During my time in Afghanistan I went on almost thirty missions from my home base. Sometimes to other bases within Kabul, sometimes to the opposite end of the country. We traveled in a variety of ways, including up-armored, non-tactical vehicles (NTVs), helicopters, and airplanes. On one mission that was very close to our home base, we walked. That was a wonderful experience, despite almost being run over by a motorcycle. I recorded the whole walk my camera that I strapped to my body armor. I found out later that the unit I was part of was not authorized to walk outside the gates. That caused quite a stir, eventually brining on policies and memos that everyone in our unit was made aware of, which ultimately changed the procedure by which our unit traveled when leaving the base. Some people work on policy change, I actually caused it.
For almost every trip we went on there was always some cause for concern. Travel is dangerous enough in Afghanistan, not to mention some of the places we visited were more targeted by the enemy than my home base. My home base was actually fairly safe compared to most other places over there. Most trips that took us out of Kabul resulted in taking shelter in a bunker at some point, sometimes on multiple occasions each day. The most explosions I heard in any one attack were seven, at a base in the far western edge of Afghanistan, not far from the Iranian border. Trips to Bagram would often also include hearing small arms fire coming from somewhere off base, usually in the evenings.
Very few things I experienced over there bothered me at the time. There was something normal about it. We were there to do a job and the enemy would try to kill us, if that’s normal. To be honest, I miss that normal, it was easier than my new normal. But there was one event over where that it occurred to me that I might possibly not make it home in one piece. During one attack when I was at Kandahar Air Field, the explosions were getting close. The first one shook the building pretty good that I was in, but not the closest boom I had ever felt. Soon after, the second one came in, shaking things off the shelves making a mess on the floor. That one, at the time, might have been the closest boom I ever felt. I ran outside, still getting my gear on, headed for the bunker. The third explosion was close. Most definitely the closest explosion I have ever felt. The enemy was ‘walking them in.’ From the mountains, they would fire, watch where it landed, then fire again, getting closer with each munition launched. I remember thinking that if there were a fourth one coming in, it would be right on top of me.
Even in that experience, I was ok for the most part. I don’t think it bothered me until much later, after I had returned home. Yes, it was a little scary. But even that was not the worst fear I experienced in Afghanistan. Without giving classified details, my home base was second on the list of a very credible threat within Kabul. The top target on the list was across the street. If the threat ended up being manifested and carried out, our base would have been wiped out completely. It was just another day to most of us. There was always some threat from somewhere about something, and always aimed at us. It was the life we lived, we got used to it. It was our normal and this threat didn’t really bother me any more or less than any of the others.
What did bother me is how leadership reacted to the threat, one person in particular. I always resisted wearing my body armor when I could get away with it, unless I didn’t have a choice. I always felt more comfortable being able to move around if needed. I also didn’t wear my seatbelt in the convoys unless we were still on a base. There was just something calming to me about being able to move without restraint. One evening, during the colossal threat, I was walking back to my room, without my body armor on, of course. One of our leaders asked me why I wasn’t wearing my gear. I explained to him my desire to remain unencumbered. When he ordered me to wear my gear if I were to be outside I could see fear in his eyes. The man seemed to have no confidence. I could hear the distress in his voice. I had never seen him like that before and to be honest, I lost a little respect for him. He was a good man, had always had an air of confidence about him, and was a good leader. I liked him. But you cannot be a leader at that level and show that kind of fear. His anxiety about the threat was so obvious that it had a more negative effect on me than any of the other life threatening things that we encountered in Afghanistan. If he wasn’t confident, how could I be? It was psychological. Seeing his fear was more daunting to me than any physical harm that I might have faced. Being scared is normal. But when you lack any confidence and it shows to that extent, you have failed as leader.
Other people watch you and their emotions can be persuaded by how you handle a situation. It’s ok to be scared. It’s ok to admit when you’re scared. But when you let fear control you, you fail. Bravery does not mean you don’t get scared, it means you do what you have to do with confidence anyway. To me, it was a lot easier to manage my fears in Afghanistan than it was after I got home. I knew what to be fearful of there. At home my own mind had become my biggest fear. And I let my fear of my thoughts consume me and it almost cost me my life. I was scared of myself, for good reason. I now have a whole new set of fears that I never experienced before. But I’m getting my confidence back in myself and learning how to deal with it. It’s a bumpy road, but counseling is helping and writing has become my best therapy. Don’t let fear destroy your life.
Thank you for reading Story of My Life. As I said, I write for my own therapy, I share in case it helps someone else. Feel free to share this. Follow this blog for weekly updates if you want.
Good day, God bless.