Let’s be honest, any rational person reading the title of this blog post thinks it’s crazy for anyone to be addicted to such a horrible course of events classified as a war. However, these same rational people, when thrust into the dangerous profession of being a front line soldier are at risk of becoming addicted. It can happen gradually over an extended period of time or all at once. What cannot be disputed is that everyone is at risk.
So, why does this happen? What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war? How can a person be willing to do anything to get their next fix of something all civilized societies in the history of the world have classified as the worst part of human nature? Why are these addicts encouraged to pursue their addiction? What can be done to save these people before the inevitable results of constant exposure to high-stress, life-threatening events exacts the ultimate cost?
For answers to the questions above, you’ll have to keep checking in to this blog. This post will only attempt to shed light on the one of them: What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war?
Let’s get into it…
One: Belief in a cause…
This is the most obvious and the most prominent. When a person has such strong convictions in the reason for the war occurring in the first place it is easy for them to want to do everything possible to support it. This includes returning to the most dangerous places on Earth time and again to fight for that cause. Many service members want to be in combat because they feel like they are fulfilling their duty to protect their country from <insert enemy title> (think terrorists, communists, fascists, and other bad “ists”). A cause is a powerful thing and governments throughout history have created causes to lure their citizenry into voluntarily putting themselves in danger for the fulfillment of the cause.
There is no feeling in the world like the pure adrenaline pumped into your body when another human being is actively attempting to end your life AND you have the capacity to stop them from accomplishing their mission. It’s the ultimate win. Athletes get a taste of this when they win a high-stakes competition; business leaders sample this feeling after closing a big financial deal; everyone savors it right after narrowly escaping a car wreck. No one but the front line combat troops (and law enforcement officers) truly understand this type of adrenaline pump. Addiction to adrenaline is in and of itself an addiction, but adrenaline from an engagement with the enemy is unique in my opinion.
Three: The simple life…
This one is likely to confuse some people, but I will attempt to clarify. For a young, single, no children at home combat troop, combat is the simplest existence on the planet. No utility bills to pay, housing (shelter is a more apt description) is provided, food is available…all the basic necessities of life are provided. Money isn’t worth much because there isn’t anything to spend it on (except cigarettes, dip, candy, gear, and hygiene products). The almighty dollar won’t save you in a firefight. Life is simpler with three objectives:
Accomplish the mission
Bring everyone else home
Bring yourself home
Married combat troops – not sure how much this one applies to you, but I’m sure some of you would agree with this description.
This is just my take on the “problem” of addiction to war – feel free to shout me down in the comments!
It doesn’t make much sense to the average person why anybody would willingly run towards the source of a fired bullet. To be honest, from the outside, it doesn’t make any sense. However, this is exactly what every infantryman is trained to do and it is expected that they will not hesitate when the situation presents itself.
Getting shot at is a unique experience. Different people react differently to the situation. Some hide behind something that will stop a bullet (cover) and hope the person shooting at them gets bored and goes away. Others hardly register that they are getting shot at and move slowly to a safer place. While some charge in the direction of where the bullets are coming from in an attempt to get to the source before the shooters realize a crazy person just charged their position.
The senses can go a bit crazy when getting shot at – time can feel like it is slowing down or speeding up, sounds become very distinct or everything goes silent, the eyes can lock on specific things such as flying debris or blur everything at once, muscles can seize up or go completely slack. There is no guarantee that a person is going to know how their body and mind will react every time another person is purposefully trying to kill them. Training helps, but it is not an adequate stand-in for the real thing.
Okay, let’s break all of this down a little bit because it is more complicated than the surface makes it appear.
DISCLAIMER: This is a hypothetical situation partially based on real experience but mainly fabricated in my mind to illustrate the title of this post – so keep calm and don’t Monday morning quarterback it too much.
First, let’s outline the situation many infantryman find themselves in during a deployment to a combat theater. A platoon (about 25-30 soldiers) is tasked with a “knock and search” mission within a designated area. Given the confines of the area’s layout, the HMMWVS and MRAPS aren’t able to provide close support and are left with a small detail of soldiers a few hundred meters away from the squads on the ground. To reduce the enemy’s ability to skip out of the back of a house during the search, each of the three line squads (likely 7 soldiers after leaving two with their vehicles) are on three parallel streets, searching houses in line with each other (i.e. each squad is clearing three houses next to each other so no squad ends up in front of or behind the others).
