Saturday, June 27, 2009

When I Survived

*Retold with permission...

There are two days in March of 2007 that I will remember for the rest of my life – and dream about, replay, and question. They almost killed me, and at the very least, they completely changed the course of my life. I wasn’t the only one, either.

It was supposed to be a three-day mission. We’d recently taken over the AO from another unit that had failed to patrol the area like they should have been. In fact, by the time they left, they weren’t even patrolling at all. They’d just sit around the COPs [combat outposts] and wait for us to get in-country and relieve them. Because of their inaction, the whole region was overrun with Al Qaeda. We had our work cut out for us. We would spend those three days flushing through all the palm groves and searching the areas known to be infested with Al Qaeda.

We originally set out in Strykers, but that didn’t go so well. We kept getting hit by IEDs, so we’d call EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] all the time, which slowed us considerably. Eventually, we decided to just go on foot for awhile and avoid the roads. We started pushing through the palm groves.

Sure enough, we were attacked almost immediately by machine guns, small arms, and mortars. I don’t know how many there were, but they fought hard and didn’t really shoot and run like they do in other places in Iraq. Al Queda is a lot more organized than most of the other insurgents. We ended up fighting most of that day and well into the night, too. Some platoon leader got hit in his head that day, and in the process of evacuating him, the guys misplaced his helmet and headset, but that was the extent of friendly injuries that day. I guess we got lucky.

Eventually, we set up in a small house and posted on the roof. We ate a few MREs [meals ready to eat], stuffed the bags with trash, and then used them as pillows on the concrete. Watch rotations would be hourly. Two guys on at all times, while the rest of us grabbed a few hours of sleep. They told me I had watch from 0500-0600. I’d be on with the platoon leader, who, unlike many of our lieutenants, actually stood watch with us – which was pretty neat. “Two more days,” I thought, and I drifted off to sleep.

When I got on watch it was still completely dark, so I just sat on the inside of the wall looking down one of the avenues of approach through my NVGs [night vision goggles] and waited for the sun to come up. It was almost completely light by a quarter before 0600, so I took off my NVGs and kept watching down the road. There wasn’t much going on down there, anyway. Just a few people walking here and there, and an old guy standing on the side of the street. That stuff is common. When I looked at my watch, it read 0555, so I got ready to go wake up everybody five minutes early.

Just as I was about to stand, I glanced at the road again and saw two military-aged males sprinting down the road towards our position and carrying something. I checked through my scope, but they were still about 200 meters out, so I couldn’t figure out what they were holding. It could have been anything. As I sat back down to watch them, they stopped next to the old man standing on the side of the street and started talking to him. Then the old man points directly at my position on the roof, which was surprising. That’s when I told my platoon leader and he came walking over.

He watched them intently for a moment and asked if I knew what was in their hands. I told him I couldn’t. It was too far. Then the two guys set down whatever it was they were carrying and started stringing wires across the street. But even that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Iraqis are always doing stuff with the power lines, or wiring up a satellite dish for their TVS. It’s strange; they never consider how it LOOKS to us: bad. I just wasn’t sure, and they were too far away to see clearly. The PL [platoon leader] stared at them some more.

“Kill them” he ordered.

“Um, both of them, sir?”


So I sighted in on the guy by the object on the ground and took him down. The other started running, but I got him without much trouble, too. After all the attacks we sustained the day before, I was pretty much fresh out of mercy. As I fired, everybody on the street disappeared, and everybody on the roof woke up. My adrenalin was pumping, so I got up and started walking around the roof, trying to relax a little.

We sent the EOD robot out to see what the object was that the guys had dropped in the street, and as the robot was scooting along, an insurgent sniper started shooting at it. He wasn’t very accurate, but he was close. The dust was kicking up all around the thing. A second later, a sniper round hits right between me and my team leader. We couldn’t determine its source, so we just laid low and waited for the controlled detonation.

Anyway, the robot eventually gets out there unscathed, and we find out what the guys had been doing. The “object” was the helmet and headset that the PL had lost yesterday, and the wires were connected to two artillery rounds. I felt better about shooting them. They were definitely two insurgents laying in an IED. If we’d gone out there to check it out, we’d have been killed.

