I spend most of my days working towards helping those that need it most. Those that know me will probably tell you that I joke more than I should, I laugh loudly and far too often due to not taking much serious, and I love seeing others smile. However, the thing that 99% of these people don't know is that I am not without my own demons. My dark days that find me lost on the couch or staring out the window of my office. It took months of a downward slope before I admitted I had things to work out. Like they say, admitting is the first step; regardless of the issue. I should have admitted it with my first panic attack at my niece's church during here Christmas Recital. The look of confusion on my families faces as I quickly jumped to my feet in the front row and headed for the door to escape still etched in my mind. The phone call to my best friend asking for help in understanding what the fuck was going on a memory that will forever be with me. The look of concern as I tried to apologize to my family for leaving but not being able to explain why. All of this due to a smeared handprint on the door at the back of the stage...
As we do, I just kept moving on. It started having issues with work due to lack of performance. I was losing the desire to do anything. Never in my life did I think that sending a simple email would be difficult. Then, on a trip to work with a buddy's organization helping innercity youth I got my first real slap in the face. A brother who I have respected more than almost all others since he came to my team in 2005 was the one to provide that slap. The slap came in the form of opening up to me and telling me about my issues in order to get me to do the same thing. It worked. I have been working towards getting back to the level I have come to expect from myself. The level that allows for me to do the things I was meant to do. The following story... nay, the following memory is part of that path. After weeks of contemplation, it came down to this memory at the root of it all. This isn't a story of heroic bravery. No. It's one of shame, pain, and reality.
It's a memory recalled.
It was Afghanistan, mid-2004. I was a 22 going on 23-year-old fresh out of the 'Q' course as one of the first 18X's. I had just returned to the theatre after heading back to the states for a couple of weeks due to getting a 'Dear John' email. I had to get back to the US to start the paperwork for the upcoming divorce and make sure my affairs were in order. The week before coming back, our ODA was tasked with setting up a base near ShinKay while simultaneously conducting operations aimed at disrupting Taliban supply routes coming from Pakistan through the Maruf Valley. It was a massive task made even worse with the addition of one simple thing: The Dab Pass. This passage through the mountains separated Shinkay from the rest of the world that was Afghanistan. It was the only way in and out of the AO we were aiming at impacting and the local fighters knew it. They knew it when they were fighting the Russians, and they knew it now. This one pass would make life in Shinkay minimalistic even by Afghan standards. It was a 6 to 8-hour trek, one way and that was without contact. A trek to a location so isolated by terrain that even when supplies did get flown out, it was just water. For a six week stint, we ate the exact same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Rice, beans, and potatoes. Every day. For every meal.
Even with all those factors against us, after a few weeks of being there progress rapidly increased. We now had a generator that wouldn't fit in the back seat of a truck, actual porcelain toilets to set on, and showers with a water heater. Words can't describe how beautiful it was to not bathe out of a bucket with cold water hand pumped from a well. And all of this surrounded by a massive wall of recently installed Hesco's. After installing the showers and looking to add flushable toilets, we knew that we would need an additional well. Not just to support our new needs, no. We had rented property just on the edge of a small village that also had one of two wells for the entire village. We didn't come to the area to make life worse for the locals, so we worked to help them use the well. You can imagine what kind of nightmare it was trying to coordinate combat operations, the construction of an entire base, and making sure that the kids in the village didn't go without while still maintaining a tight security protocol. So, I knew we needed another well. I also knew that I had no idea on how to dig one. I had one of my Afghan interpreters go to the village near us and inquire about where to find a drilling company. Even in BFE Afghanistan, somehow we had cell coverage. After a few calls from my interpreters, we had some luck. We finally located two men that were willing to drive out and meet us at the river near Qalat. They were hesitant to come but after a bit of discussion decided they would if they had an escort. The Dab Pass had a reputation for sure. We made arrangements for them to stand by near Qalat for the next few days and that we would make contact when we were headed that way.
The next day we packed up and headed for the pass. We made it through without incident. On the other side of the pass, we contacted the drillers and coordinated a link up. A few hours later we sat next to the river waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Just baking in the Afghan heat. As the sun started to prepare its things before heading out for the day, we finally got a call; they were now 5 minutes out. A few minutes later we could see the old rickety drilling truck bouncing down the dirt road. One thing I had learned early on was that here, in these lands, you can't judge reliability on appearances. These people could do amazing things with the bare minimum. Finally, after what seemed like hours of watching it crawl towards us, they stopped on the opposite side of the river. We had our interpreters go over and see what was going on.
It didn't take long to see that there was an issue. The Afghan people are notorious for appearing to argue while talking but when they were actually arguing, there was no mistaking it. And these men were definitely arguing. One of our guys came back over and explained that they decided to not go with us. They figured we could just rent the equipment and dig the well ourselves. For obvious reasons, this did not sit well with us. We explained that we did not know how to drive their equipment and much less knew how to use it. The discussion transitioned into a full-blown argument that ended with them agreeing to come. At one point I was pretty close to losing my mind and just short of physical contact. After reluctantly agreeing to come, they had asked if they could ride in one of our trucks or with the Afghan Militia/Military Force (AMF) in their Deuce and a Half. Us not wanting to move backward in our negotiations, we asked if any of the AMF knew how to drive the truck . Luckily one did.
