“The story in someone’s eyes”

06Mar13

I was more tired than I had ever been in my life. In the previous two nights combined I had a total of less than five hours sleep, and the pills Doc Johnny (not his real name) gave me had just barely stopped the worst case of the runs any human has ever had in history. Even though it was still morning I was sweating in the August heat.

Tons of machine gun rounds and 40mm grenades were pouring from our vehicles. I don’t know how much fire was coming back. As soon as we bailed out of our vehicles we had to charge up a hill, with our gear, under fire. I made it halfway up the hill, dropped behind some rocks and watched one of my soldiers dumping machine gun rounds into the trees across the valley. I searched for a target, any target, and didn’t see a thing. Then the helicopters rolled in and hit the Taliban with missiles and 30mm gunfire. The gunfire slowed.

I forced myself to my feet and struggled to the top of the hill. I knew at least two casualties were up there, and even though other soldiers were already with them I still wanted to check on them. Afghan soldiers were at the crest of the hill, and those guys shoot at anything. So I had to be careful that I didn’t run right into their fire.

When I got to the top of the hill, I saw something I’ll never forget. Doc Johnny, a young man I will always have tremendous respect for, was kneeling next to a wounded soldier. Doc’s face was absolutely still; head tilted slightly to the side, eyes squinted a bit, seeming to focus on a distant spot. He looked about as scared as a student at a yoga class. In contrast to my beet red, sweat-drenched face, racing heart and trembling hands, Doc was the picture of calm.

There have been moments in my life when I saw an expression on someone’s face that was so powerful I can’t find words to describe it. In my writing I’ve tried to capture certain moments and expressions that just seem to defy simple words on paper. That’s probably a task for a highly trained, experienced writer instead of an amateur like me. I wish I was better at it. I wish I could do justice to the look on Doc’s face, to really convey to the reader what it was like to see that placid expression in the midst of all that chaos. It moved me so much that three years later, I felt compelled to send Doc a Facebook message and let him know how powerful that moment was, and how much I respected him for it.

My book, Proof of Our Resolve, is a war story that encompasses many aspects of battle: weapons, tactics, strategy, cooperation and friction between different units. But it’s about the soldiers more than anything else. The Afghanistan War wasn’t a technological marvel for me. It was a year of intensely human experience, a lesson in the highs and lows of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. The battle that morning was one of those intense experiences. Doc Johnny was one of those ordinary men, maintaining his composure in extraordinary, life and death circumstances. I feel a duty to do justice to his bravery. It’s not an easy thing to do.

One of the best compliments I’ve received from someone who read Proof of Our Resolve was about two lines I barely remembered. It was a tiny passage where Jerry Nunez, my protagonist, locks eyes with a French soldier through his windshield and reads a thought that’s plain on the Frenchman’s face. A test reader, who had served in Iraq, told me that when he read that passage he had to get up and walk away from his computer for a moment. Those two lines took him back to many missions in Iraq, to many Americans and Iraqis he had seen outside the wire. As he put it, “That reminded me of all the times I read the story in someone’s eyes.”

I might have a better way to show you what I’m talking about. I fought alongside French and Afghan troops in a huge operation to take a Taliban-held valley. A combat cameraman captured the moment a young French soldier was told his friend had just been killed. It’s the most human eleven seconds of footage I think I’ve ever seen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vh7gni5iXMY (the entire video is worth watching, but the part I’m describing is from 10:50 to 11:01)

I hope my writing has accurately captured the depth of emotion I saw in those eleven seconds. I hope it captured the bravery, fortitude and iron will of men like Doc Johnny. I hope my writing isn’t looked on as war and action for war and action’s sake. If it is, I’ve failed Doc and that French soldier.

But calm resolve isn’t all I want to capture on paper. I also hope to give the reader a sense of war’s random chances, of the things you don’t think of or expect until you’ve spent time on the sharp edge of combat. That randomness can’t always be honestly portrayed.

I learned about one of those random incidents years after coming home from Afghanistan. I was having a telephone conversation with another medic, “Eddie” who had been in the battle that August morning. War has an odd way of bringing strangers together. This other medic and I were pretty good friends despite the fact that I had only met him twice; once during the battle and once after. Even though we live in different states and are about a decade apart in age, we’ve had a lot of good conversations about the war and our lives afterward.

More so than anyone else, Eddie had been in the thick of battle that day. Eddie had been the first person to treat the soldier I saw Doc Johnny kneeling beside. Without a doubt, he and Doc Johnny had saved that soldier’s life. I told Eddie about Doc Johnny, and how inspired I was to see him so under control during that battle.

Eddie got quiet on the phone for a moment. Then he asked me, “You know why Doc Johnny was so calm, right?”

The question, and the dramatic pause beforehand, made me curious. I told him I didn’t know. Eddie laughed and said, “He was calm because when he tried to give the wounded man morphine with an auto-injector, he had it backwards and accidentally injected morphine into his own hand.”

I laughed with him. Years after the fight, I had learned the truth about one of the most moving, dramatic memories of my life. But it didn’t change my mind. Doc Johnny is still an ordinary man who rose to extraordinary heights, when a man’s life depended on him. I still remember Doc’s face and feel the sense of something like awe that I felt that day. And I hope I’ve helped readers feel just a tiny bit of what it was like to be in the presence of such ordinary men, who chose to become extraordinary.

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12 Responses to ““The story in someone’s eyes””

  1. 1 BCFD36

    I did not see that coming. You made my day. Thanks.
    BCFD36

  2. Well done, well said and yes, you did indeed capture that ‘look’ as closely as it can be expressed in words. I watched the clip and loved seeing the Warthog – the most beautiful aircraft ever made – and hearing that Viking Death Horn sound of the cannon. And btw – may I include a couple of items here for your interest, as a small tribute to other fallen warriors? If you don’t know the stories, you may find them inspiring ( or maybe depressing ) First, Erin Doyle:
    http://legionmagazine.com/en/index.php/2009/03/the-life-and-death-of-erin-doyle/. Just hearing of his death brought a moment like the one in the video even among us who only knew him by reputation.
    and the second is from the old days – a Navy chaplain who gave the last measure, tending his fallen Marine flock in Nam. One quote form the short story about him :
    “Fr. C. ran out to him and positioned himself between the injured boy and the automatic weapon. Suddenly, the weapon opened up again and this time riddled Father C. from the back of his head to the base of his spine- and with his third Purple Heart of the day- Father C. went home.”
    Watch the short video, but please wait until after it and read the short story of his life and death that follows the video.
    http://www.vincentcapodanno.org/index.php

    If this comment is too long, feel free to remove it. But please do honor these men with your visit and in your prayers.

    • J,

      your comment is definitely not too long, and I look forward to watching the videos and reading the stories. I haven’t heard of either man, but their stories sound inspiring. Even though I’m not religious, I’ve known some very dedicated chaplains.

      One of the more memorable sights in Afghanistan was a French chaplain, in all his traditional vestments, giving mass inside the half-built building shown in the video you saw, the day after the battle. Whether we share religious beliefs or not, I can’t help but respect a man who proves his faith with actions.

      Chris

      P.S. by the way, the A-10’s gunfire always sounded like Godzilla to me.

  3. Thank you for your service and entry into your mind to see.

  4. 7 Lilas

    What’s the cliche? A picture is worth a thousand words?
    Well, how many words was that look worth?
    Your ability to bring the feeling forward is wonderfully real. Oh, the many times I wished I could have actual pictures of certain people’s expressions, rather than just mental ones. But then, describing how a particular expression moves you is what a good writer strives for.
    In my humble and inexperienced opinion, you did it well, Chris. Very well, in this piece and in your book.

    • Lilas,

      Those looks were worth a lot more than a thousand words to me. If I can translate 1/10th of the real-life emotional impact to paper, maybe I’ve done enough.

      Thanks, Lilas. For everything.

      Chris

  5. 9 Stuart the Viking

    I found your blog via Tam at View From The Porch.

    Reading your blog posts, I sure like the way you write. I’m looking forward to reading your books.

    s

  6. love your blog, and I’m going to buy your book. Some of your stories remind me of one my Dad used to tell about ‘Nam. Thanks…

    • Bill,

      Glad to hear that, and hope my experience is as interesting as your father’s. Most of us who served in the war on terror feel like we didn’t do much compared to the guys in VN. Hope you enjoy the book also, and please drop a review when you’re done.


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