When we started moving out that morning, we got hit pretty hard again from the palm groves, and one of our guys took two rounds in the leg. We took cover on the roof of another building, and I remember the company commander yelling at us to not peek over the top, which was stupid. I couldn’t see anything, so I just quickly looked over and ducked back down. A sniper round flew right over my head, so everybody opened up into the palm grove with small arms, machine guns, AT4s, and grenades. While we did that, another unit flanked them from the side and then we called in an airstrike to finish off any stragglers. I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but I think we killed at least a dozen fighters between both units and the airstrike. We kept pushing through the town and searching houses.

Late in the day, they told us that we were going to set up overnight in the same house, which isn’t very intelligent. We’d just finished searching another house, so we got out on the street and started to patrol our way back. At the intersection, I couldn’t remember if we needed to take a right or a left and nobody else could either, so I told our radio man to ask over the net and see if anybody else knew. He never got a chance to speak.

As he was about to talk, an Iraqi tossed a grenade over the wall around their house into the street next to us, where it detonated, hitting me in the right shoulder. And as soon as it went off, at least one enemy machine gun opened up on us from the palms again. Two of my guys got hit in the legs and fell, unable to walk. I got virtually strafed.

One round hit the knife on my flak and deflected, and then a few more hit me in the chest plate. One round, however, went through my assault pack, through the Kevlar vest, into my left scapula, and out the front of my chest. My arm went lip immediately, and I could feel the blood start to pool inside my flak vest and run down to my waist. Then it started dripping on the ground. I was afraid to look at it. I feared it was completely mangled, or maybe shot off. I sprinted back towards the house we just left, because I knew our medic was still in there, and collapsed as soon as I got into the courtyard.

The guys started stripping off my gear and my uniform, and when they got my shirt off, the blood spurted out of my shoulder like a garden hose. The bullet had severed my axillary artery, which then snapped back somewhere into my chest cavity. Doc looked at me quickly.

“I’m sorry, dude, but this is going to hurt.” He grabbed hemostats and started digging around in the entry wound trying to find the artery and clamp it. By this time, the internal bleeding was so bad that it collapsed my left lung.

Whenever something like this happens, the first thing you do is panic. You’re completely freaked out and frightened, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. But then, you started to get some peace with it. It was a supernatural experience for me. I was panicking, and then I felt a peace wash over me. It’s almost like when you’re a kid and you fall and scrape your knee. You’re in pain and inconsolable, but then your dad reaches down, picks you up, and suddenly everything’s okay. That’s what it was like for me. I was okay with dying.

The doc never was able to find my artery, so he just packed the entire wound with gauze and hoped that the medevac to hurry the hell up. Even with my lung collapsed, I felt a little better. I started thinking that maybe I was going to make it. All we had to do now was wait for the medevac Stryker, which was inbound.

When it arrived, they loaded up me and the other two guys and drove us hard to some other FOB for evacuation. I can’t even remember which FOB it was, since I was only sort of cognizant by this point. I do remember that they had the Blackhawks waiting for us on the deck, and as soon as we loaded, they flew us to the trauma center.

All along that flight, I kept thinking about my family. Your whole life really does flash before your eyes. I thought about my wife a little, but mostly I thought about my children. They were 3 and 1 ½ then – young. What did they do to deserve losing a father? They were completely innocent – to life, to the evil of the world, and yet they were going to pay. To stay conscious, I prayed out loud the entire time. I could just have easily prayed in my head, but I needed to fight off the darkness, and talking out loud helped it. They told me later that I’d lost 2/3rds of my blood, so it’s amazing I didn’t pass out.

When we landed, they rushed me into surgery, and I remember the chaplain holding my hand as they started stabbing me with needles and put me under. That was the last thing I remembered.

Eighteen hours and four transfusions later, I came to with the surgeon standing over me.

“How do you feel,” he asked.

“Okay I guess. Just waiting for the anesthesia to wear off.”

