So that’s how I’m going to die –
It wasn’t so much of a question, nor a complete thought, it was more of a realization – that hit me like a train. Almost a decade ago, I stood in front of my boss, torn between the desperate desire to run and the inability to move.
I was a pilot working for an infantry unit. Mostly I planned air missions with the Aviation unit, serving as a coordinator between the helicopters and the ground guys. After our final coordination meeting, my boss stopped me and said, “ You’re rolling out with the Strykers to run the TAC,” which is a planning cell that typically operates closer to the front lines of a battle and away from the safety of the main base.
Umm what? Keep your shit together.
I couldn’t move. I don’t think I heard much after those words and my body seemed to stop functioning. My heart was in my stomach. My nerves were racing and the world was spinning round about me. My boss was still talking, and others in the TOC were moving around working, but I couldn’t hear anything.
I pictured all the terrible things that had unfortunately already happened to that unit many times over. The Stryker seemed liked a death trap to me. Maybe this is what ground guys felt when they climb into an aircraft –a flying death trap. They can’t control it and are hundreds of feet from impending doom.
Don’t puke. Breathe. Don’t look at anyone. Keep moving. Don’t stop.
I acknowledged my boss, walked straight out of the tent and kept walking. I knew I had to get away from everyone. I found rows of generators, all clean and packaged, sitting on pallets waiting to be shipped out. I was finally alone. But my counterpart had followed me out and started talking rapidly about the mission, with excitement and enthusiasm. Then I looked at him. He stopped dead. I just blurted it all out. I cried. Tears streamed down my face, I couldn’t stop them. He tried to console. I was having a panic attack.
How could I be so weak? I didn’t feel as tough as I thought I was.
My counterpart left, knowing I needed to be alone. I paced. I kicked rocks. I cursed. I tried to accept my fate. I thought about what I’d need to survive the week. I just needed to pack my bags and go.
- Extra ammo
- Can I get a 9mm too?
- Snacks. Must avoid MREs as long as possible
- Warm Clothes
- Sleeping Bag
- Call my family one more time. Write one more letter.
They had my folder with my Will, POAs, funeral plan, and another set of letters to each family member. I left my stuff at home in boxes just in case. After my last deployment, this folder was the first thing my Dad gladly handed back to me saying he didn’t want to touch it again.
If I died, well I guess my number was up. I was in not-so-wonderful Afghanistan, at a not-wonderful time. After non-stop deployments you understand, sometimes it’s just your time. Way back, so many innocent years ago at Flight School, they told us to look left and to look right, and that in a few years, one of us wouldn’t be there anymore.
- My flight school stick buddy
- Several friends
- My commander
- My Soldiers
- My teammates
- Close calls – that but for the difference of a few moments – me.
I cleaned myself up, dusted myself off, and put myself back together. Then I walked back in, no longer hidden by darkness, fear or shame. I can do this, I will do this.
I apologized to my boss for the way I just stood there before. But he had the most perplexed look and said he and my counterpart realized it was smarter for me to run the mission from the base, with better radios and equipment, while my counterpart went to the TAC.
I’m sorry what?!? This night will not end!
Back outside to the generators, this time, motioning to my counterpart to follow. I yelled at him. “You told the boss I freaked out?” He replied, “No! I asked why you would go out with shitty radios to the middle of nowhere, when what you need to control the mission is here.”
Once again, I couldn’t stop the tears or the flood of emotions- anger, confusion, frustration, relief, guilt.
And I hated myself for it.
It wasn’t about the operation anymore. It was about him. “No, way! You aren’t taking my seat and I’m not sending you. I’m not writing a letter home to your parents. I’m not writing a letter to your fiancé.” He said he’d be fine and let me be. I kicked a ton of rocks, and cleaned myself up – again – and went back to work.
For a short period of time, we debated who would go – each of us wanting to carry the load for the other. Ultimately, the mission was called off. I used to wonder which one of us would have gone, and if the entire convoy would have survived. I see now that we both were afraid. We knew our fate. My teammate wanted to protect me and I him.
The only way I know how to honor those I’ve lost is to strive to be a better human being, officer, leader, and friend every day. It could have easily have been me.
This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class. Photo credit for the generators that gave us the time and space we needed: US Army.