Suddenly, without warning, the distinctive cracking sound of an AK-47 splits the air as dozens of 7.62 MM bullets impact around the soldiers of the squad on the far left of the clearing area. Shouts from the soldiers now fill the air as they reflexively start firing in the direction they think the rounds came from – which isn’t very likely to be accurate. The other two squads pause, consolidate, and begin their game plan to close with the enemy and destroy them.
Unfortunately, the middle squad is now under direct fire from a second enemy position. The sound of an RPK on full cyclic is deafening as it lays down suppressing fire on the middle squad. An RPG impacts a wall close to the squad leader, knocking him down and causing momentary confusion amongst his soldiers. The middle squad is pinned down and cannot effectively move. It’s an old west box canyon made up of mud brick houses and walls – a death trap.
Welcome to an ambush. It is not your friend.
In the situation I have outlined above, you’re effectively fucked if your in the middle squad and not in a great place if you’re in the squad on the far left. The only elements that can maneuver effectively are the squad on the far right and the vehicles. Now, everyone will have a different way of handling this, but, inevitably soldiers are going to have to maneuver under fire (i.e. while getting shot at).
Ideally, the vehicles would be able to flank around to the left of the far left squad and lay down covering fire thus allowing the squad on the ground to maneuver while the enemy is ducking. Meanwhile, the squad on the far right would be able to flank the enemy in the middle zone while the middle squad distracted the enemy with a heavy base of fire. Two flanking elements on opposite sides of an objective requires coordination and great training to accomplish with minimal risk, but it can be done.
Too bad the real world isn’t as clean as a basic tactics manual makes it seem.
The vehicles can’t flank around the left because of an irrigation canal. They can only try to maneuver down the streets the squads are on, but this will simply put them in the line of some very direct fire and result in becoming combat ineffective. Instead, they stage (positions themselves for a particular purpose) as the casualty collection point (CCP) and prepare for a hasty departure. Not ideal.
The squad on the right tries to flank the enemy position in the middle but run into barriers such as walls, ditches, and houses which slow their progress. The middle squad has two wounded at this point and their base fire is dwindling. “Talking guns” kicks in as the team leaders coordinate their team’s firing so there are always bullets going “down range” (i.e. towards the enemy). This helps keep the enemy behind cover (something that will stop a bullet) and not shooting at friendly forces. It is only partially effective on the best of days.
This has left the squad on the left with two options:
Sit tight, return fire, and pray one of the other squads can flank the enemy.
Coordinate their fire, maneuver to the enemy position, and kill them.
In my world, due to training, conditioning, and my own irritation with getting shot at, I always opted for Option 2.
With one team laying down suppressing fire the other team would sprint in short intervals up the street towards the enemy position. After each burst, the team that moved would lay down fire while the other team moved either on line with the team firing or to a position ahead of them. Rinse and repeat until you are at the enemy position. Once in the same place as the enemy an entirely different drill is used to get in the house, clear it, and secure the site – but that is for many other posts.
In the end, soldiers have made the conscious decision to move a distance (with or without cover) while an enemy is trying really, really hard to kill them.
So, just to put a bow on this post:
You run towards the bullets because running away is very rarely an option (the enemy wins and that causes much bigger problems).
Sitting still and waiting for help isn’t always an option because help might not be able to get to the enemy.
From personal experience, the enemy does not respond well when insane soldiers run straight towards them instead of cowering in fear – this is an advantage over the enemy.
Not all infantryman who make it through training end up being able to do this in the real world. Are they cowards? Maybe. Should they be kept in their position within an infantry unit? No, but they will because barring gross negligence that is provable it’s a game of “he said, she said”. It’s unfortunate that there is not a better way of handling these situations. Again, this is for a future post.
Have you ever been shot at? How did you respond to the situation? Tell us all about it in the comments section and remember to like, follow, and SHARE this pot with all of your friends who wonder about getting shot at!
A question I used to get asked a lot was “why did you join the army?” Over the years my answer has evolved into a succinct one liner: I didn’t have a lot of options and the army seemed like the best thing to do at the time. However, this is only a small part of the truth. The real answer is a bit more complex than my default response.
In February 2002, I decided to move out of my parent’s house in the middle of the night after a verbal altercation with my step-dad. I was 18 years old and thought I knew everything I needed to know about the real world. Within the course of the following month I bounced around from one friend’s couch to another, quit my job, and dropped out of high school. That final point was a sticking point for me since I had a perfect GPA and, by all accounts, was on a fast track to a four year degree. My life was falling apart before I really got it started.
Some time in March I found myself in my best friend’s house with her then husband and his family. The days were short and the nights were long as I tried to figure out what I was going to do next. How was I going to support myself? What could be done about my destroyed education? Why had I taken such a menial dispute with my step-dad so seriously? Had I ruined my life?
While drinking Smirnoff Ice (yeah, there’s a blast from the past for all of you) one night, I listed out my potential options:
Work a dead end job while working to get my GED and hope to make it through community college within the next 5 years.
Get my GED and apply to the local police academy with fingers crossed.
Get my GED, join the army, serve the minimum number of required years, walkaway with the GI Bill, and forget it ever happened.
That same night I talked it over with a small group of friends. This resulted in the immediate dismissal of the police academy since I would have to arrest all of them for a variety of charges. The appeal of working a dead end job never sat well with me so I crossed that off the list. This left the Army. This left an organization I had protested against throughout my rebellious teenage years for a number of reasons.
The next day, I went to the local recruiting station in Midland, Texas. The attacks of 9/11 were very fresh in everyone’s minds and the war in Afghanistan was still being fought primarily by irregular forces supplied by Special Forces and the CIA. Recruiters were hard pressed to meet their quotas but the graduating class of 2002 hadn’t finished high school yet so the recruiters were under pressure. I walked into the office dressed in all black, wallet chain, and spiked hair – likely the picture of a problem child. Three pairs of eyes quickly settled on me and almost immediately rolled into the back of their owner’s heads.
“How can I help you?” one of them asked without standing up.
“Yeah, where do I sign?” was my slightly enthusiastic response.
Three grown men nearly climbed over their desks to be the first to reach me, apparently Midland wasn’t supplying them with enough interested bodies to meet their quotas.
“Come here son,” said a gruff voice from the back of the office. The Sergeant First Class in charge of the recruiting office was standing in front of the only closed room in the space.
I grinned (as I often did back then) and headed back to the mid-30 something man holding his office’s door open. The room was cramped, but I took a seat without it being offered. Arrogance masked as confidence. I knew I needed the Army as much as it needed me at that moment, but it didn’t deflate my ego one bit.
“What’s wrong with you?” the SFC asked.
Taken aback by the direct question, I hesitated, before sheepishly responding, “I don’t have a diploma…but I’m getting my GED as soon as possible.”
He simply nodded, picked up the phone, and scheduled an appointment for me with a local charter school. At no cost to me, the charter school evaluated my school records and determined what would be needed for them to issue me a diploma. Within a week I had graduated from high school.
Throughout the recruiting process I maintained that I would only go in as infantry. At the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), the officer in charge of my first contract offered me an Intelligence Analyst Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) with a signing bonus, secret clearance, duty station of choice, and 4 year contract, but I stuck to my guns. If I was going to serve in the Army, I was going to fight. I was going to do the most difficult job in the entire organization to prove to myself and others that I could do it. Pride stood in the way of what would have been a more beneficial job once I gout out of the Army.
In the end, I got what I wanted: a 3-year contract as an 11X (unassigned infantry MOS – assignment occurs during One Station Unit Training OSUT) with no duty station of choice, clearance, or signing bonus. I couldn’t be happier at the time. I was proud that I stuck to my guns for the job I thought I wanted. I stuck it to the man!
However, my mindset had yet to change towards the Army as an organization. I was convinced I would serve my 3 years, get out, and forget it ever happened. Remember, this was a year before Operation Iraqi Freedom began so the chances of seeing combat were minimal at best.
Fast forward one year and I am soon to be promoted to PFC (E-3, Private First Class) while stationed in Korea. I would soon earn my Expert Infantryman’s Badge (EIB) and was the model of a young soldier. It was likely that people thought I was born in the uniform since I never seemed to take it off.
Sometime in Basic Training I decided I liked the Army. It was structured, disciplined, rigid yet flexible, and rewarded results instead of effort. The core functions of the infantry job made sense to me (close with the enemy and destroy them) and I found I was fairly good at all of them. I was hooked and happy for it.
During my leave after Basic Training I had decided I wanted to accomplish three things in the three years I was planning on being in the Army (yeah, still hadn’t adjusted that target):
Become a Non-Commissioned Officer
Attend and graduate Sniper School
I ended up accomplishing two of the three goals in my first three years in the Army and letting go of the dream for Sniper School over the next few years. Once I experienced combat it was all I felt I needed in my life – but that’s a series of posts for later.
I reveled in the physical pain of the training. I longed for the mental and emotional roller coaster of training and, later, combat. I was able to push myself without boundaries. I was pushed to the edge by my leadership and fellow soldiers. Everyday was a challenge. Everyday proved I could do more than the day before.
Over the years in the wet woods of Korea, dry desert of Iraq, and army-friendly Clarksville, my opinions of the Army changed. I loved the Army. I loved the infantry. I loved the experience I gained at such a young age. I loved the soldiers I was responsible for training and leading into combat. There was nothing more important than the soldiers I led – nothing.
I learned and experienced the brotherhood of the Army infantry. I lived for it.
Six years was shorter than I intended to stay in the service, but it was long enough to know I will likely never find anything else that is as fulfilling as the Army was for me.
Did you serve in the military? Why did you join? Why did you stay in or get out? Leave it all in the comments and don’t forget to like, share, and follow this blog!
I was scrolling through my LinkedIn account yesterday and ran across an interesting article detailing changes coming to the training regiment for new infantry soldiers. Though I have been out of the Army for 10 years, I still feel a personal sense of responsibility to remain aware of current trends in the army. In the past decade, a focus on drone capabilities, developing and introducing new technology to all facets of the force, and what the next war will entail typically hold headlines. However, a vital flaw in our army’s readiness and capacity to fight wars began to form while I was still in uniform: poor training and preparedness of new enlisted infantry soldiers.
In the article, Brigadier General Christopher T. Donahue (Infantry School Commandant) mentions the need to ensure ” that the right people are being selected for the Infantry Branch”. They need to be intelligent and capable of handling austere conditions at their worst and for long periods of time. Many assume that only those who failed to get a high score on their entrance exam (ASVAB) join the infantry, but this has always been a misconception. “The right people” should not simply refer to intelligence, but also the ability to assimilate into the army structure without losing their ability to critically think.
Donahue mentions that infantry soldiers need to be able to continue the fight even when everything goes sideways with or without guidance from superiors. Just because the radio was shot or pierced by shrapnel does not mean you pack it up and go home – you have to complete the mission objective. To do this, you must have good on-the-ground leadership as well as soldiers capable of (and willing to) think critically.
Due to the need for boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan too many waivers were issued for individuals who had no right being in the army, let alone the infantry, in the early to mid-2000s. Felons, no diploma/GED, assault charges, and other waivers permitted young men to enter the army without any real dedication or commitment to the organization or its mission. This permeated the army with undisciplined, rebellious, dangerous individuals – some would go on to great careers that changed their lives while others refused to grow up. These individuals took away from those who joined to serve, fight, and close with the enemy with honor.
As a leader for a majority of my service, I regularly received new soldiers who were straight out of Basic Training. As the years in Iraq and Afghanistan ticked by, I noticed a significant decrease in these soldier’s professionalism, basic soldier skill sets, and general discipline. These new soldiers could barely fire a weapon or execute basic fire drills (infantry maneuvers) safely – it was mind blowing to me.
Donahue is experimenting with a significant increase in the amount of time new infantry soldiers remain at One Station Unit Training (OSUT – the combination of Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training). More time in a strictly training environment will do these new soldiers some good and take some of the burden off of regular units upon receipt of these soldiers. The most difficult thing to do is get a new soldier, straight out of Basic Training, ready for a deployment – I hope these changes help.
