I have never experienced a night sleep like the one on that night. The only way to describe it would be to use one simple word. That word would have to be “complete”. It is a simple word more often than not. To some, it would mean finished, to others it could mean the end. To me both definitions would be accurate. My peaceful dreams and good night’s sleep were finished. It was also the end of my childish grasp on my world. No longer was I the care free, “glass half full” type of kid. I was now a “measure the exact amount in the glass” type of man. One who constantly examines the world around me, analyzing possible threats, looking for danger, always on edge. Or like the patch on my shoulder that I took for granted in the beginning states “Toujours Pret” which is French for “always ready”.
To understand how a person’s entire personality could change so drastically overnight, you would have to put yourself in their shoes. So let’s travel back to the day before and try on some old dusty boots. Obviously it was hot; to be honest hot would be an understatement. I remember thinking a time or two that “if I caught on fire, I would most likely feel a little chilly and need a sweater”. The temperature was intensified due to the fact that I had just finished putting on around two hundred pounds of gear. On top of my uniform, body armor, and helmet. There was also everything I could possibly need to survive for a couple days away from my beloved tent. I had everything, from extra batteries and socks to a small pack of baby wipes. You never know what you are going to need, and you never know what is going to happen when you are out on one of these “routine” missions.
One thing I would definitely need on every mission was my best friend, my weapon. She was a heavy “girl”. While twenty seven and a half pounds doesn’t sound that substantial, she became very arduous after a while. She was officially known as an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon or “SAW” for short. To me, she was affectionately known as Victoria. A special bond is formed between a soldier and his weapon. You sleep with her, clean and oil her, and always have her within arm’s reach. However, being a heavy girl like she was, Victoria required me to carry on top of her nearly thirty pounds, an extra thirty two pounds of ammunition. Or one thousand rounds on every mission. A thousand rounds always seemed like over kill to me, how could I ever shoot that much? Little did I know that on this day I would need all of them, and more.
Completing my preparations, I headed outside the tent to enjoy a last minute smoke with the rest of the guys who were already outside, talking and joking with each other. Before I knew it the time had come to get this mission over with. We all knew what this meant, having to leave the relative safety of the “COP” or combat out post. Leaving the COP and walking, walking more than any of us were comfortable with. The march would be so tedious, left foot, right foot, and so on for hours on end.
The new guys jokingly called cherries due to them being “combat virgins” were a mixture of emotions. Scared of what might happen, and anxious to finally fit in with the rest of the group. The older veterans, not older by age necessarily but older based on experience were almost bored with the monotony. However, boredom was the enemy; with boredom comes complacency and this has the potential to get us all killed.
On this day we had been walking for a few hours, when all of a sudden on the horizon we could see our objective. A fairly small village in the middle of nowhere burnt almost black by the sun, surrounded by light tan desert sands, stuck out like Jackie Robinson did in baseball during the late forties. Coming closer we could start to make out the children playing in the streets, running about here and there. There were venders selling their respective goods and services out of little shops built out of sticks in the market.
In my opinion, Afghanistan doesn’t have much to offer someone who lives there. There is hot weather, to some this is a positive thing. They had plenty of sand to offer as well. To me the single element of that country I enjoyed had to have been the bread. This crudely made crusty bread had to be the best tasting bread in the world by far. Whether this was due to my limited diet of field rations or truly the taste I don’t care. It was delicious none the less. We had already been told that when the mission was complete, a meeting with the elders and our commanders. We would have an opportunity to buy as much as we liked. Walking through the market my mouth started to water. The smell was intoxicating, my stomach started to ach with desire for this delicacy. Everyone must have been in the same type of torture, because everyone picked up the pace and made record time past the shops on our way to the meeting point. Wanting nothing more than to get this over with and dive into a loaf or ten.
Eventually the meeting ended after what seemed like an eternity. Now we were on our way back towards the market. It took a moment to realize what we were seeing; the once busy little market was now deserted. Looking around at the empty streets and boarded up shops, we all knew without saying what was about to happen. I just hoped my training had been adequate in preparing me for what was to come. Minute by agonizing minute slowly ticked by, sitting there in a make shift security posture.
All we could do was wait for the attack to come. No one dared speak a word. The absolute silence was enough to drive us all insane. The only sound was your own heart beating in your chest. I thought to myself that if the enemy didn’t know where we were, the drumming in my chest would undoubtedly give us away.
Finally from somewhere up ahead, the hand signal was given to pick up and move out. Everyone was on edge as we moved silently out of the town, silently of course except for that damn beating in my chest, louder than ever. Eventually the fear subsided and once again the monotony of the march began all over again. As we left the town I started to day dream, setting my legs on auto pilot. Dreaming of home, of the wife I left behind all plumped up and glowing. Ready to burst with, what I found out later was a beautiful baby girl. I would give anything to be home and hold her again.
