“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
One day in particular stays with me . . .
I did not routinely fly MEDEVAC missions, but I did on my third deployment. MEDEVAC (short for Medical Evacuation) was the highest risk mission for an aviation in Afghanistan. I was the Executive Officer and the only member of the brigade senior staff who flew the Blackhawk. The other officers were AH64 Apache “gun” pilots, so I flew on these missions to help my commander monitor the condition of the crews and offer feedback for risk mitigation. On a personal level, I flew these missions because – by the third deployment – I needed to find some purpose to what was happening all around me. Maybe if I convinced myself that I was saving lives, I could make sense of what we were doing.
“MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC!”
That was the call we would receive on our hand held radios to let us know that we needed to rescue a casualty. I would run, often very clumsily, to the aircraft and, for the most part, watch the crew work with precision to get the aircraft off the ground in under 10 minutes. Because I didn’t routinely fly – and the MEDEVAC mission in particular – my contributions to this point probably did more to get in the way than they did to help. I was typically the pilot on the controls for no other reason but that job was easier than the combined duties of navigating airspace, communicating, and preparing the systems on the aircraft to treat the casualty. To be honest, my greatest fear was that I was getting the way of these Soldiers doing their noble work.
During surge in 2010, there were a lot of MEDEVAC missions. We labeled missions alphabetically starting with “A.” Some days the fighting was so intense that we went through the alphabet at “Z” and started all over again at “AA.” Normally, we would receive some basic information about the number and condition of the casualties, but for some reason, on this day in particular, we got a lot more information.
The mission was a child, an 8 year old Afghan boy. He had been wounded by one of the Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) somewhere in Zhari Panjawai region. His father had carried his dying son to the Coalition Forward Operating Base at Azi Zullah in the middle of the desert to try and save his life. He probably walked at least several miles with his child dying in his arms. We flew to the limit of what the helicopter engines would give us. The crew was magnificent – coordinating actions in the aircraft with operating room precision to prepare to receive the child and save his life, and me – not getting in their way.
The flight was short, maybe 15 no more than 20 minutes. I had the landing point in site when we received the fateful call from the unit that the boy had “died of wounds.” I didn’t fly MEDEVAC much at all, but I flew enough to know that when you hear that over the radio about the condition of the casualty, you exhale – not just with your breath, but with a part of your soul. For us, on this mission, we wouldn’t save a life. We were only going to transport the remains (as we called the dead) back to Kandahar.
Every landing in Afghanistan is a dust landing, they just vary by degree. This one was no different. As you approach the ground, the cloud of dust consumes the aircraft. As a habit, I would always be looking out perpendicular to the nose to see what was happening around us. On this day, on this mission, when the dust cleared, I locked eyes with him. On the edge of the HESCO built barriers, I saw the eyes of man whose child we could not save.
I didn’t see anger. I didn’t see blame. I saw, in the glowing whites of his eyes only emptiness. With all the technology, power, and might we brought to these people, we couldn’t save this boy – a child about the age of my own son. Prior to this, I had seen death. I had sifted through remains at the morgue. I remember the haunting smell of charred flesh, but I think I always wanted to believe that we could bring a better peace. But in the face of that man, on that day, I saw the only purest nature of war.
. . . there are moments in my mind I still feel his eyes upon me, piercing into my soul.
The greatest casualty to the fighting man and woman is that of the soul. War is an expression of the absolute human condition. It embraces the limits of good and evil inherent to our nature. Preparation for and exposure to our collective, unconscious nature leaves an elephant sized footprint on the entire psyche. We feel this pain through guilt, regret, and shame. We unlocked some of the horror of our nature, and we struggle to heal, atone, and reconcile the deep pain in our hearts and minds. Loved ones become collateral damage as you attempt to connect with someone who no longer recognizes themselves.
How can this not affect our relationships? How does this not change how we view the world? The person you once thought you were is no more. Too often, Veterans struggle because they try to recover what they once were – which is not possible. You can never be the same again. There is no rewind. You can’t move backwards.
Healing means that you must release what you were and embrace what you are to become. Here is the good news – you can actually become a better form of yourself. There is a process to heal. There is opportunity to discover happiness and joy in life. There are ways to find purpose and empowerment to achieve the highest potential for yourself and those you love . . . and you don’t have to struggle trying to do it alone.
This is Part Three of a Five Part Series entitled The War Within. The objective of this series of blogs is to increase service member, veteran, and family member understanding of how the warrior journey impacts their lives and the potential to heal and grow through the experience. We are here for you. If you require assistance or someone you love requires assistance, please connect with us today. Stop Soldier Suicide is a non-profit organization committed to ending the problem of military related suicide, and we rely entirely on the generosity of individuals to fund our operations and advocacy efforts to improve the military to civilian transition process. If you would like to offer a donation, please click here.
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