Saturday, August 8, 2009

That Question Again

This past weekend, a friend of mine (and his girlfriend) drove some distance out of their way to attend the wedding of an old high school friend. Though they hadn’t seen each other in years, Brad, knowing how important this event was to his old acquaintance, made every effort to be there. He did this even though he was partially immobilized by recent surgery on a combat-related injury. Brad, an old Marine machine gunner, is a veteran of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom).

Brad wasn’t the only member of his old high school class in attendance at this event. A small crowd was, most of whom Brad hadn’t seen in a decade. To his knowledge, none besides him had any involvement in the US Armed Services, but they all somehow knew he had served.

The only question he was consistently asked was “did you kill anybody?” Such questions may be excused when posed by children, but these were from adults, asked in what Brad described as “snarky demeanor, like it’s cool.” Though livid, he carefully and politely dodged them each time. A query such as this merits no response. Brad and his girlfriend left the event early, and he told me he is pleased he escaped without hitting anybody. After one such question (Brad was asked at least five times), I would have lost my cool completely.

Later that night, he woke with a start, yelling for one of his Marines by name and screaming at somebody needed to “get the .50 up” (M2 .50 caliber machine gun). I do not consider this a coincidence.

Though it may be something I have covered before, it clearly bears mention again. In truth, it should be mentioned repeatedly until no veterans are fielding such an ignorant, inappropriate question. As Brad put it so articulately, “more occurs in war than killing.”

This question is akin to asking a surgeon how many patients he or she has lost on the table, or a police officer how many times he has drawn his weapon and fired on an assailant. Though it is the primary purpose of an infrantryman to kill, it also represents the most tragic breakdown of humanity. And even in such situations, it is undertaken with regret – for the purpose of saving another. Killing for the sake of killing is murder. Killing to protect the lives of others, however, is what distinguishes the warrior from the criminal.

Killing another human being has been repeatedly proven to be an act that humans are innately disinclined to carry out. Only careful training can change that, as can a psychotic condition. But even then the mental processes differ vastly. A psychopath kills because he wants to. A warrior kills because he must. He will never be proud of the death he caused. There are few, in fact, for whom human life is more precious than a serviceman. Consider that it is he (or she) risking personal wellbeing for the sake of preserving the lives of friends, comrades, and strangers. Were not human life precious, such selflessness would be impossible. It would be death for no cause at all.

As another veteran recently told me, combat is remarkably similar to the intimate act of lovemaking. It is not a light matter discussed with one’s casual acquaintances or strangers. In the case of lovemaking, it is only mentioned privately to one’s lover. In the case of combat, it is only discussed with those who were there. All those unfamiliar will fixate on the novelty of horror, failing to acknowledge that the lives of men were snuffed out in an instant, violently, and by others who will replay those few seconds for the remainder of their lives. And most have quite a few years left, since it is usually only the youth of this nation willing to act with such selflessness.

Let us turn the tables for a moment and make a civilian squirm. How many miscarriages have you had? Have you ever run over a pedestrian in the street? How many times have you cheated on your spouse? How many loved ones have died before you had the opportunity to tell say you loved them? How many friends have taken their own lives, never knowing you’d have done anything in your power to help them?

These questions have one thing in common: they are all situations and acts that one will think about repeatedly, often with regret, for the remainder of one’s life. And few, if any, were deliberate acts. They happened suddenly, you reacted suddenly, and you’re now left with many years to think about how you handled it all. In most cases, regret is the dominant emotion.

More than just a difficult situation, however, combat is a situation that every man and woman in the US military has volunteered to face – on behalf of their countrymen. Their actions, even under the best of circumstances, were devastating and ruinous to a clear a conscience. Killing, after all, is only innate to the psychopath, not the warrior.

These warriors have sacrificed their lives, their personal wellbeing, and their consciences so that those back home need not, yet that in no way authorizes total ignorance of war. Success in a business may be contingent on product output, but wars are wholly different. Success in war is the least loss of life possible in order to preserve as many as possible. War itself is certainly inglorious, yet the warrior is not.

