October 26, 2010
Posting date: 10/26/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
So much frantic energy has been invested in keeping my spirits up, and the company's momentum moving forward (against everything), that it seems like I haven't had the opportunity to step back and appreciate the humor and joy of what's actually going on around me. Rather than take a bit of time for myself I allow the situation to overwhelm me and dictate my emotions. Stupid. Thankfully, I was recently blessed by a period of two days that captured all the best things in life -- shared happiness, shared sorrow, with plenty of tomfoolery in between to keep things interesting.
I always have my Platoon Leaders develop their own plans when it's a Platoon mission, and if I see an interesting mission I want to jump on, I tag along. Obviously they have no choice when it come to participating in my operations, although I should make it clear that everyone loves my missions, and wants to go on them, not only because they're brilliant, but because they're also sure to see contact (and the best kind of contact -- the one where the enemy runs off at the end of the day, and one can actually measure progress from the day's actions). This saves me valuable time, while developing my subordinates to think for themselves. I rarely tell my Lieutenants what to do, or where to go. I give them broad intent, and so long as their plans fall within my intent, they are free to do more or less what they please.
So it was that one of my Platoon Leaders came up with an interesting plan to visit a village we hadn't visited before. He'd recon'd a route on his own, and came up with a very thorough plan that was wholly supported by the ABP* -- there was some small chance of contact, but, more importantly, it was pushing out the area that the ABP were willing to patrol. So I figured, "Great way to get off the FOB for a couple days, see some new turf, work with the ABP, reinforce easy wins."
The mission was well planned and meticulously rehearsed. After all the preparation, there was one last hour-long talkthrough / "rock drill" the night before, with a chilling cold wind blowing through, making it difficult to stand still and promising an uncomfortable night for those who'd forgotten their sleeping bags. We finished the briefing, retired to the four-wall, open-air compound at which we would spend the night, posted sentries, built up a roaring fire, and waited for sleep to arrive. I was in a damned fine, comfortable mood -- there's nothing quite like having a warm fire pushing out a bit of heat, a sleeping bag, and that all-important feeling of security. It's very easy to slip out of consciousness under those conditions.
I woke up with a vague sense of alarm, tied to a shout. The fire had died down, and the illumination cycle and clouds were such that it was nearly pitch black. Someone in the compound was yelling, with a sense of urgency, which brought me fully alert. "Get him off me! Get him off me! Help me!"
Still 75% in my sleeping bag, I combat-rolled off my cot, grabbing the loaded rifle one habitually keeps within arm's reach when sleeping in the field, assuming we were under attack. I pulled security outward (I'd positioned myself at a sandbagged entrance -- a dangerous place, basically a fighting position -- I depend fully on my ability to pull better security than anyone else, based on prior experience), as everyone else came awake, and flashlights started stabbing through the darkness. I turned back -- all this had taken no more than three seconds -- and yelled for a SITREP. In the middle of the flashlights, one of our Air Force JTACs* was shadow boxing... with his personal demons.
This opens up an interesting subject. I recently learned that Congress is debating what constitutes a Purple Heart-worthy injury. The Purple Heart is typically awarded "for military merit and for wounds received in action," so it's the "award" one receives for being wounded. Without going too far into the specifics, suffice it to say that the disagreement boils down to what constitutes "a wound received in action."
The progressives argue that even mild traumatic brain injury constitutes a wound, or an injury -- there is evidence to suggest that these things are cumulative, and debilitating, and our definition of injury should be based on contemporary scientific beliefs, not century-old tradition. The conservatives point out that under current scientific beliefs, just about every front-line soldier in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and most of them in the Vietnam War would qualify for the Purple Heart based on the prevalence of bombs, artillery, and rocket fire. The Purple Heart is for wounds that impair a warrior's body, not his mind, or soul.
As I qualify for the Purple Heart based on the most liberal interpretation of the award -- as do many serving in today's Army -- I feel that it should carry some weight when I agree with the conservative group. If an enemy rocket bursts above me and I get a headache that goes away after a few days, I do not deserve a Purple Heart. If the stress of being in a combat environment twists or warps me, I do not deserve a Purple Heart. If I get nicked in the fat portion of my left thigh by a stray piece of shrapnel, or a bullet, I'll take my Purple Heart. The point is that the award is tied to a certain type of action, which does not include "nerves," "shellshock," or "post-traumatic stress disorder / mild-traumatic brain injury." It's getting peppered with shrapnel, shot up, stepping on a mine, stuck by a bayonet.
What started me on this particular rant was another phenomenon that I've been reading about -- the phenomenon of the soldier who develops combat stress / PTSD without having deployed, or having served one light deployment in a support zone. Versus, say, deploying to an area where one is in a fight every day one leaves the wire (I'm quite a bit closer to the latter end of the spectrum than the former). Although there is medical and empirical evidence to support the validity of these "PTSD-lite" cases -- made up mostly of people who probably should never have made the army a lifestyle choice to begin with, or been weeded out by selection -- I tend to fall into the camp of those who have suffered, and been checked, and experienced real loss in combat, where everything that happens is completely arbitrary and on a certain level, once you leave the wire, out of your control.
Now this Air Force JTAC who came out with us falls into the camp of people who see little or nothing of combat, yet somehow manage to be deeply affected by the possibility of combat. The stress of the potential fight of the next day overwhelmed him, and he suffered from Night Terrors.
To return to the scene: I am pulling security facing out with my rifle, JTAC is shadow-boxing with demons, three soldiers are pointing their rifles at him, one of the Navy EOD-techs is pointing his pistol alternately at a gap in the wall and the JTAC, others are pointing their rifles at different corners of the compound or at doorways, and I am doing my best not to appear frantic, praying that nobody pulls a trigger, as it will certainly occasion a massive bloodletting. The JTAC comes to, looks around, puts up his arms, and says: "What's going on?" Everyone lowers their weapons. It takes a little while for the absurdity of it all to sink in, a couple guys mutter "Fuckin' JTAC!" and we go back to sleep. The next day, when we get back to the FOB, everyone laughs about the scenario. Everyone except the JTAC, who finds himself the object of derision and scorn.
This incident was the funniest thing that happened to me in months.
* JTAC: Joint Tactical Air Controller
ABP: Afghan Border Police