PTSD and my mistake
Full disclaimer: I do not have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t know why some others have it and I don’t. I have no doubt a great many men and women who are mentally tougher than me have PTSD from their wartime service. I think I may be partly responsible for one soldier I served with having PTSD. I’ll explain that later.
One incident in Afghanistan had the capacity to scar me for life. Late one night I received a report about an IED that Afghan police found in a village. I’ll call the village Loy Kalay. My job was to make sure everyone in the that area was warned about the danger. This was a routine occurrence, so I took the normal steps of notifying the Americans at the command post, then notifying the French, then sending written reports. I went to sleep that night unconcerned; as far as I knew, everyone who needed to know about the IED had been warned.
The next morning, just after I woke up, one of my soldiers walked into the tent and asked, “Did you hear the French got hit by an IED?”
I hadn’t heard. He told me, “It’s really bad. An armored vehicle was completely destroyed and burned. One French Marine was killed, some others are probably going to die, and a bunch of other guys were wounded.”
I asked him, “Where did it happen?”
I froze. For one of the only times in my life, I was completely unable to speak. Oh my f**king god, I thought. I f**ked up. Who did I miss? Who didn’t I tell about the IED?
I finally managed to force out more questions. After about ten seconds of keeping me in near-panic, my soldier shook his head, blinked and said, “Oh yeah, it was Loy Alkay, not Loy Kalay. Sorry.”
Loy Alkay was hours from Loy Kalay. I hadn’t messed up. The French weren’t hit by an IED that I failed to warn them about. In that moment I should have felt nothing but concern for my French brothers who were lost and wounded, and I did. But I also felt selfish relief at the knowledge that it wasn’t my fault. To this day those ten seconds, when I thought I had gotten soldiers killed, haunt me.
This happened about a month after a firefight that produced what I hope is unreasonable guilt. The two incidents got me thinking, and I began to form an opinion. My perception is that nonveterans believe trauma comes from having people try to kill you. I don’t think that’s true. I think events that produce guilt are what cause most trauma and PTSD.
Getting shot at can be kinda fun. Getting hit isn’t; I was close enough to people who were hit to know I didn’t want any part of that. But just getting shot at could be funny, exhilarating, thought-provoking, good-naturedly embarrassing, any number of positive things. Having someone die, or get wounded, or almost get wounded because of your mistake, however, produces nothing but negative effects.
As I stated earlier, I think I’m partially at fault for someone else’s PTSD. This story and this soldier have been on my mind for years. I haven’t tried to get in contact with this soldier, which is something else I feel guilty about.
One afternoon my team left Camp Victory, Baghdad, with a convoy of supply trucks. We rolled out the gate, down a long dirt road, and turned onto Route Tampa, which at that time was one of the most dangerous roads in the country. As soon as we turned into Tampa, far in the distance I saw black smoke rising.
Another convoy team from my company was about a mile ahead of us. One of their vehicle commanders called the command post on the radio and asked, “Do you have a report of an accident on Tampa? We see a vehicle burning ahead.”
The command post had no reports. The convoy ahead of us moved closer to the smoke. We listened to their vehicle commanders talk back and forth, trying to figure out what was burning. I wasn’t too concerned. Iraqis were always burning something, and also had a reputation as bad drivers. If a vehicle was on fire, it was probably the result of a civilian accident.
The next radio call froze my blood. The lead vehicle commander screamed, “It’s a burning humvee! A patrol just got hit!”
What I experienced over the next few hours isn’t all that important. My convoy was ordered to stop about a mile from the downed humvee. We heard on the radio that a car bomb had rammed it and killed the gunner. The other convoy team stopped to assist, and waited until an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team arrived. Apache helicopters buzzed through the air overhead, searching vainly for a target. The only enemy involved had voluntarily killed himself.
Hours later, after dark, the highway was reopened. We drove past the still-burning humvee. It was almost totally destroyed. The doors were blown off, frame rails jutted into empty space where the engine had been. Debris lay scattered across the highway. I watched flames devour the remains as we passed, then turned forward. And I saw, just for a moment in the headlights, a shoe with bone and flesh protruding, sitting upright in the road.
I sat quietly for a few moments, wondering if I had seen what I had just seen. Then I turned to my driver and asked, “Was that –?”
He cut me off with, “Yeah, it was.”
A few minutes later, an IED exploded well ahead of us. Just after the blast, tracer fire sprayed into the air. We stopped again, and convoys stacked behind us. Looking back, it should have been obvious that the insurgents were just trying to stop us. About thirty minutes later, the convoy behind us took fire and engaged in a brief firefight. It was the first time I had heard a shot fired in anger.
Eventually we got back to our base. The next day we discovered the car bomb attack had wounded three soldiers in addition to killing the gunner. We also discovered that a staff sergeant from our company had pulled the dead gunner from the burning humvee.
The staff sergeant was about my age, and like me had been in the military for sixteen years. I think he had been in the same unit his entire time in the National Guard. I was an attachment from another unit, but he was close friends with almost everyone in the company. He and I were friendly but not friends. He wasn’t the most emotional or approachable guy in the world, but had a reputation as a good soldier. I found him the day after the incident and asked him about it.
He sat down on his steps of his trailer, shook his head and ran his hands over his face. His description of the attack’s aftermath was brutal.
“Man, that was awful. I just couldn’t do anything. We stopped and I ran to the humvee, and the gunner was inside burning, and I couldn’t get to him. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, and every time I tried to get through the fire and grab him, ammo would explode in my face. I was finally able to grab him and drag him out, and he was laying there dead and on fire. It was bad, man.”
I listened, shook his hand and told him he did everything he could. We parted ways, and as far as I knew he got over the trauma and moved on. We ran across each other periodically during the rest of the deployment, and he always seemed to be fine.
Several months later, not long before we came home, the staff sergeant led a convoy toward a base in Anbar province. This was a route his team had been on before. At one point in the route, convoys had to skirt the edge of a hostile town. We knew not to enter that town, because we would likely be attacked.
The staff sergeant, for a reason I don’t know, stopped at an intersection and directed his team to turn straight into the town. The other soldiers in the team knew they shouldn’t have taken that route, but were confused by the staff sergeant’s directions and did it anyway. Friends of mine on that team told me they were on edge, expecting an ambush. They were right.
RPG and small arms fire exploded around the vehicles. Some of the civilian truck drivers were wounded, and the convoy stopped. Soldiers had to get out and run to the stopped trucks under fire, so they could scream at the drivers to move out. Eventually the convoy rolled through the kill zone and got out of the town. None of the soldiers were injured, and fortunately the civilian truck drivers didn’t suffer any serious wounds.
Word about the ambush spread quickly. Most of us thought it was funny, as dealing with mortal danger was more or less the norm by that time. We jokingly asked how a team that knew a route could have made that mistake. A few days later, I saw the staff sergeant on our base and approached him.
Keep in mind, we had a pretty twisted sense of humor. Once, when I found out a friend was going on an extremely dangerous mission, I asked him for his computer password so I could use it after he got killed. He understood the humor, and laughed about it. So when I saw this staff sergeant, I felt compelled to jack with him about his error.
I approached him with a smartass grin and said, “Hey man, I heard you made a little mistake on a convoy recently.”
This guy always had an even keel, but he blew up at my joke. “Oh yeah motherf****r, like you’ve never made a f***ing mistake!”
I was taken aback. I had never seen him express anything near that level of emotion. That probably should have been a signal for me to back off. But this was years before Afghanistan, years before I learned firsthand what guilt can do. So instead, I responded with a laugh, “Sure I’ve made mistakes, but I never made that one!”
If I recall correctly, he walked away cursing. I don’t think we had another conversation after that.
Our deployment ended, we came back to Texas and I went home. I’ve kept in touch with several of the guys I went to Iraq with. And from them I heard bad news about the staff sergeant.
With only two years until retirement, the staff sergeant got out of the military. He moved, changed his phone number and broke ties with the friends he had served with his entire adult life. Some of those friends tried to contact him, and he rebuffed those attempts. I’m no psychiatrist, but I think this is avoidance, a symptom of PTSD.
When I heard that, I had to wonder: was I partly at fault for any problems the staff sergeant might have? Did the first incident, with the gunner who had been killed, weaken his defenses? Maybe. After he made a mistake and led his team into an ambush, did I reinforce his belief that he almost got his friends killed? Probably.
Was I a total asshole who did everything wrong, and deserved a good buttkicking for not helping a fellow soldier through a tough time? Absolutely.
Today I found out the staff sergeant is back in touch with several of his old friends, although he apparently hasn’t gotten back into the Army. Hopefully the story I was told about him was exaggerated. Maybe he got out of the Army for some completely legitimate reason that had nothing to do with PTSD. Maybe what I had to say to him after the ambush meant nothing and he doesn’t remember it.
Either way, I handled it wrong. Either way, my words at least had the potential to make things worse. Either way, I justifiably feel guilty about it.
Staff Sergeant H, I hope you’re doing well. I hope you let my words roll off you that day. I hope you aren’t suffering for your simple, honest mistake that mission, because you don’t deserve to. I’ve learned a lot about life, war, trauma and leadership since then. Back then I didn’t know guilt produces stronger, more evil demons than fear. Now I know I said stupid things to you that may have made things worse.
I’m sorry, man.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 13 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, iraq, PTSD, veterans