After the dust settles…

I didn’t think I had PTSD. That was a problem other people faced – people whose minds were too weak to compartmentalize the things they’d experienced. PTSD was for people who were unable to come to terms with the fact that war is ugly. War brings out the beast in all of us, and you must become that beast to survive it. Some men were unable to become that beast. Those men stayed men, and men are not suited for war. Beasts are. Become the beast, separate from yourself, and you can do great violence. So, I never had PTSD… until I did.

We all signed on the dotted line and took our enlistment oaths for different reasons. None of us were drafted. I only know the reasons I did it and the reasons of those with whom I discussed it. At some point, though, none of that mattered. We all went to war as brothers, and many of us didn’t really concern ourselves much with the politics of it. Looking back, I can tell you all kinds of things about it that I did not think at the time. At that time, however, we received orders to deploy to the Southwest Asian Theater “in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Most of us complied with that order. Most of us knew we were headed that way long before it became reality. Many of us had joined knowing that it was a very likely possibility. All of our training as fighting men and women was for exactly that purpose. You don’t think about it all that much, and they sometimes (perhaps purposely) avoid stressing the fact that your military training has one purpose – to make you the most effective killer in the world. So, when the time came for us to march into combat, we were mentally and physically ready, but there is nothing that can emotionally prepare a person for combat. Simply the idea that you must kill or be killed is such a foreign concept to people who haven’t experienced it, which in Iraq, was the case for most of us. It had been long enough since the military had real, large-scale combat that very few members of the military in 2003 had actually experienced it.

The air is different. The smells are different. The food is different. The sun is different. The stars are different. The ground is different. The plants are different. The animals are different. The people are different. The vehicles are different. The buildings and the cities they’re in are different. It’s regularly above 100 degrees. We’re not talking about a Caribbean vacation here, where many expected cues are still present. We were thrust violently into an environment so foreign that we could not, and likely did not ever adjust to it. We were simply forced to function at a very high level within it, while constantly feeling like we were in some strange dream that was only a rough approximation of reality. Nothing quite felt right. There was also constant confusion. It’s been written that our military’s deployment to Iraq was an incredibly impressive and well-organized feat of logistics and coordination. That may be the case, but at the average soldier’s level, instructions were being given hour-by-hour. And we never knew what came next. There were alarms when missiles were launched at us. We had to quickly get into protective gear and take shelter. Our missile batteries always managed to intercept those missiles. We were just in the middle of two groups of people playing a game of Scorched Earth.

All of these things were true BEFORE we even entered Iraq. I was part of the initial ground assault convoy into Iraq, and witnessed the aftermath of much of the organized fighting. Vehicles flaming, reduced to rubble, buildings crumbling, uniforms and equipment cast aside – all the sights and sounds and smells that come with that. Bodies. There were people assigned to “clean-up” missions. What do you suppose they were cleaning up? The dead during war very rarely look like they do in the movies. There’s usually much more mess.

I was 21 when I experienced just this. Some people were as young as 18, maybe even 17, and in some wars of the past, younger than that. I’d spent the first 20 years of my life learning all the things that make us “civilized” creatures, the social conventions which separate us from animals. At 21 years old, I was given a crash course on just how similar we are to the animals over which we hold ourselves in so much higher regard. I very quickly came to terms with the idea that – regardless of the politics involved – my main goal was now to be a better killer than anyone else. The only thing that mattered was that my brothers and sisters around me went home in one piece, and it was now my job to make sure that happened. If I could also make it home, that’d be great, but most of us would have gladly traded our lives for the lives of those around us.

I was 21 years old. Think about the last 21-year old you spoke to. They’re children! Our minds aren’t even fully developed until our mid to late twenties. This experience, for many of us, was our first real time out “in the world,” instead of at home, in our comparatively comfortable lives. We were exposed to all this before our brains had even formed, and we had experienced all this before we even experienced actual combat!

Combat. The goal is clear. Kill. You win in combat by taking the lives of the people on the other team. Of course, we all had some vague notion of this. But, once you’re put in that position, once you’re fired upon, and you fire back, that’s when it really hit you. You are now in the business of killing other human beings, something you’ve spent your life up until now believing was an incredibly evil act. That’s your job now. Kill as many of the enemy as you possibly can, as efficiently as you can manage. We carried seven 30-round magazines for our rifles. 210 rounds. 210 lives. I’ve been asked if I’ve killed anyone. The real answer is that I don’t know. I’ve received fire, and I’ve returned more. I’ve been fired at with rifles and responded with a hail of automatic fire from light and heavy weapons, and usually in those situations, our rules dictated that we didn’t stop to survey. It’s pretty likely that some of the enemy were killed. So, did I kill anyone? I don’t know, but I definitely tried. I definitely pulled the trigger.

I was 21 years old. Imagine, this was life, for 364 days. 364 long days – a fair portion of my short life. I came back whole – not everyone did. We maintained our equipment, were issued some fancy new trucks, and about a year later, we went back for seconds. This time, there were roadside bombs – what we called IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. Certain missions we ran, it wasn’t a matter of if we would be attacked or not – it was only a question of when it would happen, and how bad it would be, and whether or not we would all survive it. For my part, a truck full of propane tanks was detonated next to my vehicle. I’m told the fireball from it was a couple hundred feet into the air. Most of the front of my truck was blown off, tires gone, blast pushed the dash into the truck. That’s where the flames entered. I was banged around a little, but my gunner got it the worst, he was up out of the truck in a gun turret. We all survived, maybe not quite the same as we were before.

And I was 23 when that happened.

So my take on PTSD for the military? Yeah, it’s real. We are subjected to horrible things in combat, and it’s a pretty shocking experience before you even get to that point. We, as human beings, have spent a long time trying to forget that we’re animals. We’ve tried to forget that we are the most violent and savage animals on the face of the planet. We don’t like to be reminded, and it’s a pretty confusing experience for a young mind to come to terms with. And you know what happens when you come home? Everything is just supposed to go back to normal. For a lot of people, that’s really where the trauma begins.