Pin Point

Shadow of the bird in Afghanistan

Can you pin point the moment when you realized that you were no longer normal? Do you remember that oh-so-clear evidence that something had happened to you, to the way you thought, to who you were. You like me probably realized that what was gone, wasn’t just gone, but it was dead. I can ping the moment, I know it and I see it in my mind, its too clear.

That Moment:

The Angel Flight. If you are a combat vet, those three words should gut wrench you, the same way amazing grace on the bag pipes or taps on the trumpet does. The Angel Flight, is a blackhawk helicopter lift, that moves the freshly dead soldiers out of Baghdad or any other combat support hospital down to the morgues in Tallill and then out of country through Kuwait. When the angel flight goes out, everyone inside the hospital goes outside for the solemn procession. The bodies are brought out and loaded into the bird, the salute is rendered and the fallen troops are flown out. This is the single hardest thing I have ever witnessed. The first time I saw it, I was young and dumb. I saw it in Afghanistan as the bodies were loaded into a C-130 at Bagram Air Base. The flag-draped coffins were loaded the door slowly raised and shut. I was a big blubbering wussy, but I hid it well and buried it so no-one else would see. Years later, standing in the dark LZ in Baghdad, listening for the sound of the incoming bird and the sound of incoming rounds, I stood and watched. I watched as the bodies were loaded, salutes rendered. I stood there blankly and realized in a moment that once gut-wrenched me so completely, I felt nothing. I thought to myself that it was the meat wagon. There were dead men leaving on that bird, guys I had probably seen or smoked and joked with and I didn’t feel a single damn thing. That was when I knew there was something really wrong or at least different about me. That night I tried to force some feelings. I tried to force myself, while riding in a black hawk, to think about how those dead men would feel if they knew that I felt nothing at the fact of their death, still nothing.

Where to from here?

That moment bugs me but I can say now I can feel the deaths of the fallen that left that night. I can say that realizing that I was jacked-up was really a good thing because it made me sit up and pay attention. I realized that this wasn’t just something to suck up and move out. It was the swift kick in the arse I needed to start working on stitching up these invisible wounds. Sounds strange, I know but look at it from this perspective. I never slowed down while I was deployed. I was always working through things in my head. I was always working through the battle drills and planning what to do. If, then do this was the only way my brain processed. I was never afraid of the gun fire or the IED’s or the EFP’s, I never gave myself the time to fear anything but failing my guys. So this moment when I was standing there watching this bird lift off with fallen American Heroes inside and I wasn’t so much as moved; I knew something was a miss, and it probably saved my life.

Can you pin point it? Do you remember that moment when you were like,”Wow I am really jacked up.”?


One response to “Pin Point

  • myeke

    Great Post Daniel! I am not sure I knew the numbing at the moment it happened or if I saw it in retrospect.
    Nor was it one event but a continuation of events that eventually created what we called the thousand
    yard stare, that cold, blank, empty pair of eyes that no longer gave off nor absorbed life. And there were
    two types of events, actual combat/firefights and that tedious hyper vigilance inbetween. I do remember
    not being able to grieve any loss or experience at the moment it happened. nor while being at war.
    The end of a firefight did not mean the end of hyper vigilance or that any period of safe time had arrived,
    we were always hyper to every sight, sound, smell and touch, this was stressful. After one particularly
    long firefight/battle that lasted well into dark, we spent the night not knowing if ‘they’ were gone. The next
    morning in the early jungle haze we saw the dead bodies and huge blood trails where opponents had crawled
    or were dragged away. Other bodies we had to carry on heavy branches like animals on a safari.
    But I thinkt he worst mentally for me was on Easter Sunday when a priest came out into the jungle to say
    mass. It was the first time I had gone to mass carrying a machine gun and a chest full of hand grenades.
    In his sermon the priest told us two Americans from another company had been killed. Then he said, “Now
    I want you to go out and get two of them”! I was so startled at this then became enraged. I wanted to scream
    at him, ‘If you want two of them dead, go kill’em yourself asshole’! I never went to church again and religion/God
    died for me that day.
    In my thinking I believe we do numb ourselves at war to stay alive and to stay warrior sane, but our minds record
    these events and play them back on us when we get home. I think this is one of the reasons many of us think
    we are going home to life as it was before war. We are not prepared for the mental tapes to be replayed whenwe get home and are no longer in combat danger. This sense of numbing is only one aspect of war experiences that I denied
    while at war and why the volume and intensity of those memories played back after war were so overwhelming.
    Hope this makes sense.

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