“Son, you’re not on any” he told me. “Your days of power lifting are over. You have too much nerve damage in your arm.”

Sure enough, I couldn’t even move it. It was devastating. I had loved lifting weights.

Eventually, they shipped me to Germany for recovery, and while I was there, my squad leader, Sergeant Romeo, kept in close contact with me. He was one of those guys that didn’t just forget about his boys once they left the unit. He’d get off of long patrols and missions in the middle of the night, but he’d still call or e-mail me and see how I was doing. Romeo actually cared about his troops, unlike a lot of other guys that didn’t really go that extra mile. This was a guy who took what most everybody considered the platoon rejects and made a tight, cohesive squad out of us. Not only that, we got so good that the platoon considered us the “go to” squad. We led the charge most the time. It was because of that one man. He genuinely cared.

Within a couple weeks, though, I got an e-mail from Sgt Romeo that bothered me. He sounded weary, and solemn. He wrote, “tell them what we’re doing here.” It sounded terminal, like he was telling me his last wishes. It was also the last time I heard from him. Two days later, him, and my five other brothers remaining in my squad were killed when their Stryker rolled over a 1000lb bomb hidden under the road. The only one who survived it was the driver. Everybody else, every single man that hadn’t been medevaced from my squad already, was killed. Even the two that had replaced me and another guy. One was only about 17 or 18. My squad leader always told us he knew he wasn’t coming home, and tragically, he was right. He wasn’t even a US citizen. They awarded it to him, and promoted him, posthumously.

I’ve replayed that last day with the squad repeatedly. I’ve wondered why the insurgents let one squad patrol right by, but then they hit mine. Maybe they knew my face because I’d shot the other guys that morning. I’ve wondered how things would have turned out if I’d been standing an inch to the left or to the right of where I was. Maybe I would have dodged those bullets. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d still been with the squad when they rolled over the bomb. Maybe I would have directed the driver down a different route. Maybe they’d all be alive still. Maybe I’d be dead. I still feel responsible. I was the vehicle commander before I was hit.

So yes, I have survivor’s guilt. And I’ve wondered why I’m still here and they’re not. I’ve asked that question repeatedly. Why did I make it, and why did they die. The answer is: it’s complicated.

It’s dictated by how you live the rest of your life. I’ve been given a second chance for a reason. I still have a purpose in this life, and I have to do great things. I have to do something with myself.

It’s pretty intimidating sometimes, because it’s easier to just sit my ass on the couch and drink beer. It’s easier to feel sorry for myself. But I can’t. I’ve been preserved for a purpose, and I need to live that out. Otherwise, it’s been a total waste, and I was meant to go out with my brothers.

After two years, it’s still tough. I have PTSD, which continues to be a problem. I have anxiety, which doesn’t help either. And I also have excruciating nerve pain in my arm still. Getting shot and almost dying changed everything.

I couldn’t move my arm for a long time, but I’ve slowly regained some feeling in it. My forearm is still weak, though, and my hand is still completely numb. I’ve been prescribed every medication in the world for the pain, but the only things that actually work are alcohol or narcotics. I stay away from the alcohol, but now the VA isn’t prescribing me any narcotics anymore, so I have to pay for it out of pocket at a private practitioner. I got laid off from my job recently, too, which was tough. The only income I have right now is from disability.

I still have to ask people to help me all the time, which is a real ego blow. If I have my right arm full of stuff, I can’t open the door with my left. I have to get help opening jars now. I can’t even tie knots to go fishing. As much as I may try to forget what happened, I have a constant reminder. I can’t do certain things anymore.

I keep thinking about my purpose, and why I survived when almost everybody else was killed. It haunts me. They were such good men; they were my brothers. Some days are hard still, or dark, or discouraging, but I always pray for a better tomorrow. I’ve been kept here for a purpose, and I have to see it through. Those men, I guess they’d completed their mission, and they were taken home. For me, however, I’m not done yet. I have to live well, and I have to do it for six men who didn’t. That, I think, is my one remaining mission.