When those back home deliberately mock such service to country, they propel a veteran’s thoughts back to the moment of the act itself; the chaos, the horror, the fear, and the memory that oftentimes not all their friends walked away from the situation unscathed. Unless we wish to be returned to the very climax of a horrible situation, it would be wise to learn some respect. Not extending an iota of courtesy to those who served, those whose actions under duress demonstrated an unwavering devotion to others above self, is more than antagonistic. It means that willing sacrifice may not have been for you at all, but for those that actually care.

Silence is the greatest respect. When we’re ready, we’ll talk.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 6, 2009

An Escape

*Retold with permission.

I think it’s really interesting to read letters from past conflicts, like those from the Civil War or the World War II. In some cases, I know that the most historically accurate accounts of a battle or a unit haven’t come from official documents or commanders’ notes, but from those personal letters. More than informative, though, I think they were well-written.

Soldiers from those generations spoke differently, and more eloquently than most people do now. Reading these old writings is like reading a poetic account of a war or a love story to a wife or girl back home. You feel like you know these people after reading their letters. You also get the impression they were all smart, great men. It’s different now, though.

For the most part, guys here don’t write many letters anymore. Part of it is the transition from letter mail to email, but even those aren’t written very much, either. What’s written isn’t written very well. The notes aren’t even letters, and they’re mostly full of vulgarity. I think the original purpose of writing letters has been forgotten.

I wrote home for two reasons, mostly. The first was to let everybody know I was alive and well over here and hopefully cut down on them worrying about me quite as much. With the news going 24/7 about things – usually fixating on the very worst stories they can find, people get the impression we’re in more danger than perhaps we really are. Whereas men in other wars told what was happening because otherwise nobody would know at all, now I’m fairly certain that people know too much. I downplay the news and just let them know I’m fine. Even when the news IS true, I still didn’t want them worrying.

Even though I’m telling people I’m fine out here, I’m really not telling them much about what’s going on. At least not with any detail. They’re never going to understand it very well, so why bother trying to explain it? I’ll probably just make them worry more than they were. So, I keep it short. “I’m fine out here, we’re doing stuff. How are you?”

And that’s the real reason I wrote home. I wanted to hear how THEY were doing. I used to email one friend back in the states and ask her how she was doing, but she told me she doesn’t like to write, so I basically gave it up. She wasn’t going to respond to me, so there wasn’t any point. In about eleven months, I’ve only gotten about four letters out here, from her or anybody else. Just about the only package I received was from another Soldier I know who was home on leave. He signed it from his daughter, but it’s really from him.

Phone calls haven’t been much different, either. I’d call her every now and then, but after a few sentences the conversation always stalled. She once commented that I don’t have much to say, which surprised me. I told her I don’t call home to talk about what I’m doing out here, I called home to get away from all of this. She didn’t understand.

“So what do you want me to talk about, then?”

I told her I just wanted to hear about her day; nothing complicated.

“But that’s boring,” she protested.

Exactly. It’s normal. I miss it.

People are often at a loss for words when they talk or write to us, which is probably why so few actually bother. I think they’re trying to be polite, since they think that talking about themselves is either selfish or boring, but that’s not the case. They’re keeping us informed about normal life and reality back home. In many ways, they’re giving us a small piece of home with their words. It’s an escape from here, which is one of the biggest things we crave.

I know that all the experts say that veterans need to talk about their problems and all that, but this doesn’t really apply out here. For as long as we’re out here, we protect people back home with limited information. The talking thing is for when we get back or something. It applies when we’re done with this and trying to collect our thoughts on it. Out here, it’s usually the last thing we want to talk about. We want to shield them from the dangers, assure them we’re okay, and then move on to how they’re doing. We don’t call to talk; we call to listen. Same with letters; we write to hear back, not to vent frustrations.

I don’t think it occurs to people how powerful their words are. I think they’re so caught up in how unnatural it is to be talking with somebody in a combat zone that they forget we called because we wanted to get away from it. To us, home is interesting. To those at home, the war is more interesting. But in terms of value and encouragement to us out here, home is vastly more important. It may be boring to those back home, but it’s the life we miss. Every letter about it, every conversation – they take us there for a moment. And someday soon, we hope to be there.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Roger, Sergeant

*Retold with permission.

We had a stretch of road in our AO where we’d always get blown up, no matter what we did. It was basically a fact. If you drove along this section of Tampa [Highway 1 running north/south through Iraq], you would hit an IED. We were getting tired of it, so we got permission to try something different.

In the middle of the night, we got dropped off on foot a few hundred meters away from the kill zone and set up a hide. It was only a few of us, crouching behind a dirt berm with our weapons and nighsights. The Rules of Engagement were different then from what they are now. too. Back then, if we saw somebody on the side of the road with a shovel, we were authorized to fire. Obviously, we didn’t target farmers or anything, but guys actually digging in IEDs into the roadsides. That night, we sat back, kept an eye on things with night vision, and waited.

Hours into the night, I spotted a lone guy, standing on the side of the road with his hands clasped behind his back. He was some distance away, but when I sighted in with my thermals, it was pretty easy to tell what he was doing: he was a lookout, but for whom?

“Hey, you see them over there?” My team leader asked. I had been so fixated on that one guy some distance up the road that I hadn’t even seen the three others much closer to us. They were more than suspicious, too. They were guilty as sin.

As we watched, one of the three started trying to casually dig a hole on the shoulder of the road, and the other two staggered along like they were weighed down with something heavy. When I got a better visual with thermals, I saw they were both carrying arty rounds [artillery rounds commonly used as improvised explosive devices]. Definitely guilty as sin.

“Okay,” my team leader told me, “as soon as they start dropping those rounds into the hole that guy is digging, light them up.’

“Roger, sergeant.” I rummaged around behind me and pulled out a few more drums of ammo. I wanted to be ready for this. Maybe finally this section of road would be safe.

Moments later, they scuttled over to the hole and stooped over to lay in their rounds. That was the cue. “FIRE!”

I was on the SAW [M249 light machine gun], so I just leaned on the trigger and used my tracers to walk myself on target. The other Soldiers opened up, too, so it was a withering volume of fire on those three guys.

As I was firing and watching my tracers, I started to notice that my rounds were rising off the target, and in time I was firing into the air above them. Still, they bullets kept rising higher and higher, and I had no idea why.

“Hey idiot, what the HELL are you doing, firing into the air like that!? Get back on target, NOW!”

“Roger, sergeant!” I realized that I’d been sliding backwards down the berm, so I quickly snatched up the SAW, straddled the berm, and shoulder fired the rest of the time. Out on the roadside, the IEDs detonated. Our best guess they’d pre-rigged them and one of us got lucky and hit the det cord or the primer. It was silent again.

“Well, let’s go do a post-blast [post-blast analysis].” We carefully approached the IED site and started looking around.

“Hell,” said my sergeant bemusedly. “There’s nothing here to bring back. I guess they all got blown into tiny pieces when the rounds went off.”

At my feet, I found a hand, but that’s about it. “Sergeant, there’s a hand here, if you want to take that.” He walked over.

Looking around briefly, he nudged it into the ditch with the toe of his boot. “Yup, nothing to bring back.”

“Roger, sergeant.” What was anybody going to do with just a hand, anyway?

As we drove back to base that night, my team leader looked over at me. “You did a good job out there tonight, high speed. Real good. Well, except for shooting into the air like a dumbass. That was retarded. Don’t ever do it again; got it?”

“Roger, sergeant.” No mercy. It didn’t really matter, though. The road was secure.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Find Your Cheese

*Retold with permission

Becoming a Soldier wasn’t an event for me, but a lengthy process. From the time I dreamed of being in the military to being here today took years. Many of them weren’t very fun, either. But looking back, the hardship, the challenges, they were all worth it. They made me who I am and put me where I wanted to be, so it’s been good. It all toughened me up.

My parents split when I was 16, and after that I really didn’t have much interest in living with either of them. Young as I was, I found a place to live, found two jobs to help meet rent and other bills, and moved out. Whenever I wasn’t at work, I was in school or studying. I’ve always lived by the philosophy that in order to get something, you have to work hard, so I didn’t complain about it. Actually, I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t want them to know I was 16 and living on my own.