“Thump, thump, thump”. Three sounds I know I have heard before but couldn’t put my finger on came from the distance. All of a sudden my world was turned upside down. One second I am holding my wife in my arms, the next my team leader is yelling “INCOMING” and “GET YOUR ASS ON THE GROUND”. It is impossible to describe the sound that came from the mortars. Not really a sound to be honest, more like a feeling. Mortars are bombs that get fired in the air, drop from the sky bringing death and destruction to anything in their path.
The first impact came from about fifty meters to my left. Causing a crater in the ground and sending a shock wave through me taking my breath away. Lying there flat as a pancake regardless of the gear on my back. Wishing I had something to hide behind, a pebble would have been better than nothing.” Boom”, the second round hits, much closer this time, sending sand and pieces of fiery metal fragments flying in every direction. I could feel the heat from this one, and knew we had to move. We all must have had the same thought, because the sight of everyone at that moment was almost comical. Wearing all our gear, the manly men that we were, geared for war, running for our lives like scared zebras on the savanna. The third mortar lands, having missed us thanks to quick thinking and quicker feet.
No one realized the popping sounds at first. Not until the bullets from a well hidden enemy had already hit their mark, instantly killing the man a few meters to my left. The realization of what was happening hit me like a wave. We were legitimately under attack. Under attack by a formidable force. We came to find out later that there were over a hundred Taliban fighters in the surrounding hills that day.
Next came the rage; these people had just taken a brother from this earth. Like a light switch being flicked, we were no longer the zebras. The men of Iron Company 3rd Striker Brigade Combat Team were now the lions, on the hunt and thirsty for blood. The sight before my eyes was amazing to see, almost like a slow motion shot in an action movie. Everyone leapt into action, with no time to think purely relying on muscle memory from our training. “Don’t think, just react” the famous words of my Platoon sergeant at the time.
Everyone started shooting back, all the while maneuvering into their respective positions. This was when I realized that I was not just idly watching this unfold. I was running toward my fallen brother, hoping I wasn’t too late. Once I got to his side, I knew I was too late. He had been shot right through his helmet. A quick death, the only positive to come from this situation. I dragged his still warm body over to a small prickly shrub, hoping to give him some sort of protection. He did not deserve to die this way. He was a warrior; he deserved a chance to fight back. I made my mind up in this tragic moment to do whatever it took to avenge him. I grabbed his ammunition and joined the fight.
Over the course of almost nine hours of fighting, we had gained an advantage over the enemy. It was now night and they knew as well as we did that they did not stand a chance at night. We owned the night, with our night vision and thermal scopes. The Taliban are not unintelligent as some might think. They understand the concept of odds in a fight. They had more fighters than we did in the beginning, so they felt the odds were on their side. Due to this, they fought hard all day, killing five more of my brothers and injuring almost all of us in one way or another. Once the light faded, they no longer had the advantage and decided to retreat and live to fight another day.
We had fought off a complex ambush and held our ground not succumbing to over whelming odds. All that was left for us was to pick up our fallen, carry them on our shoulders and start the terrifying trek back to our COP.
Laying there on my cot later that night, thinking about the events of the day I wondered if it was real. It seemed to me that it was all a dream, a horrible night mare to be more precise. My body was shutting down on me. I was cramping up and dehydrated, but still too tired to move. Exhaustion had set in, the extreme ups from the adrenaline rush and anger were now replaced with the equally as extreme low. The day had taken its toll on me. I began to crash, and I didn’t fight it. I fell into a magnificent sleep. The best sleep I think I have ever had. My brain had completely shut itself off and when I came to I felt pretty good considering all that had happened. Sitting here now if I would have known the rest of my life would be spent mentally fighting that war, I think I would have stayed in bed that morning a little bit longer and had a few more moments of peace.
I still remember the brothers I would have done anything to save. I also still think about the lives I have taken. I wonder sometimes if those men had people like me remembering them for their attempt at doing what they felt was right. My view point on death has changed more than anything else in my life. I now dread the thought of death. I feel if I were to pass away now I will not have done enough. Not earned my place in heaven among those great men. They will forever be my heroes and I will never give up in my attempt at proving myself worthy of their company once again. Guarding the gates of heaven, watching over us and our every move. The attack that day may have been the cause of my immediate jump into manhood. But the effect was a man who some might look at as “crazy” and others call “paranoid”. Doctors diagnosed me with having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, otherwise known and PTSD. I on the other hand just call it being “ready”, always ready, Toujours pret.
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