For the anniversary of the D-Day invasion, these Pathfinders of F Company, Task Force Eagle Assault at Forward Operating Base Wolverine, Afghanistan paid special tribute to those original World War II Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division by giving each other Mohawk haircuts and painting their faces much like their forerunners had for a combat patching ceremony.
AH-64A Apache advanced attack helicopters of the 101st Airborne Division stand ready at a forward operating base during Operation Desert Storm. Three OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters are behind the Apaches. DoD photo.
AFGHANISTAN. Helmand Province. Southern Marja. September 15, 2010. United States Marine, Lance Cpl. Stephanie Robertson, 20, a member of a Female Engagement Team attached to Second Batallian, 6th Marine Regiment, watches ‘Finding Nemo’ on her laptop at a forward operating base for Fox company. Though the overall mission of the FET teams is to engage Afghan women, the female marines are increasingly exposed to small arms fire and improvised explosive attacks while on their patrols to access villages.
Senior Airman Phillip Larson runs through a preflight inspection next to a B-1 Lancer in Southwest Asia Sept. 28. The crew chief’s tasks include observing the firing-up of four turbofan engines that expend a combined thrust of 120,000 pounds, enabling the long-range, multi-role bomber to fly at speeds exceeding 900 mph. Airman Larson is assigned to the 379th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at a forward-operating base. U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott Wagers Photo source: US Air Force
U.S. troops in Afghanistan lowered the flag and boxed up their gear at the end of last year as President Obama declared the formal end to 13 years of U.S. combat operations.
As far as most Americans were concerned, that brought down the curtain on the longest war in U.S. history, even if the Afghan military and the Taliban were still slugging it out.
But the U.S. airstrike that hit a hospital Saturday and killed 22 civilians in the northern city of Kunduz has returned the spotlight to Afghanistan and the overlooked fact that U.S. forces are still deeply involved in the fighting.
U.S. Army Spc. McMillan Kitalong, a member of the Guam Army National Guard and security force member for
the Farah Provincial Reconstruction Team assigned to Forward Operating
Base Farah, Afghanistan, cleans off his gunner’s turret windows during a
quality assessment mission to evaluate the progress of the Sheik
Mahmood Canal Road construction project in Farah province, Dec. 28,
Exfiltration support liaison detachment (LHAD) of Battle Group STEEL during Operation Condor, whose mission was to support the Kandak (Afghan battalion) 32 and 33 and ALP (Afghan local police) during excavations in the city of Joybar, north of the FOB (forward operating base) Tagab on 19 and 20 May, 2012.
An infantryman with Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, shows evidence of a long journey after returning from Operation Buffalo Thunder II at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, July 2, 2012.
United States Air Force aircrew assigned to the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing and their Afghan counterparts conduct training on a Afghan Air Force C-130H Hercules at Forward Operating Base Kabul, Afghanistan Dec. 7, 2015. 438th Air Expeditionary Wing advisors, as Train, Advise, Assist Command-(TAAC) Air have grown the Afghan Air Force since 2006. During this time, the Afghan Air Force has made great strides toward becoming a professional, capable and sustainable Air Force.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook/Released)
AFGHANISTAN. Helmand Province. June 9, 2011. A US Marine walks towards food supplies after they were dropped by small parachutes from a plane outside Forward Operating Base Edi. The smoke in the background comes from parachutes that the Marines burn after landing.
An AH-64 Apache helicopter from the 1st Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Tigershark, prepares to depart Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan, Nov. 12, to conduct a security and reconnaissance mission over eastern Afghanistan. (U.S. Army Photo by Capt. Peter Smedberg/Released)
Sometimes I look at a sunset and I think about Afghanistan and I cry.
Before I deployed I spent a lot of time reassuring family and friends that I was going to be safe. I explained how I would spend most of my time behind a fence on a Forward Operating Base (FOB). That I would be doing desk work and that I was more likely to die in a car crash in the U.S. then from the Taliban in Afghanistan. And honestly all of that stuff was more or less true in the end.
The first week I was there a rocket hit the motorpool and killed two people. One of them, a Lieutenant who I knew in passing and who had likely told his wife and family similar things, had literally been signing paperwork before it hit and he died on impact. The other died later from injuries. Several others were wounded. A call went out for blood donations over the FOB PA system. A few hours later they announced the flight line ceremony for the body.
