Content Warning: mentions of gore, death and combat
I was eighteen, less than a year out of high school and in a remote village in the Arghandab River Valley in Southern Afghanistan. I was less than a month into a yearlong deployment and I found myself shoveling up the brain matter and skull fragments of a buddy who had killed himself.
Everything he was, everything he thought about and everything he believed in was reduced to mush and thrown into a large, black plastic bag. What guided him in life, no longer was, and instead was tagged as hazardous material, loaded onto a helicopter, and transported to be put away in some container for “further investigation”.
This was my first tangible experience with death and I was just at the beginning of a long deployment. Little did I know, this was only an introduction, and the first of many experiences that would challenge my mental fortitude for years to come.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is classified by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.” The National Center for PTSD lists several stressors that may cause PTSD, they include but are not limited to; seeing dead bodies, getting shot at, being attacked or ambushed, receiving indirect fire such as rockets or mortars, and knowing someone who was killed or seriously injured.
According to multiple studies by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) vets experience high rates of PTSD. The National Center for PTSD reported that between 11% to 22% of OEF/OIF veterans experience PTSD within a given year, while the National Health Study for a New Generation of U.S. Veterans calculates that about 15.7% of OEF/OIF veterans experience PTSD. The VA and their college counterparts help veterans, both those with PTSD and those without. The Pasadena City College Veteran Resource Center assists veterans and mediates the process between former service members and the VA.
I was an infantryman in the United States Army from 2010 to 2013. Situations that cause PTSD as described by the NIMH are the livelihood of the infantryman. They are the driving force behind what we do overseas, it is all we do, and we perpetually find ourselves in these kinds of dangerous events. Our lives are overshadowed by the possibility of death, and every day close calls and firefights remind us that we may never return home.
PTSD is not necessarily something that is thought about during these life altering events, even though I was aware that it was a possible side-effect of the traumatic situations I found myself in daily. Many knew, including me, that the baggage we carried from our time in war could potentially influence our futures, both physically and mentally. Like many others, I dismissed the idea that combat and what I saw and did would stick with me for years to come. Most of us strive during combat and live for it not knowing it may end up being our downfall.
About a month and a half after my first experience with death, and many unit casualties later, an event occurred that forced me to come to grips with my own mortality. We were well into fighting season, which begins in the spring with the blooming of the famed pink poppy plants, a staple of Southern Afghanistan, and a massive part of the Taliban’s funding via the opium trade.
My squad and I were patrolling an area south of our outpost, and on our way to take a medic to replace one who had just lost his leg to a dismounted improvised explosive device (IED). About halfway into our patrol I remembered thinking to myself that it was way too quiet and that not enough civilian presence or action was happening around us, which can and usually is taken as a warning sign. No more than 200 meters after that thought ran through my mind, I was on the ground, confused, in pain, with my medic and squad leader doing blood sweeps, cutting my pants, and ringing in my ears equivalent to what they show in war movies. A dismounted IED had gone off a few feet to my right, triggered by someone out of sight hundreds of meters away, with the intent of killing me, or at the very least wounding me. The moment the IED went off and before I was on the floor I remembered explicitly thinking, “Fuck, I’m eighteen, this is it, I’m dead.” I ended up being fine in the long run, however a few things stuck with me.
To this day I can still remember with great clarity the instant the explosion rocked my world. I can still hear the ringing in my ears as if it was yesterday. I can still feel the shadows of my medic and squad leader blot out the sun as they hovered over me. I can still taste the dirt and feel the rocks that peppered my face. But most of all, I can still remember thinking to myself that eighteen years old was too young to die, on an unknown stretch of road, in some faraway land, becoming just another name on a long list of service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice.