I decided to write this after realizing that many people are curious about what it’s like to be in the US Army, in combat, shot at, shoot at someone or don’t understand the mind of a service member and what drives them. Some ask, some don’t and some may be afraid of what they will hear. In the end, every service member has a different experience and handles the stress of their experience differently. By nature, I’m a very open person (surprising to some, I’m sure) and don’t mind telling my story to those who ask. At first, I thought no one really cared but most people I think are respectful and tactful enough to know that asking certain questions may hit a nerve in some veterans. So, for those who are curious but never had the gumption to ask a veteran what their experience was like in detail, here it is.
I’ll start off with a not-so-tough subject – politics. I was asked once in a bar why I do what I do because of yadda yadda this and yadda yadda that in regards to politics. Bottom line is that most service members, from my experience, sign up because of every reason BUT politics. I wanted to join since the age of four. My grandpa served in WWII and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I love my country and wanted to serve. Whether or not I or anyone else in the service agrees or disagrees with a war or conflict is a moot point. I was not able to pick and choose where or if I wanted to fight because of my perception on world affairs and what role the USA played in it all. When it comes down to it, no one gives a shit about politics or ideology or religion when they’re getting shot at and fighting for their lives. Not killing anyone is the best option, but the reality of the situation is different. Was it the Taliban? Al Qaeda? An insurgent? A hired mercenary? Or someone who is seeking revenge for a family member who, unfortunately, was caught in the crossfire? These questions matter, yes. But for those who are on the ground and actively taking fire, the grey area quickly gives way to black and white – life and death. The politics just don’t matter.
When I joined, I wanted to kill. A bad guy. Those who have obviously say it isn’t something one should seek out to do. But for better or worse I wanted the experience. Well (un)fortunately I never did personally kill anyone. The only killing my team did was from a long distance with our artillery. There are a lot of variables that go into the psychology of being able to kill someone, but in my situation I like to think that there would not have been a problem had the opportunity presented itself. I was only asked the question on whether or not I killed anyone once, by a spry old lady - and I gave her my very easy answer. My advice is to not ask any service member if they’ve killed someone. Those who have probably won’t want to talk to you about it and, in most settings, it’s uncouth.
Being shot at
Though I was never shot at with small-arms fire (rifles, machine guns, etc.), I was shot at by indirect fire (mortars and rockets). Since the base was next to a river surrounded by high mountains, a rocket or mortar being fired echoed through the valley. That was our first warning that there was incoming enemy indirect fire. We had only seconds to run for cover, which usually was in building so weakly made that the rocket or mortar would blow a hole right through the roof. But being inside or by a wall at least provided some protection from the shrapnel. The second warning was the whistle, just like in the movies. The louder the whistle, the closer you are to where it will impact. Two seconds… mostly for praying. The worst part about the indirect fire from mortars and rockets is that you never know where it will land. Running, hiding or walking didn’t matter. Some guys would just stand there, saying that if it’s time… It’s time. Tempting fate wasn’t my cup of tea though, so if there was something I could do to help myself in the least bit I would. In fact, somewhere out there is a video of my ground-diving right before a rocket impact. Remember - shrapnel flies up and out!
Over the course of the year my team was there, we took over a hundred rounds of enemy indirect fire. Most of the attacks were during the “busy season” during the summer. Shortly after I arrived though, on February 18th, 2011, I experienced my first true rocket attack. But I’m still here, so I guess that takes out all of the suspense in the story. Around lunchtime, I heard the rocket being fired in the distance and, for some reason, froze where I stood. This was the first and last time this ever happened. I ignored the first warning. Then the second warning – the high-pitched whistle. This is when it dawned on me that, in under a second, I was absolutely going to die. 100% sure of death! No roller coaster, heights or my car accident has ever given me an adrenaline rush like I had in that moment. The body almost reverts into a primal survival mode, where your senses are heightened and everything slows down in the mind. Kind of like a Spidey Sense, of sorts. In this same split second, as I braced myself for The End, my life flashed across my eyes. Cheesy, but it happened! Everything I had accomplished, everything I wanted to achieve, a few people I cared about, the reasons why I shouldn’t die and a last defiant thought all made a cameo appearance. If I could use one word to sum up this moment, it’s Terror. Then…BOOM. And I was O.K.
After that, if I was outside and heard the whistle I’d stop running and take quick cover, just in case. Enough times and I was certain someone was going to get hit at some point, but all of my guys made it. I accepted the fact that I’d probably die, and thus was able to go about my business with a little less fear.
So how did all that affect me now? After my first rocket scare, the fucks I had quickly ran out and I found myself with very few left to give. It becomes clear what is important in life and what isn’t. The things I see people stressing over bewilder me. Somehow, I’m still (mostly) content with death. Loud pops/bangs and anything close to a shrieking whistle sound wakes me up like no coffee ever has before. July 4th makes my nerves shake. Nightmares were few and short-lived, but touched on the fear of imminent death. Is this PTSD? Some may say so, but I look at it this way: if humans have been hacking each other with swords and axes for thousands and thousands of years, I think I’m good. Sympathy and pity are not something I, nor any other veteran, need. As I stated initially, everyone handles it in their own way and some have a harder time dealing with it than others. Personally, I’m cool with everything I had experienced. For those that aren’t, be sensitive of their situation and offer help if you feel you need to. Otherwise, shit happens and life goes on. It is what it is.