The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

NO FEAR |

June 11, 2013

Name:  1SG James L. Gibson
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Forest Grove, Oregon
Milblog: The Life of Top
Email: James.l.gibson@afghan.swa.army.mil

I’m reading a great book called They Fought For Each Other, by Kelly Kennedy. It’s a book about the hardest hit unit since the Vietnam War, C Co. 1-26 Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, while deployed to Iraq in 2006-2007. The author does a good job painting the picture of what it was like dealing with the terrible faces of combat. Losing Soldiers, friends, and the heartaches family members had to deal with back on the home front.

One of the points that the author brings up is how the Soldiers began to look for action, or how they were taking more risks than during the beginning of the deployment. It was almost as if the action they were seeing wasn’t enough. Was it because they became numb to the danger? Did they think they were invincible? Or was it because they lost so many of their friends that they no longer cared if they lived or died?

That got me thinking about Ramadi. I remember my fist patrol with the unit we were replacing like it was yesterday. As I sat in the back seat, situated behind the driver, I would fire off questions such as “What’s in there?” or “What’s up with that road?” and the answers were always the same as he told me that they didn’t go there because they got shot at or had a truck hit with an IED. Those answers, coupled with the latest Significant Acts (SIGACTS) that were given to us from sector, had me nervous.

While in Kuwait we would get nightly updates of what was going on in our new sector. Over 100 SIGACTs were happening a day in the city, including IEDs, firefights, and Vehicle Borne IEDs (VBIEDs). So when we arrived at our observation point (OP) for our mission, I was taken aback when the vehicle commander pulled out a pillow, along with the driver, and told the Gunner that he had the first shift while they promptly fell asleep. I was so nervous that I couldn’t shit a greased BB.

I got out of the truck and pulled rear security for the twelve hours. The vehicle crew laughed and said “Nothing is going to happen, nothing but open desert here, you are safe.” I didn’t’ care and continued the watch. The whole situation was messed up, and as soon as we returned I let Jimm know about it. “The unit we are replacing is hot garbage, Jimm. They haven’t done anything and every time I asked them about something they said they didn’t go there as they had been shot at!” Jimm looked at me with a half-crooked smirk and replied, “I guess they are leaving us a target rich environment!”

Our first few months were spent up in the northern sector of our Battalions operational environment. Nothing was going on. We spent most of the time driving around, scouting possible weapons cache locations. We were cautious when driving down the road, weary of possible IED strikes, but knew that the area was pretty calm, except for route Gremlins that ran North and South through the sector. It was the worst route in our sector. Every time we drove down it for the first couple of months it would take a few hours after mission for everyone’s ass muscles to relax. But sometime after a couple of months of being in sector, something changed.

The standard for entering and clearing a room is to conduct a “four man stack.” Four Soldiers move to a door undetected, stand with weapons at the “high-ready” and bunch up “nut-to-butt” to form almost a single entity. Each Soldier has his thumb resting on the safety switch, finger on the trigger, crouched down with their center of gravity resting over their lead foot. Each has an assigned sector of fire as they blow through the room, and all are going over every possible action through their head as they wait for the signal. The #4 man breaks from the group, inspects the door, and upon the leader's signal will kick in the door. No words can describe the heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, surge of energy that is going through your body as you flow through the room, unsure if someone is inside patiently waiting for you to enter. But sometime after a couple of months of being in sector, something changed.

Driving down the road became less stressful; it became the norm. Our speed began to pick up a little faster, almost as if we were daring the enemy to emplace an IED. Flowing through houses on a raid became less exciting and more “normal” as our deployment went on. I was taking more risks. We had one raid we conducted for a time sensitive target; we had to move quickly. My platoon was hitting a compound and as we arrived we surrounded the compound and entered. I noticed that one of the houses wasn’t being searched and instead of waiting for a section to be complete, I slung my M4 rifle, drew my 9mm, and began to flow through the house, alone. Nothing was in the house as the insurgent had left just prior to our arrival. At the end of our mission, the leadership conducted our After Action Review (AAR), something we always did after a big mission. We each discussed our actions, and as I told my portion I could see the look on a couple of the guys’ faces. It wasn’t until then that I realized that what I had done was really stupid.

Katrin has recently let me know that what scared her most was that I acted as if nothing was wrong. I didn’t sound scared or nervous and acted normal when we talked on the phone. Was it blind ignorance? Were we becoming numb to combat? Or were we subconsciously looking for a rush as everything we had been dealing with had become “normal” ?

I guess this blog entry is more of a question. I would love some input and comments from the Soldiers who read this. I think this is a critical piece to the book and want to capture it correctly. For the Civilians that take time to read this, I would love your input as well!

Comments

I apologize in advance, if I appear to be an armchair quarterback or a paperback psychologist, but here goes. For one thing, my only experience with live fire was my basic training in the Army, which I recall quite clearly. It was really scary at first, but somewhere between dull routine and easy swagger within weeks.

But I think a closer analog is driving an automobile. When we first get behind the wheel, usually as teenagers, it is easy to see and feel the danger. After a few weeks or months, and certainly for years afterward, operating a dangerous and deadly machine is too routine to even discuss. As a result, all too soon, driving an automobile becomes "deadly" dull, so that many of us drive beyond any human reaction time, With the excuse of being in a hurry, or for no reason at all, trying for that thrill of danger that we felt when we first clutched our first ride. We don't need no stinking seatbelts! The disastrous results do not even get a mention in the evening news. 30 to 50,000 US deaths a year, not to mention countless paralyzing and hospital level injuries. A death toll that rivals any sort of war carnage. And, possibly most tragic of all is that the losses are for no cause, great or small.

I was in a serious automobile collision some years ago, and I still remember the absolute surprise and wonder about what was happening to me. I would imagine that same amazement impacts soldiers when wounded.

I guess what I am saying is that we all become situational psychopaths; when steadily exposed to danger that does not deliver harm, eventually we lose our fear of it. I must ask, does the loss of a trooper close to you sharpen your apprehension again, for some period of time?

Thank you for the post. As a civilian, I find this and other posts to be helpful in my interactions with soldier friends and strangers. And Ray said about the same thing I was going to say. :)

As a civilian I have to say the same. The scary part of your story was when you relate that the stress started to seem "normal" and your natural caution ebbed. I guess the system can only take so much adrenaline before it just ratchets down its response.

1st Shirt, I'm going to come as close to quoting Gen. Patton as I can, without flubbing it:
"It's not your job to die for your country! It's your job to make some poor dumb sonofabitch die for his!"
You owe it to your chain-of-command, both up, down, and laterally, not to mention what you owe your family, to come home safe, as healthy as possible, and able to do what ever comes next in your life.
I've been retired from the Air Force over 14 years (probably longer than you've been in service?), and while I don't have the same experiences as you, I think, I hope, that you can relate to the fact that most of our training is supposed to bring us to a level of rote action (if you're not following the check list, you'd better know the "bold-face" information, because that's what's going to keep you alive!).
Follow what the FMs dictate, just as you'd enforce it on your junior troops.
Be safe solider!

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