We finally loaded up to move out, the two well-diggers in the back of the AMF truck. It was late in the afternoon, but there was plenty of sunlight left for the trip back. While cruising at a rapid speed (as rapid as one can on dirt roads in Afghanistan) trying to make up time lost, we hit one of the few straight-aways before the pass. My mind was at ease, manning my .50, scanning the ridge to our right. Primed with knowing I could make some impact with a new well and maybe swing a few more in the area, I was on a high dreaming up new plans for the base. Plus, there was the fact that not much happens out here. No, it is inside the pass that they get you. Then, scanning from my right to my left, my turret at about the 1 o'clock position, I heard it. The distinct sound of a massive explosion just to our rear. My mind instantly knew what took place. I remember turning inside the turret, my heart racing. I was trying to it lock down when I saw it out of the corner of my eye - bodies flying high through the air, along with an entire truck. I finally got the turret locked in and spun to the back.
"IED! IED! 6 o'clock. We just lost the AMF truck!" I yelled down to my Team Sergeant riding TC.
"I see it, man. Victor 1, halt convoy. The AMF truck is down." George radioed to our CPT.
Our GMV came to an abrupt stop at the side of the road.
My mind raced with a million thoughts. I went back to scanning the area, looking for any signs of an ambush.
"Holy shit, we just drove over that thing!"
"Fuck, that was a lot of bodies in the air!"
"Holy fuck, how did we not hit that fucking thing!"
My mind racing with thoughts of how both us and Victor 1 drive right over this thing but it was the third truck to hit it. I kept spinning the turret, scanning my sector. Matt and George ran back towards the burning vehicle. The AMF had already started gathering up the wounded. The two of them made a beeline towards the collection point. The CPT was calling in the contact over SATCOM. Between team internal, SATCOM, and just yelling, the scene was chaotic.
My mind then fixated on the fact that I was one of the only people manning a gun, along with Andy in Victor 1. That realization made me focus even more while scanning. The poise of the voices over the radio kept me tuned in. It wasn't just one of them; it was the whole team. The voices were urgent but controlled. It wasn't what they were saying; it was how they were saying it that got me. I remember the confusion it caused me. Me? I was completely petrified. I had honestly never been more scared in my life. The reality of war hit me like a brick. Even after a few months in country, war wasn't in perspective yet. The operation in Musa Qalay gave me my first real taste, but it still wasn't in focus. But now, at that moment, it was real. These guys, though? They were already living in this reality. They had already set up camp and welcomed it. It was through this that I knew I had to get to that level. But at that current moment, I just wanted to get the fuck off that truck, that road, and out of that fucking valley.
"Bryan, pull that truck over here!" George yelled from the side of two casualties.
I heard every word, but all I could manage was a, "What?"
My mind had me frozen:
"Is he fucking serious?"
"I ain't driving this fucking truck fucking anywhere. What if there is another IED? Nah, fuck that, I ain't moving shit. I am standing here in a truck that isn't blown up and/or burning. I'm going to keep it that way. Fuck you, man. I'm good. I ain't moving shit."
All of those thoughts running through my mind.
"Move the damn truck over here; I need the aid bag in the back!" George responds.
"Roger!" I managed to get out. I remember my hands shaking as I crawled into the driver's seat. I remember being so ashamed of being so scared.
"Get a hold of yourself, man!" I kept telling myself. I'd like to say I acted with courage and honor, but in reality, I could barely remember how to operate the fucking GMV.
I finally got my head out of my ass and started moving the truck. It was the longest ~10 feet of my life. Words cannot express the relief I felt as soon as the entire vehicle was off the road. It was all but euphoric. That relief allowed me to come to my senses and gather myself.
George saw me hauling ass over to them. As I got close, he guided me in as to where he wanted me to put the truck. I came in and parked parallel to the casualties. It was then I realized what had happened. It was then I felt the world crushing in. It was at that very moment my entire life would be different in every aspect.
The two casualties? The well-diggers.
My heart sank. It was my fucking fault. I just had to have them come. The yelling and screaming in their faces all because I didn't want to deal with trying to figure out a drilling rig. George and the team having my back as I just had to have my way. Their refusal due to fear only added to my anger.
And there they were. Laying mangled and dying.
I was mortified.
All the sounds around me now gone. Time and space no longer existed. I can see the man's mouth screaming, but I could hear no sounds.
I had probably just killed these two men...
George could see it in me. He never said anything about it but I know he could see it. I felt like a kid that just caused a car wreck due to being careless on his bike watching the adults unfuck the massive problem I created. I thought that every single person that ever said that the 18X program was a bad idea was absolutely right. I didn't belong here. The problem was that this wasn't playtime and these men were dying.
