I’ve had two deployments, one to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. Those two deployments could not be more different from one another. My Afghanistan deployment (2013-2014) was exciting, dangerous, and filled with travel all over the country. My Iraq deployment (2008-2009), on the other hand, was relatively boring. I spent the majority of my time behind a desk or visiting with troops on the base. There was very little excitement at Camp Bucca, which at the time was the largest Theater Interment Facility in the world. Besides going home on leave for two weeks about half way through the deployment, I only got to leave the base on one mission. Only one. It was a boring deployment, but in some respects that’s not a bad thing. And only once during my time in Iraq did I think that it might be possible I could die over there. Here’s that story.
I was on my way back to Iraq, returning from being home on leave for two weeks. I was delayed in Kuwait for two or three extra days waiting on transportation. It wasn’t the best place to be stuck, but it was almost relaxing to be able to recover from my time off before having to get back to work it in Iraq. I slept a lot between checking with the travel team responsible for getting people from Point A to Point B. If I remember correctly, we had to check in once a day at a certain time. If there wasn’t any transportation to where I was going, I would go back in 24 hours. Boredom set in pretty quickly, but that was cured with naps.
Finally, after a couple days of waiting, I had a helicopter flight going to Camp Bucca. It was actually three CH-47 Chinooks, which we affectionately called Shithooks. All three helicopters were filled to capacity with personnel and gear. All of us were going to the same place, a direct flight. I was in the last helicopter of the formation. We took off and headed north. I love flying in helicopters. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve done in the military.
The helicopter I was on didn’t seem to keep up with the other two. I could see the other two flying higher. I could feel mine ‘slipping’ like it was not wanting to stay in the air, like it would drop a few feet then go back up. I watched the tail gunner leave his position, talking to the pilots through his radio. The tail gunner opened a side panel above a passenger across from me and looked inside. He fiddled with some gadgets and reported to the pilots over the radio. All the while I could feel the helicopter doing its best to stay in the air, slipping and climbing, slipping and climbing. The guy next to me was fast asleep.
The tail gunner then moved to the center of the aircraft, climbing to the top off all the duffle bags and opened another panel in the ceiling. He banged on some pipes and fixtures with his fist, shook his head, and kept talking to the pilots over the radio. I could see just the slightest concern in the tail gunner’s face, but nothing alarming. I could see the other two helicopters were considerably higher than mine. I guess the good news would be that we would not fall as far from our lower position. The bad news would be that we were in closer range for small arms fire if there were anyone out there that wanted to take a shot. I watched all this, taking it all in, repositioning my body so that if we did have to make a hard landing or crash, my spine might not be broke in two. All this while the guy next to me slept peacefully.
Eventually we made it to our destination, the helicopter I was on did land somewhat hard, just short of the landing pad, then rolled up on to it. We gathered our gear and exited out the rear of the Chinook. I had to wake up the guy next to me and let him know we arrived. The other two helicopters took off after being emptied of passengers and gear, but the one I was on stayed on the ground. It would be there until the next day when a repair crew could take a look at it. I don’t remember the exact statistics, but I do remember that most U.S. military deaths involving helicopters in Iraq during that time were due to malfunctions, poor maintenance, or weather, as opposed to enemy engagements. I’m glad I didn’t get to see that play out.
I wasn’t worried about dying, but I was aware that I was in a position that it could happen, even if only remotely. It didn’t bother me, it was more surreal than anything, watching the tail gunner lose a little confidence in the aircraft. This is actually one of the stories I like to tell, probably because the rest of my deployment to Iraq was so boring. The one thing I kept thinking about during the flight was whether or not I should wake up the guy sitting next to me. If we were going to crash, would he want to know in advance? Would it freak him out? Would he be upset if we crashed and I hadn’t woken him? Yep, those are the things that went through my mind during the time that it was possible we might fall out of the sky. It’s kind of weird, right? Would I want to wake up in that situation? Would you? I feel like that situation for me was more of a moral dilemma than a life or death situation. Did I have any kind of duty to the guy next to me to wake him up? I still don’t know the answer to that. But that does remind me of a funny story of being at Bagram, Afghanistan, in a tent, half asleep. In my groggy state I heard a whining generator or truck or something along with large shipping containers being moved and banged around. I woke everyone else up in the tent thinking we were under attack again. False alarm.
My different doctors and counselors over the last 9 months agree that my PTSD most likely started in Iraq, but I am certain the helicopter ride is not the genesis of it. There were other things far worse in Iraq than that helicopter ride that I can trace my PTSD to, images that sometimes are front and center when I close my eyes, even though I try to not remember them. Then add to that all the excitement from Afghanistan. I spent years denying I suffered from PTSD. I know now how bad that was for me. Bad for me that I wouldn’t admit to suffering from it. It almost cost me my life last year. I wouldn’t say I necessarily embrace having PTSD, but I definitely embrace the freedom I feel from talking about it, writing about it, and accepting it. I can’t change it, I can only learn to live with it and continue to tell my story.
Thanks for taking the time to read Story of My Life. Good day, God bless.