guys in our battle and Alpha Company only lost two or three. […] We were honestly expecting to roll up on the outskirts of Baghdad and walk into hellfire inferno. We got seven hours of it and that was it.
Since the fall of the statue of Saddam and the liberation of Baghdad, we get in there, we set up shop.^^16^^ And now we are like, what do we do? Because this is all new to us, none of us have ever done this before. So, we started running patrols, seeing if we could flush anything out. But, we couldn’t do it. The Iraqi civilian population did it for us, they were turning in insurgents left and right. It got to the point, we were sitting their pulling guard duty at a gas station and we had our bulletproof vests off, no helmet, no weapon, playing soccer in the streets with kids. It went from war to safe occupation very quickly.
Mind you, we are in the point right now, we are doing patrols to make sure people have electricity and stuff and the people are giving us free cigarettes, free food, free drinks, trying to get us to marry their daughters and everything.
We were considered the angels of death because of what we did in Baghdad. Our style was, go in there, and we didn’t take any prisoners, sorry. We would come in and destroy the enemy. If you were out past curfew and you had a weapon, you were done.
We were [also] doing the house to house clearing, kicking in doors and everything like that, […] and I hate to say it, but a boot to the door and a gun to the face, it has the same meaning anywhere you go.
As an insurgency developed following the invasion of Iraq, key areas of the country were swallowed by these hostile forces. The most infamous of these enemy havens was Fallujah.
Fallujah is a major city just 30 miles west of Baghdad that was destroyed, like most of the country, by gangs of looters and other criminals after the invasion. Although taken easily by American forces after the invasion, on April 28, 2003, a crowd of 200 demanding the re-opening of a secondary school that was then used as a military headquarters, were fired upon by members of the American 82nd Airborne watching from nearby rooftops. 17 civilians were killed and more than 70 wounded. The Americans claimed they were fired on first. The Iraqis who witnessed and were involved in the event deny this claim. Two days later, a rally against the killings also resulted in two deaths as Americans opened fire on the crowd. As time went on, the city got more volatile and an insurgency grew out of this violence.[8,9]
In order to take back the city from the enemy, the Marines launched Operation Al-Fajr (The Dawn) more commonly known as the Second Battle of Fallujah. The hellish urban warfare that followed was some of most intense fighting the Marines had experienced since Vietnam.10
In the middle of the carnage was 20 year old, California native Lance Corporal Garrett Mallory.
On an early November day in 2005, shortly after Operation Al-Fajr began, Mallory and his squad encountered their first firefight: a hidden ambush of enemy fighters that were waiting while Mallory’s squad went from house to house looking for insurgents and weapon caches.
Mallory begins by setting the stage for the second assault on Fallujah and goes on to describe what it was like being part of this massive battle as a radio operator. Going into further detail, Mallory describes what it was like engaging a platoon-sized element of enemy combatants in a vicious urban firefight while standing next to his commanding officer, attempting to call for reinforcements as the chaos of close quarters urban combat unfolded around him.
The Iraq deployment, they dropped us off in Kuwait and we had originally been told that it was for; to get qualified in a convoy course and that we were going to get back on the ship.
Mallory was deployed from Okinawa, Japan, originally destined for the Philippines.
So, mentally, nobody had prepared for this deployment and we didn’t know what was coming. […] I was in a Hawaii battalion and we were the last ones to get there. We came off the ship and we hadn’t trained for this at all. We trained for jungle warfare because we were supposed to be in the Philippines. […] We probably did three live fires, three to five live fires before we actually got [to Iraq]. […] Because the Marine Core is the least funded [of the U.S.’ four major branches of the military] we weren’t doing anything; we had trained with blanks.
So, we did the convoy course, but they offloaded all this military gear from the ships. It takes a long time to put that gear back on the ships and they said we were going to be there for two weeks, but it takes three weeks to clean the gear and get it back on the ship so that didn’t make any sense to me and I figured the war was going on and they were sending us there for a reason. By that time, the war in Iraq was a little over a year old, a year and a half or so. I had heard about the first battle of Fallujah on the news when I was in Hawaii. I knew it was intense, that it was a nasty street battle. When [my superiors] said we were going back to Fallujah, they said it was going to be more intense because, “We aren’t going to do it three times.” And it was.
We went there and in the span of; we lost the first guy in late October and to January, we lost 51 guys in my battalion. So, that was some old school Vietnam fatality statistics in the span of 12 weeks. My whole life changed in the span of that 12 weeks. It’s strange [now] when 12 weeks go and I notice it and I just think, you know, “Wow, I haven’t done shit for the past 12 weeks.” It just doesn’t take long to change how you see the whole world. I went from not expecting to go to combat into being tossed [to] some pretty intense street fighting.
There were a lot of people, their war was fought through IEDs and they never saw the enemy. I think those people, those who are coming down with PTSD and stuff, I call it the window of perspective. So, “I saw a lot of shit”, but you only know what you’ve seen. And it’s not a normal thing to get rocketed in the U.S. So, if you are stationed on a base and one rocket comes in, and you’ve never seen anything like that in your life and [the idea] hits you, you know, they are out there to kill you, that can rock [someone] as hard as Fallujah rocked me.
The intensity of the fight; there weren’t [supposed to be] any civilians in our sector which was particular to my battalion. So, we rolled through a lane that had been heavily prepared and fortified by the enemy who were foreign fighters who came from everywhere. They were from Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Chechnya; they came from everywhere. It was because, for nine months we’d advertised, “If you want to fight us, come to Fallujah because we are going to have this battle.” As the build-up was happening, I remember, civilians were told, “get out of the city”, because we were coming in. And there had been a steady flow of traffic. We spent the first month watching the city from the outskirts. There was a big stretch of desert from where our post was [to Fallujah], kind of like the suburbs of Fallujah. So, the enemy was in the city and we had it cordoned off.^^17^^ And we spent that first month just looking in.
The first guys who got blown up were when we were pulling out of an operation where we were watching a main road in and out of Fallujah. Another unit in Bravo Company, I was in Alpha, who was pulling out at the same time, and a car just turned right [into] the truck they loaded up into and blew up eight guys and they died and those were the first combat fatalities [of my battalion]. And that was something that stuck with me. I knew some of those guys from training. And we had already been taking rocket [and] mortar fire on a regular basis even out on a post and if you were on base there were a lot of rockets and a lot of mortars. It got to the point where you learned not to be scared of them because you’re just going to get hit by one of those things or you’re not. That’s why psychologically, a change starts happening.
As it progressed and got closer to November, the tempo kind of started building up, and just the way the unit and the unit commanders and everybody was talking it sounded; you could tell, “Oh, this thing is really going to happen.” So, I really didn’t have a doubt of that. I think it was November 8th or something like that where they told us to make phone calls because the phones are going to go black for three or four days where we couldn’t call out. And I knew it would be in that period of time where they launched the assault.
We got ready and we got out to the outskirts of Fallujah during the early morning hours and it was a division of marines all on a big line getting ready to assault the city. So, we were hiding behind a berm but; we had faked several times like we were going to attack and I can’t remember the cardinal direction we came from, it was either north or south, and ended up coming from the opposite direction. So, we set up guys like we were going to assault from maybe the north, but we ended up invading through the south. And the [enemy] had all set up as if we were coming from the north, so we had pretty light defenses when we pushed in that first day. The guys who went in on the first wave [were] Charlie Company and Bravo Company, and we were in reserve. Then, our company was going to the front from reserve [the next] morning.
[Charlie and Bravo Company] were supposed to have pushed pretty far into the city. We got dropped off [on the edge of the city at night] and we hiked into the city. We could hear all the gunfire and I could see tracers for the first time in my life and I didn’t like it.^^18^^ I couldn’t tell if they were far away or close or if they were shooting at us or what the hell. That beginning part, [moving into the city during the night and into the morning], was confusing but I knew it was going to be bad in the morning when the daylight popped up, and it was. And there was so much gunfire.
[In the early morning hours] we were supposed to be pushing up and taking the lead from Charlie Company. Right on the other side of this wall, there was this Abrams tank and it’s firing its main gun and I had never seen anything like that. I was the radio operator, so I was stuck to the lieutenant. And I’m on the radio trying to figure out where fucking Charlie Company is and they are right next to us, they hadn’t pushed into the city at all, they had just been in a firefight the whole time. To me, that was shocking, that marines could be stopped.
As the sun came up and as soon as we took the lead, the enemy pulled back. [Another] Company was under some gunfire and me and the lieutenant took sniper fire in the first ten feet into the city. But, that sniper got killed and I didn’t really see anything after that until four days later.
We were just clearing empty buildings for four days going into the city and it just looked like a ghost town. I figured [the enemy] just ran away. We were probably breaking into 70 houses a day because we had to clear every house in the city. So, it’s top to bottom, one after the other and it’s very monotonous. […] It doesn’t matter if there are guys in it or not, but you don’t believe that there will be, especially because when every door is empty for you know, 300 houses or something like that.
And this one; we were clearing down the road and we started noticing weapons. And there were weapons and dead bodies all over the city. The Army had rolled through our sector to soften our position. And they rolled through in vehicles, so they didn’t actually go through and clear the houses, they just drove down these roads and did drive-bys pretty much. So, the devastation and the destruction from that was left all throughout the city. There was just dead enemy left in the street because nobody was coming to pick them up because the city was just a war zone.
We were clearing down a block when we found a brand new AK-47. 1st Squad’s leader,^^19^^ he was pretty stoked about that because it looked like it was right out of the box and we like to shoot guns so, it was cool. We were using AKs at that time because we would use them on all the locks on all the doors. We were finding a lot of AK-47s and we were running out of shotgun breaching rounds to shoot the locks off the doors. Nobody had understood. It was just lock after lock after lock.
We find the brand new AK-47, and I can remember the smell. I was feeling shitty and I must have looked bad enough the doc was looking concerned at me. We walked into this house and there were all these bodies. There were three bodies inside the house. One of them was covered up with a blanket. And as I moved into the courtyard, I could see that the kitchen door was open which was in the front of the building. […] The kitchen door had a body lying in it and I could tell [it was dead] because it was just huge and I could see the boots hanging out from under the blanket. And we had gotten an order earlier that day because [another unit] was blown up by three guys with a white flag; that if we saw any bodies in the city, to just shoot them because they pretend [to be dead]. We had been legally advised that a white flag, we didn’t have to honor it and a white flag is a request for parlay, and it didn’t have to be honored given the rules of engagement we were given before the battle. So, I look at that body, and I shoot it twice. And the courtyard was right there, so everybody else had just walked right by [the body]. I wanted to be kind of funny too because everybody was just kind of looking at it. And it smelled so bad, it was obviously long dead. And the lieutenant looked at me, and he was like a bigger brother, I was 19 while I was out there and he was 23, and he’s in charge of 30 guys. But to me, 23 was a more experienced older person. He just looked at me and said, “Hey Mallory, you want to shoot that body, and then you can check him.” So, I asked my buddy who was standing next to me if I could borrow his gloves to check the body. And the smell that I encountered for the first time, to be that close to it, all that stuff. You have to do it, you have to check it. And I had the same reaction any civilian would having to deal with that mess.
When I pulled the blanket back, it was sticky; there was just sticky gunk attached to the blanket and the smell is just overwhelming. I also noticed his hands were bound. [I soon realized] that [the body] had been there for a while and that this guy is well rotted. When I removed the blanket you wouldn’t know that there had been a face there. I could see mush and some teeth. It was evidence that he had been shot in the back of the head.
So, what had happened was, the civilians, some of them stayed there and the foreign fighters that came in, they would take [the civilians] and execute them for their house. I’m pretty sure that was [the dead person’s] house. I felt pretty awful. […] That changed how I felt about things and how I acted.
Coming down to the next house; and there was an RPG^^20^^ set up and ready to go under the first stairway. And we had found a sprinkling of weapons while clearing. We did not realize it at the time but the weapons were breadcrumbs leading to the insurgents. Because they thought we would approach from the other side of the city they set up weapon caches and fought it like the first battle where they could not be engaged without a weapon, so they would toss their weapon and fall back to the next house with a loaded weapon. And in this [next] house there was a courtyard and a shallow grave and it had a yellow, bloody stretcher outside of it and a Russian entrenching tool which is like a little shovel.
And their houses look a lot like the houses I grew up in. I grew up in suburbia in the desert of California. […] Except these houses were a little bigger and they were all made of concrete that was at least three feet thick. […] And they have a front lawn and stuff just like we do. And I saw that and everything was like our houses, it was just so dark to me, nothing felt good.
The doc asked if I was okay and I said, “Yeah.” Because what the fuck are you going to do? You are in combat mode.
[Entering the house] I sat down on the couch in the living room because that backpack was so heavy it just killed me out there and I got the radio and body armor and stuff. I was sitting down with the lieutenant and the doc in the living room on the front couch and we were just taking a little break while the other guys were clearing out the house. And then the squad leader walked up to us and he said to my lieutenant, he said, “Sir, I want to take this AK and go fire a couple of rounds off with the boys.” So, the lieutenant said, “okay”, and [the] squad leader put his guys together and they went out the front door and went to go fire the AK off. I called it in on the radio just in case we got friendly in the area; the direction they were firing, because everybody has to know that; controlled fire.
I heard them fire off the rounds and I feel like, a minute later, or something like that, I heard the most intense gunfire I’d ever heard in my life. Just a rain, a rain of death right next door. And it sounded like what I thought war would sound like. And it was just quick. So, immediately I could just tell that whatever was going on over there, we were outnumbered and the sound was just, it was just something I can’t even explain. […] That kicked off and I don’t know what was really going on so I just started doing my job.
I got on the radio and called in the contact report but they didn’t believe me. I said, “We’re under fire.” But nobody had been hit in four days and it looked like a ghost town. So, I’m calling back to the [unit] that is about a mile behind me and they are the guys that coordinate all the help and all the assistance we need. But, because I called in the AK thing he thought I was full of it and I guess I was too calm about it. So, I said again, “We are taking fire.” And this guy said, “No, be advised, blue, [my unit], is firing AK rounds.” And I said, “No! We are taking fire.” And I just held the radio up and the captain came on the net and he asked me to tell him what was going on. And as I’m starting to do this, [marines] are starting to come into the house.
The first guy to come into the house was Mason. He is this huge guy and a good guy. My position in the platoon was, I was one of five new guys, […] fresh out of boot camp. Most of my platoon were senior guys. I was one of the youngest guys in the platoon. But Mason, he was a nice guy. He had bullet holes all over his chest. And something on his head, the [protective insulation from the] helmet was coming out and he was moaning and I thought; I didn’t know what happened, he looked like he was going to; he had been shot. So, he said, “check me.” I went and I looked into his body armor, you can pull it back a bit, and we didn’t have side plates back then like they do now. I pulled it back. I looked in and I didn’t see any blood and I ran my hand across his chest and I didn’t see anything. I had him turn around and there were three holes on his back and then the same thing, there was no blood. So, the guy had been shot seven times and nothing went through [the protective armor]. The other guys are filtering in and we get back a chunk of guys, but it’s obvious a bunch of guys didn’t make it in back through the courtyard.
So, there is this one [marine] having a firefight in the courtyard of [the] house. And because of our side of the house, we didn’t have a good angle; we don’t have windows or anything. It was the side of the house with a wall on the other side and then the other house [the enemy was in] right next to that. We didn’t have a good field of fire. And we couldn’t get anybody on the rooftop because [the enemy] was on their rooftop. And they kept throwing these pipe bombs off the top of [their] roof; you could tell they were handmade or homemade bombs. And those kept blowing up all along the side [of the house].
So, [the marine in the courtyard] he runs off to the side and out of view. I thought he was going to assault the [enemy] house by himself. But he comes back and he is dragging a marine who had just been all sorts of shot up. And he gets him inside the house.
Then another marine comes in who was my roommate in Hawaii and he had been shot through both his legs. He was this little, chubby Mexican kid, […] and I remember he was just pumping all these rounds as he was coming in. He was firing the whole way back [into the house]. But, as soon as he did that, he dropped his gun and he began having a breakdown. He started screaming, “We’re all going to die,” because their gunfire was so much more intense than ours.
The captain over the radio asked me how many [enemy] there were. I began to cry because of my roommate and the captain could tell so he broke protocol and talked to me like a human and I snapped out of it and I told him there was a platoon-sized element, […] which is about 30 guys. And in [our] house there were about nine [marines], not counting the wounded. So, [the captain] came back over the radio and was like, “There is no way you are engaged with that many.” He said, “I know it’s your first time in a firefight,” and stuff like that. “But, I need to know.” And I just told him right away, again, “No, there are, if maybe not 30, there are a lot.” I was pretty sure we were going to be overrun.
We were just waiting in that house and they kept throwing pipe bombs in the house through a side door. One marine goes over to the side door and just starts having his own firefight with these guys. The [pipe bombs] would come in and they would explode and he would grab the door and just slam it. A [pipe bomb] would blow up right by the door and the door would fly open. Then more gunfire and another pipe bomb.
Then this [marine], he ran out into the courtyard. And the courtyard was just a kill zone. Nobody was in the courtyard. He starts having his own firefight with these dudes on the roof next door. And I couldn’t believe it. This [marine], he was a Mexican, illegal immigrant, and he’d always talk about glory to me, like he was there for glory, […] he didn’t give a shit about anything else. He didn’t care about why we were there or nothing. The guy was there like a Bushido, like old school warrior.^^21^^ He believed in fate and he was like, “If it’s my time, God will take me and that’s it.” […] Whatever he believed, he just went walking into gunfire. […] I was sure he was going to die. I knew that, I just; I knew he knew that. And I was pretty sure he was about to figure it out. And he lasted longer than I thought he would. He was out there doing this little dance and shooting at this [enemy soldier] up on the roof. I can’t see the guy up on the roof because my vision is obscured. So, he just starts shooting and shooting, then he takes his M-16^^22^^ […] and puts it down on its side and pulls a hand grenade out of his pouch. I was thinking, “What the fuck? You don’t have time.” You always have to fire if you are exposed. You have to shoot. And [he] dropped all his support and pulled out a hand grenade and threw it on top of the roof. After he threw it on top of the roof, he just dropped like a sack of shit. I thought he was dead. He was shot. I couldn’t tell where he was shot, I just saw him drop. There was a moment; a moment when he was on the ground where he tried to crawl back in through the front door [of the marine’s house]. But, the two marines up at the front door, there was so much fire going on up at the front door and in that courtyard that they couldn’t even get that half a foot out to grab him and pull him in, and he was asking for help. [Eventually], he just gave up on that and pulled [himself] in. They flipped him over and he was hit three times in the chest in a pretty good grouping. But again, nothing went through [the protective armor]. So he went back to his position along the side door.
And while this is happening we hear a big bang. And after we hear this bang, the squad leader comes running over to me and the lieutenant and he says, “There are 20 motherfuckers running down the street, sir.” When he said that I thought [the enemy] was reinforcing and we were dead because we couldn’t get any support. I kept calling in for help to get a tank out there to just take care of the problem [but] the tanks were back in Camp Fallujah refueling and so were the tracks.^^23^^ So, we had nobody out there except; the only thing we could get was a bomb, a 500 pound bomb from the air, but we were too close to the [enemy] house. So, there was no support, it was just us and them and [small arms].
[Then] the lieutenant grabbed a bunch of guys and said, “Get up on the roof.” So, we ran up to get up on the roof and I thought we were dead, like I just thought we were going to walk outdoors and just get cut down. And a few of the guys that had just run up ahead of me and the lieutenant, they just started shooting [at the enemy]. […] [My squad’s] machine gunners are just going to town. And I don’t know what they are shooting at because I can’t see it yet. So, I just call on the radio, and it seems like we are okay although I don’t know what the fuck is happening. Me and the lieutenant, we walk up to the edge were [the] team leader is shooting, […] and he says, “Hey, there is one over there.” And the team leader is trying to shoot at him, [the enemy is] behind a dumpster and [the] team leader can’t get him. So, then he; he forgets he has a grenade in the launcher attached to his rifle. So he shoots a grenade at him and he just says, “Got him.” And I look down over the wall and there are just dead bodies [of enemy combatants] all over the street that our machine gunners just cut down, something like 15 guys.
What had happened was, […] [the enemy] had fled their building and I; I still don’t know why they broke contact. There was a [marine] down the street who got separated when the engagement first kicked off. And he ended up firing a rocket into the house next door to that [enemy] house. [This was the “big bang” described earlier]. He was supposed to hit that [enemy] house but he hit the wrong one. And [later I was told] it was a thermal [round] that just exploded in flames. And [then] these [enemy combatants] got out of there. And when they got out of there, they thought they knew our rules of engagement; when they got out of there, they tossed their weapons down and were killed running straight down the road trying to reach houses on that street where we found weapons including an anti-aircraft gun attached to a pickup truck. They were just cut down in the street, all of them.
The first wave of 20 people [to exit the enemy house], I think some of them got away. But, they only made it down the street. They ended up running into a whole blocking position of another unit who just happened to be there.
The total count [of enemy dead] was about 30, […] we had four wounded. […] That was my first firefight and the next one was worse than that.
As Operation Iraqi Freedom progressed, the mission changed. The U.S. military’s objective went from routing out insurgents to rebuilding the Iraqi government’s infrastructure. This phase of the war effort was known as the “hearts and minds” campaign.
27 year old Corporal Douglas Heinrich was one of the marines that had to quickly adjust his expectations of war as he entered the battlefield in 2007. The Colorado native explains how he and thousands of other soldiers and marines had to change their perspectives’ toward their training and what their war would be like in regard to the “peace keeping missions” they engaged in instead of the expected combat. This fact, among other cultural and psychological oddities, caused Heinrich some confusion during his time in the combat zone.
Heinrich also details some of the more notable moments of his deployments such as when he instinctively aimed his weapon at a child, a night his squad received small arms fire from a single shooter, the first combat death of a fellow marine, and what it was like being hit by an IED, one he would later discover wasn’t placed by insurgents, but instead, Heinrich’s Iraqi allies, in a bizarre twist of fate that Heinrich believed summed up his experiences with the local police.
Finally, even though he was just “a grunt on the ground”, Heinrich explains how he witnessed the seeds of corruption that went up the chain of command in the Iraqi government.
It was a huge change in the rules of engagement from the 2003 invasion to four years later. During the invasion, it was hit and run, shoot first ask questions later and for us it was like, “You can’t shoot at anyone unless they shoot at you first.” Generally, we were trying to build a rapport with the people rather than kill them.
My first deployment was roughly a year after the Haditha Massacre.^^24^^ The people, how can they respect us after something like that? Now, we are talking the exact same area. So, we can do what we can, but you aren’t going to win them over after stuff like that. […] Our company, which was about 150 people, occupied our one base. It was literally just a manmade outpost in the middle of a suburban area. We just made it out of sandbags and [cement] barriers and windows made of bullet proof glass.
We were an infantry unit; a combat unit. So during all our training, we [were] only training for combat. And then we get over there and we aren’t doing combat, we are doing peace keeping missions if you will, we are going out and just talking with people. So, you prepare, “we are going to war, right?” and you deploy into something completely different. So, you have to pull back your training a little bit. We were doing nine months of shooting ranges, down and dirty fighting and then we didn’t actually put any of that into practice. It required a lot of self-control for everyone. Because, your typical Marine Core, kill, kill, kill, absolute dominance, that’s what the Marine Core is for. We had to retrain ourselves for the first month or two we were over there and we had to change our idea of what our mission really is. […] It was basically police work. We were doing forensics. We weren’t even trained for it. And we’d say, “We aren’t shooting people, we aren’t throwing grenades, we aren’t throwing flash bangs, we’re just talking to people.” We’d spend whole days going out to a small town and helping people and getting them shoes if they needed shoes or other supplies, and I would ask, “What are we doing?”
But you have to accept it. It’s just how it is and we just have to adjust our expectations. What infantrymen, marines, were and still are doing is still not necessarily what they signed up for and what they are training for.
So, we’d go on patrol and you’d be walking down the street and it would just be farmers and more normal people just going about their day to day business. You go up to a farmer or something and you play with his kid and they are smiling and happy or something, then maybe they’ll take you inside and have some chai tea, and that’s good, right? I wouldn’t say anybody wouldn’t want that rather than people shooting at you all the time.
It was pretty miserable though, because basically, you are just sitting there in this box by yourself. We’d usually go for eight hours at a time and there would be just nothing. You find some pretty interesting ways to keep yourself entertained and stay awake. […] It is kind of weird. When you are over there, you just don’t think about it, you just do it. […] I never really felt scared let’s say. You know, I had a loaded assault rifle to protect myself and IEDs are there, but what are you going to do about those? You just have to trust your training. Hopefully, you’re not the one. When you are out there and it’s 110 degrees and you are wearing all that armor, you aren’t thinking about who is trying to kill you, you just have your head on a swivel and you focus on the mission objectives and what you have to do.
A lot of the time, we were on vehicles because our patrol had a rather large AO [area of operations]. We also did a lot of cache checks out in the countryside. We would go outside the city and just comb the desert just looking for bomb making materials and weapon caches. Our squad found two [caches] during our deployment, Alpha Company as a whole found a good amount. Every couple days one would be found. Finding a bomb cache was fun. You’d get a reward. You’d get to watch it blow up. It was fun.
Next, Heinrich relates several anecdotes concerning some of the more memorable moments of his deployments.
It was a little tiny kid, maybe ten, ten-ish [sic]. We were driving [in Humvees]; we were on a patrol and I was the turret gunner for the third and final vehicle.^^25^^ And the kid poked out a toy, I mean, it had to be a toy. I obviously couldn’t say, but it had to be a toy. He pointed it at the vehicle. And just your first reaction, all that training kinda [sic] kicks back in, I got my M-16 right next to me. First thought, “I’ll drop him,” you know. I’m thinking, “It’s this ten year old kid, what is he doing? He’s pointing a gun.” Why did he have it, why did he do it? I don’t know, I mean he was about ten and this was about five years into when the war started, he’s spent half his life in a war zone essentially; all he knows is shooting and death, and who knows maybe his older brother died in the invasion or something, so maybe he holds a grudge. […] It was a crazy situation, and it had to be a toy. If it was or it wasn’t, he didn’t shoot anyway, so.
