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Saturday
Oct172009

On the Other Side

In those moments after the blast of a roadside bomb, and the dust clears, the victims of the blast face a future that forever changes their army family and their biological family.  Improvised Explosive Devices or IED's are claiming most of the lives in Afghanistan, but the fact is -- most soldiers survive them, only to face multiple surgeries, agonizing rehabilitation, and the constant background of pain and pain medication.

Each year, thousands of veterans come to heal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and that is where I met the men of 3rd BCT one more time on Friday.

I went with a soldier, home on leave, to encourage and uplift the men I knew in Afghanistan.  I was a proxy for the brigade colonel and the chaplain, checking on the progress of a specific senior enlisted soldier, known and respected by many.

He's a gruff and sturdy sergeant major who ran the soldiers in a personal way - not from behind a desk, but from inside an MRAP.  That is why, he was in the convoy on a hot August Tuesday heading to a command outpost to set up a memorial service for a 23-year-old gunner whose life had been taken by an IED the previous Friday.  I had traveled the same road myself that Friday, just ahead of the gunner with a platoon assigned to clear the road of bombs.  We had been hit once, the rear vehicle, but no one was seriously injured. That gunner was not so fortunate.  Neither, it turned out, was the sergeant major.

But I didn't know any of that when I sat down beside him at lunch-time chow that Tuesday.  I'd had some business with him that morning, and decided to join one of the few familiar faces for a bite to eat, well aware that I might not eat that well again for a day, as I planned to stay overnight with the men, along with the battalion commander.

He spoke loudly and was full of bravado, at one point daring me to come with him on his journey - if I wanted to prove myself tough.  I explained that I'd 'done my time' on that road -- at that point, one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan because of the high number of IED's hitting convoys every day -- and that I'd be joining the battalion commander - a lieutenant colonel - on his helicopter.

"See you there!" I called as we dumped our plates in the metal trash cans outside the chow hall.

Thing is - I didn't.

The black hawk was hovering over Route Georgia - this IED-riddled road when it happened.

We saw a brown puff of smoke and the overturned MRAP.  We heard there were injuries.  But not until we were in the command post's plywood command center did I realize that we had witnessed the attack on this sergeant major. 

Broken Back.  Can't feel his legs.  

And the look on the lieutenant colonel's face -- deep concern and sadness.  In the army, it's so much more rare for a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer) to get hurt than a private or a specialist.  Their responsibilities can keep them behind the wire for longer periods of time, and thus safer.  But the lieutenant colonel would have to make the call.  He would have to speak to a wife on vacation with their small children.  His wife would have to activate the support network.  Now more than ever, he would take this attack personally.

I got to know the chaplain that night at the small command outpost, called COP Tangi, named for the Tangi Valley, a lush but very dangerous part of Wardak Province.  The chaplain considered the sergeant major a good friend and for the first time, the war hit him in the gut.  He was there to comfort the young men who'd lost a brother, a bunkmate, a leader in that gunner who died in the IED blast, but they - equally - comforted him.  And over cigars on a starlit night, they talked about what they remembered in their friends; what they treasured, telling dirty jokes and funny stories.

All I could think about was the dare I didn't take, and what unlikely friends the gruff sergeant major and the introspective chaplain must have made.

Then I met him at Walter Reed.  It was brief.  I'm not certain he really knew who I was even though he indicated he did.  He's in a robotic wheel chair, feet bandaged, tubes coming out of his arms, pictures of his kids on his hospital wall.  He still speaks gruffly, only softer now.  He says there's some feeling in his legs, and he's working hard in therapy.  He says he doesn't think he'll return to soldiering; says those days are over.

And now - instead of a towering, imposing man,  He's quiet, shrunken, emanating a quiet sarcasm and making sure he gets his chinese food before his next therapy appointment.  

Yes -- he's still in charge.

Reader Comments (1)

Very moving and well-told. One can tell that you really connected with the soldiers you were with in Afghanistan. Glad you didn't take the dare.

There is the small issue of grammar/syntax. Who's does not = Whose (which would have been correct). Very minor compared to the gravity of the story itself. But what's a proofreading dad for, anyway?

Love ya!

October 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Weinstein (Dad)

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