Wait, why do you run towards the bullets?

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.

Stupid Smile Day
On patrol in Iraq – Likely in Iskandariyah sometime in 2007 or 2008.

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).

Iskandariya, Iraq
A typical street in Iskandariya Iraq – really, any town in Iraq.

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:

  1. Sit tight, return fire, and pray one of the other squads can flank the enemy.
  2. 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:

  1. You run towards the bullets because running away is very rarely an option (the enemy wins and that causes much bigger problems).
  2. Sitting still and waiting for help isn’t always an option because help might not be able to get to the enemy.
  3. 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!

PTSD Does Not Mean “Broken”

Post 8 - PTSD
Me in Iraq, circa 2008

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?

Post 9 - Promotion
Me getting my sergeant rank pinned on by two very helpful squad leaders…

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.

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!