The ceremony involved soldiers lining up on the dirt runway behind a C-130 creating a corridor that extended back toward the base. Everyone would stand at attention as an ambulance brought the flag draped body from the tiny field hospital to the plane. Each soldier saluted as the body passed them and then went back to attention until it was on the plane. Then everyone would march off of the runway and the plane would take off to deliver the person to their family. I often questioned the wisdom of so many standing out in the open in a large group but we rarely had more than one rocket attack in a day (a fact I didn’t know at the time).
I stood facing the sun, standing amidst strangers because I barely knew anyone in my unit. I didn’t have sunglasses, they aren’t allowed at ceremonies, but the sun was already sinking so it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t a spectacular sunset. It was the kind where the day just seems to fade away, the colors bleeding into grays that got darker and darker until it was all black.
In the distance I could hear kids laughing and yelling as they played soccer in the village just outside the FOB. I was struck by how strange it was that they were so close but how separate our worlds were. Later I would meet some of these kids, go to their schools, talk to their parents, give them soccer balls, but in that moment I had no idea that mission would become part of my deployment. They were just this strange soundtrack to this even stranger experience. Standing on this foreign soil feet, arms, neck and head locked in place staring at the sunset and waiting for the body to pass.
When my arm came up to salute the call to prayer began to sound from the village mosque. I have always found it a beautiful and poignant sound; a singing invitation to commune with God. It felt both out of place and exactly perfect somehow. I would learn later that the call to prayer couldn’t always be heard on base, only from certain places and when the wind was just right. It brought tears to my eyes as I dropped my hand and continued to hold my body at attention; eyes fixed on the sinking sun.
I should have been thinking about the dead Lieutenant but I didn’t know him well enough to think of much. Instead I thought about how I couldn’t remember the last time I took the time to just watch the sunset. I don’t mean just glance at it or spend five or ten minutes admiring it and taking a picture or two but really sitting and watching it disappear on the horizon like I had been forced to do standing and waiting for his body. I thought about how in my life I would only get so many sunsets and how it would be a shame to miss so many of them because I was too busy.
Sometimes I look at sunsets and I think of that evening in Afghanistan and when I do I make myself pause and watch. Even if it’s not especially beautiful, even if I am busy, I make myself notice it. And sometimes, just like that day, I cry.
An OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter from the 1st Infantry Division takes off on a mission from Forward Operation Base MacKenzie, Iraq. It is armed with an AGM-114 Hellfire and 7 Hydra 70 rockets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shane Cuomo)
Blackburn, as a Lieutenant, in Mosul, Iraq, December 2007; and with his wife Bethany in 2013.
(Photos and article by Captain Thomas Blackburn, Wyoming National Guard, 14 JUL 2014.)
My first nightmare occurred right before I came home from Iraq for my mid-tour leave. As I slept, my dream sent me out on to the streets of Mosul, Iraq, a place I was very familiar with after seven months of patrolling there.
In this inaugural terror, I was doing my job, leading my platoon on a combat patrol through a neighborhood. After passing a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi Army, I stopped my truck, and got out to talk to one of the soldiers. As I exited my vehicle, a man approached me, lifted his hand to shake mine, smiled, and blew up.
I jolted awake in my bed back on Forward Operating Base Marez, sweating, shaking, and terrified.
That was the beginning of a non-stop, multi-round boxing match with my sleep. I returned home in January 2009, and still suffer through what many other comrades share: restless sleep, anger, heightened awareness, and incredible discomfort in crowds, to name a few.
It’s called combat stress, shell shock, battle fatigue, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Whatever the names, it’s all the same in relation to its effect on a combat vet. And it’s common.
In my family alone, I have two people who suffer from the disorder. My father, who was present when I got home from Iraq, told me that he still had nightmares from his one year tour in Vietnam in 1969. That was 40 years before my deployment! Even more shocking, he told me he had a nightmare not more than three days before I got back home.
I also had a brother who participated in the initial Thunder Run to Baghdad in 2003. He suffers from several symptoms of PTSD, and we shared war stories over lunch countless times while I was stationed in Indianapolis, our hometown. Some of his strongest nightmares that grip him relate to the United Nations bombing, where his unit was one of the first on the scene after the explosion.
As for me, I spent 15 months in a city that had become labeled by media as the “Last Stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
In 2008, Baghdad was becoming safer, so many enemy elements focused on Mosul, and it was a battle. Within a month of my company’s initial combat operations, I had hit three improvised explosive devices, one directly, been mortared, ordered my platoon to fire seven main gun rounds from our tanks, and been the target of numerous rocket attacks and small arms fire. This was against an enemy force that refused to stand still and fight for more than moments at a time.
