The Funny Side of Combat Stress

In Kuwait at the end of our deployment, December 2005. Larry Russell is standing at left, in Army PT shirt. I'm at left corner of Texas flag.

In Kuwait at the end of our deployment, December 2005. Larry Russell is standing at left, in Army PT shirt. I’m at right corner of Texas flag.

No joke, there he was, on a boring nighttime convoy outside Diwaniyah, Iraq…then the crap hit the fan!

“He” is one of my buddies, a fellow soldier who led of one of our convoy escort teams in Iraq in 2005. His name is Larry Russell (and yes, I have his permission to write this). When we met at Fort Hood in 2004, we were both staff sergeants with about 15 years of service. In civilian life he’s a firefighter. Larry and I were from different units that were thrown together for the Iraq deployment, and we got along great from day one.

Larry and I spent almost a year escorting supply convoys to different bases in Iraq. Several times a week we’d drive hundreds of miles through enemy held-territory, dragging 20 or 30 eighteen-wheel trucks driven by civilians from all over the third world, with all our lights on, on the exact same routes, past the same craters where the same insurgents hid the same kind of roadside bombs, over and over and over. We’d been shot at, bombs had exploded around us, and we’d barely avoided catastrophic accidents. Several soldiers in our battalion had been wounded by Improvised Explosive Devices. A few soldiers in our brigade had been killed. Troops from other units had been killed around us. All of us were stressed the hell out. But on this convoy, eight or so months into our deployment, Larry was a little more stressed than most.

On a previous mission not long before, a Humvee on Larry’s team had rolled over and some of his soldiers were hurt. But worse than that, nobody else on the convoy had noticed the accident. This isn’t as strange as it might sound. On convoys our Humvees were sometimes separated by miles, with huge trucks between them. The last Humvee in Larry’s team had gone off the road, and the rest of the convoy was miles away before an injured soldier in the stricken Humvee managed to call for help on the radio.

That accident was on Larry’s mind as he led his convoy down the highway. He was at the front, doing what we all did on convoys: trying to stay awake, and looking everywhere for signs of an IED. On missions I always wore my night vision device, and spent most of my time just scanning back and forth from shoulder to shoulder on the highway. Larry was doing the same thing, looking for bombs and trying to keep track of his vehicles.

The mission was boring, like most of them were. We were usually bored out of our minds until someone unexpectedly tried to kill us. Larry was experiencing the weird mix of sensations we all felt on convoys: boredom, anxiety, maybe a desire for the excitement of combat while hoping nothing really serious would happen. But then, something happened.

The night was pitch black. The men on the convoy were quiet. Larry looked side to side. Nothing. The night vision device he wore painted the flat, barren desert a dull green. Larry looked forward. And a tracer round from straight ahead zipped through his field of view, barely missing the windshield.

He bolted upright. Neither his gunner nor driver reacted. Are they asleep? he wondered. Another tracer flashed by. Larry screamed, “Tracers!”

In unison, his startled gunner and driver yelled “Where?” More tracers flashed by. Larry ducked, keyed his radio and yelled, “Small arms fire, 12 o’clock!”

His gunner screamed, “I don’t see it, where’s it coming from?” Larry thought, What the hell do you mean you don’t see it? He peered over the dashboard as more tracers sailed past the hood. “It’s coming from straight down the damn road!”

Larry’s driver yelled, “I can’t see anything! Where is it?” Larry yelled back, “Shut the f**k up and drive!”

The driver started weaving back and forth on the highway, trying to avoid rounds he couldn’t see. Larry’s gunner kept screaming “Where’s it at?” and frantically searching for a target. Soldiers in other vehicles asked for direction and distance on the radio, shouting that they couldn’t see anything.

Larry’s heart pounded. He felt a momentary urge to choke his soldiers. How the hell could they not see the rounds? He looked over the dash again. More tracers zipped past. He cringed.

Then one tracer shot directly toward the windshield, slowed, made a little half loop and flew sideways.

What the…? Larry jerked upright in the seat. His driver was weaving like a madman, his gunner fruitlessly scanning for targets, soldiers on the radio were still saying they couldn’t see anything. The tracers coming toward him started to look a little funny. Larry flipped his night vision device up.

They were driving through a swarm of bugs. The bugs were being lit up by the Humvee’s headlights. In the night vision device, they looked like tracers. Larry had freaked out over harmless little flies.

Usually when a soldier does something stupid, especially if it’s a leader, the soldier in question stays silent and embarrassed while the story spreads around him. Gleeful privates, specialists and junior sergeants happily pass the story on, embellishing as they go, eager to jab at their leadership’s imperfections. But I didn’t hear this story from someone else. Shortly after his Humvee was ambushed by a swarm of vicious Iraqi insects, Larry told us about it himself.

A small group of us, six or seven Humvee commanders and team leaders, were hanging out by our battalion command post. Larry joined us. We were telling war stories, and Larry volunteered his. He laughed as he told it, and by the end of it we were rolling. But we weren’t laughing at him. All of us knew what it was like to have the crap scared out of us by something that turned out to be harmless.

I had nearly called out tracer fire crossing the road high in the air in front of our convoy one night. It turned out a car had driven across an overpass in the dark, and for some weird reason I never saw the headlights, only the red, tracer-looking tail lights. On another convoy lightning flashed in my peripheral vision and I flinched, thinking an IED had just detonated. When you’re constantly under threat of sudden, violent death, it’s understandable that you get a little jumpy.

Right after the imaginary small arms attack, Larry requested to be removed from his convoy escort team. He knew he was too stressed, too nervous, and needed time to calm down. The company leadership agreed, and put him in a support position. He had done his time on the road, and recognized that he needed a break. I didn’t hold it against him.

Larry stayed in the National Guard after that deployment, and later made another trip to Iraq. When I asked permission to write his story, I offered to use an alias. He wanted me to use his real name. I understand why.

Millions of men and women have served in our recent wars. A tiny minority became true heroes, but ,ost of us didn’t do anything heroic. We just did our best, and should be proud of that. Larry went to war, twice, and did his best. During one of those trips to war, the stress got to him. Given enough time and enough missions, all of us will reach that point sooner or later. And there’s no shame in that.

7 Responses to “The Funny Side of Combat Stress”

  1. 1 David Mengelkamp

    Chris, I was on that rotation but in a different company. My job wwas as motor sergeant. While I didn’t make anywhere near the trips outside the wire as the escorts did I saw the stress you were under and felt it also. Close to the end a vehicle in your company was in a head on accident. It looked horrible. I thought there was no way the vehicle commander, who was my friend, could have gotten out w/o at least losing his turned out he just hurt his kne pretty badly but otherwise was ok. I came close to losing it that day. After almost a year of seeing people I had watched grow from 17 & 18 year old boys into some of the finest men in this country, I was at my break point. I made it thru with help from above and seeing ya’ ll still able to laugh and stay ttight ith each other.

  2. Only someone who has been through it can understand how there are often humorous moments in combat.

    Some of the funniest things I have ever seen were when men were under extreme stress and among brothers, and found humor in it.

    I miss those times. Not that I want to go back and do it all again, but I miss the camaraderie and brotherhood.

  3. 6 Bob

    Hey Chris;

    I remembered a phrase from somewhere ” His pitcher was full, It takes time for the pitcher to drain so they can add more to it.”. Larry Russell’s pitcher was full, he needed to step back for a bit. Kudos to Larry for realizing that any not trying to “suck it up”.

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