I’d work long hours at one job or another, then rush over to school and struggle to stay awake during classes. I nodded off enough that people started to notice, but I always told them I was fine - I’d just been out late the night before. I’d study on breaks at work, or copy the answers of my buddy’s homework next to me – even though knew he wasn’t a star student. Something on paper was better than nothing. I did alright, though, and eventually I graduated.

Growing up in southern California, you’re inundated with Marines. Between Camp Pendleton, Miramar, 29 Palms, and so on, they were everywhere, and I always idolized them. I remember remarking a few times, “hey, look at that dude. They look tough!” My buddies were surprised by this.

“You wanna work for the man?”

Hell yeah I did. The military was something to be proud of. And in my community, guys did one of two things: they either became the neighborhood badass that the other kids looked up to, or you got out there and made something of yourself. I didn’t like the neighborhood badass route; I wanted to do something good with my life.

I went the Marine recruiter to see if they’d let me join, but when they found out that I had tattoos, they wouldn’t take me. At the time, the standards on tattoos were so tight that if you had more than a couple, they’d immediately disqualify you, no matter how smart or promising you may have been. Dejectedly, I gave up. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

But on a whim, I tried the Army, too. “Tattoos? We don’t care, son. We’ll take you. What job do you want to do?”

I told them rifleman. That’s what infantry was in the Marines, and that’s all I wanted to do in the Army , too.

“Oh, you mean 11 X-ray. That’s infantry stuff. Well, you got it.” So, they shipped me off to take the ASVAB. To my complete disappointment, I failed. I really gave up at that point.

About the time I’d graduated from school, one of my employers elected to shut down their operations and move to another city. For the pay I received, it wasn’t worth the effort to move with them. Besides, this was home, and this was where my family was. If I moved away, I’d hardly ever see them again. I stuck with my other job for a time, but they eventually fired me over some stupid stuff. Out of work entirely, I went to the “workability” office and asked for their help.

Luckily, they placed me with an auto parts store, and after the two week agreement had ended, they made arrangements to keep me indefinitely. I’d worked on cars most of my life, so it wasn’t hard at all, and it paid decently, too. Before long, I was their parts specialist. Besides, it was work, which was enough.

But I still wanted to join the military. Even though I’d been turned away because of my ASVAB score, I figured I’d try it one more time. I went to the Army recruiter and arranged a re-test. I failed that, too. I scored superbly on the general skills, but the math kept giving me trouble. Yet rather than give up this time, I dug in. This was something I wanted, so I was going to make it happen. “No” wasn’t going to be a satisfactory answer for me. I went out, bought an ASVAB study guide, and started getting ready to take it again in six months. I’d be ready this time.

Even though I’d studied hard, I still failed it. Once again, it was the math. I started to sincerely believe that I wasn’t cut out for the military, even though I’d wanted to do it for years. If I couldn’t pass the ASVAB, I’d never get in. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I shelved the idea for the time being and settled into a job at Walmart.

Sometime later, I ran into an Army recruiter in the store who offered to work with me to bring up my ASVAB score and get me in. He asked if I could stop by his office the next day to work things out. I couldn’t, I explained, because I didn’t have a car. I’d recently sold that to help pay my rent. He agreed to pick me up. I was so excited that I ran back to the layaway section of the store where they had the payphone and called my buddy. He, too, wanted to sign up. Yes, he said, he’d go with me and we’d do the “Battle Buddy” program.

When we sat down with the recruiter, I told him I wanted to do infantry.

“Infantry huh. You know, you’d get a $3,000 bonus if you went in as a tanker, and there’re some other jobs where you’ll get a $16,000 bonus. There’s no bonus for joining the infantry, you know.”

It didn’t matter to me. I wanted to be a grunt. I took the practice test in the office, and this time, it looked like I’d pass without any difficulty. My buddy and I studied together, and this time I made it. I was in, and I was going to be infantry!

Two weeks before I shipped off, I quit work so I could relax a little and spend some time with my family. I hadn’t even told them yet. They were surprised, but they were supportive. They knew how much it meant to me. They could see how excited I was.

Right before I left, my buddy bailed out on me. He told me he didn’t want to go to Iraq, which puzzled me. That was one of primary reasons I was going in – to do my part for my country, not hide from it. No, he said. He didn’t want to deploy. So, without a battle buddy, I headed off for boot camp.

Training is training, and there’s little need to explain it. You do a lot of pushups, you’re tired a lot, you run a lot, and there’s always somebody yelling at you. I knew it was going to be tough, so I wasn’t terribly surprised or upset about it. I was still so excited to actually be in the military that it didn’t matter.

After all the training, I was stationed in New York, which wasn’t very fun. I loved being a Soldier, but I didn’t love freezing to death on operations throughout the winter. It’s a different world for a guy from southern California. I remember we were doing a winter training patrol through waist deep snow once. I was on point, slugging through the snow, when suddenly I heard a strange creaking.

“They’re coming for us, Specialist!”

“Shut up and walk, Private!” he spat back. I kept going, but I heard it again.

Next thing I know, I’m waist deep in water, can’t breathe from the shock, and the other Soldiers are rushing to get me out of there fast. When they did, they raced me back to one of the warming tents and stripped me down. “Breathe, Private!”

As I warmed up, it wasn’t too bad, until they told me to change my uniform. I’d be going back out.

“Put your polar bear suit back on. Hurry up!”

“What? It’s soaking wet!”


“Roger, Sergeant.” Training was tough, but I’d asked for it. It was the Army, and I was proud to be serving. I was young and mouthy, too, so I sort of asked for trouble a number of times. I once told my team leader that I wanted his job so I could carry his machine gun.

“Start pushing, Private.” So, I pushed.

“I’m going to name her Irene, too!” I couldn’t resist. I really did want it.

“Keep pushing.”

After a little while, he asked me again. “You still want my machine gun now?”

“I sure do, Specialist.”

“Then keep pushing.”

I was going to get it, too. I had no problems telling people that I wanted their job. I didn’t join the Army to slime; I joined to make something of myself. A little work wasn’t going to kill me. I’ve always worked hard. Besides, I was getting smoked because I was ambitious, not because I was screwing up all the time. I’ve had a lot of machine guns named Irene since then, too.

So, four years after enlisting and a good eight years since I first tried to join, I’m out here on my second tour. I like it here, and I like the guys I serve with. They sometimes get bogged down with all the stupid stuff, so I try to lift their spirits. I’ll tell jokes, motivate them, encourage them. We’re brothers out here. And at any rate, you wade through all the crap and find yourself a place where they can’t get to you.

You can choose to be angry about things, or you can choose to make the best of it. It’s entirely up to you. They can make you push or yell at you, or create work that doesn’t need to be done, but that’s all outward stuff. They can’t touch your mind, and they certainly can’t touch your heart – unless you let them.

I tell them the story from the book “Who Moved My Cheese,” where two mice and two little humans (the size of mice) are in a maze. For awhile, the cheese is always in one place, so they always come there to get their fill. But in time, the cheese is gone, moved somewhere else. The mice and the little humans are left with a choice: either stay there and fret that the cheese is gone, or go look for it. The mice go searching, as does one of the humans. Another just sits there and pouts. I tell these guys all the time – find your cheese. Nobody’s going to do it for you; you have to do it yourself. I’m doing what I love, so there’s no way this is going to get to me. It only bothers you if you let it. Find your cheese.

I have three years left on this contract, and I haven’t decided if I’m going to stay in or get out. At one time I would have said I’ll stay in for life, but some things have happened to make me slow down and consider that decision.

I was dating a girl very seriously for a time, and I had high hopes it’d really amount to something. In the end, it didn’t, but we’re still friends, and we still talk. Not too long ago, she told me that I never should have reenlisted. “You don’t ever get treated right,” she said. “You deserve more than they’re giving you.”

Her words have made me question my choices somewhat, but I have to be careful. I didn’t join because I felt entitled to rank or accolades. I joined because this is what I dreamed of doing for years. I made it, and I’m immensely proud of that. Not everybody is cut out for this, but I enjoy it. But there’s more, too. We do this for our own reasons, and people aren’t really going to understand unless they’ve done it too.

During my last tour, we were doing a foot patrol along the street when mortar rounds started landing around us. When one round hit only a matter of feet from me, I remember watching my team leader get blown halfway across the street. I was knocked down, too, but he was just laying there. Meanwhile, our squad leader ran away, leaving us both there unprotected.

I heaved myself up and staggered over to my team leader, who was still laying unmoved on the ground, and grabbed him by his harness. Tucking my rifle under my arm, I dragged him as quickly as I could to the humvees, and we got the hell out of there. Rounds were still dropping all around us.

When the medic checked my team leader, he quickly concluded he had a concussion and needed to get evacuated. I’d been standing there watching, but then I leaned against the wall and just slid down.

“You alright there buddy?”

“I’m fine Doc. I’ll be okay.”

“No, you’re not fine. You’ve got a concussion, too. We need to get both you guys out of here.”

They put me in for a bronze star for that, but our company commander at the time shot it down. Next, they put me in for an ArCom [Army Commendation Medal], but the CO shot that down, too. In the end, they gave me an AM [Army Achievement Medal]. People were pretty incensed on my behalf, but it didn’t matter too much to me. I didn’t do it for a medal, I did it so my team leader could go home. He’d just gotten married, and his wife needed him. I didn’t want to leave a widow.

Medals serve no purpose but make your Class A’s look shiny. That’s about it. I know what I’ve done out here, and more important than that, my team leader is alive and well, still married, and now has three beautiful little daughters. That’s all the reward I need.

He still keeps up with me too, sending me notes every now and then, seeing how I’m doing and updating me on his growing family. He always starts his letters with “thanks.” I smile every time. I don’t need a medal; I’ve been given far more: a friend. None of us do this for awards. We do it because we care about each other.

So, whenever I start questioning whether or not I’ve received everything I deserve, I think about my team leader. I think about how he’s alive and in good health, a husband, and a father. That’s something nobody can award you; it’s something you just have, and you carry it with you indefinitely. No, the Army hasn’t been easy. Heck, getting IN wasn’t easy, either. But I’m stronger now. I don’t have to worry about rent anymore, or finding a job. I have the only job I wanted, and all the pride that comes with it. For now, I’ve found my “cheese,” and no amount of hardship will take that from me.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 3, 2009

My Own Heroes

*Retold with permission.

I know it’s fairly common to hear people back home call the Soldiers heroes, but I call them heroes, too, even though I may be considered one myself. Out here, I’m surrounded by men who live their lives for others and not themselves. They rarely get much recognition for what they do, but my medics have servants’ hearts, and I sincerely believe they’re the best in this entire brigade.

Without a doubt, I have the most diverse and overqualified medical staff any single unit in the Army has seen. I have a medic with a masters in aviation administration, another that used to be an Air Force PJ [special forces – Para Jumper], and two more who exhibit a knowledge of their profession that seriously rivals that of our PA [physician’s assistant, commanding officer]. Four medics, four different ethnicities, representing three different countries. Then there’s me in charge of them, twenty years younger than the oldest and only one year senior to the youngest. I find it humbling – and difficult – to lead men whose experience and character I feel far surpasses my own. I feel like I’m hoarding them to one company.

They don’t just possess a thorough book knowledge of medicine. They’ve practiced it. Though he never talks about it, one of them has more than twenty saves to his name, and two silver stars. In fact, I didn’t know about it until I saw him in his dress uniform. But not once has he boasted about it. He felt he was doing his job. And the same applies for one of the others, who personally saved the life of one captain twice in one deployment. Every last one of them can perform minor surgeries, too. If it came down to it, I’d trust them to operate on me. I have the utmost confidence in their abilities. And in an infantry company that’s been immortalized in books and movies, I’m simultaneously honored and humbled to be their senior medic. I really don’t feel I deserve the position. Any one of them could do just as well, if not better.

What’s so amazing, though, is that they’re all quiet, unassuming guys. They’re all here in an infantry company, surrounded by some of the toughest Soldiers in the Army, and instead of trying to impress them, they take all the ribbing, all the jokes, and they enjoy it. Even though the grunts give them hell, there are few men they’d rather be around than their medics. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to be like the men with whom you serve, but they don’t. They’re here to serve and advocate them, not try to BE them. And because of their good attitudes, they’re universally loved and trusted. This is how it ought to be.

Medics are a different breed of Soldier than infantry. Infantry guys have a very clear-cut mission: kill the enemy. We, though, are here to save lives, not take them. Our purpose is to support the infantry Soldiers so they can keep fulfilling their mission. To make sure they’re successful on the battlefield. Every medic knows what he’s getting into when he joins. He knows he’s probably going to end up with infantry, in deadly situations, and still have to maintain his calm and continue with his own mission: save lives.

Taking life isn’t something I ever want to do, to be honest. It’s not why I joined, and not something I personally want to participate in. But these grunts, they’re my heroes, too, and if I have to take a life in order to protect or save theirs, I’ll gladly lay aside personal objections and do my job. THEY are our mission, at all costs. We don’t do it because we have to, but because we love them.

In many ways, I feel guilty for not being with them on their last tour. They went through hell out here, and they took a lot of casualties. I wasn’t responsible for them then, but sometimes my obligation to them creeps into the past, too. Maybe I could have helped them more. Maybe more would have gone home.

Part of being a grunt is being immeasurably tough. These are men that stare death in the face and then charge into battle without hesitation. I’ve always been impressed with them – from privates all the way through officers. They’re doing something that I know I couldn’t do, and they’re doing it boldly. And that’s why I respect them so much. They suffer great loss and endure great risk, but they still keep at it. It’s been an honor to serve with them.

We act tough, too, but it’s more a front than anything else. You have to steel yourself to work with infantry. But inside, that’s not who we really are. We’re angels of mercy. I actually don’t like the expression, since I think it’s kind of mushy and mercy isn’t something that’s smiled upon in infantry, but there’s a lot of truth to it. We stand on the outside, looking in. Humility first, mercy always. There’s no room for egos in our job. We’re here to save lives, not end them.

To some extent, we’re den mothers. We dote on these guys, worry about them, and we’re always trying to ensure they’re in the best of health. They insist we’re babying them, but it’s what we do. Just today I had a Soldier staggering around making every attempt not to fall over, but he said, “no, Doc, I’m fine. I’ll make it.” They’re tough as nails. When I finally cornered him, he was running a fever and severely dehydrated. Frankly, I don’t know how he was still standing. The others aren’t unlike him, either. That’s why I respect them. They could be half dead, but they’ll still keep moving. They don’t seem to ever give up.

Whenever we go on mission, the medics are the only ones that are nervous. We’re not nervous about taking contact or for our own safety, but for the guys around us. It doesn’t matter their rank at all; they’re still our charges, and it’s our job to bring them home safely. When we don’t, we consider it personal failure. We have the warrior spirit, too, but it’s devoted to ensuring that the real warriors come home.

A lot of these Soldiers will go home and never get much, if any recognition. A good 99% of our countrymen won’t give a damn about them, and they’ll never know what they do out here. But I’ve seen it. All my medics have. And if nothing else, I hope the Soldiers know that WE’VE noticed, and we’re blown away. We’re among men of the highest character, who routinely put others first and self second. America is blessed to have birthed them, and I’m blessed to serve with them.

Between my medics and the Soldiers we all serve, I’m surrounded by the finest generation of Americans. They represent the spirit of America; 1940s America. Men who give and expect nothing in return. The least I can do is give to them, and I do it gladly. They deserve somebody watching out for them, fussing over them, and caring for their bodies when they’re too busy to even think about it.

We may all be heroes to some, but these men are the real heroes to me. They’re the future of our country, and I’m honored to be in their presence. We’ll remember what they’ve done out here. We’ll remember who they are, long after our service is done and the war is over. Few will tell their stories, I’m sure, so we we’ll do it for them. They deserve all that we can give. They give still more every day.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dead Man Talking

*Retold with permission.