"Bryan, I need you to help with the IV, man." His hand patted my shoulder to come along with him.
I snapped back and moved to the back of the truck with him. As we ran, the sounds now cut through my soul.
"Allah!!!!" the man yelled repeatedly.
"Are they going to make it, George?" I asked, my voice thick with fear.
"I don't know, but I know we are going to do whatever we can, now take this bag over to Matt," he responded.
The smell of the burning truck swept through the air. Oil, metal, wood, plastic; it all mixed into a thick cloud of black smoke lingering over the entire area.
We ran back over to the two well-diggers. The one Matt was working on was moaning. The one George was working on was still calling to God for help at the top of his lungs as he rocked back and forth.
George handed me the I.V. bag while he stuck the line. I just stood there holding my MBITR and being a relay to the CPT who was currently working a MEDEVAC.
A few minutes later George looks up at me, "I need you to hold him."
"Ok," I tell him, desperately wanting to do absolutely anything else.
I moved to the man's head and straddled him, placing his head in my lap. I can see a massive bruise just below his ribs.
"George, where's the wound?" I asked confused.
Outside of a few lacerations, I didn't see any significant wounds. No pools of blood. No missing appendages. Nothing I expected to see from a man just blown through the sky from an explosion.
"There," George responded pointing to the bruise. "It's not good," he said pointedly.
Still lost in my confusion of what was going on, I just held the man while George worked. Not being able to speak Pashtu, I merely talked to him in English.
"It's going to be ok," I would tell him as I held his head gently, massaging his temples.
"ALLAH!!!!" he would yell. The desperation escaped any language barrier present.
"Fuck, he's swelling!" George said with concern and frustration.
Still lost, I asked, "What does that mean, man?"
"He is bleeding internally, and there isn't shit I can do for him out here. We need that MEDEVAC!"
George grabbed the MBITR and walked off, explaining the situation to the CPT.
I kept my position holding the man. With each scream, my heart sank.
"It's going to be ok. We are getting you a bird; you are going to be ok." I kept telling him. It didn't take a language barrier to stop my message from getting through to him. He was starting to spiral down, and it was clear.
George walked over and kneeled at his side, examining his stomach. He just looked up at me and shook his head. The man's stomach had doubled in size in just the short while George had left. I knew what George knew. He was all but gone.
"I'll stay with him," I told George.
George shook his head in approval, pushed himself up using my shoulder, patted me and moved over to help the others.
For what seemed like an eternity, I held him. Rocking him gently in my lap, telling him it will be ok. He continued to call out to God while squirming in pain. He would reach towards the sky desperately before the pain was too much to bear.
After some time, the yells turned to whispers. The arms stopped reaching. The squirming went still. I just kept holding him.
And then all was silent.
I sat there.
"Why did I have to be such an asshole?"
"Why did I have to have my way?"
The shame was overwhelming me as I continued to hold him.
George came over to me and started moving the man.
"Let's get him covered up, man," George encouragingly suggested.
I slide out from behind him, gently laying his head on the bundled up shirt George had cut off his body earlier.
I assisted in covering him up and went to help with the others. Then George told me to get back on the fifty.
"The MEDEVAC will be inbound soon. Let's get a solid perimeter for them."
"Want me to move the truck?"I asked.
"Nah, it's good there. We are popping smoke between here and Victor 1 on that little knoll," pointing into the distance.
The bird flew in, and we loaded up the other casualties. Shortly after, George grabbed me to exploit the IED. I climbed down off the truck an went over to the burning hull. After digging through the debris and oil covered ground, I found it. It was a pressure plate wired into what we could only assume was a Russian mine. The crater was massive, covered in oil, and directly in the middle of the road. The truck was toast.
We gathered up all usable equipment and loaded up.
All the chaos was now silent. The radio chattered all but died out. It was at the edge of the day, and we still had to get through the pass. The fact that we had hit an IED in the relatively safe area weighed heavily on everyone's mind. Before too long we took off, the pass now coming into view. We continued on and made it through with no incident.
Later back at the camp, the CPT came up to me.
"Are you ok?" he asked.
It was there that I broke down. The fact that I felt responsible wasn't the only thing killing me. No. It was the overall shame.
"Talk to me, Bryan."
"I just... I am a horrible person, man." I finally got out.
"Why do you say that? What's on your mind?" he asked.
"All this went on today, and it was my fault. I made them come with us. But more than that, I can't forgive myself for my first thought when I saw that truck in the air."
"And what is that?"
"How I was so happy it wasn't us. That it wasn't me." I responded with shame.
He just grabbed me and pulled me to him:
"Bryan, it's ok. Don't think for a second that we all didn't have that thought. What matters is that you care about having that feeling. Never lose that."
To this day the guilt from that incident has been with me. Suppressed down into the darkest corners of my mind, I have rarely ever brought it up. But at the end of it all, I think back to CPT Samples tell me never to lose that. Never lose my humanity no matter what war throws at us.
After seven further combat deployments as a soldier and five as a civilian providing humanitarian aid,
I like to think I haven't.