The platoon is doing ok, I guess. [T]he commander is running us into the ground, and the morale is low, but we have no choice but to continue to push onward... We were the best squad, and you can really tell the difference because the rest of the squads don’t move and fight like us. [W]e had a special bond, all of us. [E]veryone had their own defects, but somehow we all worked together, sometimes at the drop of a hat, and no one can take that from us... [D]eep down, everyone knows it...

‘The Deuce'...out

P.S. Tell everyone about the great things the squad has done here, and remember it was all because of you guys.

-Army Staff Sergeant Vincenzo Romeo. Died May 6, 2007. He was 23.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Died Every Day

I think people have the impression that we consider ourselves invincible, but that’s not true at all. Maybe we thought we were in boot camp, or in the first few days in a combat zone, but once you’ve seen a body, that’s it. You know what death is and you know it may not be far away. Military psychologists boast that the purpose behind their efforts is to instill in men a high level of maturity yet at the same time preserve their youthful invincibility. They underestimate us. It’s not like that at all. We know the risks, at least on some level, we accept them, and then we do what needs to be done anyway. There’s no room for ignorance.

Whenever we’d patrol down a road full of IED craters, we’d have to check each crater to make sure the insurgents didn’t hide another one in them. They did that a lot, so we had to be careful. The last thing we wanted to do is park on top of one, or miss one, and then everybody around us would get blown up. Unfortunately, that meant peering into each of them. Nobody liked to do it.

I was often the dismount on my humvee, so I’d park on the road and walk over to the holes to check them out. I never thought, “I hope this doesn’t kill me.” That’s lame. Part of our training is to consider every possible outcome to a situation and then act accordingly. In this case, it meant considering my own demise. What I would do before approaching each hole is go over whatever could happen. I could walk over and there would be nothing in the crater, or I could walk over and be immediately blown into small pieces. So basically, not just before you deploy, but a thousand times throughout a tour, you make your peace with God, somehow find acceptance in whatever may happen, and proceed anyway. Better put, you die, at least in your mind, repeatedly. There’s none of this crap about running into harm’s way because we’re too exuberant to know the risk we’re taking. We do know. We just do it anyway.

The same applies when you’re searching a building. You don’t know what’s inside, but you prepare for everything. In your mind, you mull over what happens if you step around a corner and get sprayed with AK rounds. Chances are, they’re aiming low, so you take a couple rounds in the groin, maybe your flak vest stops a couple across your chest, but then you get shot in the neck and then the face. That’s what happens when they fire on automatic – the weapon slowly rises, right up the body of the person they’re shooting at: you. You think about that, you think about stepping around into an empty room, you make your peace, and then you proceed.

None of this is ever slow. The whole thought process takes place in the course of maybe a second or two. You think through everything, imagine yourself dying suddenly, then act. Hesitation, under almost any circumstances, is deadly. The longer you wait, the more time the enemy has to prepare for your approach. So, you think quickly, then move. I hesitate to say we all presume we’re GOING to die, but I know we all consider that we MAY die. It all begs the question why would put ourselves in that situation.

The only answer that I can come up with is that we know we have to. The purpose of the Marine rifle squad is to, “locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy’s assault with fire and close combat.” There’s nothing in there about trying to play it safe. Even the fundamental purpose of the Marine Corps is first: mission accomplishment, and second: troop welfare. The first, we all know, may come at the total expense of the second.

I would propose that this has to do with superior character, but many would probably take issue with such a statement. I don’t, frankly, but there are better ways to put it. I prefer this: the men and women in these situations are thinking bigger than themselves. They know their part in the grand scheme of things is incredibly small, they know it may cost them everything, but they do what is asked of them, and they do it with total disregard to self. There’s no other way to explain how somebody can knowingly enter a situation they’re aware might kill them in an instant. It is acquaintance and comfort with death.

And that, without a doubt, testifies to great character, especially in a culture that invests the vast majority of its time pleasing and entertaining self. So while the world is seeking satiation, we’re out there dying daily – at least in our minds. They have chosen their paths and we have chosen ours. And strangest of all, we’re content with it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Coming Soon...

I Died Every Day

Monday, June 22, 2009

Through The Shrapnel

During World War II, as the Allied front lines vacillated through central Europe, an Army captain found himself in need of a meeting with his commanders in the rear. As an artillery liaison officer, he was reliant upon extremely accurate information to the location of friendly troops to avoid fratricide. The shelling this captain would oversee left few survivors. Tracking down his NCO driver, they climbed into a jeep and headed the few miles to the command post.

“As we were driving,” he told me, “I started noticing that things didn’t look quite right. I wasn’t seeing any friendly traffic at all. I was starting to wonder if the lines had shifted.”

Indeed, they had. The captain and his NCO rounded a bend in the road and screeched to a halt in front of a Nazi roadblock. Surrounded, outnumbered, and severely outgunned, they were captured.

The Germans, furiously attempting to slow or altogether halt the Allied advance towards Germany, were dwelling a state of chaos. Prisoners were poorly detained and watched only minimally in the confusion. The captain and his NCO were herded into a small crowd of other prisoners and quickly forgotten. More than likely, they were still trying to grasp that they’d just driven directly into their own capture.

A few days later, as the captain eavesdropped on the Germans, he learned that the Allies were remarkably near. And after only minimal discussion with his NCO and another American prisoner, the captain took advantage of a momentary lull in their already lax detainment and bolted for the treeline with the other two in tow. In a nearby home, they hid their uniforms, disguised as French refugees, and departed quickly towards where the captain presumed the Allied front lines to be at the time.

If recaptured without their uniforms, they would be treated as spies, and summarily executed. They made straight away for friendly lines, directly into the no man’s land of an artillery battle – most likely his own guns firing against the Germans’ artillery pieces.

With shells raining around them from both sides, the captain eventually led the other two prisoners back inside friendly lines, identified himself, and immediately reported all he had learned about the disposition of the nearby Nazis, their numbers, strength, and armament. His valuable intelligence played a key role in the Allied maneuvers against the Germans over the next few days. He had been in captivity for six days.

Not long after, the captain was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in the face of grave danger, his assistance to the other prisoners of war, and the vital information he provided the Americans as they continued their push towards Germany. I, personally, am thankful he survived. Had he not, he wouldn’t have returned to the states, and my father would never have been born. I had dinner with them both today – Father’s Day.

Wars are not mere strategies and tactics performed by anonymous players on distant lands, but real events, with real people, whose fates determine the course of history. My grandfather is 94 now and mostly deaf, and I confess I don’t visit him enough. But for as long as I am alive, I will remember how six short days, more than 60 years ago in Europe, unfolded to bring him home and set my family history in motion.

Happy Father’s Day, Grandpa. May there be many more.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 21, 2009

I'll Miss It When It's Gone

“An IED killed three soldiers in Tikrit early this morning,” the new anchor orates, and continues by regurgitating the Department of Defense official statement which tells nothing more than that a roadside bomb detonated on a US foot patrol, killing three. We turn off the TV, grab our coffee, and head out the door for work. For perhaps five seconds, we conjure an imagine of those three soldiers. They’re wearing flak vests, helmets and carrying rifles, and standing around in ACUs looking imposing. They’re wearing sunglasses in our minds, but they have no faces and they have no eyes beneath the ballistic lenses. We don’t create faces because we don’t want to see them. We don’t want to see eyes, because then we’d see the window to their souls. That requires acknowledging they’re more than anonymous uniformed combatants. They’re more than humans. They’re servants, citizens and patriots – and for us. They need faces.

“Troop Surge Secures Baghdad Outskirts With Tight Cordon,” reads the article, which we will skim for a few moments before moving on to celebrity news – which is notably more interesting. We think briefly about grand strategies and military policy, and how it all sounds terribly complicated. The 30,000 men and women who ringed Iraq’s capital city and dismantled the insurgent supply chain, however, remain unmentioned – at least individually. Nobody discusses their names. Nobody writes about the M240G gunner in the turret of the lead humvee in the convoy. Nobody mentions he’s only 19 and has already been struck by four IEDs, or that he can’t wait to come home and marry his highschool sweetheart. Nor does anybody write about the schools that have reopened and the children that have backpacks and textbooks for the first time in their lives. The fact that thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have comported themselves honorably as fierce yet compassionate warriors goes unnoticed. They’re just guys with guns and uniforms. If they die, we’ll call them heroes. They volunteered, anyway. Somebody knows them; we don’t, though. Yet we should. These troops need names.

“Truck Bomb Kills at Least 63 in Northern Iraq,” read today’s news, and we thought, “how awful,” before skipping down to the list of headlines to the article about Amanda Knox, on trial for a perverse sex crime and murder. That seems more real somehow. Bombs are always going off in Iraq, anyway. “It must be hard for them,” we might ponder. Undoubtedly. But who has asked an Iraqi mother how many sons she’s lost to sectarian violence? Who has asked an Iraqi to describe living in perpetual fear of unwarranted attack as he goes about his daily business? Who cares, we think. It’s 6,940 miles away. We’re just glad it happens over there and not here. We don’t think or particularly care about the horror they suffer. It’s not real to us. But it should be.

One of my fondest memories of summer here in the mid-Atlantic US is the aroma of fresh-cut grass. It’s peaceful, and it’s somehow stronger as the sun sets and the fireflies come out. Somewhere in the distance, you can always hear a lawnmower. It, too, is relaxing. It’s summer.

A motorcycle ride through any suburban neighborhood hints at a dozen barbeques and reveals twice as many children playing in sprinklers or riding bikes in the street. A few still throw baseballs here and there. They’re young and energetic. They’re enthusiastic about life. When I want to feel like a kid again, I just watch them for a little while. That was me playing there just a few short years ago. That’s what summers were for.

The rivers are slowing now, as the spring rains give way to the summer heat. This is swimming weather, and I need only lose my shoes and jump in. The rocks are showing in the low waters, and it’s nice to hop out and dry in the sun. There are catfish in the deeper holes, and it’s been awhile since I’ve caught any. I’m going to miss it all this year.

In 2006, I returned from my second tour in Iraq, whereupon I promised my parents I would never go back again. I was finished, I told them, and soon I’d be out of the military. Seven months later, I reneged on my vow, extended my contract, and volunteered for a third tour. By the middle of 2007, I was out of the Marines for good, presumably terminating all likelihood of deploying again. Yet now, two years later, I’m leaving for a fourth, and this one without a gun.

I have received dark looks from friends, especially the ones whose weddings I am missing. I was supposed to be in one of them. I have been told I’m crazy a few times, and I can’t find any poignant words to disagree. I’m going to miss my little sister’s birthday again. I missed it in 2004 and 2008 – her 21st. I’ve missed just as many Christmases over the years.

Three times I have written letters to each member of my family – letters they are to open and read in the event that I didn’t make it home. Mostly I tell them I love them and that I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I will be writing these letters for a fourth time this week, and I imagine they’ll say the same thing as they did the other times. I’m their only son and brother. Deployments are typically harder on families than they are on those that are gone. We’re busy, but they have time to think about our absence. This is my greatest regret.

It all begs the question why I would do this, why I’ve agreed to do it for free, and pay my own expenses. I have a hard time putting it to words. But there’s something I must do. Those soldiers need faces. Those Iraqis need their daily horrors told. Those Marines need names. And an effort that has demanded the service of more than one million citizens of this country and the lives of more than 5,000 needs to be real to us. We need to know it, and we need to know them.

When I was explaining my writing to a stranger recently, her eyes filled with tears and she looked at me. “I loved a veteran once.” She said little more. There wasn’t much else to say, and I knew what she meant. A week later I saw her again, and I gave her a hug.

It was once written, quite eloquently, that, “to love is to suffer.” And it’s true; though such suffering is brightened with frequent moments of absolute bliss. Such is the nature of love. Would that this whole nation might love a veteran. They are ours. They are us. And herein lies my reason for going: this romance begins with knowing them. And knowing them begins with hearing their stories. I depart in twelve days.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved