Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sacrifices and Consequences

By Keller McGuinness

Ever since he was a kid, growing up in and around Portland, Maine, Rick thought about joining the military. He very nearly saw this through in the wake of the events of September 11th, but friends wound up talking him out of it. Nearly a decade later, in his 30’s and newly married with a child on the way, he made an appointment with a recruiter. Thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, he found out he would be able to transfer his college tuition and VA benefits to his daughter, thereby ensuring her future education would be paid for. With that as a prime motivator, he enlisted in the Army.

First he spent about eight months becoming familiar with his 12-person unit in the SDDC, short for Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. Then, in early June of 2010, he began his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. After completing that, he underwent Advanced Individual Training, (AIT), during which you learn the specific skills for the job you’ll be doing. In Rick’s case, he was to be an 88 November, otherwise known as a Transportation Management Coordinator. When things need moving, whether that means equipment or soldiers or whatever you can think of, it was going to be Rick’s job to make sure it was done. He was allowed leave to spend the holiday months back with his family, then from January to June found himself training at various bases throughout the U.S. Finally, in July of 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan.

His home for the next thirteen months was to be on an airfield base about 45 miles south of Kandahar, the second largest city in the country, and a center of Taliban activity. His first thought upon landing there was, “what the fuck did I do?” Within his first week of active duty he’d help arrange and take part in twenty convoys ferreting cargo between the city and the base. It wasn’t long before he encountered his first IED, short for Improvised Explosive Device, a staple of the Taliban insurgency. In this particular instance, it was a 300-pound device which had been planted in a ditch beneath the road and was triggered once the lead vehicle had driven over a pressure plate connected to it. Rick was in the fourth vehicle, (there were fifteen total). The explosion caused the first vehicle to flip over and wounded the two soldiers inside. At that point the entire convoy took on fire from hidden insurgents and the resultant firefight lasted around twenty minutes. They then created a perimeter around the downed vehicle and Rick helped carry the wounded men into his vehicle. Though continuously taking fire, the convoy was able to make it safely back to base without casualties.

During the thirteen months of his service, danger was not only encountered while travelling outside of the base. For the entire duration, rocket attacks were also a regular nuisance. Usually the rockets are set to be launched from hidden spots using a delayed trigger mechanism which Rick and his fellow soldiers call “Mohammed clocks.” The way the device works is this: a jug of water with a copper piece on the bottom and a piece of wood with copper attached to it floating on top, which is in turn connected to a launching device. A small hole is punctured in the bottom of the jug and the water slowly drains, leaving the attacker time to get far away from the spot of the launch. Once the water is nearly drained, the copper pieces touch each other, and this creates a charge which then fires the rocket, and there is no one left to be fired back upon. Over time Rick said he became so inured to these attacks that rather than take cover, he and his bunkmates would sit up on the roof and simply watch the rockets fall, adopting the attitude that, “it was either going to hit you or it wasn’t, war is random.” One rocket nearly did hit him, exploding above his building, and the resultant shrapnel tore a hole in the roof above his bed. This would later pose problems for him whenever it rained while he tried to sleep.

Rick came home about a month ago, though not until after enduring a four-day delay due to rocket attacks and sandstorms, as well as a two-week layover in Kuwait, during which his unit had a job working in the port. Before being allowed to return to his home and family, he, like all returning soldiers, had to go through medical and psychological assessment. Over ten days at Fort Dix in New Jersey it was determined that he had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD). He was offered medication, which he declined, and now sees an Army psychiatrist once a week at the VA hospital.

Incidents like the one which mostly contributed to his PTSD are an incredibly sad, and unfortunately not all that uncommon occurrence in the ongoing War in Afghanistan. During the last four months Rick was over there, the situation in and around Kandahar had gotten so dangerous, that he was now manning a machine gun atop an armored Humvee for all trips “outside the wire,” military slang for being off-base. For a number of weeks, they would meet the Afghani, (and non-Afghani), civilians the Army subcontracts much of the transportation and other outside work to, at a designated meeting place near a NATO-run school for local children. Often the soldiers would spend time with the children, playing games and giving them candy. All the while, the Taliban were watching, biding their time.

On the day they finally struck, Rick’s unit arrived late to the meeting place. A car laden with explosives was driven to the spot with the intention of attacking them. Instead, the suicide bomber’s victims were five schoolchildren, two teachers, and one civilian worker. The convoy soon arrived to this horrific scene and immediately took on fire from hidden gunmen. Rick would survive this terrible day, but he would not be able to forget it.

Rick is safely home now with his family. But all is not entirely well. He has recurring nightmares involving the incident with the schoolchildren, only now he sees his own daughter as one of the tragic victims. He has had trouble readjusting to civilian life and has had no luck finding work. Many of the specialized skills he has learned during his time in the Army do not translate into the non-combat world. He is also not the same person he was before this whole experience, and is unable to relate to those around him as such. Having your life stripped down to a day-to-day fight for survival can do that.

As an active reservist, there is always a chance that he’ll be called back to Afghanistan. He has good reason to believe that this will in fact be the case, and sooner rather than later. It seems fairly incredible, but a part of him actually aches to go back, to serve with the people in his unit again, to continue with the work he was doing, work he is exceptionally good at. He is deeply saddened for having missed being around for most of his daughter’s life so far, but at the moment does not feel he belongs where he is, idling away, drinking too many beers and trying to figure out just who he is, who he’s going to be. Whichever way it turns out, let’s just hope he stays safe, and that people truly recognize the honorable sacrifices he has made.

1 comment:

  1. What an incredible story. I am greatful for soldiers like Rick. It is also sad to read his story and his incredible sacrifices. It is hard to thrive once you have been traumatized but we are more then our experiences. As a species we are trying to evolve and unfortunately this is the price we pay to maintain our freedom. I commend Rick and hope he stays strong and safe.