Others had much more intense deployments than me. My brother was in firefights almost every day when he was there in 2003. My experience was concentrated on reopening routes the enemy had littered with IED’s and work with Iraqi security forces to retake their city. The enemy wanted to hide and attack my platoon at their choosing. They were ghosts. Therefore, every day, I stressed and wondered, where was the next ghost strike going to be?
Luckily, I made it through the rest of the deployment. In fact, my whole platoon returned back to their families safe. However, my war was not over. Within a week of lying in my own bed, with my wife, and sheets that smelled Downy fresh, I suffered two nightmares. My honeymoon phase lasted through my first two months until after my return to work from block leave. Immediately, I became impatient, quick to anger, and completely emotionless, especially to my family members. This was the complete opposite of my personality before I left.
My wife Bethany was pregnant with our first child, but I felt little excitement or joy. I didn’t care about my son’s birth. All I wanted to do was be by myself, alone. Television shows I loved prior to my deployment no longer interested me, I quit planning or doing dates with my wife, and I grew very defensive in discussions. I had little joy for life, so Bethany worried. My family back home worried. My dad knew the road I was on and called to check up on me constantly.
However, prior to me leaving Iraq, before talking to my dad three days after my return, I had already made a commitment. Not knowing how I was going to be when I returned, I already had a premonition that I was going to have trouble adjusting and therefore sought counseling immediately.
Others in my unit waved off the idea of seeing a counselor because they thought they didn’t need it, that there would be an image of weakness, or that they could handle their personal business on their own. At in-processing at Fort Hood, when asked if I wanted counseling help, I blurted yes before the nurse finished reading her script. That week I was in front of a social worker. My appointments quickly became twice a week visits.
As a leader, I wanted to prove that seeking help was not a weakness and so I told everyone what I was doing. My platoon. My chain of command. Veterans I talked to at restaurants or at the mall. Everyone. I admitted I wasn’t myself and my family suffered. But I was seeking as much help as possible.
I have not met an active military person in my whole career who acknowledged that they were seeking help. I don’t know if they fear others knowing, but I refused to stay quiet about my troubles. What my leaders and peers thought of my mental fortitude mattered little to me; I only cared about sharing my journey. The fact that my father, who had several troubled marriages and an emotional exterior like a bulldozer, never sought his own treatment, made me realize that his past had a lot to do with who he had become as an older man. That wasn’t going to be me.
Looking back on that first year I was back from Iraq, I can honestly say two things kept me moving in a positive direction. My wife, who survived my deployment to only go through a tumultuous time during my adjustment, stood by me, willing me to help myself. She refused to let me sink into a dark hole. Then there was my son. It was imperative for me to maintain my marriage, and therefore heal myself mentally, so that he wouldn’t be raised in a divorced household. I went through that and didn’t want to do it to him.
But the healing process wasn’t quick, it’s one that can go on for years.
While I was initially going to my social worker, I grew frustrated with my work environment. I was given the opportunity and time to seek my counseling, but, I quickly felt like no one cared. In fact, during a 10-month assignment to a staff position in 2009, my supervisors knew of my struggles, but not one person asked how I was doing until the day I conducted my exit counseling.
That bothered me, not so much for me, because I didn’t need their assurances that I was doing well, but it made me worry about the soldiers out there who had problems and didn’t feel like they could address them. I made it my mission to ask every soldier I knew how they were doing, especially if they had returned from the deployment with me. If they did say things weren’t going well, I then offered myself to help them. I drove soldiers to counseling sessions, I took texts from those seeking advice, and I provided phone numbers of those who could talk a person down from a bad night.
Now, I’m five years removed from Iraq and I’ve improved. I still don’t allow my son to have balloons at home in case they pop, or remain uneasy when popcorn pops (sounds like an AK weapon). I still battle my remorseless attitude, but I feel more tuned to my family’s needs. The time it takes me to get frustrated is still quick, but Bethany and I work together to keep me calm and relaxed through talking and awareness.
Even with my time home, I still face challenges. But, I continue to seek mental healing, even this far out from my traumatic events. In total, I have seen five counselors in multiple session settings since 2009. I will continue to seek more counseling if I feel that times get tough for me in the future. Hiding behind a false bravado or afraid to come forward won’t work well in the long run. Look at my dad. He lived the majority of his life with his demons. I might do the same, but I have the knowledge and awareness going forward to overcome it.
Now, when my nightmares come, I wake up, remind myself it’s not real, and roll back over and go back to bed.