The effects of combat on the psyche (part 4)
by, 04-02-2011 at 08:30 AM (190 Views)
When I experienced my first firefight, I responded in a very unusual way. When the machine guns started barking, my mind instantly went calm. I habitually snatched up my SAW and dropped down into a squat so that my elbows were supported on the roof of the vehicle. I passed over the MK19 as we were in a farming community and I had no idea as to who could be hidden in the tall grass of the field. It could be a combatant, or a civilian, so I opted for the more precise weapon. When I dropped down, I noticed that everything had gone silent. I could still hear the roar of the diesel engine, multiple rifle reports and the wind running across my ears, but everything seemed distinct and separate; almost tranquil. In the perception, I wasn’t there. There was also no machinegun, or targets; there was just the unified whole of rifle marksmanship. I was not there scanning for targets, there was just scanning. I was overcome with a blissful unity of being initiated by fear and enhanced by my training. This state didn’t last very long as we pulled out of this hostile area in less than a minute. It was then that I heard a little voice coming from the back of my head that said, “Shouldn’t you be a little nervous.” All at once, it felt as if a gallon of adrenaline was dumped into my system. My blood pressure skyrocketed and my muscles ached from holding the machine gun up and squatting down low for cover. My sense of self returned to leave me submerged in astronomical amounts of physical stress and an amplified level of fear. All I could think about then was how much I wanted a cigarette.
In other situations, my senses were elevated in ways that I didn’t know existed. One day we were driving across Kuwait during one of our painfully short stays in this relatively safe country. We were dressed down for this mission, so we wore only civilian grade body armor and carried only our pistols. As we drove down the Kuwaiti highway, my hand instinctually reached for my pistol suspended in my thigh holster. This is something I did often as I found the weapons presence reassuring. What I did next startles me to this day. As I reached down to feel the security of my weapon, I continued to swing off the retaining latch and completely draw it out of the holster. I then moved the selector lever from safe, to fire, pulled the slide to the rear and let it go, chambering a round. I then looked down at my hands, horrified at what I had done. Weapon safety is beaten into the minds of every soldier. A weapon in such a state should only be facing down-range at a target. How could I have unconsciously committed such a novice and dangerous mistake? I was embarrassed for sitting in the back seat of the HMMWV playing with my weapon. Just then, my stomach knotted up, as if some fear or dread was causing my entire midsection to implode in upon itself. Something felt terribly wrong. It was then that my attention was forced to my left outside the vehicle. I sat there feeling horrified and in the grip of some unseen power. Then, my fear manifested itself in the form of a red fender of a car that was pulling up alongside our vehicle. I stared intently at the car. As it came up along side of us, I saw five occupants, all Middle Eastern males presumably in their mid to late twenties. They were smiling and waving at us. I smiled back with my pistol held below the window still in my hand with a round in the chamber and on fire. Just then my team leader turned to me and told me to keep an eye on that car. The red car then pulled in front of us, slowed a little and then veered off onto an exit ramp. My team leader again turned to me and said, “I got a real bad feeling about that car.” I relayed my side of the story to him and showed him my pistol. Something had triggered a reaction for both of us that defies definition other than a gut instinct. Had this happened to myself alone, I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it, nor would have I felt comfortable recounting the tale. But since it happened to the two of us at once, I put a lot more credibility into the experience. I conclude that due to my heightened alertness, forces or senses beyond my ordinary perception of reality guided my movements and decision-making.
Over all, my reaction to becoming a hunter was pretty good. For the most part, I thought of it as an extreme contact sport, except the stakes were a lot higher. There was almost a stereotypical masculine aggression element to it of “me” vs. “you.” On the road, things felt equal. I was here with my weapons, and the insurgents were there with their own. It was war as you would think war should be with everybody trying his or her best to blow everyone else up. This aspect of combat didn’t bother me much at all. I’ll even go so far as to say that it was fun. Indirect fire was another story.
Mortars Scare the Hell Out of Me
I’m not sure if there is any good way to get used to indirect fire. It was the chaos of random mortar attacks that truly helped me realize the fragility and the utter meaninglessness of human life. It felt as if every day I was playing a game of Russian roulette with a revolver whose cylinder had a thousand chambers in it, but only one round. It was this randomness that focused my mind on the utter chaos of our world. There are no guarantees that this revolver won’t go off on any of us. Some days, it felt as if this revolver had fewer chambers in it. Some days, the game wasn’t played at all. But over all, that possibility of death when you least expected it was looming overhead at all times.
We were up near Balad working in the enemy prisoner of war wing of the combat support hospital when a mortar stuck the compound while I was on weapons guard in our tent. I was cruising through my fourth Harry Potter book of the week and an incoming enemy mortar exploded less than 100m from the tent. The concussion violently shook the tent and knocked the wind out of me a bit. I just sat there dumbfounded. That was the closest a mortar would ever land to me on this deployment and I never wish to experience that again. I had expected to be confronted by violence, but it was the passive element of the experience that really caught me off guard. I was relaxing in the hot breeze enjoying an easy read when this happened. This was such an incredible contrast to the person I was up on the turret who faced conflict on every mission. I wasn’t ready for the fight to be brought to my own cot! When my wits came to me, I slowly looked around awkwardly, not knowing what to do. So I grabbed my Kevlar and put it on my head. Then I slowly donned my Interceptor vest. There I sat in my body armor reading Harry Potter with the chilling realization that my perception of violence had been taken to a whole new level.