It was about 2 a.m. on another patrol. We were driving down the street and we took gunfire from someone on one of the roof tops. You couldn’t see anything. It was the middle of the night. I don’t think he had the equipment we have, the night vision. So, there is just this AK-47 popping off shots off some roof top towards our vehicle. We could hear them, but we didn’t know where they were coming from. And all I was thinking was, “Why? What can this possibly accomplish?” I mean, it’s the middle of the night, you aren’t going to hit us. […] We stopped the patrol and specific people were chosen to dismount the vehicle. […] The squad leader and the patrol leader, they dismounted and looked around the area, probably for about half an hour trying to see where it was coming from. But I mean, it stopped and the dude was gone. They found no trace of anything; they couldn’t find where he was shooting from. […] It was just random. It was kind of weird. I mean, why would someone do that? I don’t know. It was just one guy on top of a roof. It wasn’t even really a sniper attack, just some dude popping off shots, he fired off maybe 15 rounds total. It was a totally weird experience. Like someone was trying to shoot at us but wasn’t looking for a fight.
For my second deployment, [we had] our battalion’s first death and it was about two days before Christmas, […] about four months into my deployment. He was sitting in the back seat [of a Humvee]. There was an Iraqi, or he could have been an Iraqi, he was dressed in those long robes that are custom. He hid a grenade in his long sleeves and then kind of chucked it underhand at the vehicle and it blew up and killed the kid on the spot. And you think, “Hey, that could be anybody.”
Finally, Heinrich relates a story that he thought summed up his experiences working with the Iraqi police.
When we were leaving, this is early 2009, we were abandoning our outpost, so, nobody was going to take it over from us. […] About three weeks before we were scheduled to come back, we moved out of the FOB and demilitarized it, basically made it a skeleton of an outpost. Then, we moved to a gigantic military base right next to Camp Fallujah. It was huge. All four branches of the military were represented there.
We did a couple of patrols. We were still responsible for our old area, but now we had all this new area. The amenities were great. Taking showers instead of dumping water bottles on myself to get clean, stuff like that. But, we were winding down.
Now two weeks before we were headed home, we went out, seven in the morning, on this patrol. I was the turret gunner on this patrol and just outside of base, boom, they pop an IED right there. It completely disabled our vehicle, sent us flying 30 feet down the road. […] It was a pressure plate IED which has a trigger and when too much pressure is applied it goes off, so this one was actually triggered by the vehicle running over a little strip instead of a remote bomb. It took a second to go as the front wheels rolled over it. It was on the right side of the road and kind of blew off the whole back end of the vehicle. We were driving an MRAP, which are specifically designed for IEDs, to take one and we could all come out completely unscathed.^^26^^ […] I was in the turret so I had a bird’s eye view. It happened right behind me, right over my shoulder. I heard it go off and I turned, but I was pretty disoriented from the blast because it knocks your bones around a little bit, the concussion. So, I wasn’t fully aware of what was going on for a few seconds. I mean, I knew it was an IED, and after a couple of seconds, it was, “let’s get to what we have to do.” It was a pretty good size, it wasn’t a massive one, but it completely disabled the vehicle; undriveable [sic]. […] It was crazy. It was also strange though. We weren’t out in our FOB anymore, we were at this huge base. […] Usually after an IED goes off, you expect an ambush. So we were all prepared, but nothing happened. So, the engineer crew came out and dragged the vehicle away.
I remember an intelligence officer going around trying to figure out what happened. His take on the situation was that the IED was planted not by insurgents, but by Iraqi police who wanted to legitimize their situation with us. […] Basically, the Iraqis set it up so they could respond to it and show their legitimacy; that they can do something. They didn’t care if they killed somebody.
Those guys [the Iraqi police officers] were terrible though. […] They weren’t drunk or stoned every patrol, but it did happen sometimes. You try just to forget it. They were more of a liability for us to do our jobs. It was like carrying around children. They didn’t want to be there.
At this point, [late in my second deployment in 2009] we were trying to transition out of the country. I would say, 90 percent of the time, the only reason we would go on patrol was to train the police. So, nobody would want to go and they would just hang around the police station. They were super lazy. They had no work ethic; they got paid terribly. But I mean, can you blame them? What do you expect? But at the same time, they are the police force of their country. If they don’t want to police their own country, what’s going to happen? I mean there is corruption, corruption big time. […] I was a lance corporal, so a grunt, and it was so obvious what was going on.^^27^^
Not everyone operated off-base or outside the wire. In fact, some of our troops remained on-base for their entire time overseas. 20 year old Army Specialist Ray Drombowski was one veteran who spent the whole of his deployment on-base.
Drombowski was as an Artillery Mechanic at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, one of the biggest U.S. bases created since the Vietnam War that housed thousands of soldiers, vehicles, vast amenities, and other necessities of war in a several square mile radius.
Drombowski talks about what life was like being deployed to Camp Liberty and spending his entire deployment there discussing a series of personal thoughts and experiences.
All the mechanics [in my unit] got deployed as general/radar repair or radar operators. I was one of the lucky ones who got to work in the actual motor pool in Camp Liberty. Our whole unit was spread out around every little corner of Iraq you can imagine, […] some were so remote they got resupplied once a week, if they got lucky. Although, there was one thing I learned from other mechanics I had talked to who were deployed to a [large base like Camp Liberty]. They didn’t see themselves as being out there in the middle of nowhere or going out on patrol or something. But some of them did [go out], they weren’t just stuck back on the base fixing stuff while others were going out with combat personnel. And that kind of surprised me, to hear mechanics going out with infantry, or EOD^^28^^, or whoever it may be, because they weren’t trained in the combat profession you might say.
The Army, the Marines, everybody was stretched thin. A lot of people had to play a lot of different roles to get the mission accomplished. But, when I was there, I didn’t have to leave the base once, not once. When I entered from Kuwait and when I went home through Kuwait, those were the only times I was off base. But, even while I was on base, I didn’t work on the vehicles I was trained to work on. I worked on Humvees, lots of generators, and some radar stuff. On top of that they had me ordering parts and picking up parts and I also had to pull 18 hour duties because the chain of command; man it was so horrible.
Camp Liberty was a nice base, I’ll give it that. […] We had lots of resources, Internet, phones to call home, I mean everything you can imagine. The only thing we didn’t have was a swimming pool. Food places, coffee places, bars, they made it like home pretty much^^29^^. You could get anything, besides alcohol. That was one thing that had to be shipped in if you wanted it [and] some people did.
You get to know the traffic of the base, the times everyone is moving, the times you might get bombed or something. And we were right next to this big hill on Camp Liberty, and it had a radar tower or a weather tower or something, you know, it had one of those little red flashing lights. Great idea to place one of those next to our base when the enemy is shooting at you and using mortar rounds. They have a great thing to aim for. Day or night you could see that thing. Right before I got there, they hit our chow hall really hard. So, they told different units to try and break up when everybody went to chow so there wouldn’t be such a line outside to get in. […] [During the holidays] everybody would get together to sing Christmas songs, and around Christmas time, they liked to hit us a lot.
The first major attack I was there for, […] we got hit and it was really, really close. They hit all over the base. One hit about 20 yards away from my motor pool. [Insurgents] usually just shoot and scoot, shoot and get out of there. When I went on ‘R’ and ‘R’ they got hit a couple times when I was gone too.^^30^^ One time, they almost hit one of our radars. […] But we had these Gatling guns, we call them Phalanx “cee-wees”.^^31^^ They look like R2-D2 with a Gatling gun on it man, I’m not going to lie. They use air burst rounds so they try to hit [the mortars or rockets] in midair or try to knock them off course. Seeing those fire, that was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. […] They look like laser beams because they fire so fast, because every tracer round is every fourth or fifth or sixth round that would light up and it would just look like a laser beam. It was just amazing. With those things, you think of your safety, and you say, “I’ll be okay. Nothing is getting through. I’ll be okay. I think.”
I also got to see some of Saddam’s palaces in Baghdad and those were absolutely amazing to see, […] and how serious, or not serious, Saddam actually took it. I mean, gold-platted everything.^^32^^
[After spending my deployments on base] I have more respect for those that go into the combat field. When I was deployed my best friend from high school was deployed with me. He was in northern Iraq, three hours north of me I want to say. He went in as infantry, and he got hit a lot. A lot, a lot. And he wouldn’t tell his family or his girlfriend or anybody back home about it, he would tell me. He didn’t want to worry his family. So, I got to hear a lot more of that. It was probably healthy for him at the time. Just helping him get it out, kind of being there for him at the time. Some people think we all did stuff like that, like went out on patrol and stuff. And I didn’t know that [combat platoons] got out of their vehicles so much and stuff, and going door to door a lot of the time. Or, even when they are in their vehicles, how much vulnerability they have. It really made me think about a lot of things and what they go through. [My friend] had a couple close calls. He had his optics for his 50-cal [machine gun] explode and shatter glass into his face, but he turned away quick enough [not to be blinded]. [He had] a lot of close calls like that. But, he ended up being [physically] fine. He has some PTSD though. That’s the never ending war, PTSD. I used to struggle with it a little bit myself, not so much anymore. I rarely have a nightmare about anything, maybe once a year.
When I got back from Iraq, […] I just went home and drank for a while, really doing a whole lot of nothing. I remember I got out in December  and I went back home [to Minnesota] the next day and met up with a high school friend and me and him would hang out and we would drink every day and sat around and [we] did absolutely nothing for about nine months. I spent the money I had left over from my deployment. And I tried getting a job, but apparently, I was over qualified. This was with a company that built truck trailers. I was over qualified for that job, I don’t know how. Then I moved to Seattle shortly after that and started going to college [to become a] diesel technician, which is where I’m at now. I have two quarters left before I graduate, using the GI Bill money. Hopefully it will give me a nice job and I won’t have to worry about my next pay check.
Even though Drombowski didn’t operate outside the wire and face combat, he never-the-less brought home some problems from his time in the war zone.
I have a lot of questions from my deployment about the things that happened, […] and I have a lot of general problems, you know, that a lot of veterans have, the VA issues. […] I got home to my home state of Minnesota and they sent me this huge packet of stuff. And I wanted to make a claim because my hands would shake when I get nervous or excited or anything, they shake twenty-four-seven. Sometimes it’s worse; sometimes it’s not so bad. Mostly, I just wanted to know why; why they shake and how to fix it. And Minnesota, they didn’t give me any access to health care and they denied my disability. So, I was like, “Okay, I can deal with that.”
When I moved to Seattle, [the Seattle VA Office] actually contacted me and was like; they said they were doing this neat program thing where you can get free health care for ‘X’ amount of time because I was a vet. And they did an amazing battery of tests on me and they took blood and did a CAT scan and all these things. Then it took a while, but they tried to give me a real straight answer on why I shake and why I sometimes talk with a stutter. The doctor said, “There are some medications you can take, but there are going to be side effects. Or, or, you can drink a little bit of beer, alcohol, and that will calm it down.” And I was like, “All right, all right.” And I did that because I love beer. That was something that could help it without giving me mass side effects. Even though I suffer from [shaking hands and a mild stutter due to PTSD symptoms] I know how I can help it. And I’m happy with that.
I get this question a lot whether it be from fellow vets, friends, or just strangers, “If I had the chance to do it all over again would I?” I would do everything the way I did it in a heartbeat, with no questions asked. I wouldn’t do it for the college money or the mechanic experience, I would do it because of the people I met. At the time most of them were decent people with good intent but after getting out I have, unfortunately, had to weed out the good ones from the bad ones and cut contact all together with the bad ones. I met my best friend while in the Army and she has been there for me in the good times and the bad times and that’s why I would do it over again.
The stress of balancing home life and deployment is immense. 23 year old Army National Guard Sergeant Damon Blatche came close to giving into this stress while in Iraq, going so far as to put a gun in his mouth and contemplate pulling the trigger.
Blatche was a Combat Medic who volunteered for two tours of duty. Blatche’s first year long tour was in a clinical role working out of a hospital in Baghdad in 2010. Blatche’s second tour was as part of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) medical team stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan from January, 2011 to November, 2011.
Blatche provided emergency care during several intense firefights. However, what most stuck with him from his service wasn’t the combat, but his experience contemplating suicide due to his divorce which took place during his first deployment. Blatche did overcome his struggles, beginning with a poem he came up with during his darkest period, and offers his general advice for soldiers in need.
I was actually at home that weekend and essentially I got a call, “Your unit is going to Iraq. You don’t have to go, but we could really use you, we could use the boots on the ground.” I was kind of like, “Well, hell, you said the magic word, let’s do it.” I was so enamored with the fact that I was a solider. I was Captain America. I was going to fight for safety and for democracy and I was going to go in and fix all these problems single-handedly. I was just very naive. It’s funny to say this because I’m talking about myself just two and half years ago, but you would be amazed what two and a half years can do.
For my time in Baghdad I was a clinical medic. I was part of a small medical team in charge of surgical procedures and doing general aid if anyone was injured. We treated a lot of local nationals in the form of police officers because our clinic was right up alongside [a] police college. We also did a lot of medical training for coalition forces and local national forces. We trained with Iraqi SWAT and taught them basic lifesaving procedures, things like that.
In Afghanistan, I was with a military police unit and was the team leader of a seven-man medical team. I had my boss above me who was lead medic, then there was me, and I had all my junior medics. My boss and myself, we were the only two who had actually deployed before. I mainly operated outside the wire.
The attacks I encountered in Kabul, I would be at the scene of the events fairly frequently. The biggest event I was ever at was a British consulate attack. I was the only medic on site.^^33^^
They attacked [the consulate] because it was light, it was not well defended, there were just a few police officers on guard outside. They could get in pretty easy with a shit load of ammo and get ready for a fight. It also had another big draw to it. It had British Army and Special Forces and New Zealand and Australian Special Forces and our team. Even though it was British, it was run by an American command team. [When it was attacked] command soon realized there were no other medical units on the ground because the units that regularly operated there; it wasn’t their military practice to bring medical assets. I treated seven people that day. It was six Afghan police and one New Zealander. That was a long day. […] I was running all over the battle space. I was left and right, there were quite a few rounds going off at my feet. People would be bringing wounded to me as I was treating someone else.
I was also on duty for an attack on a NATO convoy [in Kabul].^^34^^ My team got there later, after the attack, and it fell to us to provide security while we cleaned up the site essentially. So, we were pulling bodies out of this overturned truck and got everything out. It was scorched from this two ton IED that had gone off. […] The carnage level was what really hit me. Having to pull bodies that were hanging upside down inside of the truck, charred crispy; having to pull them out, it really hit me hard.
In the moment, you just have to shut it off. I know this sounds kind of cliché but that’s what your training is. Especially the way that [the Army] trains you, they teach you how to shut it out, how to sort of look at everything else and not focus on it negatively. My job as a medic is to see the worst of it, then to fix it. I’m not focused on how bad it is, I’m focused on seeing how I can repair it and keep that person sustained to get them to a hospital.
Too often, nobody wants to talk about what’s going on. They don’t want to share their experience, they don’t want to open up, they are maybe afraid of seeming weak, whatever reason you can concoct. Me, I’m a talker, people can’t get me to shut up. In my experience, talking about it is the best thing I can do. Sharing my experience with other people also helps myself. If people say, “Shit, this guy got through it.”
Don’t get me wrong though, I have my problems to this day. Take the first time I came back from Iraq. I was young, I was divorced, I was depressed, mostly because of the divorce, and I just didn’t feel a connection with anyone around me. I met this girl in high school, we dated for a couple of years, and the big thing to note she was my first everything, first big relationship, first to have sex with. We had gotten engaged before I was deployed. We were going to wait for a while so we could both get involved with school. […] After I got the call, I moved all my stuff out of my dorm room and I moved in with my girlfriend’s family until I went to Iraq. I got married quickly before I deployed; had a quick honeymoon in Orlando. I didn’t really give myself time to process what was happening, everything was on auto-pilot, “I do, I do,” let’s go, go, go. Neither one of us really understood what we were getting into when we got married. We were getting married because I was being deployed and because of health benefits, things of that nature.
When I deployed we stopped communicating, that was the big killer. The biggest reason I can give is just that we were young, we didn’t realize how much work it takes. We both grew apart during this time. Well, she grew apart from me, I hopelessly devoted myself to her. But, I can’t put any blame on her, we both went into a real shitty situation and [we didn’t understand] the consequences. What it came down to was we stopped talking to each other and she got unhappy. She called me up one day, about seven months into my [first] deployment [in Iraq] and said, “Hey, I’m really unhappy. I realize I don’t love you anymore and we need to get divorced.” I said, “Well, all right, I guess I can do that for you.” I sent her money for a lawyer and within two weeks the paper work was going through.
[Returning home from my first deployment in Iraq], I blew all of my money on strippers and booze really quickly. This really had me going back to Afghanistan because I was broke. I had no idea what I wanted out of life and I was so at home being away from everybody that I just wanted to be; I was running away essentially, so I went back to war.
While you are there, you are focused on your job. But, when you are not focused on your job, you are focused on yourself and that can be a long time to think. When you have time to think about yourself, you figure out what things about yourself you don’t like and you are forced to confront it. This can be a really, really trying time.
I regularly talked to combat stress teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. I told them any time I was involved in a big attack, I let them know what I felt about it. Sometimes I talked to the chaplain. Just as long as you go and talk to somebody. Even if they aren’t trained in council, talk to your buddies, get it off your chest. If you bottle it up you’re just going to give yourself cancer, it’s no good.
[After the divorce] it was [a] very trying time. I’m a product of multiple divorces. My mom’s on her fifth marriage right now, my dad is on his third. I know divorce, I know how the process works. I’m used to it. But, it’s always different when it happens to you. No matter how right you may have done things you always say, “What did I do wrong? I really created an island for myself.” My mom and my wife didn’t get along at all and I kind of cut my mom out of my life because I’m trying to be young, I’m trying to be me. My dad and I didn’t talk much because he wasn’t crazy I volunteered to go. I shut myself out from everybody and everything. I didn’t feel I had anybody to talk to. I could [have] gone and talked to my mom, I could have gone and talked to my dad but, I wasn’t thinking about that. I cut them off completely, they had no interest in me, I’m dead to them. I receded within me. I went to a dark place.
I remember sitting there [in the barracks in Baghdad] and staring at my pistol and I remember thinking, “That would be really easy, that would be really quick, it’s only six pounds of pressure on the trigger and you’re good.” I took the time to clean it because I didn’t want it to malfunction. Then, I just sat there with it. I had it resting under my chin for a while then I had it in my mouth, as I was getting a little more brave about it, and I was just thinking, “this will be so easy and quick, no pain or anything. My parents will be taken care of and get money and everyone will be happy.” That train of thought just kept rolling and rolling. “Do it, do it, quit being a pussy.”
It was one little part in the back of my brain that was telling me, “Hey, this is a shitty idea, let’s not do this.” And then I said to myself, “Oh, here’s something funny to think about instead,” and I came up with this little limerick. It went,
“There once was this kid in Iraq
Who got too much sand in his crack
When Sarge yelled he ran
That’s when friction began
And now he has burns on his back.”
I was belly laughing. It was such a relief. It was every emotion coming out at once. I laughed until I cried and I cried until I laughed and then I got up and told people about it. It was something for me to hold onto and something for me to share. It was the realization I had something to give to people. There was a reason for me to keep going. I forced myself to talk to people. I forced myself to keep active. I gave myself reasons to go do things. There was a poker club, I went and played poker. There was a Madden tournament,^^35^^ I don’t play Madden, but I went and watched people play Madden, just stay active instead of sitting in a dark room alone with my own thoughts.
The way I view things, you either laugh about it or you cry about it. At least, if you are laughing about it, you are having a good time with it. One of my greatest features about myself is perspective, the ability to see others’ point of view and therefore to see my own situation from another point of view. It’s the old saying about black clouds and silver linings. You just have to be willing to remove yourself from the situation enough, take your ego out of things, to see, “Okay this is bad,” but then say, “Okay, but how is this good? What little minute detail makes this good? Maybe it’s just vaguely ironic or at the very least a little bit funny.” Then you hold onto that and as you are going through you realize, that sucks, but I can fix it and you start to make the situation better. There is no problem so big that eventually it won’t get whittled down. It’s all about time though. Time takes time. That’s the work part right there. You just have to give yourself little things to keep you going until the situation is better. Then, you take the lesson you learned and apply it later in life.
I’m not a religious man by any means, I have my spiritual beliefs I hold onto. As long as you have something to hold onto, something that keeps you moving forward, faith in something, faith in your family, faith in your religion, faith that the Saints will win the Super Bowl again, faith in anything; that is what will keep you going. Allowing something that you have no control of to be somewhat of an influence. Maybe faith isn’t necessarily the right word, but just having something there you can get up in the morning for. That’s what got me through.
Every problem you face you’re going to learn a lesson from. The trick is to take the lesson learned and not hold onto the problem. My marriage fell apart and I got suicidal. Problem. Solution, things aren’t always going to be within your control, but you can make yourself fluid enough to deal with it and say, “Okay, what next?” There is always a lesson to be learned and there is always more than one solution.
I would have gotten divorced whether I was overseas or not. The fact I was overseas, that I was 9,000 miles away from everything I knew and loved [made it more difficult for me].
Now, the problem you have mostly within the military is that you have this situation where a guy gets involved in a huge firefight or an IED blows up a bunch of kids, or they have to shoot at a 12 year old with an AK-47, these are common incidents. They do these actions and then depression, PTSD, all these psychological problems begin to set in. And they don’t take care of it, they don’t talk to anybody, they hold it in. There are a lot of cases where guys six months down the road start having these issues and they think it’s too late to start getting help. And there is help to be had, there are veteran organizations, there are VA hospitals, there are multiple batteries of mental exams you go through before and after you deploy. The military is trying to become much more proactive. In the beginning of the wars, they were much more reactive, because they didn’t realize the size of the problem they had.
A lot of guys just don’t talk about it. That there is the biggest problem. I’m a huge believer in personal responsibility. You can’t expect the government to be able to fix everybody through these programs. They are designed to catch the most. I would have to say that if you are having trouble, you have to reach out. If you know that there is an issue, and you refuse to seek help, then you are only hurting yourself and possibly others around you.
If I see a friend in trouble, of course I help them. But to really receive help, like any program, you have to realize there is an issue [and] say to yourself, “Why are people saying these things to me, what do they think is wrong?” A friend is someone who will come up to you and say, “Hey dude, you don’t look like you’re doing so well, I’m really worried about you. What’s going on? Do you want to talk about it? How can I help?” However, short of kidnapping someone and taking them to the psych doc and forcing them to talk, you can’t really do much if they don’t want help and don’t realize there is an issue.
One of the most dangerous roles during these wars was combating the enemy’s weapon of choice: Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. Senior Airmen Jason Arenas served two tours in Afghanistan as part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or EOD, team. Arenas and his team’s responsibility was to go outside the wire and find and remove these hidden threats. The pressures involved, both in his duties and the larger idea of always having someone’s life in his hands, were immense.
Added to this burden, Arenas also had many run-ins with the Taliban which put him face-to-face with questions about his own fear, death, and the adrenaline that comes from putting his life on the line.
Managing these thoughts pushed Arenas to think about the enemies’ and Afghan peoples’ point of view and the war as a whole, identifying what it means to fight a “war of attrition”.
I know the difference between different types of explosions. You also have to know when you go to blow something up whether or not it actually worked. You have what is called contribution. You have to have a good ear for different sizes. It’s called brisance, fast and hard versus dynamite or TNT [which] moves a lot slower than plastic explosions. You can see and hear the difference, although it’s not an exact science. You kind of make an assumption and come to something everyone can agree upon.
Unlike land mines and area denial devices, it’s rare that IEDs are small, like anti-personnel land mines. They aren’t there to take your foot off, they’re not snipers shooting someone in the stomach so that a medic has to run out and your buddies have to grab you. Less often than not, it’s not a complex attack. They plant it out and hope for the best. Killing is definitely their goal. They are effective as they can be. They know whether they are going to target a vehicle or whether or not they are going to target someone on foot and whether it needs to be five or ten pounds, a lot of shrapnel in it, or whether it needs to be 80 or 120 pounds; just a massive amount of blast to [destroy] a vehicle. They know what they are up against and they will try their best to defeat what they are up against.
We try and counter charge, [destroy through explosives], as much as possible because it’s easiest. It gets rid of it and [it’s] usually safer if you can do it remotely via a robot. Going in and dismantling it completely doesn’t necessarily give you any advantage over just ripping key components then detonating a charge.
I had a big robot on my back so if they are shooting they are shooting for me. It’s a constant cat and mouse game. [The Taliban or various insurgent groups] watching us; us watching them; them figuring out what we we’re doing so they would adjust their devices. We would figure out what they were doing and adjust accordingly and they try to mix it up and try to get us. […] [And] I just signed up to go back. It’s just strange, I don’t know why. I’m definitely not a zealot for the cause. The money is whatever, I make enough money to be happy without deploying again and getting an extra 20 percent or something. I can’t really think of a reason why. Probably even bigger for me, it’s the feeling of self-worth. I’ve had at least over a million dollars spent on me personally with training and equipment and I feel like if I can use that for what it’s intended for, the best purpose at the time, then I feel more valuable as a person maybe, like I’m accomplishing something; something that I have spent the last four and a half to five years getting ready for and I want to keep doing it. Once this stage in my life is over, once these wars are over and once I’m out, I will never use that skill set again; make a pointed difference in that scenario. This is a broad sense of the word, but your self-worth, your sense of accomplishment is tied to physical things. Like a carpenter, he knows he can make a beautiful cabinet, build a house or whatever it is. If he can’t do that, it feels like it has all been a waste. My art form is saving peoples’ lives. […] My team, we we’re responsible for getting rid of dozens and dozens, over a hundred, the number 137 sticks out to me, IEDs. I just think that each one of those probably would [have] hurt or killed somebody if we hadn’t taken care of it. That feels good. In this back and forth game of life or death I feel like I contributed something to my side.
One particular mission, I was driving our truck with my team. We were with a quick reaction force, and we were rolling in the tracks of the two vehicles in front of us, that’s just a way to minimize your profile on the ground; your footsteps so to speak. The truck behind me that was in my tracks hit an IED, I don’t exactly know why it didn’t go off on the first two vehicles, but it hit the one behind me. The engine was just completely blown off the front end. It was a pretty large IED. Everyone inside was fine, well, I wouldn’t say fine, but nobody had to go to the hospital. Their bells were rung pretty hard but they all walked away from it. It threw the front, right tire maybe 90 meters and completely sheared off the front engine. It just wrecked that vehicle. It was a large, mine-resistant vehicle [MRAP]. If they didn’t have heavy armor they would have all died, just ripped to pieces.
The sound is one thing, but the feeling, the concussion, to understand a sound that loud, you have to feel the concussion. It’s sort of fun, up to a point. I’ve been close to explosions before, that I thought it would be cool, and we [counter charged it], and we went, “Whoa, that was actually a little painful, that one hurt my liver.” It takes the breath out of you, not like you got punched in the gut, but it displaces your body; it displaces your insides; it knocks the air out of your lungs; it jiggles around all your guts and everything. It can do funny things with your head. Even if you aren’t close enough to get injured you can be like, “Whoa, I kind of blacked out for a minute there.” It’s weird. It’s very hard to explain. The sound is weird too because it changes based on distance. Very bassy deep though. There is nothing else to compare it to, maybe a sonic boom.^^36^^
If you don’t properly do your job then your team leader has to go down on [a device]. There is a lot of pressure on younger guys like me to be able to be competent. […] You encounter a lot of new and challenging experiences and conditions. Nothing’s the same. You can train all you want, but you never know how it’s going to pan out in the real world. So, it can be tough, overbearing I suppose, the pressure.
What’s strange is, the biggest pressure for me personally has been more interpersonal pressure of someone’s life being in your hands, someone that you care about and you know and that you depended on also. For instance, a team leader could turn off a mission he thought was putting you in unnecessary jeopardy or peril and so you have to count on him to take care of the three of you. If he isn’t doing that job right, you could all end up dead. You could always all end up dead, but you could end up in a bad situation that was pointless. […] The flip side of that is, his life is in your hands.
I’m 24 years old. I can’t imagine there are guys doing this that are 18, 19 years old. You can probably remember the difference in your mindset [at] 18, 19 years old, you are a lot different at 21; you’re a lot different at 24. It just seems to be things are spiraling out of control, this parabola, this parabolic curve that starts to get really steep really fast. Every year I feel like I have learned a lot more than I did in the last five. When other peoples’ safety is in your hands, you don’t want to let them down, that’s really what it comes down to. I was recently watching a documentary that pointed it out, “Here, you fuck up and you die. You fuck up even worse and your buddy dies.” That sums it up quite well.
There is a little bit of selfishness there. If I’m with a bunch of infantry guys and I feel kind of responsible that if I see something, I need to be paying attention. If I’m with a guy that is walking next to me, I want to make sure he doesn’t step on something that is going to rip my legs off too, so there is that aspect, self-preservation.
People don’t seem to realize, these people, [the Taliban and insurgent fighters] are advanced, they’re people, they’re just as intelligent as you and I. It’s unbelievable that a lot of people, especially in the military; people that think they are primitive; the racist people calling them camel jockeys and towel heads and all that crap. They’re not people who ever had to face them. You take the most bigoted person, you throw him in and you let him fight the Taliban, he will come back with respect. The same thing happened in Korea and Vietnam. They are smart.
Arenas also wanted to comment on one aspect of his deployments that, like the dedicated enemy he faced and the pressures involved in his job, never left his mind.
Fear, the first time you get shot at, the first time you see someone get their legs blown off or pick up a van that has 16; that was one of the worst ones I did. A van hit an IED that had 16 people in it. It hit a pretty large IED. What was left was worse than anything you’d ever see in a car wreck. That’s not fun to do post-blast analysis type stuff, and we do a lot of that, some gruesome things.
The fear that comes onto you once you realize they have already planned this out, they have the jump on you, the bullets are hitting next to you [and] you see someone’s helmet strap get shot off next to you [and] you say, “Oh, I see you got a little shave there.” It starts to kick in, a different kind of fear from when you see the bodies I worked on and pick up the pieces, that’s bad, but I was prepared for that.
I wasn’t prepared for the fear, the adrenaline, the awesome adrenaline. I mean that in the literal sense of the word, it’s awe inspiring; it’s insane; it’s unbelievable, having your life on the line is a thrill like no other. I wasn’t ready for stuff like that.
I did have six or seven days straight after one of these missions; I almost got chopped in half by a machine gun. […] I’d wake up, cold sweat, breathing hard, having the same reoccurring dream or a variation of the same dream that someone is chasing me and trying to shoot me. I’d have no weapons and no way to fight back. I’d have just enough cover where I could hide a little bit and he’d adjust or reload and come and try to get me and I’d run and hide a little more. It was a perpetual state of fear.
I talk to different people about it and apparently your brain, during a firefight, so much is going on around you, the stakes are so high that your brain is just pulling in terabytes of information if you think of it like a computer. Just ungodly amounts of ‘3D’ information. There’s the visual aspect, there’s time, there’s smell and other dimensions added in and you’re locking it all in, you’re storing it at a hundred miles an hour, but you can’t actually process it all, it just gets stored. Later, your brain tries to make sense of what happened, it tries to go through and understand. That’s why I had a reoccurring dream. […] Essentially, I was powerless to fight back, I had a gun in my hand, I had 120 pounds of gear on me and I was on a bridge and there was a machine gun shooting from the right and one from the left and for all intents and purposes I was helpless. My job was just to try and get down, get out of the way and live. […] I still hear those sounds and my heart jumps a beat. It’s exciting; it’s really fucked up. It’s not right, the rush, the high. I’ve never been higher in my life. That’s why you see guys laughing their asses off. Killing, trying to not get killed. It’s unbelievable.
So, how did the military prepare Arenas to deal with all these struggles?
As an EOD tech I was desensitized towards body parts and explosions all that stuff in school, which they did a great job of that. […] People think there is some huge conspiracy behind the word desensitize and there’s not. Doctors get desensitized, nurses, whoever. You need to be able to do your job professionally and well, and in a timely fashion without getting caught up and choked up. I was desensitized towards a lot of different things involving explosives, but [what] I wasn’t prepared for was going out dismounted with small groups of people and being ambushed with machine gun fire, complex attacks, using machine gun fire to move us into six or seven different IEDs they’d set up where you are most likely to go. They try to pin you into that.
Being desensitized, it’s a defense mechanism. It allows you to put things off until it’s an appropriate time to be able to reflect upon things. There is no shock involved, you aren’t shocked when you see these things, because your job is to do a job, you have to do something while you’re there. And if you can’t do anything, you are freezing up and you’re not useful, then you aren’t fulfilling the goal you need.
So, yes, you need to not be shocked when you see something. That’s really the concept. The more you talk about something, the more you say, “Hey, this is probably going to happen to you.” Here are some pictures of things that you might encounter, this is what to expect. There are videos of our guys getting blown up, we pick these up off of raids and these are some videos of them blowing up coalition forces before you, so, “This is what happens, this is what it’s going to look like.”
And what about the politics involved in fighting this kind of war?
When you are there, the universe is whoever you are against, there are no politics involved, you can’t think about what’s going on. You can’t think about the reasons why. If you are a conscientious person at all, you have thought about it and come to grips with that and accepted it because otherwise you would have gone to Canada or Mexico or never would have gone through with it.
My job as an EOD, it’s an all-volunteer job. At any point I could do what is called a DOR, a Drop On Request. I can just walk into work tomorrow and be like, I can’t do this anymore; I’m tired of it; I don’t want to do it anymore, and they would have me do something else.
The Taliban have been able to hold off and drag this on for what, 13 years now, in a country I want to say is the third poorest and lowest gross domestic product in the world. Where, you know, there is no nuclear power, there is no infrastructure really. There is a reason behind that. The culture, they are very, very good at holding off. They have the home field advantage and through radical Islamic extremism, it’s a system that is easy to proselytize people towards; it’s easy to recruit people; it’s easy to get support. And it’s easy to get people to fight in these ridiculously skewed odds. They aren’t necessarily just martyring themselves. You’ll get a guy to come out and fight. The lifestyle is different.
I’ll give you an anecdote. I was once in a firefight, people were shooting at us a couple hundred meters across a field and we were shooting back at them while we were trying to disarm an IED. The locals saw this happening and they were in the field about 100 meters off to the side and they gathered up and started walking closer to see what was going on; to watch. An old man rode a bicycle straight through the middle of the field of fire. What do they call it? I think it’s, “God’s Will.” “Insha’Allah.” It’s just their way of life, they are so used to it. “If God wants me to get shot, I’m getting shot.” It’s strange and hard to understand. Obviously, they make concessions, they aren’t stupid about everything. But, their culture is, let’s use that magic word, desensitized, toward war and death. They have been doing it all their lives. It’s just strange. It’s easy to find people that will stand up to the super power of the world. It’s hard to explain. They understand a lot of our methods and know that they have a disadvantage, but they still fight.
Let’s take an attack on one of our vehicles. Another attack on an MRAP. […] They put 40 pounds in the ground and they blow it up, they tear it up and it’s messed up to the point where [the MRAP] can’t be used again. This might be a one or two million dollar vehicle. They just spent, what, 30 dollars and maybe paid a farmer ten bucks to put it out and therefore distanced themselves from it, and they blew up a one or two million dollar vehicle? It’s a war of attrition and it’s much easier for them to win that kind of battle.
The Taliban were relentless in their efforts to drive out U.S. forces. Nobody knows this better than 20 year old Army Sergeant Justin Kulis, a Systems Repairman from Illinois who served his deployment out of FOB Salerno in Afghanistan. Nicknamed Rocket City, FOB Salerno was notorious for the large amount of rocket and mortar attacks it received over the years.
Kulis details what it was like living in Rocket City – surviving the regular attacks, the clash of cultures, seeing combat victims and losing fellow soldiers which is always followed by the sacred ramp ceremony to honor the dead. For Kulis and thousands of other troops, their time in the combat zone will stay with them long after their service ends.
When we deployed out there, we picked up from 10th Mountain [Division]. They didn’t have a lot of good things to say about the local populace. When I first got over there, in the beginning, it was pretty scary, […] seeing a new culture; seeing the hardcore Muslim way of life. Especially in the morning, waking up with the morning prayers and prayers every five hours I want to say, hearing that and how much religion played a huge part of the local peoples’ lives.^^37^^
The city of Khost was right nearby us. They had at least two or three mosques. […] You would hear one come on, then another. I don’t know if they are called preachers,^^38^^ but you had one guy trying to out preach the other one. It was weird. This was something I wasn’t used to hearing or seeing. […] The Afghan Army had a special mosque near our base we weren’t allowed to go in. You would see boots and sandals all lined up outside and they would be in there praying throughout the day.
I tried to read up. I didn’t want to go in there blind. [The Army] gives you these little pamphlets about Muslim culture and everything. I thought I was a little prepared for it, but seeing it first hand was completely different.
A really cool thing that I found was, Afghanis love volleyball, except they don’t exactly play it right. They stand on one side of the net and kind of bounce the ball back and forth on the same side of the net. But, they understand the concept of a bump, a set, a spike. They tried doing little organized sports.^^39^^ They enjoyed soccer and cricket. They loved cricket. They would play right outside our post. There was a school and a village nearby and the kids would play cricket all the time. […] From what I gathered, it came over from Pakistan. I could literally throw a rock and hit Pakistan.
A major VBIED, or Vehicle-Based Improvised Explosive Device, attack occurred at Kulis’ FOB on June 1, 2012. Credit for the attack was later taken by the Haqqani Network, a faction of jihadists associated with the Taliban.
When they hit us, it was about noon. There was a double [cement] barrier and some hard walls [protecting the base]. These guys came in with a van, and they were wearing clothes to try and look like us. They got out of the van and opened fire. And they had a truck with 10,000 kilograms of explosives. And they drove up to the first [cement] barrier and blew it off. […] The shock wave destroyed the nearby DFAC [dining facility]. Nobody was killed in there, but a lot of people were injured. […] The [insurgents] didn’t realize though, there was another barrier right behind it. So, they destroyed the first barrier and they were going for the second one. And there was this little choke point that they didn’t get that far into. They fired off an RPG into our makeshift gym. And we had hard structures over there because of the mortars coming in, and Salerno had been around for a while. They fired off another RPG and it happened to hit our PX [drug store]. Luckily, nobody was in there at the time. During the whole attack, none of us were killed, although there were a lot of injuries from head trauma and shock wave trauma.^^40^^
[All 10 to 14 insurgents] were wearing suicide vests. One of their vests detonated prematurely and blew him up and blew one of his buddies up. These other two guys made it through that [and into the choke point] and started firing RPGs. There were our Special Forces guys out there. [The insurgents] managed to hit their truck; they fired an RPG into that. The driver managed to go back and turn it around and the Special Forces guys fired out the back of the truck and killed the guy who had fired at them with the RPG. I guess the leader of the group was playing dead, but [the Special Forces] found him and shot him. And there was still one more guy out there. He went hiding in-between two Humvees that were parked. We thought he might be dead, but he still had his suicide vest and everything and there were a bunch of infantry and other people going around trying to clear the area. That’s when one of our pilots took him out with an M4 [assault rifle].
[The insurgents] actually videotaped the attack. Our base was surrounded by a horseshoe mountain range that was nicknamed the Hollywood Hills because there were a bunch of painted white rocks on the hill. [The other insurgents] were hiding out behind these rocks up there and actually filming the entire thing. Then, on another range across from the Hollywood Hills, they were taping. They put out this propaganda video where they said that they killed thousands of soldiers and took out a plane and everything.^^41^^
[Suicide attacks] were something we expected, it was something [the Army] told us; [the insurgents] are going to fight to the death. I didn’t really experience any of this up until this attack, just how far they would go. These guys, we found amphetamines on them, so, they would get all hopped up on drugs and probably didn’t give a shit about anything at that point; they were willing to die for their cause. They would kill themselves even if they didn’t take anybody out. It’s just so different, you know. I can’t really describe it.
Honestly, none of us tried to think about it. They would shoot mortars and rockets at us, but they were just little potshots they would try to get us with. For dealing with it, we’d say, “Hey, if it happens, it happens.” You hear the incoming alarm and you think, “Should I run? What if I run and I get hit? Am I safer standing here?” The general consensus was, “If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.” You don’t know where the rounds are coming from, you can’t take legit cover.
It’s funny. I went on ‘R’ and ‘R’; they give us two weeks off so you can go back to the states. I was born in [Europe], so I went back there and stuff and met a girl and everything and we started talking. Before that, I didn’t really care. I was like, “If it happens, it happens.” But after meeting her, I was like, “Oh, fuck, I kind of have to be a little bit careful.”
Although Kulis was a Systems Repairman, during emergency situations, he often helped out with medivacs.
My very first medivac was actually for an enemy combatant. I was pretty surprised by that. So, the first guy I medivaced off one of our aircraft was a guy who was trying to kill us. It was a little weird at first.
But, dealing with seeing our own guys hurt, that was hard. It was just like, “Oh, fuck.” One thing that really sticks out in my mind is; right before the New Year  or so, these MPs [military police] were out on patrol and these guys were fresh in country, maybe three weeks. They got hit by an IED. Medivac went out, got ‘um [sic]. And we had to help them to the hospital. And these guys were conscious, alert, although they were pretty banged up and stuff. And they were just kids, 19, 20 years old; I think the oldest one was in his late twenties or so. We bring them in there [to the hospital] and there were five of them. And we thought, they will all pull through, you know. And the next thing we know, we hear the sound of the ramp ceremony.
[A] ramp ceremony [is] where they would load up guys from the CASH [Combat Support Hospital] from their morgue, get them in a Black Hawk [helicopter] and get them to Bagram [Air Force Base] to get them back home. So, we hear that and everybody shows up, it doesn’t matter what you are doing or where you are, everybody shows up. You line up and there is this quiet, solemn ceremony. The pallbearers bring the [deceased] out and we give them the hero’s salute which is a regular salute except it has a little more emotion in it as they pass by. Their commander says a few words and the chaplain says a few words. And I’m a pretty secular person; I’m not a religious person, but when the chaplain says, “take a knee” and they say a prayer and stuff, I would take a knee. I don’t think anyone, atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever, I don’t think anyone would just stand there; we would all take a knee.
These guys, [the five MPs], none of them pulled through. And it was just so weird seeing them alert and awake just eight hours ago and now they are dead and they were just in-country like three weeks. It is like getting kicked in the crotch. And everyone was sure they were going to pull through.
Most medivacs were by air. But, there was one, a convoy of MRAPs got hit out there by an IED and small arms. When they called in the medivac, we were all expecting an air medivac, but they actually rolled into base because they were that close when they got hit. I remember the one that had causalities in it. They opened up the latch in the back and we were ready to load them out and the whole floor was filled with blood. There were guys with IVs and everything in there. They offloaded these guys and one of the guys; I took off his body armor and it was just drenched in blood. These guys got hit pretty hard. And it was almost a daily occurrence, like four or five times a week. We would just hope these guys would pull through. We had our mission, they had theirs’.
Like many soldiers, Kulis, now home, has experienced depression, PTSD symptoms, and other issues.
Now that I am back here [in the United States] things have been hard some times. Loud noises like doors slamming or stuff like that freaks the hell out of me. I’ll be sleeping in my bed at night and someone will come in and close a door and I’ll jump out of bed and have to be like, “You’re not in Afghanistan anymore.” There is also little shit, like muscle memory twitches. It was tough, especially the first few weeks we were back. And I was in the barracks and stuff then, and we had these real heavy doors that would be like, smash, smash, smash.
I couldn’t sleep right. I don’t know why I couldn’t sleep right. I wasn’t exactly having nightmares, but I would wake up at random times thinking I would have to go and rearm this aircraft or something. Or, I don’t know, I would hear aircraft overhead; hear the roar and be like, “Oh, shit, I gotta [sic] go and do this, I gotta [sic] go and do that.” And I was a little depressed for a while, but it went away.
My girlfriend has helped me a lot through this. She keeps reminding me how I’m in the real world now. Just having her support me, and knowing she is there for me helps a lot. Some of the stuff went away, but the stuff like the medivacs or the attacks, they will always be there.
The whole deployment overall though, I can look back on and say, “Hey, we did this, we can be proud of what we accomplished.” In World War II, you had the whole nation rationing and stuff like that. But that isn’t the case anymore. For us, we are just doing our job and doing the absolute best that we can with what we have out there.
One of the most overshadowed aspects of Operation Enduring Freedom was the treatment of women. Women’s rights in Afghanistan are almost non-existent and the cultural differences that prevented males from interacting with females in Afghanistan made communicating with half of the population impossible.
Enter Army Reservist Captain Rebecca Fuentez. Fuentez led nine Female Engagement Teams whose job was to communicate and relay the problems that women were facing in Afghanistan.
Fuentez talks about her work out of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul and details some of the abuses suffered by women in Afghanistan due to the strict adherence to Islamic law under the Taliban. Although this problem is being slowly alleviated in some senses, it is still very much part of the Afghan culture.
They needed someone to run a Female Engagement Team, which I ran for the better part of a year. Basically, it’s a group of female soldiers or marines that get attached to different operational units whether they are Special Forces or infantry guys. They basically deal with the women. Because culturally, obviously, our guys cannot talk to the women and children, so they brought these women to interact with them. […] Women are not supposed to talk to any men that aren’t part of their immediate family.^^42^^
It depends on where you are at. Some places are very progressive, like in Kabul [Afghanistan’s capital city where] women are allowed to go to school and to wear whatever clothes they want. And then you get out into the villages and they are [stricter] toward the culture of Islam. It really depends on where you are [geographically] concerning how women are treated.
What my girls would do is go out and depending on what unit they are attached to, they would talk to women. You have an entire population in Afghanistan, and the military wasn’t really reaching half of it. Basically, they talked to them, found out what they wanted, what they needed, and [saw] if we could provide anything that would help them stabilize their home or what have you.
I had one female on the engagement team, a marine, who told me a story basically about; [the Marines] had built a well in the middle of this town. And the well ended up getting destroyed. Our guys came back and rebuilt it and it was destroyed again. And they asked the women, “Why is this well being destroyed?” And the reason they built it was because the women had to travel like a mile to get to clean water. So, they tried to build this well that was closer. […] In talking to these Afghan women, [the marine] found out that it was actually the women that destroyed the well. It was because, the mile that they had to go and walk and get water was the only time that they could get away from their house and be around other women and talk and chat and all that stuff. So, it is things like that. If you aren’t getting the female side of the story, you are going to be spinning your own wheels and aren’t getting the whole picture you need.
Like anything, we had to build that trust over time. We would go out and reach out and talk to them and some welcomed [us] and some didn’t. I guess it depended on the location and their experience with soldiers. After a while though, some of the teams built really good relations with them and helped build some schools for girls.
And there were other units like Agricultural Support Teams who would go out and teach these women how to do beekeeping because that was a trade they could do from their house and they could make money and be able to provide for their family.
Women in Afghanistan, for a long time when the Taliban were there, weren’t allowed to go to school or really do anything. Some women were imprisoned or killed for crimes like adultery and [faced] sexual assault. […] After the Taliban was kicked out, there [were] a lot of organizations that came in and said things aren’t right here. […] And it’s something like 85 percent of women over [in Afghanistan] are illiterate and I think the number is equally as high for either physical abuse or mental abuse or emotional abuse.
[The idea is] if you can stabilize a family and stabilize a village, you can stabilize Afghanistan. We weren’t there to, and this is a big misconception, we weren’t there to liberate women. We are trying to help them out best we can, because for a long time, they weren’t being heard.
The thing with Afghanistan is, they are so culturally different from us. There are a lot of child brides and child marriages that take place. So, it’s one of those things that emotionally you have to realize, it’s just a different culture. For me personally, it is something that you kind of balance what your beliefs are and what you hold your values to be true towards the mission. The mission will always come first. Sometimes you would see things and you’re like, “Well that’s just not right.” […] But at the same time you have to realize that’s their culture and we aren’t there to change anyone or liberate anybody or anything like that. So, it’s kind of a balance that you have to kind of figure out.
It’s not my position to say what we should do. It’s an Afghan issue. There are a lot of women, wonderful women, who are doing some amazing, amazing things. They have some women who are running in government, […] and are doing a lot of great things for women. It’s kind of like the United States. [The United States], for a long time, modernized women who had liberal thoughts were [persecuted] […], and it’s easy for us to forget our own country’s history. It was something women in this country fought for and are still fighting for and that’s something that every individual country has to fight for. […] My personal opinion, it’s like anything. You can’t force any country to do something, they have to want to do it. […] It has to start from within.
The differences in cultures between the United States and Afghanistan is incomparable. One of the many soldiers who had a difficult time accepting the negative aspects of Afghanistan’s cultural norms was Army Corporal Michael Parker.
Combat Medic Parker struggled with trying to navigate the rocky terrain of dealing with one particularly hard aspect of the culture clash between the U.S. and Afghanistan: the treatment of young men as sex slaves, a topic rarely discussed by military officials. Parker uses this example to illuminate the broader idea of nation building and spreading democracy in Afghanistan and why this is a difficult, if not impossible, task. One of the only ways Parker and the U.S. military were able to consistently gain small victories in this battle was by offering medical treatment which helped to undermine the Taliban.
Compounding this struggle was a natural deterrent to the U.S.’ mission in Afghanistan – the country’s mountainous and sprawling terrain. Parker was one of the many troops who felt the weight of Afghanistan’s geography on a daily basis which worked against morale and completing missions.
A really important truth is that, matters are not black and white. In basic training they explained that to me and I just kind of took it as something they would say. But throughout my time in the service, I kind of realized that the world really is just shades of gray. Some grays are darker than others. And where you might try and do what you think is right most of the time, or, all of the time, you’re really just choosing a different shade of gray. There is no black and white.
One instance that really stands out in my mind, a lot of people do not know this, but in the tribal regions of Afghanistan, it is fairly common for the village elders to pick out a boy of about nine or ten, up to 13 or 14, and they will be their escort. They will paint their nails and wear eye shadow and what have you, and they are basically just a sex slave. […] Here we would describe it as pedophilia. There it is just a regular product of their culture. And we couldn’t say anything about it. We weren’t supposed to do anything about it. We just had to leave it as it was and just live with it to try to get these people to cooperate. It’s hard being in the same building when you know in another part of the building, or just outside; when there are three or four 30 or 40 year old guys having their way with a ten year old kid. […] I would hear stories of people encountering kids with prolapsed rectums.^^43^^
I asked Parker how they were instructed to treat this issue and the idea of spreading freedom and democracy in the face of such horrible acts.
We were nation building without doing any actual building. Their culture, they are so sensitive about it. Culturally it is very much about honor and things of that nature and if you insult someone then you have taken their honor and it would open up a can of worms.
Dealing with the Taliban, we weren’t always around to fend off their attacks. If our area of operations is so many hundreds of square miles, we can only protect so many villages. Sometimes they [tribal Afghanis] do cooperate with [the Taliban] because the only other option is death. […] They have to look out for themselves because if we are not around then they have no protection. They have, of course, their own ways of protecting themselves, but compared to the Taliban and foreign fighters coming through the borders and things of that nature, they don’t stand a chance.
I wasn’t in a command position, but the first sergeant and the commander, they would talk to the village males to try and get a sense of what was going on. While that was going on, the supply people would hand out food and what have you; water, or if they need anything. Me and my team leader, sometimes as well as another medic, we would provide medical support. If anybody in the village had a headache or a wound that they needed help with, we would look at it. And I guess that was one thing we offered that the Taliban really can’t; they really can’t touch us on that. They can offer all the money they want and all the food they want, but when it comes to medical care, they can’t compare to us. They may have a few doctors on their side, but they can’t compare to our entire medical core. That’s one thing that we brought to the table. But, then again, you aren’t going to need medical care if you are dead.
I did notice while I was [in local villages] there were a lot less direct attacks, because the jihadists would always go up in the mountains and mortar us from their positions up there. But, that wasn’t the issue with us. The big issue was when they would set off an IED and as soon as we got out of our vehicles, they would start shooting at us. We noticed there were a lot less direct attacks when we started doing full time medical coverage. I did notice that one benefit. But, they never, never stopped mortaring and rocketing us. They were so close to Pakistan, they could lob a few mortars or rockets into our FOB and then go over the mountains into Pakistan, […] [and] we couldn’t pursue without positive ID.
It’s a huge area to cover, especially [because] it’s mountainous; it’s really hard to get anywhere. I mean, our little FOB there was at 95,000 feet and the mountains around us shot up to 11 and 12 [thousand feet]. It’s really difficult terrain to cover, and it’s neigh impossible to cover quickly. The weather situation can change drastically very quickly and that can take away our air support and that just causes a lot of problems. Just from the geographical area we are in; it can really put a damper on the mission.