You won’t meet many people who have been killed in action, obviously. They’re not around to talk to. But, you’re talking to one right now. It’s a long story, and now that it’s all behind me, it’s pretty funny. It was not, however, very amusing or pleasant at the time.

During OIF II my unit was stationed just north of Sadr City near Haifa, and we’d take the Bradleys into the Sadr area to run patrols. The city, being more a slum than a real city, had only a few streets wide enough to drive Bradleys down, so we’d usually end up doing long, 10-12 kilometer foot patrols in the heat. They were exhausting – and dangerous.

The way we’d do it is walk for a distance, then hop into a more secure location (like a house with a courtyard), rest a bit, drink some water, and then keep on going. With the high walls around a place, they were usually easily defensible, and far safer than just lounging around on the streets. During this particular patrol, we stopped in an old, abandoned Iraqi Police station to halt for a bit.

As we were lounging around, a grenade comes sailing over the wall into the courtyard. Thankfully, somebody saw it immediately and we were all able to take cover. It didn’t do any damage. As we got back up to look for a source and peer over the wall, I feel something hit my leg right above my boot. It was another grenade. Diving wouldn’t save me, either. I was basically screwed.

I dove anyway (still too close), and the thing detonated on me, sending shrapnel into my torso from the left side. The initial piece was huge, but as soon as it hit my skin, it broke into several more pieces – eighteen, as a matter of fact. The pieces shredded my guts straight to the other side. I couldn’t stop the bleeding, either. I was too distracted.

More accurately, I was pissed. Right as the grenade detonated, we came under heavy fire from the second story of the building next to us. I have no idea how many were in there, but they were certainly making a coordinated effort to kill all nine of us. One of our other guys managed to get shot in the leg, too, so we were going down fast. For an hour, we fought with them.

I alternated between anger and absolute terror for that hour. I was bleeding profusely, but didn’t have time to try to stop it. If I didn’t add my weight to the firefight, it might be the end of all of us. During that hour, I fired over a thousand rounds through my SAW [M249 SAW – light machine gun]. We were basically pinned in there, too small a force to maneuver, and too vulnerable on foot to do a ground evac.

Eventually some help arrived to help us, and they immediately saw to getting me out of there and onto a medevac flight. That was the first time I felt any pain, believe it or not. I was too busy, high on adrenalin, and maybe scared to be aware of it before that.

I found out later that I apparently died during the surgery. Maybe it was blood loss or maybe it was something else, but evidently I flatlined for long enough that my command got the news I was dead and began the process of alerting my next of kin – in this case my dad.

Yes, they actually showed up at his door with the dreaded letter in hand that made the sad announcement that I had been killed in combat. I can’t begin to fathom what went through his mind when this happened, but I imagine that it was total devastation. Nor can I imagine what he felt when they came back and told him they had made a mistake. I’ll bet he didn’t even believe them. Who sends out the KIA letter and then takes it back, right?

Long story short, I’ve basically made a full recovery. While I was healing up, I spent time as a recruiter, and now all I have left is a bizarre pattern of scars across my torso. Well, and I can’t eat spicy foods or drink much hard liquor. My liver and kidneys are too damaged. Aside from that, though, I’m fine.

My dad framed the KIA letter and hung it right next to my purple heart award certificate. I guess even he’s able to see the humor in it now – or he’s just thankful that his son is alive. Either way, I certainly think it’s funny.

The base in Texas is preparing to set up a memorial wall for all the Soldiers wounded or killed in action, and they’ve told me that I have the option of having my name on the KIA or the WIA wall, which is sort of strange. And honestly, I haven’t decided. If I get it put on the KIA wall, I intend to get a picture where I’m standing right next to it. Maybe this is inappropriate. I haven’t reached a conclusion yet. But here’s my take: what’s MORE inappropriate is for the Army to deliver a letter to my family pronouncing me dead when I’m still very much alive. Now, years later, I think it’s sort of funny. I mean, how many guys do you get to talk to that were killed in action? Not many, I’d say.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved