As I prepare to start this, I pause, as it is with much trepidation that I even begin. This is something that is deeply painful for me. It seems that for a very long time I had no feelings. A lot I hope will be explained in this post. But, despite the paucity of emotions, which is still one way or another a part of me, better now, thanks to Jesus, but still not where I need to be. It is odd in one regard that I feel as anxious as I do about this, and that I feel sorrow to the extent I am now feeling. I have very much become accustomed to the lack of emotions and some aspects of the return of any emotion is both puzzling and awkward. Thanks for reading it. I hope He uses me to help someone else in the process of me getting the help from God that I desperately need.
Well, not literally, at least my body didn’t, what died was my soul, or at least a huge part of it. I have to give a bit of a back story to help put things in context to the events leading to that point. Please, bear with me. Understand, there may be somewhat graphic information but I will do my best to avoid going into some details that don’t help illustrate the distance Christ has carried me and the many blessings He has given. And, to help understand part of this, you need to know I am in health care. That is how I help people. Exact job doesn’t matter, but it will be relevant to understand the dramatic effect things had on me. I don’t tell this for sympathy, to attempt to depict myself as heroic or to glamorize war. I explain this, to put in context my state then, my prolonged dealing with it and most importantly, how Jesus has helped with the impact on me of that year in the desert. Part of what brings this topic up is a discussion with someone that I have always been close to, we grew up together, known each other our entire lives. While discussing other things he commented, “I miss the you that you used to be.” well, that got me thinking about how I had changed. Yes, we all grow and change as we age, but there is almost always a core of that person’s soul still there. Mine was not intact at all. Thoughts about what lead to that occurring, and some changes since then bring this topic up, well, that and the fact it is that time of year. An anniversary date that I don’t enjoy celebrating.
I have mentioned I was in the military. During the course of that I was sent to Iraq in 2003. My unit was located in the heart of the Sunni Triangle and we conducted operations (a military way of saying missions or battles) in and around Baghdad, Fallujah and Ar Ramadi. At the time the last two in particular were hot beds for insurgent activity. Through the earlier part of the deployment I would go out with different units during patrols and other operations. Part of my job, while not directly requiring me to do so, there were parts of planning my piece of missions that made it necessary to have a strong working knowledge of the area to know where to designate what we call casualty collection points and landing zones for those needing transported by helicopter. There are things that one cannot fully understand and appreciate from looking at maps. Even the good terrain maps and satellite images don’t sufficiently show all the needed information. Plus, my job also required making sure the medics were doing their jobs correctly and to see what additional training might be required to best care for the wounded. During the course of those patrols I occasionally was involved in attacks with the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or small arms like the AK 47. Vehicles were damaged, my ears would ring if we were too close, but I wasn’t wounded any of those times. (read a praying parent if you haven’t, it fits in with this) I had close calls, EXTREMELY close calls. Many times, but again, no wounds, rather no physical wounds. Those events, living with a certain amount of fear and stress, starts to weigh on a person. Without Christ in my life at that time I dealt with it in a mentally unhealthy way. I started to shut down emotionally. Not just the fear was getting turned down, but almost all feelings.
In addition to the occurrences during patrols I was often at the main medical treatment area of our main camp. Doing my part to help take care of wounded. Now, we have all seen war movies, the sounds, the chaos, the visual impact is pretty close to real, but there are other sensory clues present as well. The exact sound of someone fighting for each breath, the moans of the injured cannot be recreated. The odor, of blood, body fluids, and burned human flesh. Even the visual, for seeing in a movie does not completely depict the image of someone’s limb torn off or flesh shredded or accurately convey the look someone has when, despite your words that you are doing all you can and they will be fine, they know they are dying. We often tell people in those circumstances things will be ok, we will fix them, etc and part of the reason is to help calm the casualty (yes, we often use generic terms to help avoid thinking of them as Joe or John) and, to help ourselves believe we are going to do what we are there for and save these people. But, no matter what you say, no matter how hard you try, people know they are dying, and the expression from the eyes speaks volumes. I can’t explain it. I can see it right now in my mind and can’t even explain the sensation I felt when I saw it. The look in their eyes carried a sorrow so deep it defies my ability to explain. The days like this weren’t everyday, thank God, but they were common enough. These experiences added to my emotional shut down. The war was taking its toll on me.
Today, April 6th, is an anniversary of sorts for me, it truly is the anniversary of when what little humanity I had left at the time died. My soul died that day, and the worst part is I didn’t even realize it for so very long. The day started like many others there, morning briefings, writing orders for various operations, reviewing and answering emails and then a short trip to one of the other camps near by where we had soldiers. We went and returned without incident, eerily quiet that day as a matter of fact. We could all tell something wasn’t right, but did not know what. We returned to the main camp, as I was preparing to go to grab chow (food) with a couple buddies we were interrupted as within the 4-5 minutes since I had left the command area with the radios there had been multiple ambushes throughout the city. One of the soldiers in the Commanders Security detachment hollered, said they were rolling out and asked if I was coming or not, but the Old Man (how we often refer to the commander) had asked that I come along. So, I grabbed my gear, body armor, etc and climbed in. Within 10 minutes of leaving camp we began to receive small arms fire. However, we had about 5 or so minutes to get to a particular unit that was in most extreme danger, pinned down by machine gun, AK47, and Rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fire. We drove further and finally, had to get out of the vehicles and go on foot for a few blocks. The small arms (AK47) fire continued. As we approached to within 100 meters (a bit over 100 yards) we began to receive fire from heavy/large caliber machine guns and RPGs as well. We continued and finally reached the unit we were trying to rescue. There were several wounded and 2 dead. Somehow, we managed to reach them, provide some treatment and then evacuate casualties (dead and wounded) from that position to 50 meters away.
As we regrouped, I did what I could for the wounded, tried to cover the dead, and wait for evacuation. It was longer getting there than expected and while waiting, the insurgents had shifted position such that we had little to no cover. But, at least they didn’t move the machine guns. Regardless of that, the fire from the AK47s and RPG’s continued, there were several from my unit that had them brush their legs. RPGs make a distinctive sound when fired, I heard one and looked, to see it headed towards me. I heard 2 more fire within seconds and saw them headed in my direction as well. The first one went by, less than a yard away, I could feel the heat of the rocket and smell the propellant burn. It smells very similar to gun powder burning, but more acrid, more acidic. It went past me and past the building I was standing by at the time. I took a step forward, really for no reason, maybe to try to see if that RPG hit anything. Then an explosion maybe 10 feet above me and debris from the building falling down. I tried to cover the casualties with my body, well, started to move to do so and the third RPG went inches behind me and exploded. By this time I was next to the building and the blast knocked me to the ground. Some month later I found out, that despite thinking I had never been wounded, I fractured my spine at the time.
Eventually, most of the insurgents were killed or captured. While still waiting for evacuation for the wounded I happened to see an insurgent come out of a building a half block away and start moving towards us. I didn’t really think about it, no conscious effort at all, but I picked on one of the wounded men’s M16 and fired. I watched as the insurgent stopped, looked at me and then fell to the ground. Now, I wish I could say that was the moment that my soul, or the biggest part of it, died. But, there was no emotion, ZERO. I felt totally ambivalent. That was the point where I thought, that is odd, shouldn’t I feel something? But, I didn’t feel about it. I wasn’t glad I had killed him, wasn’t sad, wasn’t upset. I felt nothing. Was that the moment I died inside. I don’t really know, maybe all that was mostly dead by this point anyway and rather than being a single event, it was the cumulative effect. I just know that is when I realized it. I didn’t celebrate, I didn’t mourn. I mentally noted as that was when I “made my bones,” “Ghosted someone,” “smoked” or whatever term that people use to help decrease the emotions of taking a human life. The day continued, more wounded, more deaths. I did my part. I am not proud, nor ashamed of doing my job. I am ashamed that I did so with no emotion or remorse what so ever. Even now, I feel remorseful that I didn’t feel anything then. Eventually we were able to gain control and stop the attacks that day. I had a small part in the big picture, so please, don’t think I am saying I rushed in like Rambo or Chuck Norris and saved the day. Too many Soldiers and Marines were out there fighting for any one individual to pretend that they were the only one fighting. Everyone did their part. We finally returned to camp and for a few minutes we all stopped, exhausted, physically and mentally. Then, we started to tease one another about this or that one or the other did during the day. We laughed, as soldiers do, using gallows humor to try to deal with some of the things we had just been through. I laughed with them, but wasn’t really feeling much yet. I sort of, once again, mentally noted that I didn’t really have much in the way of emotions. After that, I took care of things I needed to do; checked on casualties, cleaned my weapon, restocked supplies, finally got chow then went to bed. I slept, like any other night, no tossing and turning, no thoughts of what had transpired that day.
The next few days, with rare exceptions, involved a much higher level of, actually, near constant, contact (army way of saying one is being attacked or involved in gunfights.) One morning, at the end of the briefings the Old Man said, “well, I need to go to TQ (our nickname for one of our other camps) and from all I see and hear, there is going to be blood in the streets. No extra vehicles, no extra personnel, No one but stone cold killers and cut throats. I won’t take someone that has not proven themselves in a fight.” He then pointed at me and said, “You ride with Sergeant G, I need the hardest troops in the lead truck.” That somewhat stunned me, because I still didn’t think of myself as a hard, stone cold killer. But, being army, one says yes sir and does as ordered. Over the next few weeks and months, repeatedly during conversations with one person or the other comments were made about this fight or that fight (battle if you will) and one soldier, senior enlisted, who had killed far more than I, said, “You know, you are the coldest man in a fight I have ever seen.” He didn’t elaborate, I didn’t inquire.
Now, one thing about my job, and, several other in the military, is that for certain jobs attending basic training is not required and so not done. Basic is where soldiers are made to be honest, that is where they learn to shoot at man shaped targets, as well as other skills, that helps them dehumanize the enemy. Not that it make coping with the aftermath of killing another human easier, but it reduces the hesitation before firing a weapon and shooting someone. Not attending boot camp should have caused some hesitation, or at least I would think so. But, when the time came, my emotions were gone, I did what needed done the same as I would any of the many routine daily activities, make my bunk, put on uniform, brush my teeth, etc. It was a task that needed done, and I did it with no thought, no feelings, just something else that needed done.
It never bothered me to take lives, it was needed to save myself or someone else, it needed done so I did it. What has always gnawed at me is that I felt no remorse. I didn’t enjoy killing, but I didn’t dread the possibility of doing it again. It was just a task that needed done so if needed, I did so, or would when necessary again. I still feel no remorse for my actions. What I do feel is remorse for not being remorseful. Sorrow for that part of my humanity, my soul, that died somewhere in that desert.
There were other days, other fights, but, after April that year I personally did not have to kill anyone. There were other events after that, mass casualties with many wounded, some dead. Smaller numbers of casualties with no large amounts at one given time. One mass casualty (MASCAL) event was with 40+ casualties. During the course of all these individuals getting treated, there was one that had over half of the medics, nurses and doctors occupied. My job put me in overall command so to speak of these people, I very briefly asked why so many taking care of one. They started to tell me something, I checked a pulse, said he’s dead, get him out and take care of the ones we can help. They complied, we took care of the rest, losing only 5 or 6 out of the 40+. Some that survived were no doubt saved by the efforts by the people there that took care of the wounded. They did an awesome job. A few hours later, talking with some buddies, one asked about John. I didn’t know what he meant and they said, well, he got hurt with that big bunch you guys took care of but I haven’t heard anything about him. John, was one of my buddies, a bunch of us on Saturdays would get chow, then have a little campfire and hang out. This mascal was on a Sunday. I said I would look into it. The one that asked about John decided to come along. We walked about a mile to the treatment unit. I went in to talk to my folks there and asked about John, did they know anything about him, was he sent to the Combat Support Hospital? My senior guy there, Clint, looked at me, asked me the name and I repeated it. He checked, and said, that’s the one you made us stop treating because of all the others. Now, John and about 10 total people including me, had eaten dinner the night before, hung out at the campfire and all, just a normal Saturday night. He was not my best friend, but he was a good friend. I didn’t feel bad that he had died. I was surprised, but that was all. Unexpected news. Colin, who was not a combat experienced soldier, the one that had gone with me, was visually shaken. Still, I just did not feelNo, I didn’t mourn my friend. Not for a long time but eventually I did, John and others I lost there. After I returned home, I was different, anyone that knew me could tell. It took years to talk about some things, other things, I still haven’t. I suppose, some are buried deep enough that I don’t want to open those emotional wounds yet. But, it was several years before I felt any true sorrow or joy. Oh, there were “fun moments” but no joy. I got annoyed or upset, even mad, but never any sorrow. I lost my dad 10 years after that, I did have a lot of sorrow, still do then. But, even that far from the actual events. I still had almost no other emotions, or if present, minimal. Definitely not normal.
Other events, some less memorable, others too memorable that I am not yet at the point to discuss with anyone that wasn’t there, and, those who were needn’t speak of some things. We know without saying, we communicate without words. Such is the bond of soldiers that have been through these things together. There is a kinship among all military, despite the different branch rivalries, we are all brothers and sisters, but, like large families, there are those that are far closer than the rest. For me, there is roughly 15 men that are in that closest of groups. Some, I see fairly often, some I speak with several times throughout the year, some I haven’t spoken to in 8 or 10 years, but to a man, any of them could call, say they needed something and I would do all in my power to help, no questions, no hesitation. And, they would do the same for me. Now, THAT is the relationship I want with Christ. The type where if I feel him lead me one way or the other, I act first and find out more later. I am much better at that with Jesus now, but still have a ways to go. But, back to the blog before I forget where I was and start all over.
While I may have died emotionally there, and came home with a lot of anger issues. Seems that was pretty much the only emotion I had left. And that, rarely came out. But thankfully, I left what violence may have been in me in the desert with my feelings. Now, there were those that, to one degree or another tried, to help me over the years to recover emotionally, but helping one find one’s humanity, one’s ability to feel, the ability to care about and love oneself is no small task. For personal and professional reasons too much documentation in the records can cause some difficulty. Not career ending, but can make some stumbling blocks so I persevered, well, or at least survived. Some that tried, didn’t really seem to try, but gave the superficial show of trying to help, trying to be supportive, but they didn’t know how and I believe were afraid they would worsen, rather than help, the situation. Why was it so hard to get through all the things I was dealing with from my experiences? Well, as I mentioned, some didn’t know how, some were afraid of making things worse, some honestly despite saying they cared, didn’t really. On top of those things, I was resistant to help. Not because I didn’t want to regain the ability to feel, but due to the fact I was afraid of the healing process. It is a terrifying process, because part of it requires what I did here, cutting through things, facing the facts that brought me to the point of being so cold. I did not want to relive the events. It is a painful process. The number that that cared enough to try and were able to reach through the layers and help me find that part of me, or at least a portion of that part was extremely small. Surprisingly, it wasn’t completely dead but very dormant. Finally, I was at the point of surrender to Christ, I had no where else to turn, He was always there and it is something I should have done many years ago. He had watched over and protected me so many times despite my turning my back on Him. Praise Him for His mercy and goodness to us. Have I mentioned before what a MIGHTY and Compassionate God we serve? I know I have, just reminding myself of all He is for me.
After surrendering to Jesus, giving Him my many burdens, so much pain, so very many sorrows, He has lifted them from me. Oh, I still grieve for losses of loved ones, my parents, friends, parts of me that was before and is now forever lost, or at least I ad thought so, I have hope in Christ that I may yet find the me that died in Ramadi, the part of me that died in the desert. I don’t know if He will ever restore all of me to where I was many years ago but I know He will restore the important parts. I know that when I surrendered to Him other parts of me died. But, those were the parts that needed to die. I thank Him for helping me so much, in such little time. I know Christ has more to do with me, and has great things in store for me in the future. But for now, I rejoice in Jesus’ holy name and thank him for His love for someone that had lost his heart and soul.
THESE are the verses that mean the most to me about this part of my life story.
Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 2 Corinthians 5:17
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: Ezekiel 11:19-20
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Titus 3:5
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
Praise Him for all He is, and for the rest He granted me from my burdens. I pray for His continued help and guidance. I pray Lord, that you help me make a difference, that my brothers and sisters in arms find you, that you reach out to them and draw them to you. I pray you help me to do my part to help you reach them.
Thank you for bearing with me, long I know. I just had it laid on me to share, mostly for me. Still something I don’t think I can actually talk about openly, at this point am having trouble typing and I need to spend some one on one time with God. It was, without a doubt the most difficult thing about which I have ever written.
Next post will be less a weighty topic, well, I hope anyway but I will seek Him and try to see what lessons He has for me.