Another major improvement will be to marksmanship qualification and training. Moving from the out-dated model of foxhole and prone firing positions to a more realistic prone supported, prone unsupported, kneeling, standing approach is long over due. In the real world (i.e. war), you don’t get to choose the best position to fire from every time and practicing different positions does help.
The next thing that needs to happen is the line units (regular infantry, not Rangers or SF) need more advanced and regular marksmanship training. This should include situational awareness training (shoot/don’t shoot scenarios) as well as advanced tactics and firing positions. It’s a misconception by the general public that regular infantry soldiers simply sit on a firing range and plink away for hours on end with an endless supply of ammunition. I can count on one hand how many times I had more than 40 live-rounds of ammunition for live-fire exercises (not qualification ranges) in the 6+ years I was in the army.
A final point that should be addressed (though it is not included in the article) is soldiers of the 21st century still need to learn how to do things without technology. A GPS is great until the batteries die or the screen is shattered and unreadable. Personal computers and future exoskeletons are wonderful until sand and grit break the CPU or lock up a joint. Soldiers will always need to know how to navigate with a paper map and a compass. They should know how to shoot their weapons accurately with iron sights. They need to know basic first aid when they don’t have an expanding bandage or Quikclot at their disposal. Knowing how to accomplish the mission when you don’t have modern conveniences is a very important skill set to maintain.
I applaud the army for its efforts to improve soldier readiness through training and a better selection process. I hope those who are currently serving in war zones around the world see a positive impact from these changes.
Did you serve in the infantry? What did you observe as some of the greatest weaknesses or things of greatest importance to be improved? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments and don’t forget to like, share, and follow this blog!
As I was running on the treadmill yesterday morning, listening to the band Five Finger Death Punch, my mind wandered back to the days of old when I was in the Army. The picture accompanying this post is of me in Iraq circa 2008. I was a Staff Sergeant, infantry squad leader, and on my third tour of duty in that particular country. The quality of life during that visit to Iraq was much higher than my previous trips to other parts of the country. We had clean water, secure base, relatively clean living conditions, and only one enemy contact (an improvised explosive devise that didn’t hit my platoon or squad). It was a quiet time in our area of responsibility in Iskandariyah and its surrounding area.
With each trudging stride on the treadmill, I remembered the long, grueling runs up and down the “Schoolhouse” route in Korea. This was a favorite route of many Team Leaders (including myself once I earned the position) for its steep inclines and seemingly disproportionately shallow declines that culminated in a beautiful school tucked away from modern civilization. I recalled my brief runs on the small airbase outside of Camp Fallujah in 2004 at the beginning of my first tour in Iraq. Back then I had dreams of Ranger School, Special Forces, and a life of hardship directed by the U.S. Army. My mind flashed forward to Fort Campbell and the near leisurely squad runs I oversaw each morning. I would run the squad in formation between 1 and 3 miles out then turn them around and let them free run back to the company area – requiring each member of the squad to get there before I did. More recently, in Kosovo I reminisced about the midnight run I did, alone, that consisted of, well, running. I simply put on shorts and a t-shirt with my running shoes and started running (very Forrest Gump style). That run lasted about 15 miles and a couple of hours; running up and down the dirt roads that circled Camp Bondsteel thinking about all the things in my life.
Running has almost always been an activity of calm for me despite the fact that I am an “ugly runner”. I don’t talk while running, I don’t engage, I simply run. Nowadays, I am running to lose weight, focus my mind, and (hopefully) prevent pure embarrassment as I tackle actual races throughout the year. I have never been the fastest runner nor the slowest, always existing somewhere in the middle. This is okay with me – I don’t think I ever dreamed of being a world-class athlete, let alone a gold medal winning marathoner. Running is my center and every time I stop running for extended periods of time, I find myself off balance which negatively impacts my life.
What does all this talk about running have to do with the title of this blog post?
Well, I also remembered the sprint I made from a courtyard in Ramadi, Iraq to the wall surrounding a mosque while under readily identifiable enemy fire. For those that don’t know what that means: bad guys were actively shooting bullets from AK-47 rifles in my, and my team’s direction, with the intent to kill one or all of us. The distance covered was about 100 meters and required a slight elbow-like turn halfway to the destination (the scariest part since it required the slightest decrease in forward momentum to avoid falling on our asses). We were completely exposed to the enemy and any step could have been followed by a bullet to a softer part of our bodies.
I recalled the building-to-building bounding (sprinting from one place to another) in a hostile marketplace in the rural outskirts of southwest Baghdad while a sniper and gunman took pot-shots at me and my soldiers. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle was falling down around us, everything appeared gray and downtrodden. At one point, in a surrealistic moment, I took cover behind a vandalized mural of Saddam Hussein in the middle of the open courtyard at the heart of the marketplace. The rain fell around me as I peaked around the edge to better identify where the enemy was firing from. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, my radio seemed quieter, and an odd calm took over the world. I was strangely at peace in the middle of chaos.
My mind brought to bear the memories of jumping out of a helicopter as it hovered a foot or so off the ground over a potato field outside an abandoned, half-built Russian power plant south of Baghdad. Once the bird (helicopter) dropped its babies it quickly rose into the air and peeled away into the jet-black night sky. I led my platoon (as point-man, not designated leader) out of the potato field, onto an asphalt road, across a bridge, and through the front gates of this abandoned complex. My squad cleared the main administrative building while the other squads peeled off to their designated clearance zones. Calling the building that reminded me of most small American schools “clear” (no enemy presence), my men and I moved to clearing the shanty town of plywood buildings that had been used for storage and living spaces that surrounded the admin building. All appeared clear of enemy presence. During this clearance, someone (I don’t remember who), found a “bongo” (snub-nose, typically flat bed truck popular in the Middle East) truck with a solid coating of blood on its bed. It was presumed this was the blood of the American soldiers we had been sent to look for after their abduction by enemy forces at a checkpoint a few miles from the power plant.
Checking it out…
Screw it, I’ve got an M9 and flashlight…
And the journey begins…
Many more of these memories found their way to my mind’s eye during my short run on the treadmill yesterday morning. I started thinking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it seems that the American public expects every veteran to suffer from this problem. It can be seen in movies and television all the time: Agent Booth in Bones was traumatized by the loss of his spotter, Vietnam Veterans have been portrayed as “broken” since the war was actively in progress, and newer movies about Iraq (Hurt Locker (puke), American Soldiers, and others) always contain a large portion of its cast reliving their memories from “the shit”. I know, first-hand, that PTSD is a very real thing and different people have different thresholds for dealing with it.
But what about those of us who don’t actively suffer from PTSD? Are we the exception or are we broken in other ways?
I don’t have nightmares. I don’t feel survivor’s guilt. I am not easily triggered into an “over-the-top” reaction to explosions, gun fire, or falling plywood. I don’t drive in the center of the road fearing there might be a bomb buried on the side of the road. I don’t drink heavily, trying to drown my memories and tears. Most importantly, I don’t relive my memories, I simply remember them and an appropriate emotional response occurs.
When I first left the Army, I did have issues with hyper-vigilance and over-the-top emotional responses (typically anger) to minor slights. However, this is more attributable to why I left the Army and the speed at which that happened than anything else (that’s a whole other long blog post). To help with this, I had three appointments with a psychologist at the VA in Tucson, Arizona. I think she found my telling of the stories (lack of emotion, more of a report than a story) more interesting than my reaction to them at that time. I was diagnosed with PTSD, but I didn’t seek any further treatment since I was (and am) fully capable of thriving in day-to-day life without pharmaceutical, therapeutic, or self-medicating treatment.
Despite these facts, it seems that non-veterans and veterans alike assume that since I was an infantryman who was in Iraq for 33 months during some of the worst fighting the country experienced that I should be broken, crying, and constantly talking about the medications I am on to keep me from being a danger to myself or others around me. It is despicable that people assume soldiers are broken simply because they served.
I guess what this overly long post is driving at is: Don’t assume I am broken and should be acting like that guy in that movie who drinks too much, can’t stop crying, and ultimately just needs a hug.
For those people who do suffer from PTSD, veteran or not, find someone to talk to, whether it is a professional or a friend or a family member or a dog, don’t let your experiences and memories run your life. Let it out and seek help sooner than later.
Any veterans out there with an opinion on this matter? Anyone know of some good resources for people to use if they suffer from PTSD? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!