First off, I am extremely thankful for having the opportunity to join TR on Operation: Black Dog. Eight years in the Army and my tour in Iraq are some of the predominant experiences which have shaped my life.
To be honest, my experience in Iraq was awful. I lost a lot of confidence over there, and I think there are at least three ways that happened. First, being an IED Hunter and getting blown up repeatedly, without any control of what happens to you or your friends, made me understand that there are forces in this world that are far beyond your control. It made me believe that anything can go wrong at any time, and I came to fear the worst case scenario because I experienced it too many times.
Secondly, I came to believe that I wasn’t safe and that no one could keep me safe. In the Battle of Sadr City, we worked with some of our military’s most elite troops. Everyday, we worked with Apache Gunships, fixed wing aircraft, security from M-1 Abrams and Bradleys, Stryker units, and Special Operators. We were flooded with help, but despite being supported by the most incredible fighting forces on the planet, I wasn’t safe. My life was constantly being threatened, and that has stuck with me ever since.
Third, I discovered how fragile life was. As my platoon’s medic, I was responsible for my guys when they got hurt. But, in losing two good friends and having others look to me for help when wounded, I realized that I could not prevent death. It wasn’t up to me. They either lived because their wounds were minor, or they died because their wounds were too severe. In seeing the fear in the eyes of my bravest comrades, I began to fear death, which seemed to come whenever it wanted.
So, I came to believe that the worst case scenario was probable, that death is inevitable and terrible, and that no one could stop it. That caused me to fall apart when I got home. I started having panic attacks that crippled my life. My goal was to stop them from happening, so I learned what triggered them and completely avoided those things. In particular, I have had tons of difficulty driving, especially in the afternoon and at night. Also, I have a hard time any time I don’t feel good or get exhausted, so I have done my best to protect myself in that way.
Avoiding my triggers has helped me get much better, but I have paid a price for that. I haven’t lived a “normal life” doing “normal” things like going to dinner and a movie on a Friday night since 2008. Why? Because I don’t have the confidence. I’m scared.
Despite how awful my experience at war was, I really miss the Army. I miss my friends and the camaraderie. I miss being around people who understand me. There’s just something different about folks who choose to serve, and even though I have lots of good friends now, none of them are like the people I knew in the military. Also, for some reason, I miss the fight in Sadr City, because hardly anything seemed more important. It was the ultimate mission and it was an honor to be needed in that way.
I dream about being back in the Army almost every night. I dream about the war. Sometimes it is about things that happened, and sometimes it’s not. If I could, I would join back up today, but that can never be. I don’t think that I am capable of returning to the fight. Not in that way. I’ve often wished I could return as a Navy Chaplain or something, just because I long to put on the uniform again and to serve. But, there’s no way they would take me because of my anxiety and PTSD.
When I found out about Team Rubicon I was thrilled about the possibility of helping out somehow. Some of my favorite times in the military were when I was serving during a disaster. There’s nothing like being able to help someone in their greatest hour of need, and so when I saw there was a team of veterans committed to responding to these emergencies, I wondered if they would be willing to let me help.
Honestly though, I questioned whether or not I was capable. Deep down I knew I couldn’t allow fear to control my life and prevent me from partaking in the thing that helps me to feel the most alive: serving.
When Operation Black Dog became official, I was very excited, but I was also nervous. Making the two-hour drive in the evening was one of the toughest things I’ve done in quite a while.
When I arrived, I thought, “Whew! The worst part is over.” Meeting everyone that night was great and even though I was in the company of strangers, I never felt like it. I felt comfortable. I felt at home.
When I was walking the tornado torn streets of Baxter Springs Saturday morning, it was like I had returned to my former self. I was the guy that I had been wishing that I could be for years; a soldier who was capable of serving others and doing something that really mattered. I worked that day with Rob Kugler, a Marine; Will Sell, a Sailor; and Dale Drake, an Airman. It was such an honor to be surrounded by such amazing guys with a passion for giving themselves to a greater cause. It was inspiring for me to work alongside them.
Then, that afternoon, despite my best attempts to stay hydrated, the heat got the best of me. Getting a little lightheaded and feeling sick, my anxiety kicked in. I was afraid to speak up at first, because my military experience taught me to suck it up on drive on. But, I knew that was a bad idea, so I spoke up and told the guys I was struggling. Not just physically, but mentally as well. They were amazing. Not one of them judged me. They immediately encouraged me and even shared stories of their own struggles and offered advice. It was empowering.
When the work was done that night and everyone returned to the VFW, the rest of the crew was just as understanding. I think my conversation with Will Train helped me to remember who I really am. Not just who I used to be when I was in the Army. I spent the rest of the evening just kicking it with the crew, talking about this and that and I had a great time. Going to bed Saturday night, I had regained some of the confidence I lost in the streets of Baghdad.
Outside of the personal impact the Team Rubicon experience and crew had on me, I was completely surprised by the professionalism of the crew and the manner in which they conducted their mission. I really can’t say enough about how well organized, efficient, and effective everything was. I was honestly blown away. I’m proud to have joined TR and I’m really looking forward to future opportunities to pitch in. Thanks so much for allowing me to participate and for the encouraging way in which you’ve allowed me to return to serving.
Thanks again for everything.