The first month or so is rough. I mean, you are dealing with a different density of air and availability of oxygen within that air and it makes it difficult to do anything. I remember when I went from Bagram [Air Force Base], which isn’t that high up, the main base in Afghanistan; when we were waiting for departure, I didn’t really notice a difference [in air density] but when we went to Sharana, which is our intermediary [base], it was quite a bit higher than Bagram and you could already feel it. Because you are moving your stuff along, trying to move into a little tent and get something to eat. But, by the time you get your stuff from the helicopter to your little waiting area, you were exhausted. You just wanted to sit there. And then you had do it all over again a couple hours later. And when I finally got to my destination; it was extremely taxing. And it wasn’t a very long distance. […] I felt like I could have prepared better for that. Maybe quit smoking beforehand. The first month was really difficult. And we were pretty fit. Prior to deployment we were doing regular 15 mile runs every morning. And the fitter you are, the less impact it has on your system. And while it was really harsh, we were able to push through it.
When the Taliban began to regain ground in many parts of the country as Operation Enduring Freedom progressed, President Obama announced “the surge”, a decision to deploy another 33,000 troops to Afghanistan from early to mid-2010 in order to sure up security measures in several key provinces. This time period saw the largest amount of American forces deployed to Afghanistan, roughly 100,000.25 Ever since the “surge”, American troop numbers have steadily declined as a total withdrawal of combat troops, minus some Special Forces units, was announced in December of 2014 and planned to be carried out in 2015.26 However, this decision was taken back by Obama, as he announced in late-2015 the roughly 10,000 U.S. advisers, which would drop to about 5,500 by the time he leaves office at the end of 2017, would remain to train and assist the Afghan National Army combat the Taliban.27
19 year old California-native and Army Sergeant Colin Daniels was one of the troops that began to take the fight to the Taliban as part of “the surge”, encountering them in battles on an almost daily basis. Daniels also witnessed green on blue violence where supposedly friendly Afghan security forces suddenly attacked coalition forces including injuring one U.S. soldier he was close friends with.
Talking about surviving in such a constantly violent and frightening atmosphere, Daniels details the hard time he and others had in trusting their Afghan Army and police counterparts as well as trying to deal with unchecked aggression from seeing his friends killed or wounded. All this frustration was compounded by what Daniels saw as the Afghan Army’s lazy attitude toward taking up missions or even meeting U.S. forces halfway on training regiments and other security measures.
It’s such a complicated war, especially because so much of it isn’t even heard about by the public. The stories of what we went through and the stories of what all the units around us went through not being heard; that really hurts.
We were one of the first units to go out there and help out the Afghan security forces instead of just going over there to stabilize the region against the Taliban. Part of our mission was to help train the police and army. After we arrived though, President Obama announced the surge in Afghanistan so everything kind of went back to just trying to take ground from the Taliban and hold and secure. We had trained pretty heavily in combat operations, so we were ready for it though.
We started out just west of Kandahar City [in southern Afghanistan] and then when the surge was announced we got moved to the Arghandab Valley just northwest of the city which was, up until that point, a major Taliban stronghold. Only Canadian forces had been in and one American unit, and they had taken a lot of causalities.
We went in and started patrolling and establishing new bases. Nobody in the area had really seen American or NATO forces before. […] There were almost 1,000 coalition forces in the area we were in which was maybe a couple of miles square. […] The area we were in was heavily agricultural. There were a lot of earthen trenches which are pretty much ready made for fighting almost. So, we spent a lot of time walking around in that. It was all very green and dense. If you closed your eyes and thought about, it was almost like Vietnam. It felt like you were in the jungle almost. So, we spent a lot of time walking around, looking for [the Taliban], listening to radio chatter, have them looking for us.
Basically, [we would] walk somewhere and a machine gun would open up at close range, no more than 50 meters away and use RPGs and grenades. Mainly, they would ambush us. […] Maybe between nine and 20 guys would hit us. […] Pretty quickly though, we would gain fire superiority and call in helicopter gunships on them and that’s when the Taliban would break contact and retreat out of the area.
Pretty much every night, they would attack our outpost with mortars and RPGs; pretty much every night around dinner time. They would start firing at us and everybody would have to drop what they are doing and fight back. After a while, people didn’t even want to leave their rooms. We lived in a mud hut basically. People didn’t want to go outside to take out the trash or go get dinner. You would go outside, do whatever you had to do pretty quickly then go back inside because you were afraid of being hit by mortar rounds or rockets. Everybody always had their gear ready; ready to be up on the roof at a moment’s notice.
We would get breaks sometimes, ‘R’ and ‘R’ for two weeks at a time to go home and visit family and take a break from everything. And it was always hard coming back to Afghanistan, a lot of guys didn’t want to do that, but, you can’t just leave your buddies there without you.
We had one guy, not in our platoon, but in our company who; his squad took a lot of causalities and after a while he just said he wasn’t going outside the wire anymore; not going on patrols. He got in a lot of trouble for that but most of us understood, even though somebody else would have to pick up his slack. He was an EMT. We had regular medics, but then we sent regular infantrymen to EMT school before we deployed so they were able to help the medics out which I did too. A lot of the time the EMTs would end up going out on patrol as the medic to give the medics a chance to take a break. That’s what this guy was doing. His squad was taking so many causalities and he was watching so many of his friends get hurt, he just couldn’t take it anymore.
My squad, I was in a mortar team for our company, there were only six of us. Two of us were hurt, and [later] I was hurt [in a firefight] but I chose not to get medivaced. I wanted to make sure to stay with the rest of my guys if they needed me.
The first guy that was injured, he was one of my friends, he stepped on an IED and lost his leg. Which brought our squad down to five and we were split up between two outposts. So, it was just my squad leader, another one of my friends, me and two other guys.
One night, we went out on overwatch to try and find out who was hitting our COP [combat outpost] every night. So, we were set up in a [pomegranate] orchard just to the northeast of our COP. We made it down there okay, and figured it was pretty safe at that point so we stopped moving, not wanting to hit an IED or get ambushed. And as we set in, one of the guys who had just joined our platoon, he had just got in a few days ago from the states, brand, brand new guy, stepped on an IED that was buried in the orchard. He was killed instantly. My squad leader, myself, and two other soldiers were hit from shrapnel from that. We think it was a pressure plate one. He set his bag down on it; he was carrying our mortar rounds for us. He put his bag down, it went off. My squad leader and I were sitting about six feet behind him, maybe a little more. My squad leader took a big chunk of shrapnel to his forearm. I took a lot of little pieces to my back, right below my body armor. After that happened, I lost consciousness for a minute or two. I guess during that time, the Taliban in the area heard the explosion and surrounded us and started firing.
[Coming to] I felt pain in my back and my squad leader was screaming. I look over and saw his arm just covered in blood. My first thought was to just grab a tourniquet off of my chest and just put it on his arm to stop the bleeding. Once I did that, I saw we were taking fire from across an open field. So, I grabbed the mortar tube we always carried on patrol and I dropped a round down it. And with our mortars, you actually drop a round down and squeeze the trigger to fire it, it’s not just drop and fire. I squeeze the trigger and nothing happened. I thought it was just the round was bad. So, I dropped another down, squeezed the trigger, still nothing happened. Got that round out, dropped down the last one I had, tried that, still nothing happened. Soon I realized it was something wrong with the mortar tube. From the explosion, it had knocked it and the trigger was broken. And that was my primary weapon on patrol, so at that point I just had my nine millimeter pistol and a hand grenade and that was it.
At that point, my squad leader was stable so I grabbed his weapon [an M4 assault rifle] and started firing. I used up most of his ammunition and then, somebody else in our squad, their weapon went down, so I gave him my weapon, well, my squad leader’s weapon. So, now I focused on my squad leader and the other causalities that are around to help them out. As this was happening, the Taliban had maneuvered around us and had us completely surrounded. At that point, there were probably 25; 20 or 25, [enemy surrounding us]. We are hearing from our forces that they are getting ready RPGs and mortars ready to fire at us and all we had was one machine gun and personal weapons pretty much.
[Our COP] knew what was happening but there was a village in between us and even though they were only a few hundred meters away, they couldn’t do anything to help. So we started calling for help from our gunships and Apaches [helicopters] and stuff and they started to do strafing runs on the area around us.^^44^^ But, the Taliban were so close they had a hard time hitting them without hitting us. […] Pretty much, everyone was up on these mud walls of the field giving us cover, except for the crater in the wall where the IED had gone off. The Taliban were firing directly at us; pretty much directly at the causalities at that point.
[The firefight] lasted over an hour. Eventually, the helicopters showed up and we had an Apache using a 30 millimeter cannon firing over us. The Taliban started to break contact. So, once they retreated a little bit we were able to get the medivac helicopters in to get our guys out of there. […] Luckily, I was able to stay [in Afghanistan]. I wasn’t hit so bad, I put a bandage on and the wounds were very shallow. I just stayed at the COP; didn’t go out the next day.
We took the most amount of causalities in my platoon that day, but this was pretty common to be involved in fights like this every day. There would always be some kind of contact or [we would] hit an IED. The Taliban certainly knew how effective IEDs were. But, we had to keep going out because we would lose all the progress we’d made and helping out the locals we were able to help and establish the area we were able to establish. The Taliban would have taken it back and we would have lost all the progress we made.
We ended up getting replaced in July. The 101st Airborne ended up taking over our area and we got moved down a little farther south. And they had a really hard time that summer. It was pretty much a stalemate between them and the Taliban. Once the summer ended, they were able to push out farther and clear more. [In the winter] it gets bad down there, with cold and heavy snow. [The Taliban] usually just go back [into Pakistan or hide in nearby villages] and refit and rest up, get more supplies and prepare for next year pretty much. This is a really good time for the U.S. to establish more bases and sure up what they have to sure up and prepare for spring again.
Daniels not only faced death outside the wire, but back at base from his supposedly friendly Afghan allies.
My second deployment, we were stationed with a company from the Afghan Army. We spent a lot of time training them and giving them what they needed to run operations on their own, letting them plan it, things like that. While we were there, they weren’t really running their own operations, but they were getting better and more comfortable.
We actually had some green on blue attacks on my second deployment, that was something we never had to deal with on my first deployment. The first one actually happened about two or three days after we got to Afghanistan. Bravo Company had an attack on their base where I think it was a Taliban solider and an Afghan Army infiltrator. They actually went up to one of the guard towers and shot one of our soldiers and then turned the weapon around and started firing into the COP. There were a couple people killed and a few more injured before we got them out of there; a helicopter strafed [and killed] them.
[Our superiors] they just tell us, “This happens, try and trust our Afghan brothers.” But, it put a big strain on the relationship. To be honest though, we really didn’t trust them to begin with. My mortar team, we lived on the back of the COP and the Afghan Army guys were pretty close to us. We always had our weapons right on us, locked and loaded, and we tried to stay as far away from them as possible.
As soon as [the green on blue attack] happened, we didn’t trust them to be around us. And right at the end of my second deployment we had; one of our platoons was out on patrol with some Afghan local police and they were down in the Arghandab River [in southern Afghanistan], and this Afghan police officer said he saw some bad guys across the river and he asked my friend if he could use his rifle; use the scope, and go down and see what they were doing. My friend, you know, trying to be good and trying to help the bond between us [and the Afghan local police] he cleared his rifle, made sure there wasn’t any ammo in it and handed it to the guy. Once he did that two police officers come over, and one of the police officers shot him in the neck and then they took off with his weapon across the river. He was actually okay. Luckily, the bullet passed through his neck and really didn’t hit anything important and went out his shoulder.
When we heard about this event specifically, everyone, you know, wanted to take our vengeance out on the Afghanis. But, that’s not right especially because what happened with that guy Robert Bales which was close to our area. Just a few miles south of our base actually was where it happened.^^45^^
I know it was really dumb what he did, but I understand why he did it. They were taking a lot of causalities and he wanted to do something about it because he felt there was no other way.
It may sound goofy, but that day when we got overrun by the Taliban and surrounded [in the pomegranate orchard], when we finally broke out; when we were walking back to the COP, we were walking through a watermelon field and our battalion PA, physician’s assistant, happened to be with us on that patrol because he would always be out on missions to help the medics out. We were walking along and I was looking down because our squad leader, one of my best friends, was hit bad and one of us had been killed. And [the PA] looks over at me and goes, “You look chewed up a little bit. Why don’t you try stomping on one of these watermelons?” So, I just went through the field crushing watermelons. Just following him around, stomping on fruit. It helped a little bit just to take out my aggression on something. A lot of people, if they have the ability, they play [the video game] Call of Duty just to blow off some steam. I mean it’s very different from real life but it helps.
Regular violence wasn’t Daniels’ only concern. The difference in cultures was also jarring.
The culture shock too was insane, how different it is. A lot of time, [the Afghan Army’s] attitude is, “If God wills it, it will happen.” So, it was really hard to get them to do anything or work hard on something. […] We’d say [to the Afghan Army commanding officers], “Okay, we are going out on this mission at this time, we need your Afghan soldiers out on mission at this time, ready to go.” They would show up an hour late to go on patrol or they wouldn’t have their equipment, stuff like that. They aren’t motivated or they are like, “Well, we were busy, we had other things to do.”
This last deployment, we were doing a lot to help the Afghan police forces and establish new security check points for them. And they would tell us to do more and more stuff every time. It was like, “You’re not going to help but you expect us to bend over backwards for you?” They would be like, “We want nice guard towers; we want you to put air conditioning in all the guard towers.” And we would say, “Look, we don’t even have the ability to put air conditioning in our own barracks or anywhere. We are not going to do that for you.”
We had one incident, […] a U.S. soldier caught an Afghan stealing a bunch food from the chow hall. So he grabbed this Afghan soldier and went up to his commander to talk to him about it, saying, “Look we caught this guy stealing, what are you going to do about it?” And [the commander] actually got upset we had stopped this guy from stealing. He said something like, “That is our cultural right as Afghans to steal things from foreigners.” So, we were like, “Can we steal things from you guys?” And he was like, “No, that’s not your culture, you can’t do that.” They realize all the political correctness going on in our country and play that against us.
And honestly, I don’t think it’s going to turn out so well. I think it’s going to be like when the Soviets left in the late 1980s.^^46^^ It’s going to break back down to rule by warlords, […] or there will be fights between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and all these other [terrorist] groups, […] a lot of infighting. Even now, as we are over there, the different security forces will kind of fight with each other and we have to try and hold them back. The Army, the police, and all these different forces, I think they are going to split up and fight for control. It’s kind of the tribal stuff; the ethnic differences between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns and all that.^^47^^ A lot of the [Afghanis] I talked to over there, they don’t care about the country as a whole; they care about [their province]; they care about their hometown. They are there for security for those places, not to make it a better country.
You can understand their attitude. I mean, there has been so much war and so much fighting for so long they don’t see how it can be any other way really.
Surviving in such a violent atmosphere was just one part of Operation Enduring Freedom. In order to try and quell the violence, the U.S. military was pro-active in tracking down Taliban members and their affiliated groups who were plotting against coalition forces. Often made up of the general populace itself however, it was a difficult assignment to try and target and capture those that were helping to assault U.S. troops. 22 year old Virginian Army Sergeant Malcolm Stockton was part of this complicated effort, working as a Signal Intelligence Analyst.
In his own words Stockton’s job in the Army is to, “Arrest the bad guys.” Stockton and his teams tracked and then killed or arrested those engaged in various anti-coalition activities such as planting or creating IEDs, and selling, moving or using weapons. However, many roadblocks were in the way for those assigned to this duty that made it an extremely difficult and sensitive assignment.
Beside these ground measures to combat the Taliban and other terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East, drone strikes have increased dramatically throughout Operation Enduring Freedom. Stockton offers his pro-drone strike stance and why he feels our country has moved toward using this approach to war.
The thing that I want to convey to people is the frustration that comes along with being overseas and being a combatant force and an occupying army in a country that we are supposed to support and take out the enemy. And it is really hard, that fuzzy line of who is the enemy and who is not. Once we figure out; we are very sure of who is the bad guy, we still have a lot of legal issues to get through before we can even do anything. And usually, that long time of bureaucracy that comes along with identifying them, like actually creating the posture to say, “This guy is a really bad guy,” he has already been operating for another month or two and has created more bombs or planned more attacks on U.S. forces.
It was really tough in the first place, just to get this mission going; just to get us out there. And when I get approval [to arrest someone], when I have that packet in my hand, it is usually about ten to 15 papers stapled together; I have the packet in my hand saying, “Hey, this is the bad guy I’m going after, once we get him and arrest him, it is your job to do all the detainee processing and ship them off. My job is just to find them and bring them to you.” We go out there, get up to the site, and we determine, this is where the bad guy is, and we are not allowed to go in because of religious concerns of us stepping into a mosque even though this guy is responsible for the death of U.S. soldiers [due to] the IED that he placed that we have proof of; we [still can] not go inside and stop this guy and he is free to walk around for a couple more days before he is captured.^^48^^ […] The reason why we don’t go in is because [the captain, or company commander] is fearful of his bosses getting on him and he could actually get in a lot of trouble just for one false move on a religious compound like a mosque or desecrating something very special to the population. So, [Stockton’s commander’s] hands were mostly tied behind his back as well, especially if the population started complaining that we walked into a mosque. It would do more damage to the U.S. forces internally to go get this bad guy [in or around a religious site] that is killing soldiers in their minds than to just go get this bad guy killing soldiers. For some reason, it seems more damaging in their eyes to go after this murderer.
Just to add another story, […] we were running our equipment and doing our thing, and we had a bad guy that was walking right by our little base there. We saw it on our equipment and we pulled it up and we fumbled through our packets to figure out which guy this was. So, I sprint down to the TOC or the Tactical Operations Center on the COP where I could talk to the commander and say, “Hey, I’m going to throw my kit on real quick, can I just run outside the gate, grab this guy and run back in with him?” And the commander was like, “Sure, whatever, go for it!”
I run out there, and on that day, we had what are [nicknamed] Tundra Guards. The guards and the guard towers to get into the COP weren’t manned by Afghan Army or by the U.S. Army, they are actually paid security guards that are from Tajikistan. They speak a little bit of Pashtu but they are [from] north of Afghanistan. Anyway, I run out there and the Tundra Guards are giving me a little bit of security, but [the suspected criminal] was only maybe 50 meters from the gate at this point. I run out there, I grab him, I ask him to come inside the base; we just want to ask him a couple questions. He looks nervous and he was fitting the profile of our guy. I pulled him in and he goes through the detainee process and we start questioning him and I; I sometimes get to sit down during the questioning, I didn’t have to but, it was kind of fun for me to question this bad guy that we were going after.
[Later] we have a patrol come in and take him to the main FOB, and when he gets to the main FOB, I get a phone call asking where a specific sheet of paper is within the detainee target packet; some specific paper I was supposed to give the people who were picking him up. I lost that paper. I think it was part of the packet I had on [the suspected criminal] at one time. And I took it out to send to them but maybe it just got left on the table, whatever. It was just gone. So, legally, they could not keep him unless they had all their paper work with them and they had no means to reprint this paper for some reason. I guess the FOB didn’t have the clearance equipment to print out this sheet or the appropriate information filled out on it when I handled the transfer of the detainee. So, they only had clearance to hold him for 24 hours and at that point, we had him at about 16 hours, and there was no way to get that paper. So, we are forced to release this guy. And once we release him, he just goes off the radar; off the map. He was a really bad guy too. But, because of a simple little paper mistake as well, kind of like, in our U.S. court system, not saying Miranda rights, it was almost as bad as that, but saying it to a mass murderer. Well, this guy wasn’t a mass murderer I guess. He was just the guy making the IEDs.
[And] Afghan Intelligence is never going to have the level that we have. Now, they may know the structure of the hierarchy [of the Taliban], but they will never be able to keep their eyes on them the way we can with all our equipment on the ground; our equipment in the air. There is no way.
Tracking down the enemy was made even harder for Stockton and the U.S. military due to the local population’s ignorance and apathy toward their cause.
Just meeting the culture and knowing the people there, especially because I had to do a lot of talking to people, they, the local citizens, just don’t care. […] They don’t care if it is U.S., if it is Taliban, they just want everyone gone. They will support the Taliban because the Taliban can walk in their village and speak their language and they know each other but, they also hate the Taliban because they are the ones that kill the most civilians. They just don’t like outsiders. And many of them see the Taliban as outsiders, the neutral villages and neutral elders. But, they are outsiders that they trust more than us apparently. Just seeing them not care and us trying to be that force where we are trying to build schools for you guys and bring food and aid and trying to build irrigation systems for your farms because they still have like 12th century irrigation styles; we are trying to help them out with all this stuff and they just don’t care. They don’t want it. They’ll take it but, they would just rather us be gone. So, it’s really frustrating.
[Many of the locals] took their religion very seriously. I don’t want to say outlandish, but extreme, extreme Sunni Muslims. Even if they are nonviolent, they are still very extremist on their Muslim views. The funny thing about it; it makes me wonder, if they even stepped foot in America, […] they would be astonished by how nice, how safe, almost futuristic; how everything is in our culture. And they live in mud huts and the only technology they have are their radios, their telephones, and their motorcycles. They would just be astonished.
Their culture itself is disgusting to me. The way they treat their women; once they turn puberty age they are instantly shielded and not touched; not talked about unless it’s family matters. And the way they treat their young boys before they hit puberty. Everyone has a rotation, what is called a “chai boy”, and “chai” means “tea.” But, “chai boy” means they are [some older male’s] rape slave. [And in some areas] every boy has that experience growing up. They are the rape slave for however long for the older adults and the older teenagers and it just keeps rotating. The newer, young boy becomes a rape slave. They even keep photos and videos of these younger boys on their phones, and that is perfectly acceptable for some reason. It doesn’t make sense to me at all. They are super religious and don’t even talk to their women but, “I can rape this young boy and that is perfectly okay in my religion.” It’s disgusting to me. […] In my eyes, it is impossible for them to accept our culture. And our culture is the extreme other polarity. It’s ridiculous. […] I don’t think there will be a lasting connection [between U.S. and Afghanistan cultures]. But, every time we invite them into our base we offer them food; our western style food. And that is what they want to keep coming to our base for. They will keep coming to our base for our delicious food. So, that is one thing. But, I don’t see them accepting any part of our culture.
There were a couple, what we call, “key leader engagements” or KLEs. […] It would always be a battalion commander which is a lieutenant colonel [O-5], or a brigade commander which is a colonel [O-6]. They would meet with a group of elders in a sitting, their shuras, which they had usually weekly and a larger one monthly. Usually every week it would be the company commander that would do the weekly ones. But, on the monthly ones where it was large leadership engagements, […] [the battalion or brigade commanders] would pretty much give a standard speech that I can almost hear. You know, ten or 15 different brigade commanders saying the exact same thing to these people. By now, every time a new brigade gets there every six months to a year, these elders have heard it before. They hear it every month. They hear, “We are here to protect you. We are here to help you guys grow,” yadda, yadda, yadda [sic]. […] Maybe after the first or second year, [the commanders] were like, “Screw it, they’re not doing it.” So, it doesn’t make sense for us to be saying the same message to them the way we are because they’ve heard it all before.
I questioned Stockton about how he felt about his job in Afghanistan compared to the “Drone War” – the U.S.’ prolonged use of armed UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] since roughly 2004 to assault targets throughout the Middle East in a semi-covert “war” on key terrorist targets. This operation is headed by the CIA although carried out by the U.S. military. The “Drone War” has come under criticism due to its secrecy, the fact that due process is not afforded to its targets, and several other political and ethical issues. Additionally, targets have been misidentified and civilians have been killed by these attacks.31
I’m part of the uniformed services, I’m [an upholder] of the Geneva Convention for ground force war. I have a lot more rules to follow than say, whoever is doing the drone [strikes], say the CIA. I don’t want to say they have less rules, they just have a different set of rules. […] In a sense, the idea of using a “drone war” is that people just; we are not allowed to show the process, [people] only see the end means of that process. If everyone saw the entire process from processing the information and determining how “bad” these guys really are, I think everyone would be completely on board with why we attack them. This guy has ten vehicles ready to explode and he is going to drive them into the embassy, but because of that drone strike, we actually killed the guy who was planning it or we informed the local police that, “The vehicles are here, go dismantle them.” But that side never hits the news because it’s still classified information.
For me, the morality of drone strikes, and having someone pull the trigger on someone they have never met and were just told to shoot; and if there are civilians in the area, and sometimes the civilians in the area will get killed or injured.^^49^^ If they are in the area, for me, if I were put in the situation to make the call, and given all the information that [those making the strikes] had, I would be, unfortunately, and I don’t mean to say it this way, but I would be one of the first people to say, “Yeah, pull the trigger.” That’s only because; and I’m not trying to be prejudiced about this, but [the Afghan culture Stockton experienced], the way they do things, one, I find disgusting and things that are completely wrong in the first place. Two, whenever someone is hanging out with high level bad guys that they are going to drop a bomb on, they are some form of bad guy and I don’t see them as civilians. Three, if it’s a woman, unfortunately, women; all the women we have had leadership engagements with our Female Engagement Teams, the women are probably the strongest opposed to; they hate the U.S. more than anything else, from what I’ve seen. They seem like they drive the hate towards Americans the most. I disagree with killing kids, obviously. But, the women, the people surrounding [them], and the bad guys themselves, I see them all as combatants in my eyes.
Being proactive routing out the Taliban with intelligence gathering techniques and using drone strikes didn’t alleviate the constant attacks from them when U.S. forces operated outside the wire. The people responsible for fending off these attacks and deciding how to engage the enemy in the heat of battle faced yet another difficult challenge. Accomplishing this goal against an enemy like the Taliban who uses hit and run tactics makes engaging them a game of cat and mouse. How do you defeat an enemy that never stays around for a fight?
24 year old Army Reserve Captain Evan Reynolds faced this deadly chess match on a daily basis as an Engineer and Platoon Leader. While away from his native Massachusetts on his two tours, Reynolds was responsible for route clearance and IED removal, putting himself and his platoon in the Taliban’s cross hairs in order to try to find and eliminate this secretive enemy.
We were going to an area of southeastern Afghanistan that was pretty hot; pretty chaotic. I was given a platoon of soldiers [and] I was told you’re not going to get to do any training missions with them beforehand in the field, and hopefully you get through this. So, actually, I’m shitting my pants; I’m pretty scared.
We arrived in-country and we basically didn’t have any vehicles, any equipment, just nothing. At the time [early 2010], there was very little American presence in southern Afghanistan. […] There was nobody there before us. We were leading the charge I guess.
We were living in tents and there were some British troops who helped us out [with supplies] because we were basically living in the mud.
A lot of the Taliban we were up against were paid mercenaries more or less, […] working for various warlords. […] And any given warlord had anywhere from a dozen to 100 men to protect him and his assets and his property. So, a lot of the Taliban network came from these hired guns. […] So, a lot of these Taliban were not extremist terrorist types, it was just your average guy who needed a job because people gravitate towards [the warlords] who could give them protection; it’s money and a way to feed yourself. The Taliban has that. It’s the same reason a lot of men joined the Afghan Army. Many of them may not be super interested in joining the cause, they just needed a place to go.
We eventually moved to a very remote base in a very remote area. There were a lot of Taliban; a lot of civilians living in the area. And we were there to basically support the infantry. It was their job to close and attack the enemy. Well, anytime they tried to do that they were running into IEDs. And we were there to remove them. So, on any given day of operation, we would go out and try to clear the roads of explosives. […] Me and my 35 guys, we would get sent out on missions for anywhere up to two weeks. We would roll out in trucks and live in these combat outposts.
In a way, it was a lot of fun. In a way, it was an experience I really enjoyed. It was different. It was very austere. A lot of the politics and the bullshit kind of went away because we were very far away from any rank or authority.
When we would go out on missions, we would get into gunfights; we would get into firefights; we would get ambushed sometimes. It mostly ended up being some piecemeal attack where we wouldn’t be able to effectively see where they [were]. They would shoot at us; maybe one or two guys would take potshots at us. […] They would maybe fire five to six rounds and then break contact and run away.
As an officer, my job was to sort of coordinate the fight. My job is to say, “We are here. The enemy is where? What are we doing to effectively kill the enemy? What is the enemy doing to effectively kill us? How do we sort of play this chess match?” […] You need cool headed, non-commissioned officers in a fight to make sure your soldiers are, “A”, effectively engaging the enemy, “B”, not shooting each other, “C”, not running themselves out of ammo. There were many times the enemy would engage us in order for us to get trigger happy, lose our minds, lose our cool, and then, hopefully, run ourselves out of ammo.
There were also many times when we would go out on missions and drive around and drive around and drive around. We’d get out of the truck and we’d search ditches, and we’d search culverts and houses and we’d search little compounds. After hours of this we’d find nothing. Sometimes they just didn’t want a fight that day. […] There were sometimes I’d go out on mission and say, “Man, I really want to get into a fight today.” It gives ya [sic] a high; a high like no other.
When the Taliban would choose to attack could never be predicted or truly prepared for. One of the most intense encounters Reynolds experienced came out of nowhere during a routine patrol.
This is an incident that happened to me. […] Imagine you are driving down the road, and you start taking fire from a building to your right. There are some bad guys over there. There are a couple of guys shooting at you. So, you use your optics systems or your naked eye and try and spot them. Then, you return fire. […] Then after, it could be 30 seconds or five minutes, you stop firing and you realize, they aren’t shooting anymore, they just ran away; they ran out the backdoor of that building and they are running through the field behind that building. So, you think, “I’m going to try and go after that guy.” So, what we would do is chase them. What the enemy figured out was; we had maybe 30 guys, and we would get engaged by maybe four Taliban. And maybe they would get on motorcycles and speed away and try and get those 30 guys to chase after them; like chasing a rabbit. So, we chase them across this field and all of a sudden one of your guys steps on an IED. So, bam, there goes that guy. He’s wounded; he’s screaming and somebody comes over to try and save him and bam, he steps on an IED. So, now you got two guys wounded in the field and everybody else is frozen. So, you try and drive a vehicle out there to try and get to the wounded out of there and bam, the vehicle hits an IED. So, we had a vehicle with the front end blown off; the driver’s dead; the gunner’s dead and the vehicle is now down in this crater. So, we got a vehicle disabled in the field and we bring in a tow to try and tow it out of there. Bam. That one hits an IED. You can see how it’s a chain reaction. And the enemy is just gone by now. So, four guys, [the enemy] wounded two and killed another two and destroyed two vehicles and all they really had to do was fire off a few rounds.
So, this was the pattern they tried to establish. And what we would have to try to do to try and counteract this was during route clearance, rather than chase these guys was we would try and just clear a road through [a dangerous area] so people weren’t walking through a minefield. There were these villages; these objectives we could not take because the whole area would just be completely covered in IEDs. There were just IEDs all over the place.
And we had a few main roads, MSRs, military supply routes, and our job was basically to patrol these roads and keep them clear of IEDs. The roads were both heavily used by our units and both Afghan Police and Afghan Army. And the Taliban tried to hide IEDs all over these roads; try to hide them on the shoulder of the roads; along these culverts that went parallel the roads; tried to hide them in garbage; in trees; in bushes; things like that. And as soon as we cleared the road and went by, the enemy would wait and put IEDs back right behind us.
This wasn’t the only time the Taliban’s tactics got the better of Reynolds and his platoon, occasionally causing collateral damage.
There were a few times I thought I was dead. There was one time out on this main road, and there was a vehicle driving beside us and it was a car full of explosives and he blew himself up. That happened right in front of me. It rocked my world. I thought for sure I was going to die. All I could see was this massive fireball and I was engulfed in smoke. Our guys were wounded and there were wounded civilians and police everywhere. It was just a mess; it was chaos.
I also had two times where; we were going kind of slow, and I looked out the window at a civilian vehicle driving by and there was an IED placed on the shoulder of the road and the civilian vehicle hit the IED. And we found out it was an entire family, mom and dad, grandma, aunts and uncles, kids. […] I had to call in the medivac. […] And we had wounded everywhere; body parts everywhere. We weren’t sure if we were going to get ambushed or not. And all I could do was just sit there on the radio.
The attacks by the Taliban Reynolds and his platoon faced accomplished their main goal – to dishearten and deter the enemy from more fighting. Something other than engaging the enemy became more important to Reynolds.
Towards the end of my year in Afghanistan though, I sort of didn’t care about the mission. We would get engaged by the enemy and my guys would want to chase them, and I would be like, “No.” When they would ask why not, I just said, “I want to make sure everyone gets home today.” That was what became more important. […] There comes a time when you look down and see that light at the end of the tunnel and [your tour] is almost over and you think, “This is fucking stupid. I am here for what reason?”
For decades, the idea of women in combat has been taboo. Due to the tactics of suicide bombers and IED-based attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw women forced onto the front lines.
19 year old Army Specialist Leah Bartlett, despite being trained as a Mechanic, received the Purple Heart after her base in Afghanistan was attacked. Bartlett recreates the day a car bomb blew up only feet in front of her. Bartlett also discusses her thoughts about females in combat and combat support roles in the U.S. military.
It happened on February 29, 2012 at 6:19 in the morning. I had one month left. I worked as a mechanic but was assigned at a sentry control point to operate the main gate to check the trucks that come in and out of the FOB. We just searched trucks and signed people in and pulled guard duty in towers.
The sun was almost starting to come up, but not yet because it was still the winter time. Originally, I was supposed to be working in the tower but I had had the tower so many times that week I asked somebody to trade spots with me. I had traded spots with the girl who was on the gun truck. I got in the truck; I was sitting there keeping watch. […] And the way the barriers are set up, we had an ATV^^50^^, we parked it right at the gate for security, to keep people away from it. Right at the gate was the main highway that ran through Jalalabad into Pakistan that was about half an hour away. The way the walls were set up, you could see all the trucks coming from the right, but from the left, you couldn’t see anything coming.
I was sitting there minding my own business when a black SUV swerved for the gate, […] it came off the main highway. I guess they saw it on the camera. But, it was just driving normally, then at the last second, sped up and swerved for the gate. […] I didn’t see it until the last second, pretty much just enough time to think, “Oh, shit.” I saw a bright flash and felt a big gush of air. It knocked me unconscious. I woke up about 15 seconds later and didn’t really think I got hurt that bad considering the size and how close I was to it. I was about ten feet away. […] When I woke up, the injuries I got; I ruptured both eardrums so I can’t really hear well anymore. I got a concussion. I damaged some of the muscle fibers in my upper back around my shoulders blades from being thrown back in the turret. I got some scrapes and the chin strap on my Kevlar [helmet] cut my chin open.
When I woke up, I had really bad vertigo because my ears had been blown out. We have to wear eye protection; ballistics glasses. I normally wear contacts, but the blast knocked them out, so I couldn’t really see anything. There was smoke everywhere. The girl that was driving [the gun truck] was calling for help. I couldn’t really hear what she was asking about. “I’m alive,” I managed to yell back at her.
The strap I had been sitting on snapped and the only thing holding me up [in the gun turret] was my Kevlar [body armor] which was hooked on to the back of the turret. Usually, we don’t have the gunner strap in there because we can never find one, so we just sit down and lean up against the back of the turret door. I’m about six feet tall. And even though I was leaning back, [the turret’s blast shield] usually stops at my shoulders. If I had been standing up [the blast] definitely would have killed me, but I was sitting down behind the blast shield and that was all that saved me. I opened the [turret] door and a security guard; he was in charge of the front gate, he helped me lower myself down, and he kind of dragged me out. I could walk with help, so they dragged me out and we were running over to the shelter to get inside.
I walked over to the bunker and everybody was screaming; there were body parts everywhere. They managed to get me inside. There were four U.S. Soldiers, me and three others, at the front gate. All the rest were Afghan [security forces] and locals. [Another Army solider] that was working with my NCO at the gate outside, he got the worst of us. He had a bunch of shrapnel in his right arm and around his groin. They took me inside and I was sitting down next to him and I was pretty much useless; I couldn’t do anything. I sat there and waited for the ambulance to come.
All hell had broken loose pretty much. We worked with the Afghan National Army and other Asian security forces. There were a bunch of them around the gate that worked with us. All the ones that had been on top and along the tower were all killed around the main gate area. [Later] an EOD guy told me it was about 300 pounds of explosives. It was big.
There was supposed to be another car that came in behind the first one but I guess he had gotten too close so he got caught in the explosion and it messed that plan up. We were really lucky there wasn’t any after attacks because we were completely exposed; our gate was gone and everything was destroyed.
The ambulance came and took me and the other guy I was with; they put us in there first because the other two U.S. soldiers weren’t hurt too bad. There was one ANA [Afghan National Army] solider who was messed up really bad; he died on the way to the hospital.
[After initial diagnosis], I waited a couple of hours and was then medevaced over to the hospital in Bagram to get a CAT scan. They flew me over there; it was about a half hour helicopter flight. I was in the hospital for about two days just while they made sure everything was fine. I was in a lot of pain because most of the injury was to the muscles in my back and I couldn’t really breathe at all or move. I just had to sit there and lay down. I couldn’t really do anything. And I don’t know what kind of explosives they used, but I guess the smell from that makes me sick if I smell anything like it.
This [attack] was in response to the Quran burning in Bagram.^^51^^ Three days before [the attack] happened, there was a huge riot that had come through [Jalalabad] protesting all the Quran burnings. I was there for that too. When gun shots broke out, I was behind the CROW camera; it’s a vehicle with a big weapon on it and we were inside and you control it with a joystick. I was the one taking watch of that. One kid was shot and killed during that. Not by us, but by the Afghan forces. They say that is what kind of spurred the whole car bomb.
I guess I wasn’t hurt bad enough for them to send me home though because three days later they sent me back [my FOB]. […] I actually made it back about an hour before the award ceremony, so the timing was good. And then I just had to wait it out.^^52^^
I’m now stationed in Hawaii with the 3rd Infantry Division. […] I probably have a little [better] of a view of reality at this point. I kind of know what it’s all really about. It showed me what’s really going on. You see it on the news all the time, but until you’re in it, it’s like, “Holy crap, this is real.”
I’ve had a hard time sleeping, which came before all this, but it definitely didn’t help. It’s gotten a lot better in the last year, but yeah, I still have a hard time. I have a few normal PTSD symptoms too. I don’t like loud noises or bright flashes. But, I’m done; I’m getting out [of the military]. I will be going home.
[Moving home] will definitely be different than before. When I joined, I was just a kid out of high school. I was pretty ignorant of how the world really worked. Now with all the stuff I’ve been through, it will be different being a civilian now; but I will be more appreciative of what I have.
I’d like to say, “I wouldn’t do it again,” and I don’t enjoy this job anymore to be honest, but, really, it’s been a lot better for me. Just getting out and being able to interact with people and do things; I never really did anything in high school. All the stuff I’ve learned has been worth it. […] I want to be a veterinary technician and I have a school in mind I’d like to go to.
I’ve definitely learned not to complain and appreciate what I do have. It’s easy to get worked up about everything, but I say, “Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?” I’m sure I’ll get stuck in traffic, but I won’t have a car explode in my face again. I’m not really worried about too much stuff anymore. It’s been really good for me because I would always get worked up and worried about everything, so now, I can relax.
I asked Bartlett if she ever saw herself in a combat support role when she joined the military and what her thoughts were on woman in combat.
It kind of surprised me [to be in a combat support role]. I mean, you know you can get mortared or attacked at any time, but what happened to me; it happened so fast, I wasn’t really prepared for that. But, it depends on the person. Some people can handle stuff like that and some can’t. I didn’t think they would put me [in combat support roles] because I’m a mechanic, but we all had to do ACP [training],^^53^^ […] for about a month out in California before we deployed where they taught us to use the turret, two-forties and 50 cals [sic] and everything, […] but we’re not like the infantry guys going out on patrol or anything. But, like in some of the other companies, there are women out on convoys doing turrets and driving and everything.
One of the main reasons [woman in combat roles] have been kept out so long is because of health concerns. Because, physically, females are small and don’t have as much muscle mass; they maybe can’t carry as much. But, if there are those that can keep up, sure, why not?^^54^^
[Concerning women getting injured] it’s all the same really. You don’t want to see anybody get hurt. There are some people who don’t even think females should be in the Army; it’s not meant for us. But, people are always going to be unhappy about something; there isn’t much you can do about that.
I have family in the infantry and know all the stuff they do from climbing or walking up mountains with 100 pounds of gear and like I said, anatomically, males are just more built; more muscle mass and more capable of stuff like that. But, I know some females that probably could do that too, but for the most part, it’s not for all of us.
It varies from person to person [being in a violent experience]. War can mess just about anybody up. Some people are more capable or they can deal with it and some people just aren’t, and they don’t really know until they just go through it. I know when I deployed, I didn’t want to have to deal with anything like that; seeing people being killed or messed up. But, I saw it happen right in front of me. And it’s taken a long time, but I’ve gotten better with it and I can deal with it now.
Being engaged by the Taliban and dealing with suicide bombers were challenges everyone had a chance of facing on the ground in Afghanistan. Another challenge many military personnel found themselves in the midst of was working with and training various new Afghan forces as they take over security for their own country.
22 year old Pennsylvania-native and Marine Lance Corporal Jeff Lancaster was one of many charged with mentoring various Afghan police. Lancaster trained Afghanistan’s national security force, the Afghan National Civil Order of Police (ANCOP), who Lancaster describes as, “The equivalent to our National Guard or federal law enforcement.”
Lancaster discusses trying to make connections with the rural population and police forces he trained and assisted through regular patrols as well as trying to root out Taliban agents with local intelligence.
Lancaster also comments on the Afghan military forces’ capabilities and the possibility of a Taliban resurgence.
After a couple of failed flights because of the weather or what not; there were eight of us, we loaded up the helicopter with all our gear and we were flown into just the middle of this poppy field, and there were old guys starring at us; it was all new to us. We grabbed our gear and ran into the base, but the base was nothing more than some dirt walls and a big piece of plywood as a gate. It took a couple of weeks before we got bulldozers out there to make walls and stuff like that. And then we were in the heart of the city; in Marjah.^^55^^
It was hard. My eight man team eventually got broken up into two four man teams. We ended up all doing the jobs of staff and COs;^^56^^ we were like liaisons all the time. So, it’s hard when the marine officers come up to us and say, “Get this done.” And, we would say, “Okay, we have to go talk to the police officers.” We would go tell the police commander, “This is what we would like to have done,” and their ideas would always clash with ours. So, there is always a fine line.
It was kind of like dealing with a child; dealing with the local police. They would say, “Well we are going to do it this way or we’re not going to do anything.” That was hard.
It was weird. The first experience I had dealing with the police was just to watch them for a few days and write up reports. We wrote reports [after] we interviewed the police officers and we interviewed the marines that were with them; what they saw. We tried to talk to the locals, when they would. But, at this point, we weren’t in the city very long; but the people who were there, they weren’t treated well by the police officers. They wouldn’t talk to us when the police officers were around. We found out that the police officers were raping little boys; extorting money from people; they would have negligent discharges of their firearms. I talked to one marine who told me one of [the police officers] shot their gun off in their sleep. […] Like I said, some of them are like children.
So we write up all our reports about this and as soon as we go and drop them off, they all left and a brand new batch of people came in, these were the Afghan National Civil Order Police [ANCOP].
ANCOP was pretty good. All their commanders fought the Russians before I was born. And I was going to tell them what to do? It was kind of crazy. Because they all had the battle scars to prove it. One guy was missing his ulna out of his arm. The head honcho, he was the equivalent of a company commander, he had shrapnel scars on his leg and scars on his abdomen.
So, our first meeting, we were told to bring them gifts, and told that we just had to be friendly, but no business is allowed to be brought up. Basically, we didn’t want to offend their culture. But what happened was, we sat down and had tea with this [company commander] and we just ended up really shooting the shit with him and talking a lot about how western medicine is really good that it is coming into Afghanistan, because when his wife had a kid, they did a c-section, and it’s good because it keeps her pussy tight.
They are hardworking and I tried to be friends with them. I was probably friendlier than the rest of my team. We would go hang out, sit down; drink tea with them. Even though we didn’t speak the same language we could pass along a lot of information with just hand gestures and stuff.
[We would have interpreters] some of the time. In my four man team, we had one. And he was, I don’t know. He was from the United States. I’m not sure if he was even a citizen though. I guess we trusted him, I mean, we gave him a gun. We always had a thing though. We always asked ourselves, “Is he interpreting things right, [or] is he being shady?” Like, we would need him to pass our information, not his own information. Sometimes, we would be like, “What did he say?” And he would be like, “Oh, it’s nothing, it’s bullshit.” And we were like, “We need to know what he said.”
Basically, what we would do is, we would take the four of us out, and we would take four or six [ANCOP] guys out and do regular infantry foot patrols. The only thing we changed was that we tried to get the police officers to talk to the locals a little bit and build up a rapport. Because, the people I would go out with, they weren’t even from the same city, they were from Kabul. The majority of them, […] they spoke Dari, and the whole Helmund region, they spoke Pashtu. A lot of the police officers couldn’t even talk to the locals.
In this company of ANCOP, they had a lot of different ethnicities. They had a few Assyrians who kind of looked Mongolian or Chinese.^^57^^
There was this one Assyrian, the others used to rag on this guy. His commander used to beat him, and I really felt bad for this guy. And he quit. He took off his uniform and was in civilian clothes and he went off down the road. And the next thing I know, all the other cops are flying down the road and they arrested him and brought him in and just started beating him. They wanted to abuse him more.
But some of the Assyrians, they were the most badass. They are disciplined. I remember sitting in a wadi^^58^^ with our marines, and the other two marines were passed out, and the two Assyrians we were with; I remember them squatting down and looking down the iron sights of their M-16s we gave them and just waiting; looking. We [the marines] might not have been acting as we should have been right then, but they were always disciplined like that.
We had 96 police officers we had to be in charge of. We had to be accountable for everything: the weapons, the personnel, the bullets. We had, let me see, six check points we had to command. So we split them up and had them on a rotation. We would end up putting these other Assyrians out at the same checkpoint so nothing more would happen.
Really, I don’t think it’s much different than the United States would have been 60 years ago. It would be like taking police officers from New York City in 1950, making half of them black, and putting them in Georgia. Georgia people probably wouldn’t like that much.
What we tried to push was that they were all Afghans; try to build a sense of nationhood. But, what we had to do was go out all the time; and most people probably didn’t like us going through their houses all the time. With the Marines, we aren’t allowed just to go into anybody’s house, you need to have probable cause. But since I was working with ANCOP, it was their country; they didn’t need probable cause. As long as they went through the doorway first we could enter after them.
Now imagine having a bunch of Americans come into your compound. There are a bunch of customs we don’t know. Like, we couldn’t search a room if there were women in it. The ANCOPs would usually do that to build up trust with [the locals]. But, then there were compounds; we would search one room, then the father, or the man of the house, would take all the women, move them from the other room, then we would search the room they came from. Sometimes I sat there wondering, “What if the women have AKs, or opium, or they are really men just dressed as women?”
We had to focus on the hearts and minds though. If I go in there violating their religious laws they aren’t going to be too happy. If we had to search women we would get the [ANCOP] officers to do it.
Really, we just dealt with people trying to make a living; trying to feed their kids, you have to keep that in mind. When we would go tromping through their fields; go over their crops, this was how they made their money. We tried to be nice to them, like I would go out on patrol or something and talk with some of them; joke with them. Like I met one guy who asked, “What’s your name, what’s your name?” And I went, “Barack Obama.” And the dad laughed and the little kids there just looked at me.
We would give the children candy and stuff. Every once in a while you would see a kid and you would give them thumbs up or the hang ten sign and he would flip you off. And we would find out some marine taught him that. I was out on patrol and a little kid came up to me on his bicycle and I said, “Din-gay,” which means, “How are you?” And he just gave me the finger and said, “Fuck you,” and then told us a marine told him to do it. But if you were nice to them, they were nice to you.
There was this little bazaar my team would always go to. We would go out and by some soda pop and frozen chicken and have a little chicken fry or something. So, we used their local economy and spent our own money there.
Every once in a while, we would walk [through Marjah] and talk to people and go in and sit down, have someone invite you into their house and have chai [tea] with them; take off the Kevlar [body armor]; sit there and ask them, “How are you doing, are you having any problems, can we help you and where is the Taliban?”
Most of the time, they want to help you, but they say they can’t. Because they say, “Well, you are here right now, but at night, or in a few days, you are going to leave and the Taliban is going to come back and kill me if they think I was working with you.” That was always the hard thing, because they are right, we can’t be everywhere all the time.
For my last three months or so, I spent my time with the Afghan National Police, the ANP. And, I missed my ANCOPs. These guys were like the local sheriffs. Most of them were just local guys who enlisted in the [Afghan] service and were just shipped back into the city. A lot of them were pretty dumb. Some of their officers were alright. All the ANCOPs, they were college educated and every single one of them was at least a five year veteran. These [ANPs] were all newly enlisted. So we took them and showed them how to patrol, and actually in combat, they were alright.
When I first started working with ANCOP at least, the whole mission; the whole thing we were going for was self-sufficiency. We had on the job training, like you would help guide them, but they had all been trained before they came to me. But it was just like going through boot camp, […] first you have to crawl before you can walk. So at first, we planned all the missions and did all the work load and stuff, and soon enough we gave them more and more responsibility and they planned their own patrols.
I believe they can do their job as police. Everybody knows what they have to do, and they can do it. What I ask is, “Is their personal, moral, and ethical framework up to par to have them win?” If they just want to be corrupt and gain power and not do their job, then they are going to fail, that’s why they need strong police leadership which I have seen. I once saw an officer, his troops were goofing off or whatever, one of them made a guitar out of an oilcan and they were playing music at the checkpoint. The checkpoint commander showed up and pulled down a branch of a tree and made a switch and started whooping ass with it; getting them in line. Their leadership is there when it’s needed, and we have set them up for success, as long as they are willing.
Overall, I don’t know though. There is a lot they need; they need ammo, they need food and water; beans, bullets and band aids. As long as their government can provide that, and now we provide all their stuff basically, I know we are trying to have them provide that, […] but they might do alright; they just need the man power. The Taliban can come back and take over something as small as a city block if nobody is there and then they have a foothold somewhere. So like I said, it’s up to man power and determination.
I really want to see them succeed. I know most of the time, people are like, “Fuck them, they can’t do shit for themselves,” but I’m trying to be optimistic really. Because the minute we leave and if it just falls back [into Taliban control] then everything we did there was for nothing. They need the moral courage to do the right thing.
They [Afghan security forces] fucking hate the Taliban. Because you know [the Taliban] kill civilians and they are seen beheading people just because they won’t listen to them. We had two little people, one was 59 years old and the other was 28 I believe. We would have breakfast with them and listen to the police scanner. They would come down to our place and they would sell stuff to us. Pretty soon, the Taliban captured them and beheaded them because they worked with us.
Whenever we went out on patrol we would hear, “Fuck the Taliban.” And these people have no fear; they have been doing this for years. I’d see guys stand up in the middle of a firefight and shoot from the hip towards the enemy just yelling, “Fuck you Taliban, fuck you,” and “God is great” and stuff and we [the Marines] would be like, “Fuck yeah, this guy is badass.”
I hope it works out for them, the whole nation. They are good people; they are hardworking people just like anywhere else in the world. That is something people tend to forget. One thing I definitely think though, is that we are the good guys and the Taliban are evil, just evil. They use gang tactics to control, like the Crips^^59^^ would use to control a neighborhood. They also don’t care in a firefight if they kill little kids or old men and women, and of course, we do.
I can also tell you, without a doubt, that I would be dead if it wasn’t for these Afghan national police forces. When the shit hits the fan, they know what they are doing and they are good at it. Even without proper training, we would see their fearlessness. They have been fighting [since] before I was in diapers
What effect does killing an enemy have on someone? 24 year old James DeBenedetto, an Iowa Army National Guard Infantryman who rose to an undisclosed rank, reflects on this subject.
DeBendetto worked on a Quick Reaction Force in the mountains of Afghanistan, speedily responding and recovering stranded units or vehicles.
DeBendetto recreates the night he went to recover a vehicle from an IED attack and ended up taking the lives of several enemy combatants.
When we’re not on missions we are on QRF [Quick Reaction Force] standby. This is when we go out when another platoon is getting its ass kicked, or an IED goes off, or sometimes, we will escort the military’s giant version of a tow truck out to recover our other vehicles. […] I was assigned to a CROWS gun, [a] common remotely operated weapons station. It’s a giant daylight and thermal camera that is remote controlled. When used at night you can see perfect gray scale thermal images of rats at 1000 meters, I shit you not. This thing is amazing. Too bad you get wicked motion sickness because you’re going over bumpy roads and around mountain passes and shit all while staring into a TV screen.
We went on a QRF mission in which our 3rd platoon had gotten a truck blown almost off the road from an attack. This mountain road was a one lane road skirting the side of a mountain which vehicles could travel up it via a narrow valley. If you were to look across the small valley you just see another mountain on the other side. So, it’s night, and of course, 3rd platoon had been out all day with multiple attacks and a few missed IEDs. Unfortunately, one bomb was lucky and blew the truck halfway off this road. It’s at least 200 to 300 feet down to the base of the valley from this road. It was a scary time getting up there.
We led our tow truck back down the road to meet this truck on this narrow, dangerous, and one-way road. It was my job to scan in my thermal camera the other side of the mountain for the enemy. Our TOC [Tactical Operations Center] calls up with an intel report for us that 16 insurgents are watching us and are going to attack our tow truck. The intel had the enemy describing our trucks perfectly, so we knew they were watching us. Suddenly, I see eight guys, not the reported 16. These eight bozos have RPGs and AKs and PKMs.^^60^^ I can make them out perfectly on my thermal camera. They are trying to sneak to a better position on the mountain across from us. I call up to the 3rd platoon lieutenant and give him what I see and ask permission to fire. A second later he says, “Go get ‘em.”
I had a 50 caliber machine gun on my CROWS. I take it off safety and laze the target.^^61^^ It has a laser on it to grab distance and so it automatically adjusts the ballistics of the gun, elevating the weapon to where it needs to be. I pull the trigger. It fucking jams. I re-cock it and unload about 100 rounds into these guys on the side of the mountain. I can see the heat of the round on my thermal camera and I distinctly remember hitting two of them. I actually injured four and killed two. All I remember seeing is the white hot image of six guys laying there. Two were split in half, so I knew they were dead, duh [sic]. I had blown the leg off of another. Two had their arms gone and the other one was rolling around the side of this mountain. I gave a quick sitrep and asked if I could fire again. Rules [of engagement] state that I cannot fire upon an unarmed combatant. I agree to hold fire, but I had just seen the fucking guns in their hands. I could see them all around their weapons. I held off my trigger finger and just watched. I watched all of those six guys that were either dead or injured for two hours. Just sat and watched.
Normally, if they were accessible, we would have gone out to them and given them first aid, but since they were on the other side of the valley, it was just impossible. We were kind of close to a town that was perched on the side of the mountain. I see the two other guys that had gotten away. They had ditched their guns and were yelling to the town. I saw a woman and some children pop out of their houses; their qulats which consist of large, mud-brick walls that are square in shape. They have one entrance and then a number of smaller buildings inside. Sometimes these compounds can get quite large, up to half a football field. [The villagers] went over to these guys and picked them up. I killed more than two after waiting and watching. I had two confirmed kills, but I knew that the others were dead or dying.
The images of the thermal camera will never leave my head. For some reason, these images bother me more than seeing insurgents up close that we had killed in other firefights. Normally, we would get shot at, shoot back, kill a few, and then recover the injured and dead. But this time, I just sat there watching; watching the still alive insurgents grabbing their arms and legs and just bleeding. Even though it was through a thermal camera, the quality of the images are amazing. Those images are the ones that I think about before I go to bed almost every night. It sucks because I question my decisions to shoot that many rounds. Did I overkill? Did I not shoot enough? Etcetera, etcetera. I don’t doubt [these thoughts] should be there and [are] there now.
Now that I am at home and in the regular world; being home is a weird thing. Now that I am home for getting on close to eight months, it’s weird to recollect on the traumatic shit you go through. At the time, you don’t think a particular event is a big deal, or you don’t think it’s scary, or I acted correctly. However, once you have time to dwell on things; I feel bad that I had to kill these guys, not bad enough to hurt my everyday life, but bad enough that I have some demons that I have to sort through before I go to bed every night. It’s very odd. There is a bit of respect amongst us that have fought these insurgent fighters. Normally, we kill these guys when we receive their contact first, but this particular incident, I killed at least two if not more and injured them too. They had no idea what was coming.
I heard once that the greatest enemy of someone who has been in combat is right before they lay down their head, and honestly, I couldn’t agree more. I have treated injured friends from bullet wounds, I’ve been shot at and blown up by IEDs, seen dead bodies, and yet, just a gray scale thermal image is what sticks with me.
After deployment ends, for many military personnel, depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues set in. Sadly, the end result for too many of our service men and women is suicide.
Army Airborne Infantryman and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran Miles Winston is someone who knows this all too well. His father, a lifelong marine and Multinational Forces EOD Commander for Operation Iraqi Freedom, succumbed to this untimely fate.
Specialist Winston talks about his father’s death and his own battle with PTSD. Winston also talks about the modern day troubles with the Office of Veterans’ Affairs, the bonds of brotherhood the military fosters, details his struggles in finding proper employment, and talks about dealing with anti-war and anti-veteran individuals.
I look at dad’s death as a big positive. I looked at it as a combat loss and moved on. It’s a positive as in, it really brought PTSD and the fact so many veterans die from suicide and the Marine Corps is starting to recognize for EOD types as they come back, they have to go through a screening.^^62^^
It shows, you know, everybody can be affected by [PTSD], even the leadership. Pretty much every EOD team in Iraq, although they all didn’t report to dad, all their COs reported to dad. While he was in Iraq, dad was so high up on the totem pole he could even get intelligence briefings of what I was up to in Afghanistan, […] even every time I left the wire. Someone that high up in the chain had a lot of attention on him. That was a really visible sign that we [the military] need help and that stuff can happen to even commanders.
I look at it as, dad died for the men and women who are still alive. A lot of veterans who served under dad during all those years, some of them have come to me and told me they have PTSD really bad and they never got help. But they would tell me, I heard about your dad dying and then I got help. One marine who knew my dad, he was really deep in a hole; he was having thoughts about suicide and he had broken up with his wife of 29 years, and dad’s death jerked him out of the hole. Now, he’s back with his wife, his marriage is getting better; he has a steady job and is regularly seeing a therapist. No matter what happens; no matter how negative something is, you can find a positive.
[The VA] is a broken, broken organization. It sometimes takes 14 or 15 weeks for someone to go see a therapist. They had big dental problems a few years ago. Some vets who went in to get dental work ended up contracting HIV through their visit.^^63^^ It’s just crazy. They survived all the violence and blood and now they may be walking around with the HIV virus.
Just yesterday at work, I met an old Vietnam veteran who was in the 82nd [Airborne], and I got invited to come out to the local 82nd’s support chapter. These are my kind of people. These are the people that dealt with what I dealt with, all be it at an early time. […] Especially when I talk to people that have done all of these things; done shit I’ve done, it’s not like talking to my girlfriend who I tell I did this and that; she’ll never experience anything like that. It’s easier though, to talk about it to people who have been there with you. […] You see the jump wings;^^64^^ the jump wings are a connection from all the way [from] World War II until now. When I was 18, 19 and meeting World War II survivors at [Fort] Bragg there was a connection, because we had the wings, we were brothers.
The first three or four months out of the Army were really easy. I was happy to be out of the military. It was at about month four or five that I fell into a pretty deep depression. I was upset for quite a while. I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I was so used to; I would wake up every day at five a.m., drive to work, go run, then do whatever, report to formation. I didn’t have to think where I would live every day; every day was set, every day had a purpose. I went from that to nothing.
It was at month five that I got an email from General Dynamics, Information and Technology^^65^^ and I went back working for them doing the same thing. It was a five day work week and I got to work on a base and travel again. But, after about a few months of that, I got laid off and kind of went into another depression because I lost that meaning again. It was an uphill battle for a few years. I broke up with the ex-wife; we split up.
After holding a couple random, menial jobs, Winston landed a position at a record store he thought was going to be a good fit for him. However, he couldn’t get enough hours and faced ridicule because he was a veteran.
The record store, […] they paid minimum wage, there were absolutely no benefits. I guess I had the idea that it would be like Empire Records.^^66^^ It was nothing like Empire Records. My first day there, I was wearing my jump wings on my watch and one of the people there said, “What the hell is that?” I told them they were my jump wings and I had to explain what they meant and I got, “Oh, you are one of those people.”
The people there told me things like, “All you veterans are horrible people, you’re a bunch of killers,” and shit like that. […] Everyday was the same thing, “You’re a vet. You’re bad.” At this place, it was right down the street from an Air Force National Guard base and they would come in all the time. It was horrible to see people in uniform being treated that way. It was kind of behind their backs, like nobody going to help them out. That was how everyday was.
I had a tough time one night. I had a lot of flashbacks and I couldn’t sleep; I didn’t get to bed until three and had to work from seven to one. I called my boss and said, “I’m not coming in today, man, I had a really, bad, bad night.” He told me if I didn’t come in I would be fired.
At [the record store], 30 percent of their business is military. The only time [the employees were] ever appreciative of me was on Veteran’s Day; the nearby [ice cream store] did like 75 percent off everything for veterans. So, everyone gave me a bunch of cash to go over there because I got a big discount that day. I kind of did it just so they would shut the hell up and leave me alone. “Use your veteran discount to get us a bunch of shit.” I felt like they used me.
I tried to do what was called this Outward Bound thing. It’s when they take veterans and try to make a recreation of combat in a safe environment. The one I was going to do, you hike up this mountain […] and you live off the land; like survival things. I was going to do one down in Florida and I had my trip already planned. [The trip was] paid for; my plane ticket and my lodging and flight back. The [record store], they told me if I went I was going to be fired, even though I told them beforehand.
I now work at Home Depot. When I went through my interview with Home Depot, the manager said, “Oh, I see you are a veteran and you served in Afghanistan.” He told me, “If you are having a bad day or you are having flashbacks and you aren’t here yet, call us and we will give you the day off, no questions asked. If something happens at work, we will pull you off and make sure you get home safely.” They are a real, real vet friendly company. At Home Depot, say they have 100 employees there, 30 of us were vets. I went from getting shit on to being thanked. It was a nice change.^^67^^
[Concerning the outreach for veterans], I attribute some of this stuff to the news. Like when a person with PTSD goes crazy and shoots a bunch of people, then people put us into that category. Hollywood kind of does that too. I think that’s where it comes from. [The media says] all the soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are pushing through so many operations that they just snap. And it does happen, like the young soldier in Afghanistan who walked off base and killed 13 innocent people.^^68^^ You know, the Marines are pissing on the Taliban corpses and they think that’s all of us.^^69^^ A small percentage of us break down, but not all of us will.
A lot of [young, anti-veteran] people [I met] came from these extreme anti-Vietnam parents; straight-up the people that would spit on soldiers when they got back. They weren’t willing to take the time to hear our thoughts, they just heard what their parents said. I think they think this because [the military is] all volunteers. And when me and all my friends joined, we knew we would kind of get shit on if we go to war. […] Everybody is entitled to their opinion. The second we start removing the ability to have people give their own opinion, then everything we’ve done over the years is worthless.
One of the most tragic ways a service member can lose their life is by friendly fire. And after a friendly fire incident happens; after all those responsible have been punished, the man or woman who made the fateful mistake still has to live with this awful accident for the rest of their lives.
Georgia-native and Army Private Will Conrad served one tour of duty at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Fire Support Specialist/Forward Observer. During this single tour, Conrad accidentally killed his captain.
After retelling the accident that had him demoted from E-4, Specialist, to E-2, Private, and honorably discharged, Conrad focuses on his long battle with PTSD and depression as a result of this incident and his year in the combat zone. Included in this tale is Conrad’s experiences with the VA.
After the invasion was declared over^^70^^ and literally overnight we went from calling in air support to, “Is your plumbing working?” We were helping to rebuild marketplaces, schools, community centers; we would go around the schools and try and get our family and friends from home to send us school supplies and go around the schools and give them away.
On November 17, 2003, we were called to support a combat operation, a cordon and search of the local community of Abu Ghraib.^^71^^ So, our role, specifically, we had three gun trucks and a tank, was to cordon off the streets, make sure nobody was walking around; [civilians] were all in their homes, […] while other platoons would go around the homes and look for weapons, bomb making materials, that type of thing.
Around noon, I can’t remember exactly, we got to the end of this marketplace; the end of this street. I was walking around helping, making sure people were getting in their house, that type of thing. And my buddy was on the roof gun of my Humvee. And that is kind of a boring job, sitting up there with the gun. And he said, “Uh, do you mind switching places with me?” […] I was already tired so I said, “Yeah, no problem.” So, we switched places. I got up in the back of the Humvee. We moved down a street; parked. […] Where we decided to park was right outside a community bus terminal. And there was a security guard right outside that terminal and he had an AK-47 strapped. And at this point in Iraq, for you to have an AK-47 strapped, you had to wear this big, yellow badge and it lets coalition forces know, you know, “Don’t shoot me.” He didn’t have his badge showing, so, I brought my M-4 up,^^72^^ ranged it at him, and they [other members of Conrad’s platoon] went and searched him. And I lowered my M-4 back on the roof of the Humvee.
As I was standing there out the roof of the Humvee manning the machine gun, the only other person in the Humvee was our chaplain, and he was in the driver’s seat, everybody else was dismounted, walking around, pulling security. [A] captain noticed a group of Iraqis, about 50 to 100 yards down the street walking towards us in a group. Later it would come to be that it was just a delegation asking us what was going on. But, [this] captain said, “On the count of three, we are all going to jump in the Humvees; we are going to speed over there very quickly, disperse this group, and we’ll come back and meet over here.” He said, “Conrad, strap down the M240B.^^73^^” […] I went to strap down the M240B and my M-4, my personal weapon, is strapped around my chest. When I reached forward, I felt a pop, a bang; it was a gunshot. And the butt stock of my M-4 hit me in my chin. So I knew immediately that there was a shot, and I knew immediately that I felt like it was my weapon that hit me. At this point in time, [everything] somewhat slowed down. I looked at the canvas top of the Humvee and I saw an expended shell sitting there rolling on the top. I also see that the barrel of my rifle is now poked into a hole in the roof. I then realized I had shot down into the Humvee. I was thinking, “There is no way there is anybody else in that seat. The only other person was the driver and where my weapon was pointed was in the back seat behind the driver.” I thought, “There was nobody else in the Humvee. There was no way somebody got in there that fast.” […] I leaned back and I noticed that [the] captain [who was] our new, incoming captain, was indeed in that seat. And I was hoping there was no hit. My buddy who was jumping in the Humvee at this time said, “Oh my fucking God, he’s dead.” I noticed [the] captain’s head tilt back and then forward and I saw heavy streams of blood coming out from below his left ear. I check my weapon. I looked down. It was on safe, which was odd. There was an NCO^^74^^ behind me; [he] grabbed my weapon. All of this happened within about 15 seconds. He grabbed my weapon from around my chest and saw that it was on safe. I let him have my weapon. And I was the only combat life saver in the vehicle.^^75^^ So, I jumped down to retrieve my [first aid] bag. And at this point, things start flashing in and out.
I jumped down, [and] tried to get my bag. [Others in my platoon] are trying to get [the captain] out of the vehicle; people are pulling me away and [the other soldiers] think it was his weapon because of the way he had his weapon sitting with the barrel pointing up towards his head. And I’m telling them, “No, I’m positive it was my weapon.” The chaplain started first aid and [another captain] was doing first aid.
At this point, I’m kind of blacking in and out. I don’t know all of what happened. I just know it was my weapon and, “I can’t believe that this is happening.” We called for a medivac [helicopter]. They declined. They said the area was too hot and that they couldn’t come and we would have to self-evac which would involve driving the Humvee back to our FOB which was two or three miles away.
And when you hear that; when you hear self-evac with a wound like this, you know it’s over.
[At the FOB] everyone started to be separated. I was asking about [the injured] captain. “Is he alive?” Nobody knew. Or, nobody would tell me at least. […] It was at this point I noticed the Black Hawk [helicopter] was still on the helipad and it hadn’t taken off. So, I knew that he was gone. Had the Black Hawk been gone, I knew there was a chance, but, when they don’t take off, it’s KIA.^^76^^
Final investigation was that; a weapon won’t fire if it’s on safe. And, after the shot, I looked at my weapon and it was on safe. Another person looked at my weapon and saw that it was on safe too. So, I’m not positive how it happened. But, the butt stock of the M240B machine gun pressed up against my M-4 somehow fired the weapon. […] I thought I would probably go to prison for this. I told [Army criminal investigators] I did it; it was my weapon and I didn’t mean to, he was a very good person to me and that it was an accident and I don’t know how it could have happened.
I was given an article 15^^77^^ and my rank was reduced to E-2 and they took some of my pay for two months. I had to sign a paper that would move me out of the Army and I was told, “There is no way with this on your record you will ever be promoted again. The best bet from here would be to put you out, give you an honorable discharge, and let you go on with your life.”
When I returned to the states on March 13,  I had a face to face meeting, brokered by our chaplain, with [the dead captain’s] widow. And she was unbelievably humble and nice. And, I met his three children. He had a newborn and a little boy and a girl, they were elementary age at the time. [The dead captain’s widow] asked me if there was anything she could do for me and she was so sorry this had to happen and she loved me and that she didn’t blame me. From that, I was out of the Army by July 13, 2004 and I went on with my civilian life.
At first, I thought I was weird because I had an anger issue. I think most people who came back from these wars had some problems coming back with anxiety; with anger. It was so stressful living under such stress, and the fear; twelve hours a day, the whole time. And when you come back you have to regulate that. […] When I got out of the Army they kind of messed up my pay, so I was basically living on credit cards. And I got a lot of debt and basically had to declare bankruptcy and try to start over for my family.
Around [late] 2004, I got a job selling auto parts and I also had a job working in a warehouse of a Circuit City. […] So, I was basically trying to pay off my debt with these two jobs and buy baby things and live. […] All this while I was dealing with issues. I dwelled [sic] on the accident every day, but I was able to put on a happy face for work; for customer service. I started to get promoted up in the ranks [of the auto parts store] and got recruited by another company to become a store manager. […] My wife started going to school at this time to be a nurse. And at this time, I worked anywhere from 70 to 80 hours a week to support my wife and my child. Everything was going great that way. We had another son in 2006 and my wife continued going to school.
Around [early] 2007, my wife and I got into a big argument. The stress was starting to build on me from my PTSD and I knew things were getting worse. I took it out at home arguing with my wife. I’d pick a fight just so I could get in my truck and drive away somewhere to be alone. It got overwhelming for her and she told me I should leave. I did. I moved […] and got a job at another auto parts store. My wife and I separated for about six months to a year. […] Around the end of the year, 2007, we started seeing each other and started working things out. After the New Year in 2008, we decided to move back together. […] At this point, the stress was becoming overwhelming. [Due to] the anxiety, I couldn’t sleep at night. I’d sleep maybe one or two hours a day at the most. I was gaining weight. When I joined the Army I was 6’2, 175 pounds. When I left Iraq, I was around 200. [By] 2006, I was about 220, and at my heaviest in 2012, I was up to 320. And anyone with massive PTSD or depression can tell you that the weight gain is immense because you eat and you sleep.
Back to 2008. I knew something was wrong. I was angry all the time. I was quick to snap. I never physically hurt my wife or my children or anything, but the emotional toll I was putting on them was pretty tough. One day, it came to a head at my job. […] My supervisor, he came into town. And I was dealing with an ankle issue from my time in the Army. I had to get a little ankle surgery on my heel which would normally cause me to stay out of work for two days because of the medicine they [put] me on. But I told [my supervisor], “I can deal with it. I’ll have to sit on a stool or a chair but I can be at work and get things done.” And he said, “No, do what you gotta [sic] do, take some time.” I found out later, to my employees, [my superior said], that I needed to suck it up and get to work. And to anyone else; to a reasonable person, you would say, “Well, he is just a corporate douche”, and move on. Well, I didn’t act reasonably. I challenged him to a fight and it got physical and I decided to leave the job. This was late 2008. At this point, my wife had graduated and she was making way more than me as a nurse. So, we weren’t bad off. […] She told me, “Maybe take some time off of work. You know, with your issues from the Army maybe this is a good time with how hard you have been working with 80 hours a week, you’re probably drained. How about take six months and then go back into the work force?”
When I took that time off, things got really bad. I wasn’t out seeing adults my own age anymore, I was just at home with the kids. The depression became a lot easier to let envelope me and it did and the PTSD; the night sweats, the dream every night, the waking up to the sound of gunshots, the exploding; you know, any little thing my kids did, or my wife did. I try to equate it to, […] imagine a glass. And you have a volume inside that glass that can be filled with happiness, anxiety, whatever you want to fill it with. And if it gets to the top it might overflow and you’ll have an outburst. For me, mine was always right at the top. And I was full of happiness. But, I wasn’t happy. If anything good happened, almost like a bi-polar effect, I magnified it, “Oh this is the best thing to ever have happened.” If any little bitty [sic] bad thing happened, like a change of plans, say, my wife and I, we have plans to go out with the family by Friday to Chili’s, and on Thursday, my wife says, “Let’s not go to Chili’s, let’s go to Olive Garden instead.” That was enough to destroy our weekend. Something so simple and dumb would just destroy me. Having to repeat myself to people who couldn’t hear me would send me over the edge. Any loud sound; anytime my kids would laugh real loud or say something, just laughing being kids, I would tell them to go to their rooms. At this time, we lived very close to the beach. Seagulls would make me go insane. I couldn’t be at the beach.
So, from 2008 to 2010, it just progressively got worse and worse. Around the beginning of 2010, it got extremely bad. I went through a week when I didn’t get out of bed. My wife missed work. My kids missed some days of school. And it all came to a head one night when I took a bottle of pain medicine I had left over from that ankle surgery. I took all that along with a fifth of Jack Daniels and just drank it. I took the bottle of pills; swallowed them all up. I drank the whole bottle of Jack Daniels as fast as I could thinking I’d pass out and I’d die. Fate intervened, and I guess I threw up as I was passing out and I threw up most of the pills. I awoke with my wife coming in, and things were still kind of blurry; my wife talking to me, doctors talking to me, asking me what I took and why. At this point, after this happened, my wife gave me an ultimatum and said that I go to the VA and seek help, or that I needed to leave. I didn’t want to leave my children and my wife so I decided to give the VA a shot.
Soon after Conrad’s wife gave him this ultimatum and he contacted the VA, Conrad tried a second suicide attempt by hanging himself. However, due to his weight gain, the rod holding the rope snapped. Nobody would find out about this suicide attempt until years later.
I’m just going to say, in my experience, the VA is, and was, horrible. […] Here’s how the VA works. You go to a local VA. You tell them you want to make a claim. You make a claim, […] and you just wait.^^78^^ You wait for them to give you an appointment for a “C and P” which is compensation and petition appointment. So, I was there to claim PTSD; I had explained to them what the problem was. But, it’s not like they say, “Okay, we see you have PTSD, let’s get you into therapy, let’s start working while we’re doing the paper work.” They don’t do any of that. The time between me setting up [an appointment to see a counselor] and me having the appointment, I tried to kill myself. Now, these were pretty shitty attempts to kill yourself. You figure, if you wanted to kill yourself, you’d make it happen and maybe I didn’t; maybe I didn’t want to kill myself. I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone and I didn’t want to feel like somebody I didn’t know anymore.
We went ahead with the “C and P” exam around January of 2011, […] and I broke down and I started crying. The lady, she couldn’t even get all the questions out. She knew how bad it was. But, they are so mechanical. They just do their paper work. They don’t say, “Hey, this guy might need to talk to someone immediately.” […] I didn’t have any doctor’s appointments until November, 2011 when I got my 70 percent [monetary disability] award for PTSD, hearing loss, and my ankle. At that point, [the VA] started to set up therapy sessions. Prior to that, I had no appointments. I hadn’t seen any doctors. […] So, basically, I just withstood. It got worse and worse; it didn’t get any better. My first appointment with a psychologist came around; and there is always a background and family history, incident history, depression problems, just basically background; you don’t really get into therapy right away. We got the background done and I talked to a pharmacologist and they suggested some [anti-depressants]. They didn’t work. They just kind of made me feel drowsy most of the day. Every appointment I went to, […] there was supposed to be an appointment every month, but usually there was like a two to three month gap, that just shows you how much they care, […] they would just up the dosage, or change the medicine they gave me and it didn’t do anything. I’m sure; I’m positive it helps a lot of people, […] but it just never did anything for me.
And every appointment, it was a new doctor. And we went through background and set up another appointment and [at] my next appointment it would be a new doctor. I had 12 appointments and 11 doctors. The only second appointment I had with any doctor wasn’t a real appointment. I went and she just told me that she wouldn’t be there next time and it would be a new doctor. […] That was when I just stopped going. I tried myself to do some research and self-medicate with marijuana which helps more than anything I’ve ever had, but it’s very debilitating, you can’t really be a parent and be high. You can’t really be a parent with PTSD and debilitating depression either, but I would rather be a parent from the bedroom than have my kids make macaroni and cheese on a grill somewhere because I’m high. […] I tried the therapy that the VA suggests, group therapy. The group therapy I got involved in, and of course there is somebody there regulating, but if you have a controlling person in that group, and I had a controlling person, it’s all about that person and it doesn’t stop being about that person. […] So, group therapy didn’t help me.
What did help me was spending time with other adults; getting out of the house; my wife being with me and helping me. But, it doesn’t fix it. It basically slowed it. It kind of made everything a little easier to take. But, it still got bad. Around, I’d say, 2012, my wife decided to join the Army to help with her nursing work. She was accepted into the Army’s Nurse Core and she was commissioned [as] a first lieutenant and she moved [away] to do her training for about a month. During that time she called me and said, “Maybe we got married a little too soon”, and she was feeling okay to tell me this because we weren’t next to each other, and she always felt like she couldn’t say anything when we were together.
At that point, something happened. It’s like; I can’t really explain what happened. She had given me ultimatums before and we had split up before, but something happened when she told me those things. I would normally interrupt her and explode and bulldoze her, you know, “You don’t understand.” The basic, cliché crap. And it was just a way for me so people couldn’t show me what was wrong. But, this conversation, I didn’t say anything. And it was literally like a light switch being turned on. And I always felt like I was in a deep well and nothing I could do would get me out of the well and I just knew I was falling and it was hopelessness. I would hit the bottom soon. And something just happened. That feeling was just gone. […] The best thing that ever happened to me was my wife telling me she didn’t love me anymore. Because she really didn’t love me anymore. When we got married we had a deal. And I didn’t hold up my end of the deal. I wasn’t committed to her happiness or her love. I didn’t return the love that she gave. I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain and she let me know that night. And I drove that night to convince her not to divorce me.^^79^^ […] And it was almost as if seeing a friend for the first time in a long time; someone you love; a great friend you haven’t seen in a long time and everything clicked again. It felt like that. I felt like I was; it felt like I had been gone for a while and I just came back.
And I still deal with depression. I still have anxiety. But, from that day, I felt like I came back and I know things are getting better every day. We have three children now. […] We just bought a home. […] My wife is doing great in her Army career. I’m doing great. The kids are great. And I’m making little strides like the kids are going to school every day of the year which is a big deal with depression; when you are the person who is supposed to get your kids there, they tend to miss school. Now I feel; I still have depression, but I’m not hopeless anymore. There is a sun shining out there and there is a world I can take part in.
Most of my Army friends, those who were there that day when [the friendly fire incident] happened, they all deal with problems. Some from that event, some from other deployments they had. We help each other. We make time to see each other. We travel to see each other. That helps quite a lot. […] And spending a lot of time with my children and my family. I try and get into therapy myself and help myself. […] I am constantly researching and trying to help myself because I just don’t want to rely on the VA anymore because they are just a big letdown.
There are many veterans that have a hard time coming to terms with aspects of their service. Army National Guard Combat Engineer John Durant who served in both Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom is one veteran who holds a deep contempt for the wars he was a part of. For Durant, his service caused him enormous pain.
Making this battle harder for Durant is his struggle with drugs and alcohol and dealing with the VA and local California veteran’s centers.
Durant also found reacclimating to civilian life difficult as he tries to come to terms with the side of soldiering that caused him to do “fucked up things”, like killing the enemy and leaving the Iraqi and Afghan nationals that aided his unit to the hands of their aggressors once the U.S. Army had no use for them.
I decided to join the Marine Core one night when me and my friend were on acid […] in late’99. […] The Marine Core wouldn’t take me though because I didn’t have a high school diploma. The Army recruiting office was next door and they said, “Shit, we’ll take you.”^^80^^
I passed my ASVAB^^81^^ with flying colors and I was talking with the recruiter, and he was a huge dick. I was 19 at this point in time and really didn’t realize what the hell I was doing. The recruiter said to me, “Do you want to blow shit up?” And I said, “Yes, yes I do.” He told me, “The core of engineers sounds good.” And he said, “Do you want to jump out of airplanes?” And I said, “Yes I do.” So, I ended up being a combat engineer in the 82nd Airborne. This was all before any of the wars were going on.
Recruiters are real snakes. I met a buddy who I deployed with to Iraq in  in the invasion and fucked shit up. My buddy ended up getting called back after he got out on I-R^^82^^ and ended up going back in . [Soon after] they ended up medically discharging him because he was so fucked in the head. I just saw him for the first time in eight years after all this and he is just fucked; I mean fucked. I think he is going to kill himself. I mean, the recruiters didn’t tell us any of this. They just wasted us.
I have gone to my local vet center for counseling, not the VA. My counselor is an enlisted man, he was on a CST, a combat stress team. Basically, what they do is after every engagement, like a firefight, afterwards, they have counseling by a CST. They didn’t have that in  when I went to Iraq. When I went to Afghanistan in , I met with the combat stress teams. Basically, everybody would lie and say they are fine. People would see them on an individual basis and get drugs. And when I went in they looked at me like I was crazy when I told them I slept fine every night. And I did sleep fine every night I was over there, but not so much anymore.
My counselor knows what’s up, but I don’t think all of them do. The VA it seems like; it’s just a fucking bureaucracy. My local vet center, I didn’t even have to give them my DD-214^^83^^ until my like third meeting. They were just there and ready to help because they are all vets. And at the VA, they aren’t necessarily. The vet center has a focus on counseling and they are really helpful. I can’t speak for other counselors or other vet centers, but that’s what I experienced.
My first experience with the vet center though, it was really weird. I went to the vet center one time right before I got off of active duty, this was January of 2005. There was this old, old lady who had been dealing with Vietnam vets for the last 20 years. It was so weird going in there because I felt like I was one of the first people to go in there that wasn’t old. I mean, she didn’t get it. I left that counseling session and was like, “I’m not going back.” It screwed me up worse than I was screwed up at the time. I was drinking like two to three fifths of cheap rum each day. After I left that meeting, I got a fifth of Jack [Daniels] and said, “Fuck it, I’m never going back there.” But since then, things have gotten a lot better at the vet centers. They are starting to deal more with our generation because there are a whole lot of fucked up people my age coming in.
If it’s another vet I’m talking to, it’s like a club you’re in. These guys know, the rest of the world doesn’t get it. Probably, the most meaningful part of seeing the counselor I do at the vet center, even though he wasn’t combat arms; he wasn’t out on the end of trigger or whatever, but he dealt with people who were and he was deployed. And you know he gets it. As soon as you start talking, when you make that eyeball to eyeball connection you can see, he gets it. When you’re talking to a civilian, they just don’t get it. They don’t laugh at the funny parts, they think they are fucked up. And the fucked up parts they don’t laugh at either.
I’ve heard a stat that says 25 combat vets kill themselves for every one that dies overseas right now, which is just a fucked up number. It kills me that nobody cares. I don’t watch the news because it pisses me off, because they don’t cover this stuff. And I’m like, “Motherfucker, there are kids over there getting killed right now and you don’t report that because, why?”
People don’t want to hear it and there is no draft. If there was a draft, people might actually give a shit because they might have to go do it. It’s fucking sad; it’s just a waste; the whole thing is such a fucking waste of life. Not only ours, but every kid that gets fucking killed is somebody’s son, brother, husband, wife and they are just wasting lives.
The people that come back and are all fucked up, there is just another wasted life and nobody cares. Really nobody gives a shit. It’s like, “Thanks for your service” and that’s it. Your fucking magnetic ribbon on the back of your car, you don’t even have to scrape it off with a razor blade, so it’s not even glued to your car, but you got one on there, so, props.
I don’t want to get super political, but if we put that much effort and that much money into something good; […] and the only reason we are over there, the only reason al-Qaeda attacked us is because of U.S. foreign policy; if we put that much effort and money and time into some things that were productive and good, the world would be a better place. […] But, instead we are fighting the problems we made and wasting lives. I pray that it has some meaning for all the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who are dead because of us. But, at the same time, I just don’t really want to care that much.
One of the funniest things, but it’s really not funny, it’s really fucking sad, is, during both my deployments, everybody was there, the guys in my team, the guys in my squad, when we were in a pretty busy section at the time; […] if I were the Iraqis and Afghan people, I would shoot at us too.
When I was in Afghanistan, some of the people there thought we were the Russians. I was like, “Shit, they left 20 years ago, dude.” What are going to do? You are trying to farm to make a living, that’s what you do, you grow your crops and try to make a living. Most of these people don’t have any money, maybe some of them do, but not really. So if they don’t grow their food, they starve. Then there are these fuckers rolling through and because they are coming through, the Taliban comes down from the mountains and puts bombs in the road. You are just trying to farm; trying to make a living and get by. But because these guys come in, and I was convinced they thought we were from like eight valleys away, I mean, they have no concept of the world as a whole; because these fucking assholes in these tan trucks are rolling through and the Taliban have their bombs in the road and starts yanking their 13 year old sons, because if they don’t go fight for them, they’ll just kill the whole family. I mean if that happened in your neighborhood, who are you going to hate?
I mean, we abandoned them a lot of the time out there when it’s convenient for us. We had to go up and deconstruct a COP with just one platoon up at Marjah, near the Pakistan border, in east Taktika, and the elder of the village, as they are tribal, came up to us and he was crying. He was talking to my CO and was saying, “You guys can’t leave, they’ll kill us.” This was because, the whole time that we were there, you know, we had a perimeter to keep them safe, and we were just waiting for the Taliban to come in; just storm the perimeter and attack us. However, they are pretty shitty soldiers sometimes, but, they are willing to die. That thankfully never happened. But, they were in the hills just watching us, waiting for us to leave. And every civilian that was there supporting us, they were going to come down and kill. So, this [elder], he comes over fucking crying, 60 year old dude, and he was just like, “What the fuck, you guys are leaving?” And we were like, “Yeah, pretty much.” And he said the Taliban already told him that he was going to kill his whole family. But still, then we left, we fucking left. Everybody knew it would happen, the officers, the NCOs, but it came down from higher, from Washington, so we left. I guess two years later they started another COP there, in the same spot.
In Iraq, we had tons of locals also working for us and then when we left, they would just be killed. I mean, such a waste. And for what? What are we doing? There is no point to it.
Somebody has to be accountable for this. That’s the problem. The people in office aren’t really held accountable. When the whole thing went down at Abu Ghraib,^^84^^ […] I mean we had prisoners we’d take, and they had just shot up our dudes. But, we treated them fair and we would send prisoners that attacked our platoon off to other battalions so we wouldn’t interact with them.
After I got out of active duty, I got investigated by CID^^85^^ for prisoner abuse. When shit went down, and if bad things happened, what do you expect? You killed somebody I worked with and now you are our prisoner. […] I don’t even know if I should be talking about this. But the thing is, I want people to know about this. Because the whole thing gets sanitized. War is bad; war is a bad thing, it’s fucking ugly. It’s people doing the most horrible things to other people that you can imagine, and the media is just so disconnected and they make it all pretty and like it’s all good. At a certain point, you just start to turn mean, and you just want to be mean just to be mean. You want to just hurt people for no other reason than you can. Well, fuck, I guess that’s why I drink all the time, because I never saw myself as that person and you become that and it’s awful.
The screwed up part is, I don’t even think my deployments were even that bad. I’ve had friends who had way worse deployments. I kind of made an analogy out of it. Thinking of it as going to work, I was like, a bunch of people fucking shooting at me, I fucking killed them and one of my co-workers car’s got blown up, but it wasn’t that bad; pretty chill day.
The thing is, a lot of people just don’t want to hear it. I’ve had multiple experiences with friends and girlfriends, and I don’t really tell my mom shit; and they just don’t want to hear it or don’t want to believe it. And you’re like, “No! I’m trying to tell you what’s up.” And they are like, “That’s not you, that sounds like a terrible person.” I’m like, “No shit! That’s who I am or that’s who I was and you better believe it.” I would have shot a motherfucker in the face and not thought twice about it and that’s bad. It’s not a good way to be and then we’re stuck. As vets, we’re stuck as having been that person and I guess, just some of us, become that person and just embrace it.
I remember my ex-girlfriend, her getting mad at me for telling her the things I did. She just left. And I would tell her, “Yeah, I killed motherfuckers and I was happy about it.” She couldn’t handle it. It’s like they want to ask the questions and not hear the answers because the answers aren’t pretty, they’re ugly. But, yeah, that’s war.
I’m still dealing with a ton of shit. I don’t know. I’m okay. I try and look at the world like I’m on a mission. Honestly, it’s easier telling random people because the people I know don’t want to hear this shit. I look at life like I’m on a mission. Every day, well, not every day, but most days, when I wake up, I hate the fact I’m here again. But you just got to suck it up.
Well, here’s a quote for you that the 82nd [Airborne officers] told us when you are sucking^^86^^ in the field, “Take a knee, drink water, and face out.” Keep going, put one foot in front of the other and keep pumping. It can’t get any worse. Your optimism is, it can only get a little bit better. I think it takes a lot of guts to shoot yourself, but at the same time, I think it takes a little bit more to keep going.
Now that Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and Operation Enduring Freedom has seen a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces, how does America help its veterans heal from the struggles of America’s two longest wars? What can we do about a Veteran Affairs system that has struggled to keep up with the growing number of demands from our over-taxed military?
Paul Stackhouse works for the Department of Veterans’ Services in Massachusetts. Stackhouse is also a veteran and National Guardsmen out of Connecticut, having served as an Infantryman in Afghanistan as part of his more than 16 years in the Army.
Stackhouse offers an insider’s perspective on the current VA system and what we can do as a nation, and as citizens, to help our veterans.
This younger generation of veterans is at the forefront right now and their problems are different. It’s the [21st century], it’s not 1950 anymore. The way we respond; the way we deal with today’s veterans, is certainly different than how it was more than 50 years ago.
There is definitely that generational gap too. For my generation, those World War II guys, forget about it, they are like gods. When those guys were in the VFWs and the Legions^^87^^ and everything else, after spending 25 years at home with PTSD and nobody knew who they were and they didn’t get any help, and they sucked it up and built this country out of a depression and a world war, and they never asked for a thing. That’s an unbelievable accomplishment. Now you got the Korean War guys and they come home and they are part of that generation too. Then you got the Vietnam generation and they come home and the Vietnam generation is totally different, it’s the 60’s and 70’s, times have changed, the individual mindset of the soldier has changed and, oh, by the way, it’s a war that most of the American public didn’t agree with and it’s a war we didn’t win. […] The World War II, and guys from the Korean War, they didn’t necessarily welcome the [Vietnam veterans] home as veterans. So, then you would have these [World War II] vets down at the end of the bar that would be, to the Vietnam vets, like, “Yeah, piss off, we won our war, you didn’t, blah, blah, blah.” That’s just guys being guys, but there was definitely that sort of stigma from that war. And a lot of those Vietnam guys lost touch with their veteran counterparts and their peers; they didn’t want to be a part of that.
Now, we are sort of seeing a shift back to a population and a veteran population that is much more appreciated and respected. […] But again, there will be that generational gap, and some of those guys that served in Vietnam saying, “Oh, your war wasn’t that bad, you weren’t humping in the bush for a full year like I was and you have real food over there and these contractors and massage parlors and stuff.” Now add to that, the women aspect in all this. Now there are many more women serving in some form of combat arms roles and their population in the military in general is much greater.^^88^^ So, there is this issue that some [older] veterans think, “[Those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan] might not deserve this yet.” And since they are the workers in many of these outreach, community based benefits programs, the transition and communication might not be there as much as it should be.
The biggest thing on the national level is, […] we have to fix that transition from active duty to veteran. We need to connect those members with their benefits and services before they actually need them. It’s first and foremost about education. As important, is their entry point into the system. […] When you leave active duty, you have to seek out your benefits on your own. As far as the VA is concerned, they don’t care if you show up there because it’s one less person they have to deal with and whatever else.
The VA utilization number right now is around 40 percent, by which I mean those who are entitled to benefits and those who actually use them is at about 40 percent.^^89^^ That is really low. So, what we need to fix is ensuring that every veteran has the education and the connection to any type of benefit, or at least to the advocate or the navigator of that system if and when he or she needs that system.
Take a guy that just came off active duty. He did six years of active duty. He was stationed out in California. For three years he was either in Iraq or Afghanistan and now he is coming off active duty and he is returning to Massachusetts. Now, he learned about all his benefits in California. Now out in California, [the California VA has] no clue about what is in Massachusetts. [The veteran] gets a big packet of paper that they probably throw, you check the box so you can leave, and you go to the airport and you’re gone. You’re relieved from active duty, the DoD^^90^^ is done with you. You don’t know how to access the VA system? Too bad. It’s not that they don’t care, they just have a million other people that are dealing with the same things.
There are roughly between 250,000 and 300,000 who get removed from active duty each year. This number has been pretty consistent over the past ten years. There is this perception out there that we are creating this tremendous amount of veterans, all these new veterans and this will create this wave and there are thousands of them and they will storm the VAs and turn the whole system upside down. No, they won’t. During five years of fighting during World War II, a little more than 900,000 veterans came back to Massachusetts. It was roughly between 15 and 20 percent of the population. After ten years of conflict in Vietnam, there were about 160,000 [returning veterans]. In ten years plus of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus National Guard and reservists, Massachusetts has just over 37, maybe over 38,000 veterans. And [those] kind of numbers aren’t unique to Massachusetts, those are trends across the country.
I asked Stackhouse, why, if the numbers are shrinking so dramatically, is it hard for veterans to receive benefits? Why is it such a state to state and national problem for so many returning veterans?
Well, it’s a lot of things. It’s media spin and people not talking about it. Certainly, the VA system doesn’t want to talk about it. Politicians don’t want to talk about it because we are still spending a lot of money on these services.^^91^^ But at some point, someone is going to say, “If the numbers are going down, why are you spending all this money and why are you looking for more money?” This comes from a number of reasons. The systems are inefficient, people in different parts of the system don’t talk to each other, it’s a system with a bureaucracy built over decades. The DoD and the VA are probably two of the hardest, most confusing, difficult bureaucracies to deal with in our federal government.
The VA, with World War I, and especially World War II, this is what the modern VA was modeled on, to treat all these veterans. They created these huge campuses and these huge monstrosities. Then it split. Now, there are two systems. There is the VHA, the VA Health Care Organization, and the VBA, the Veterans’ Benefits Organization. The health care, I can go get my yearly checkups and get my medications and get treated for whatever. But, if I have a disability from something like Agent Orange or whatever, then that is in a separate system. Oh, and by the way, the systems haven’t talked to each other for over 25 years. It’s an old, ridiculous system.
I’ll give you an example [of] the communication breakdown. I was working on an assignment where I was trying to get together a mailing list of local veterans in Massachusetts. And I was talking to a guy from a local VA in their health care department. He asked me for our contacts. And legally, I couldn’t give him our contacts. And his contacts, he couldn’t give them to me for the same reason. It’s just crazy.
So, what is happening right now with these backlogs in the system, the VA benefits, you’ve been seeing all these stories about how the VA is backed up, it’s like two years to get a claim through and blah, blah, blah. ^^92^^ Well, 60 percent of those claims are already people in the system trying to extend or change their benefits. So, like a guy from Vietnam that had 30 percent disability when he got out of Vietnam, […] now, 25 or 30 years later, his condition is so much worse, he is probably entitled to an increase in benefits. So, now his claim is being reviewed. That is roughly 60 percent of the claims that are clogging it up. Now, couple this, because you do have a rise in new claims because you have veterans coming off active duty who have been fighting two wars for over ten years; yes, you do have more veterans. But, proportionally, if you look at the history and the population; no, you don’t. The increase in numbers should not be turning an agency this old upside down. Over the years, we should have been adapting, but we never did. Now, in [the 21st century], you have an up-tick [in the number of veterans entitled to benefits], but not an influx of use.
Again though, the entry point into the system needs to be community-based and needs to be earlier intervention which comes from education. You can’t let a veteran come off active duty without being enrolled in the system. Now, being in the system doesn’t mean they are going to need anything, but now we have them in the system; we know who they are, we know where he or she is going, we can track them. We can also say, “Let’s get this guy or gal some education and connect him or her to some local resources.” So, now, if, six months later, they are having a problem with PTSD, or they can’t find a job, or can’t transition back home, or they are beating their wife or husband and hurting their kids; whatever is going on, they know their local resource to go to so they can get to them and say, “Hey, I need some help.”
There are a couple of different theories out there [to further aid veterans seeking out their local VA]. One theory is, when you transition off of active duty, your last duty station should be your local VA because when you out process, where you will go for education, benefits, for job training assistance, you get all that stuff at the local level. You don’t get it in California or Texas or wherever and then go home. We need to know where our returning troops are going. You get home at Logan Airport [in Boston] and you’re home, you’re gone. Now, if you out process at your local VA, you are home, you are with your peers, you’re meeting local military members while you’re in this transition that you can reach out to and start a relationship with. You have a network, a safety net with veterans that have been through some of the same things. For us, our partnerships are all about peers. It’s all about veterans helping veterans and veterans working with veterans because our population, in terms of the entire countries’ population, is small and always getting smaller. After World War II, it was safe to say, you, or [someone you knew] had a family member that was a veteran. Now, that’s not the case.^^93^^
Let’s talk about family members. You have your girlfriend or boyfriend and your vet comes home and you start seeing problems. Everyone who doesn’t know what’s going on says, “What’s his problem, or what’s her problem? They are home now, they should be happy?” And as a significant other, you may have nobody to go to, nobody to talk to about this. And if you don’t utilize that network from the onset, you may never access our network. So many [veterans] come home and they go to their VA and they wait in line, it takes them six months to get an appointment and they call the one-eight-hundred numbers and they press buttons and don’t get anything and have to wait two years for their claim. So they say, “Screw the VA, it’s just another government bureaucracy.” Then maybe, it’s six months later and that veteran is having real struggles with PTSD. They are drinking like a fish, and they get into a fight and beat the stuffing out of some kid because he snuck up behind them and scared the stuff out of them and the other kid doesn’t know they’re a vet and have PTSD. So now, the veteran may be put in jail or some other crisis and never dealt with the signs, never sought the resources that could [have] helped them. But, if you enter the system initially, and before you hit that crisis, you catch things early and catch it often and it will help stem this tide. Just like anything else, if you stop someone in a crisis financially, then they don’t lose their house, they don’t become homeless. […] It’s the same with any mental health issues, or PTSD, and substance abuse, which can lead to criminal charges and everything else. It’s a slippery slope and it’s quickly downhill. It’s hard to recover from. We see this in society all over. It’s about prevention, like in health care. We get regular checkups, we try to catch things early. We don’t try and catch cancer at stage four then try and keep patients alive for several years with drugs that cost millions of dollars. We try and catch it at stage one.
We can offer an early experience into the system and a good experience entering the system. Another metaphor I have is, if you eat a lemon and you don’t like the taste of lemon, are you going to go back and eat another lemon? So now, taking this metaphor further, you’ve been 20 months without vitamin C, you have scurvy, and the lemon is still in front of you. Are you going to eat that lemon? Yes, probably, but you are going to have a much harder time doing it and you’re going to hate it. So, someone who has skirted the system for six months, a year, whatever, and now that person is in a crisis, once our veterans hit that crisis, whether it’s financial, or mental, or marital, or whatever; once that veteran hits that crisis, it’s so much harder and much more expensive to treat that person and it takes much longer.
I asked Stackhouse if he thought there was a stigma in the military attached to seeking help for mental health issues.
Yes, there is definitely a stigma. Personally, I have gotten very lucky. I had one bad nightmare from my time in Afghanistan. I had some trouble driving and being in crowds. But I was lucky, it never lasted. But yes, there is a stigma still and it has to be broken down in the military among active duty components because it’s the armor that you get and the bravado that is instilled in you as a military member and the toughness and team work and the gut check and everything else. Now, you are taking this concept that some of these [veterans] are weak minded individuals for seeking help. Physical injury, that’s obvious, that’s physical, there is nothing they could do about that. But, the mental stuff, you can hide. And obviously we are seeing it with these high rates of suicide and everything else. Some of it you will never be able to fix and capture and there will always be that part of the population that never seeks help, that is also inevitable.
It really does have to be tackled at the DoD level. On one level, you are telling these individuals to be tough and be strong and all this stuff [with] this indoctrination you are getting. Then, in the next PowerPoint presentation, they are like, “Oh, don’t be afraid to cry, or if you can’t sleep at night don’t be afraid to talk to your buddy if you are having a hard time.” It’s just totally different concepts.
I think the technical aspects of the stigma, guys and gals think it will affect their career. Maybe there needs to be a policy established within the military, and there is to a degree, that, “Hey, this is not going to affect you moving forward if you have had some issues.” It’s really hard to drive that message home. We are really going to need to see someone like a Four Star General come out and say, “Hey, when I was a Major, I went to the mental health guy because I was having nightmares about what I did in Iraq.” No matter what your job is [in the military], everyone reacts differently to stress. And it might not even be the stress of the war zone. It might be because there is something going on at home that you can’t do anything about.
It really needs to be a top down approach. People really need to deliver and get the message, “These things won’t affect your career.” Yes, if you have a serious mental health issue, that will affect your career. But, if you are going to see council to talk things out, that is not going to go on your record and affect your promotion. However, for lack of a better term, I’ll use the word “bullying,” even though it’s not really that, you go and see your [veteran] buddies and they say to you, “Oh, you went and saw the wizard,^^94^^ how’d that go?” You’ll have that ribbing and that sarcasm. That is our mentality; that is the culture we were raised in. And honestly, who hasn’t been to a mental health professional and maybe gotten on some medication now-a-days?
We’ve had years of [recent] fighting. The one thing that people don’t realize is, guess what, the guys that came back from Vietnam, the struggles and the mental health problems and everything else, didn’t explode until ten years later. We are not even seeing the results yet [of Iraq and Afghanistan], they haven’t all come out yet.
Nobody can heal by themselves. It has to be this community, this network. And it comes back to our DoD. The head of the system is where it starts. But, the VA, we need to step in and directly carry the ball from DoD. We can’t let it sit on the ground any longer, we have to pick it up and run with it. Agencies need to be talking more with each other in order to capture these vets right away. We can’t let them get away without having that contact to get them that resource. If it’s a social worker or a military worker, or even a fellow vet that lives in the community, we can say, “Hey, man, welcome home, I’ve been there, done that, I am very familiar with the resources out here.”
Wood, Trish (Author) and Muller, Bobby (Contributor). What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It. November, 2007. Bay Back Books. Pg. xviii.
We Said “No”
 – Barry, Ellen and Mazzetti, Mark. “Soldiers refuse ‘suicide’ duty in Iraq”. The Baltimore Sun. October 16, 2004. Retrieved from: [+ http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2004-10-16/news/0410160308_1_convoy-fuel-iraq+]
 – National Institute of Mental Health. “What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?” Retrieved from: [+ http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml+]
 – TankNutDave.com. “The US M939 Military Truck Family”. Retrieved from:
Thunder Run: Invading Iraq
 – Wikipedia.com. “2003 Invasion of Iraq”. Retrieved from:
 – Wikipedia.com. “AK-47”. Retrieved from:
 – Norton, Richard and Borger, Julian. “Saddam wanted jihadists kept at arms length”. The Guardian. January 14, 2004. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/jan/15/iraq.usa+]
 – Wikipedia.com. “Firdos Square statue destruction”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firdos_Square_statue_destruction+]
The Second Battle of Fallujah: My First Firefight
 Introduction – Wikipedia.com. “The First Battle of Fallujah”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Battle_of_Fallujah+]
 – Wikipedia.com. “2004 Fallujah ambush”. Retrieved from:
 Introduction – “The Second Battle of Fallujah”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Battle_of_Fallujah+]
Hearts and Minds and Toy Guns
 – Wikipedia.com. “Haditha killings”. Retrieved from:
 – Antelava, Natalia. “‘Billions lost’ to corruption in Iraq”. BBC News. May 18, 2009. Retrieved from:
The War from Inside Camp Liberty and Back Home
 – Ricks, Thomas E. “Biggest Base in Iraq has Small-Town Feel”. The Washington Post. February 4, 2006. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2006/02/03/AR2006020302994.html+]
 – Wikipedia.com. “Phalanx CIWS”. Retrieved from:
 – Wikipedia.com. “Al-Faw Palace”. Retrieved from:
Sand in his Crack
 – Sarwary, Bilal. “Attack on British Council compound in Kabul kills 12”. BBC News. August 19, 2011. Retrieved from:
 – Walsh, Nick Patton. “At least 17 killed in Kabul suicide bomb attack”. CNN. October 29, 2011. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/29/world/asia/afghanistan-nato-attack/+]
EOD Pressure and Fighting a War of Attrition
 – Military.com. “Traumatic Brain Injury Overview”. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.military.com/benefits/veterans-health-care/traumatic-brain-injury-overview.html+]
A Year in Rocket City
 – Bezhan, Frud. “Afghans Lift Lid On Sports Under the Taliban”. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. July 11, 2012. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.rferl.org/content/afghans-recall-sports-under-the-taliban/24642278.html+]
 – Partlow, Joshua and Whitlock, Craig. “Attack on U.S. outpost in Afghanistan worse than originally reported”. The Washington Post. June 16, 2012. Retrieved from: [+ https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/attack-on-us-outpost-in-afghanistan-worse-than-originallyreported/2012/06/16/gJQAlyaihV_story.html+]
 – Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Afghanistan’s Taliban embrace the power of video propaganda”. The Guardian. June 4, 2014. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/04/afghanistan-taliban-video-propaganda-bowe-bergdahl+]
Helping to Start from Within: Aiding Woman in Afghanistan
 – Associated Press. “Hamid Karzai backs Clerics’ move to limit Afghan women’s rights”. The Guardian. March 6, 2012. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/mar/06/hamid-karzai-afghanistan-womens-rights+]
 – Wikipedia.com. “Women’s rights in Afghanistan”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Afghanistan+]
No Black and White: Negative Experiences with the Afghan Culture
 – Wikipedia.com. “Bacha Bazi”. Retrieved from:
Surviving the “Surge”, Green on Blue Violence, and Trust Issues
 – iCasualties.org. “Coalition Military Fatalities by Year”. Retrieved from:
 – Wikipedia.com. “Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Withdrawal_of_U.S._troops_from_Afghanistan+]
 – Gordon, Michael R. “U.S. Weighs Fewer Troops After 2014 in Afghanistan”. The New York Times. January 5, 2013. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/world/asia/us-weighs-fewer-troops-after-2014-in-afghanistan.html?_r=0+]
 – Johnson, Gene. “Bales Gets Life in Prison for Afghanistan Massacre”. Military.com. August 23, 2013. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.military.com/daily-news/2013/08/23/bales-gets-life-in-prison-for-afghanistan-massacre.html?ESRC=dod.nl+]
 – Wikipedia.com. “Soviet-Afghan War”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet%E2%80%93Afghan_War+]
 – Wikipedia.com. “Civil War in Afghanistan (1996-2001)”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_war_in_Afghanistan_%281996%E2%80%932001%29+]
The Frustrations of Tracking the “Bad Guys” in Afghanistan and Other Issues
 – The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “Drone Warfare”. Retrieved from: [+ https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drones/drones-war-drones/+]
 – Becker, Jo and Shane, Scott. “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”. The New York Times. May 29, 2012. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/world/obamas-leadership-in-war-on-al-qaeda.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1+]
- PitchInterative.com. "Out of Sight, Out of Mind". Retrieved from:
Women Get Purple Hearts Too
 – Wikipedia.com. “2012 Afghanistan Quran Burning Protests”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Afghanistan_Quran_burning_protests+]
 – Bowman, Tom. ““Woman Pass Marine Training, Clear First Hurdle to Combat Role”. NPR. November 21, 2013. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.npr.org/2013/11/21/246543314/women-pass-marine-training-clear-first-hurdle-to-combat-role+]
 – Scott, Eugene. Starr, Barbara. Yan, Holly. “History in the making: 2 women will graduate Army Ranger course”. CNN. August 19, 2015. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/18/politics/women-graduate-army-ranger-course/+]
 – Shinkman, Paul D. “2016 Deadline for Integrating Women Into Combat Roles Too Long, Some Say”. U.S. News and World Report. June 19, 2013. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/06/19/2016-deadline-for-integrating-women-into-combat-roles-too-long-some-say+]
They Have Been Fighting Since Before I was in Diapers
 – Wikipedia.com. “Marjah”. Retrieved from:
 – Betbasoo, Peter. “Brief History of Assyrians”. Assyrian International News Agency. November 1, 2013. Retrieved from:
 – Wikipedia.com. “PK machine gun”. Retrieved from:
Dealing with Suicide, PTSD, and Working as a Veteran
 – Wikipedia.com. “United States military veteran suicide”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_veteran_suicide+]
 – Basu, Moni. “Why suicide rate among veterans may be more than 22 a day”. CNN. November 14, 2013. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/21/us/22-veteran-suicides-a-day/+]
 – Bare, Stacy. “The Truth About 22 Veteran Suicides a Day”. Task & Purpose. June 2, 2015. Retrieved from: [+ http://taskandpurpose.com/truth-22-veteran-suicides-day/+]
 – Congress.gov. “H.R. 5059 – Clay Hunt SAV Act”. Retrieved from: [+ https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/5059+]
 – CNN Staff. “VA hospital may have infected 1,800 with HIV”. CNN. July 1, 2010. Retrieved from:
 – Golgowski, Nina. “VA clinic testing veterans possibly exposed to hepatitis, HIV”. CNN. February, 2011. Retrieved from:
 – General Dynamics Global Imaging Technologies. Retrieved from:
 – HomeDepot.com. “Military Commitment”. Retrieved from:
 – Bowley, Graham and Rosenberg, Matthew. “Video Inflames a Delicate Moment for U.S. in Afghanistan”. The New York Times. January 12, 2012. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/world/asia/video-said-to-show-marines-urinating-on-taliban-corpses.html+]
Friendly Fire and Battling PTSD and the VA
 – Vanden Brook, Tom. “U.S. formally declares end of Iraq War”. USA Today. December 15, 2011. Retrieved from: [+ http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/story/2011-12-15/Iraq-war/51945028/1+]
 – Wikipedia.com. “Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse”. Retrieved from: [+ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse+]
 – Kime, Patricia. “VA wait times mean some die before getting care”. Army Times. March 15, 2013. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.armytimes.com/article/20130315/BENEFITS04/303150016/VA-wait-times-mean-some-die-before-getting-care+]
Nobody Can Heal By Themselves: An Examination of the VA
 – Parker, Kim and Patten, Eileen. “Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile”. Pew Research Center. 2011. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/12/women-in-the-military.pdf+]
 – History.com Staff. “Women in the Vietnam War”. History.com. 2011. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.history.com/topics/women-in-the-vietnam-war+]
 – Bagalman, Erin. “The Number of Veterans That Use VA Health Care Services: A Fact Sheet”. Congressional Research Service. June 3, 2014. Retrieved from:
 – Wikipedia.com. “United States Department of Veterans Affairs”. Retrieved from: [+ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Veterans_Affairs+]
 – Shane III, Leo. “2015 goal for VA backlog appears out of reach”. Military Times. December 31, 2014. Retrieved from: [+ http://www.militarytimes.com/story/veterans/2014/12/31/2015-va-claims-backlog/21097689/+]
 – Chalabi, Mona. “What Percentage of Americans Have Served in the Military?” FiveThirtyEight.com. March 19, 2015. Retrieved from: [+ http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/what-percentage-of-americans-have-served-in-the-military?/+]
1 PTSD has a variety of symptoms from anxiety to depression, bipolar disorder, verbal and physical ticks, fear of loud noises or sudden movement, flashbacks, and other mental issues. PTSD is attributed to individuals who have spent long periods of time in highly stressful situations or been involved in a sudden, dramatic experience like a severe car crash or violent attack.2
2 IED stands for Improvised Explosive Device. IEDs vary widely in makeup, size, how they are detonated, and destructive power. Generally, they are homemade bombs hidden along highways or other high traffic areas, detonated when the opportunity to do the most damage to a unit presents itself.
3 Horford drove a five-ton M930s series 6×6 truck. The M930s have three axles, six wheels, a 250 horse-power diesel engine and can haul up to 215 pounds per square inch. They are the military’s construction trucks: various kinds and sizes of dump trucks, tractor-trailers, and vans.3
4 FOB stands for Forward Operating Base. An FOB is a military base/outpost. FOBs vary in size and capability from a patch of tiny tents with a few people to a massive base with full amenities where thousands call home.
5 The incident Horford is referring to took place in mid-October, 2004. Horford’s unit referred to the convoy as a “suicide mission” according to family members. The military responded by saying that Horford’s unit had “valid concerns” for refusing the mission. For his insubordination, Horford and his unit faced a non-judicial punishment based on Article 15 of the Uniform Military Code of Justice which could mean prison time, or, if the act is seen as treasonous, death. However, according to this same code, a soldier has the right to refuse an order that he deems as “unlawful.”1
6 A berm is a small hill or raised pile of dirt or sand.
7 Comms is slang for communications, radios, etc.
8 The ground invasion was preceded by a rapid dominance aerial bombardment commonly referred to by strategists as a “shock and awe” campaign. This campaign began the previous day and lasted until March 21. The massive aerial assault caused chaos throughout the ranks of Iraq’s forces and destroyed hundreds of key military targets throughout the country. The bombardment used some 1,700 aircraft strikes and launched hundreds of cruise missiles into Iraq from U.S. naval ships stationed in the water ways surrounding the country.4
9 Al-Nasiriya is a major Iraqi city roughly 150 miles from the Kuwaiti border.
10 A platoon usually consists of between 15 – 30 marines/soldiers.
11 An AK-47 is a popular model of assault rifle used by many armed forces around the world due to its low production cost, light weight design, high functionality, and durability.5
12 A battalion is usually 500-800 marines/soldiers.
13 As the war in Iraq proved to be imminent, Saddam reached out to various Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda, to help defend his country. The Bush administration later used Saddam’s call for jihad against the invading Americans to claim that Iraq had ties to international terrorist groups. Years later, uncovered documents from Saddam’s ministries and palaces revealed there were occasional, scant, often contested, links to terrorist organizations with the real push for jihad against the West not coming until the immanency of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The debate over Iraq and its links to international terrorists groups before the war and how the Bush administration used what little knowledge it had of these acts remains a highly debated subject.6
14 Recon is slang for reconnaissance, a unit whose objective is to observe and report enemy actions.
15 A sitrep is slang for situation report, a report of the current battlefield perimeters such as number of enemies and friendlies, where everyone is located, what weapons they are using, etc. Sitreps are used in order to understand the current active engagement and better strategize tactics.
16 Burke is referring to the April 9, 2003 event that made headlines around the globe when a statue of Saddam was toppled in Baghdad’s Fridos Square. Although purely symbolic in nature, it signified for many Americans and Iraqis that Saddam’s regime was over and America was in control of Iraq.7
17 To cordon an area means to surround it with military units to prevent access in or out.
18 Tracers or tracer rounds are ammunition that are filled with a pyrotechnic charge. The effect is that every few rounds appear like a small beam of light in order to see where they are being fired.
A squad is usually composed of 9-13 marines/soldiers.
20 RPG stands for Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher.
21 A Bushido is a modern term for ancient Samurai who lived by a code of loyalty and honor even to the death.
22 A standard issue U.S. military assault rifle.
23 Tracks is a slang term for a variety of military combat vehicles.
24 The Haditha Massacre took place November 19, 2005 in the Al Anbar province of west central Iraq. 24 Iraqi civilians, including an elderly man, women, and children, were slaughtered by a group of United States marines. The New York Times reported it to be retribution for a roadside bombing that had killed a member of their squad. Five of the marines brought up on charges had them dropped, two were acquitted in a military court martial, and the sergeant of the squad who testified, telling his men to, “[S]hoot first and ask questions later”, was granted a plea bargain and avoided serving jail time.11
25 The turret gunner is the squad member who is manning the weapon on top of the vehicle. Half his body is exposed outside the roof of the vehicle. In Humvees, the turret gunner usually mans a .50 caliber machinegun.
26 MRAP stands for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.
27 Heinrich alluded to religious and political leaders hoarding money in the face of extreme poverty. A BBC report from May, 2009 adds detail to Heinrich’s account. The report states 12,000 complaints of government corruption from an Iraqi anti-corruption committee. A Minister of Parliament and member of the committee stated: “The report does not even scratch the surface of what goes on. Millions, billions of dollars are being stolen.”12
28 EOD stands for Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician, an engineer whose primary focus is to destroy/dismantle IEDs and other land mines.
29 As the war progressed, most of the major bases in Iraq were built up and tailored to be like a second home for U.S. troops. Books, DVDs, video games, and other familiarities of American life were available along with the chance to grab coffee at the major chain Coffee Bean, a slice of pizza at Pizza Hut, or a sandwich at Subway.13
30 ‘R’ and ‘R’ stands for rest and relaxation, a break to go home or elsewhere during active duty.
31 “Cee-Wees” or “Sea-Whiz” stands for Close-In Weapons System, an automated turret with a large machine gun.14
32 Drombowski toured Saddam’s Al-Faw, or Water Palace, one of his major palace complexes with 60 rooms and 29 bathrooms. The surrounding artificial lake holds a special gargantuan breed of bass known as “Saddam Bass.” Saddam used this particular palace for duck hunting expeditions. This palace was just one of Saddam’s 70 such palaces that vary in size but are all incredibly extravagant with “gold-platted everything” as Drombowski mentioned.15
33 According to a report by The Guardian, the British consulate attack was on Friday, August 19, 2011, two suicide bombers attacked a British Council’s office building. One man detonated a car bomb outside the office while another detonated his inside the building. Afghan security forces who responded to the attacks fought with insurgents for roughly four hours after the attack. The attack occurred on Afghan Independence Day and produced 12 dead and wounded several others. A Taliban spokesmen claimed responsibility for the attacks. The offices were geared towards establishing literacy programs.16
34 On October 29, 2011 there was a suicide bombing attack where a Toyota sedan sped up alongside a NATO truck and detonated explosives that were inside the vehicle. There were at least 17 people killed and a number more wounded. This attack was also later claimed by the Taliban.17
35 Madden refers to a series of popular football video games.
36 Due to IEDs being the weapon of choice for insurgents and the Taliban in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many coalition forces have experienced what Arenas alluded to: TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury. TBI has a multitude of symptoms including: headaches, difficulty speaking, eyesight and hearing problems and troubles with the other senses, dizziness, and concentration and other cognitive and mental issues. People who experience TBI have a direct correlation to experiencing PTSD and other mood and mental disorders.18
37 As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, Salat, or prayer, is done five times a day towards the holy city of Mecca. The five prayer times are: Fajr (dawn), Dhuhr (noon), Asr (afternoon), Maghrib (evening), and Isha’ (night).
38 Muslim priests are referred to as mullahs.
39 Under the Taliban’s strict adherence to their version of orthodox Islamic law, or sharia law, organized sports were banned in Afghanistan. This changed after coalition forces invaded the country and ousted the Taliban from power.19
40 In a report by The Washington Post describing the attack, two American military contractors were killed in the attacks and, “about three dozen troops were injured,” along with roughly 100 who suffered minor injuries. Due to the force of the bomb, people as far as two miles away were hurt, with 20 Afghani civilians being injured from nearby buildings collapsing.20
41 Insurgents would film their attacks and use them as propaganda to recruit more jihadists to their cause. The claims made by the attackers usually lied about the amount of coalition forces killed or wounded, or the damage done in order to spur more to their cause. You can watch the video of the attack at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=bab_1343060903.21
42 According to The Guardian, in March 2012, then President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, “endorsed a ‘code of conduct’ which […] state[d] that ‘women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices.’” This law is based on a strict reading of Islamic law that has dominated the political and cultural mindset of Afghanistan for generations. This basis also includes such standards as arraigned marriages for women and women being considered property, prostitution and sex trafficking, repression of education for women, and a strict dress code requiring women to wear a burqa – a long garment that covers the entire body with a cloth veil to see out of.[22,23]
43 The acts that Parker is describing are a practice in parts of the Middle East called “Bacha Bazi,” “Bacheh-baaz,” or, simply, “Bacchá.” Loosely translated from Pashtu, one of Afghanistan’s primary languages, this means, “Playing with kids.” This centuries-old tradition, although declared against religious and legal frameworks by many government and religious figures and even suppressed by the Taliban in certain areas, is still practiced with at least some regularity in Afghanistan and beyond. This somewhat secretive practice of pedophilia was the topic of a 2010 documentary by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi entitled, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan which was aired in the U.S. and the U.K. through PBS. Quraishi’s documentary examines the pedophilia-based culture that exists in Afghanistan surrounding young men who are treated as prostitutes and “dancing boys” for older, wealthy men. 
44 A strafing run is when aircraft fires on the enemy while quickly flying by.
45 While on his fourth deployment, 39 year old Army Sergeant Robert Bales was charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians that took place on March 11, 2012 in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai in the Kandahar Province of southern Afghanistan. In August, 2013, Bales was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes.28
46 The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979 and occupied the country until February, 1989.29 Once the Soviets left, there was a power struggle between various forces until the Taliban eventually gained control of several major cities in 1996, although other forces such as the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan continued the civil war until the U.S. invasion in October, 2001 which ousted the Taliban from power.30
47 Afghanistan is broken up by over a dozen different ethnic groups who all speak a different variety of Arabic and have different customs and cultures.
48 Many insurgents took advantage of the coalition’s rules of engagement concerning mosques and other religious sites and would often maneuver in and out or around these areas because they knew it weakened their enemy tactically.
49 It is hard to get a realistic picture of the number of civilians injured or killed by the “Drone War” due to its inherent secrecy. The Obama Administration, in May of 2012, said its collateral damage of civilians in the Drone War was in the “single digits.”32 However, groups such as Pitch Interactive, a journalism and new media company behind the project, Out of Sight, Out of Mind that comes from a, “dataset maintained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,” a UK-based, nonprofit journalism center, in order to take a look at the victims of drone strikes in Pakistan; since early 2013, the website promotes the belief that over 3,000 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone since 2004 and the number continues to rise.33
50 ATV stands for All-Terrain Vehicle. Bartlett is referring to an M-ATV, a medium-sized 5 person vehicle rather than the small, single-person vehicle.
51 On February 22, 2012, U.S. soldiers watching detainees at Bagram Air Field Base were ordered to dispose of prisoners’ copies of the Quran because they believed the prisoners were passing notes in the holy script. As part of the disposal process for contraband, the Qurans were burned. A series of protests and riots followed, most notably culminating in fire bombings and stone throwing from Afghan civilians into Bagram Airfield Base. During this tumultuous time at least 41 deaths were reported as part of the riots that followed with 270 injured.34
52 Bartlett was given her Purple Heart, a medal commemorating injury during deployment, by General John R. Allen, the, at the time, Commanding Forces General of Operation Enduring Freedom.
53 ACP stands for access control point training. It’s training to man weapons and pull guard duty on base or at a security checkpoint.
54 Over the course of these wars, several historic firsts for women in combat roles occurred, including the first two female recruits passing Marine basic training, and, in mid-August, 2015, two women graduated from Army Ranger School.[35,36] As of January 1, 2016, women are allowed to serve in any and all combat roles.37
55 Marjah is a farming town with about 100,000 people located in southern Afghanistan that covers roughly 100 square miles.38
56 CO stands for commanding officer.
57 Assyrians make up less than 5% of the population of Afghanistan.
58 A wadi is a kind of irrigation ditch.
59 A notorious LA-based gang.
60 A PKM is a Russian-made machine gun. 
61 Lazing the target means to use a weapon’s laser calibration system to find the target’s range and then properly take aim.
62 In 2013, a study done by the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs covered veteran suicides from 1999-2011. The study reported that 22 veterans are committing suicide every day.41 Compared to the average citizen suicide rate, this is more than double.42 However, there’s data that the numbers are skewed and don’t often relate the fact that the majority of those veterans committing suicide are 60 and older and not veterans of Operation Iraqi or Enduring Freedom. Regardless of this fact, it is widely asserted that veteran suicide rates are higher than average citizens.43 In response to this fact, in 2015, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act was passed which requires more oversight toward the VAs mental health systems along with other directives aimed at improving suicide prevention.44
63 In June, 2010, CNN reported that a VA Hospital in Missouri may have infected up to 1,800 veterans with the HIV virus and/or hepatitis.  In February, 2011, CNN did another investigation that reported more than 500 veterans at an Ohio VA may of contracted the same diseases during routine check-ups. The infections were due to dentists not properly sterilizing equipment between operations.46
Jump wings are given to someone in the military who has completed their parachutist training and are qualified to participate in airborne operations.
65 According to their website, General Dynamics offers, “Large-scale IT systems and communications networks [that] are the strategic and operational heart of defense, intelligence, civilian government and private business.”47
66 A 1995 film that depicts a tight-knit group of friends working at a chic, independent record store.
67 Home Depot’s staff of roughly 321,000 is made up of 10 percent of either active duty or retired veterans. Along with this initiative to aid veterans, The Home Depot Foundation has donated over $80 million to house homeless veterans.48
68 In March, 2012, outside Balandi, Afghanistan, 38 year old Marine Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was charged with killing 16 civilians. Bales went house to house shooting innocents, nine of which were children. Bales was later given life in imprisonment for his crimes.
In January, 2012, a video of marines urinating of the corpses of Taliban members went viral causing an uproar around the world over the U.S.’ role in Afghanistan and strained tensions between the Obama Administration and Afghan officials.49
70 The invasion period of Operation Iraqi Freedom lasted from March 19 to May 1, 2003.50
71 Abu Ghraib is a city just west of Baghdad in central Iraq best known for its notorious prison. In late 2003, U.S. military personnel were exposed for torturing prisoners.51
72 An M-4 is a kind of assault rifle.
An M240B is a type of heavy machine gun. Due to inadequate equipment, Conrad and his platoon used common bungee cords to support the heavy machine gun instead of a metal mount.
74 NCO stands for Non-Commissioned Officer.
A combat life saver is a soldier trained in first aid.
76 KIA stands for Killed In Action.
77 A misconduct violation, as opposed to a criminal charge.
78 Due to tens of thousands of backlogged and unresolved claims through the VA, the average wait time to see a doctor once a claim is put through is at least 50 days, if not longer. In 2011, the VA set up a goal of 14 days from claim to appointment it has yet to reach. In response to this, the VA is attempting to update its 25 year old VistA scheduling system in an attempt to expedite their services. However, this update is still years away as of this writing with no clear plan in place on how exactly to update the system.52
79 Conrad drove several hundred miles in one night to the military base where his wife was stationed.
80 Unlike other branches of the military, the Army requires only a high school equivalence.
81 ASVAB stands for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. It’s the military’s placement exam to determine a possible specialty.
82 I-R stands for Injured Reserve. When military personnel are injured, if they are able to recover from their wound, they are still considered active duty and can be called back up to redeploy.
83 DD-214 are official military identification forms.
84 In April, 2004, a scandal broke concerning the detention facility at Abu Ghraib in central Iraq. Photos of U.S. military forces abusing prisoners made international headlines. This prisoner abuse sparked a debate about the U.S.’ use of torture to extract information from enemy combatants and the overall mission of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
85 CID stands for U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command – those that investigate potential criminal matters conducted by Army personnel.
86 Sucking is military slang for having a hard time while deployed – marching, carrying out a mission, etc.
87 VFWs [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and American Legions are local veteran’s organizations and social clubs.
88 Woman make up roughly 14.6% of the U.S. military, or approximately 214,000 members. During the Vietnam War, from 1965-1973, 11,000 women served in Vietnam, almost 90% of whom served as nurses. However, countless other women throughout U.S. history have served the war effort back home through organizations such as the Red Cross.
According to The Office of Congressional Research Services, in 2014, there were about 21.6 million veterans in the U.S. Just over 9 million of those veterans were enrolled in the VA which is roughly 42%. However, patients using the VA healthcare system (both veteran and non-veteran family members) is just 6.6 million, or approximately 31%.55
90 DoD stands for the U.S. Department of Defense.
91 According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the VAs yearly budget in 2014 was roughly $86.1 billion. However, there was a congressional request for an additional $66.5 billion in discretionary funds making the VAs total budget a possible $152.6 billion.56
92 According to Military Times, “The backlog — the number of first-time VA benefits claims unresolved for more than four months — sits at around 245,000 cases, according to departmental data.” There has been great strides in 2014 to reduce this number, and the VA set a 2015 goal to make the backlog disappear. However, the VA did not meet this goal.57
93 There are roughly 21.6 million U.S. veterans that served from World War II through Operation Enduring Freedom. This equates to 7.3% of the population of the U.S. For active duty personnel, those that are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces, there are roughly 1.4 million Americans, or about 0.4% of the U.S. population.
94 The wizard is military slang for a psychiatrist.
20/20 - The Iraq and Afghanistan Narratives is a retrospective of America’s most recent wars told through twenty oral histories from a cross section of veterans who served on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom and/or Operation Enduring Freedom. All profits from the book will go to veteran's organizations. These tales come “from the horse’s mouth” and explain the many physical and emotional highs and lows of life in the combat zone and after. Readers are taken from serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan to discussing how to fix a troubled Veterans' Affairs system. Between these bookends, veterans give firsthand accounts on a range of historic and personal subjects including: being involved in the initial invasion of Iraq, battling insurgents in intense urban street combat during the Second Battle of Fallujah, combating the Taliban in the hills of Afghanistan, training Afghani security, surviving suicide bombers, IED blasts and green on blue violence, being part of the 2009 surge in Afghanistan, and many more unique and enthralling tales. Although combat is the focus of several of the narratives, also detailed are the lesser known challenges our veterans faced while overseas such as dealing with a culture foreign to their own, giving and receiving emergency medical care, losing fellow battle buddies, experiencing friendly fire, and getting through the day-to-day struggles that come from life on a military base in the middle of a war zone. Lastly, the text gives several heartbreaking accounts of the difficult transition of re-joining the civilian world with tales about PTSD, traumatic brain injury, drug and alcohol abuse, relationship struggles, workplace problems and unemployment, suicide, and the faltering system that has yet to properly treat those returning from these wars with such problems – the Office of Veterans' Affairs.