To pursue the best 'You' that you can possibly be in all areas of life. To pursue dreams, accept challenges and gain knowldege in order to live with excellence.

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Extreme Challenges
That Only A Soldier Knows

Challenges are a part of everyday life. They make us stronger and without them life becomes somewhat meaningless because we have nothing to compare the good times to.

A Soldier's Story

I sat in the gunner's seat inside the M1A2 Abrams tank with my eyes planted on my binocular sights. The cool August night made what would normally be a sweat box into a bearable environment. There was an eerie blue glow illuminating the white interior of the tank in my periphery. I was hunched in my cramped seat that afforded me little room to move. I saw the battlefield through shades of green and a white hot spot in the shape of a man. My hands hugged the Cadillac handles, my thumbs caressing the laser targeting system. I found my target and squeezed the trigger. Through my sights I saw the arc of the tracers as it Emergency Foodspenetrated a man running.

I had never seen anyone fall like that before; life instantly evacuated his body. There was no time to perceive the sickening feeling that would normally be associated with such an event. I had been on the battlefield for just a few minutes before my first kill of the night. A convoy had been attacked by an enemy that was unknown in numbers and armament. My crew relieved another tank that had a turret malfunction. I looked all over what appeared to be a farm and noticed another enemy combatant randomly peeking over a berm as he hid in an irrigation ditch. Once again I acquired his distance and waited for the right time to squeeze. He repeatedly lifted his head into view as though searching for help that would never come. It took less than a second for the rounds from my tank-mounted machine gun to hit him. Moments later, I saw another man get up and begin to run for cover, but he wasn't fast enough. He only made it three or four steps before I stopped him.

The next man who tried to escape the carnage I riddled with a dozen rounds. There was no swift death for him. I was ordered not to kill him so he could be interrogated. A ravine between us and him was too dangerous to cross at night. I was ordered to shoot near his injured body until sunlight, when we could identify a clear route to extricate him. Every time he moved, I would send a volley of bullets to remind him of our presence.

It never occurred to me the horror and feeling of helplessness that man must have endured. It's now difficult to accept knowing I had put that man through that experience for over six hours.

It was dark and cold, and he was alone on a farm in his own pool of blood with the puttering of my bullets landing inches from his body. At day's break, we made our way to the battlefield as medics put the wounded man on a stretcher to be medically evacuated. I discovered later he died of his wounds.

Searching the farm, we found one of the other men I killed. We needed to recover his body in the hopes of someone being able to identify him. When I walked up to his body, he looked as though he was just relaxing in a park watching the clouds drift by. I don't know what possessed me to look at him, but when our eyes met, whatever I had taken from him, he took a part of me, too. This moment was the seed of the post-traumatic stress disorder.

I was the gunner and noncommissioned officer on the M1A2 Abrams tank. I was in Iraq from May to September 2003 during the initial invasion with the 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Hood. I had never been exposed to the atrocities of war. My normal life seemed like a fantasy when compared to the extreme circumstances I found myself in. What were ordinary daily occurrences in Third World countries was a sobering experience.

Living in our compound, when a person lay dead by my hands mere feet away, was somehow morbidly absurd. This man, this stranger, rested in a sand bag "mausoleum" a stone's throw away from where my platoon ate, slept, played games and, if we were lucky, had the occasional shower. The relentless and overpowering odor of death drifted to our living area and forbade me the pleasure of denying my actions. He was put in a silver insulated blanket to keep the decomposition in the 120-degree heat to a minimum. The other soldiers had a strange attraction to the body and often visited him for reasons they kept to themselves.

I did all I could to ignore him.

Seven days later, a group of people came to our gates with a story of a loved one who was missing. I was playing games in the shade with other soldiers when one of the infantry soldiers informed us that a family had showed up to identify the body. I don't know why I started to follow the two soldiers as they dragged the body to the other side of the compound. As I made out the features of an older woman, a man and children I froze. The soldiers dropped his lifeless body in front of the family and opened the thermal body bag. The immediate sorrow that came over the family was unbearable. I faintly heard the audible weep of a mother who was barely able to recognize her own son. In one punctual moment of my life, this man who I once rationalized as an enemy combatant became a man with a family who loved and cared for him.

In Iraq our missions changed daily. Though combat did not occur with the frequency of a conventional war, we would joke that our missions occupied the time until we had the opportunity to engage the enemy. My platoon of 16 men was attached to an infantry unit that consisted of about 80 soldiers. The mission of the infantry included establishing a governorship and police force for Jalaulah and As Sa'diyah, two towns of 20,000 to 30,000 people respectively, in the Nahr Diyalah province near the border of Iran. My platoon's mission was to provide troop security and handle immediate or perceived threats.

When we patrolled these cities, there was an unsettling familiarity of life that reminded me of home. Daily life occurred without much interruption even as we drove tanks and armored personnel carriers through these people's streets. We integrated ourselves and became friends with merchants who sold us creature comforts. The children greeted us with beaming smiles as we gave them candy from our ready-to-eat meals. But, everyone wasn't so elated to see us in their land. In a war where the opponent doesn't wear a uniform, everyone was a potential enemy.

We adapted to the environment and sacrificed a part of our humanity in order to survive. Our emotions were driven to the lowest common denominator of rage. In that environment, our higher intellectual functions as humans had to be turned off; our internal social need was severed in order to operate.

We functioned at a visceral, almost feral level in order to be able to take the lives of other people so we could protect our brothers on the battlefield.

We all had our ways of coping. Some of us woke up every morning and told ourselves that today was the day we were going to die. Accepting the daily inevitability of death is a survival skill that isn't necessary in a civilized world. Yet in these ways of managing, we were able to send ourselves into combat with the confidence necessary to engage the enemy with such brute force that the only option was victory.

Our lives, our minds, and our souls were forever changed in those days of war. Once we managed to learn how to live in an environment and thrive with the daily threat of death, we came home. We learned to live without our families, and they learned to live without us, and in an instant, we had to learn how to live together again.

Readjusting to the real world wasn't easy. We met people with cynicism and suspicion. The tenderness and calm of a friendly smile was greeted with an accelerated heart rate at the fear of the unknown malevolence that lurked behind the smile. Life lost the meaning it once had. What we once found enjoyable and captivating now was dismissed with apathetic disregard. We became utterly and absolutely disconnected. There is an intoxicating desolation when we hug our children hoping they will never learn of our violent past.

We are often victim to debilitating depression, devastating guilt, and irrational anger. We stay awake to search for anything that will distract us from haunting images, and we don't go to sleep to dream.

I detached from everyone socially and emotionally. I took comfort in solitude and realized my drinking wasn't to numb myself, it was to forget. The anathema of my actions has haunted me every day since my return. I envision the empty stare of the man I killed and the face of the mother who lost her son.

It was only a few months after my return home when my family noticed the change in me and pleaded with me to visit Veterans Affairs; they saw the vacant look in my eyes. I was opposed to the idea that I needed help or that I was even ill. My first visit to the VA clinic in October 2004 involved a general practitioner asking me if I felt like hurting myself or others. His dismissive attitude made me want to change my answer. Being obstinate and adamant about not returning to the VA forced an ultimatum from my wife between her leaving, or for me to get help. Facing life alone, and in the pain I was in, I made the choice I should have made a long time ago, and that was to engage my new enemy: myself.

I put my wife through years of hell that no one should do to someone they love. I returned to the VA in August of 2005. The interviews with therapists and psychologists all asking me to repeat the trauma I experienced were difficult. Being a combat veteran, it was not easy hearing that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I thought it somehow made me less of a soldier and more of a victim. Talking to other combat veterans, it was clear that we all thought of ourselves as being strong enough to handle killing and its aftermath; after all, it was us who chose that profession and were trained to take lives. It was our trade and anything that came with it was an occupational hazard.

I found it very difficult to keep returning to the clinic because I thought it meant that I had lost somehow. I thought others would think less of me because I served one tour, or I hadn't experienced enough, or seen enough death, or lost enough friends. Individual therapy sessions identified stressors and how to manage them, but a psychologist can't understand the loss of control and sudden rage that comes with this disease.

Fighting PTSD is a daily struggle, and living with it can only be likened to death, only we're still breathing. PTSD is a horrific and an exceedingly underdiagnosed disease, especially for combat soldiers. It may not be as obvious an injury as losing a limb or being covered in shrapnel, but the anguish is still there. Soldiers with PTSD can't physically identify why they are suffering, and that is why it's harder to seek help. It seems embarrassing for a combat soldier to ask for assistance or admit he has a problem, but with family and friends, we are not alone, and there is no shame in asking for help.

 

When you joined the military, you knew you might face difficult and stressful situations. Combat stress responses can be common responses to uncommon circumstances that are unique to military life. Many times you can successfully deal with this stress and find ways that it can actually help you. Learn to recognize the signs of combat stress and when you may need to reach out for help.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (and Press 1)

Abroad?

In Europe call 00800 1273 8255 or DSN 118 *

In Korea call 0808 555 118 or DSN 118

In Afghanistan call 00 1 800 273 8255 or DSN 111


 

 

 

 


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