Thursday, September 28, 2006

In The Mind of a Soldier

When I returned home from my first deployment I faced a slew of questions from seemingly everyone I came in contact with. Everyone wanted to know if it was hot, sandy, did I kill anyone, did anyone in my unit die or get hurt, am I okay, do I have bad dreams at night, is my hair falling out because I was around too much depleted uranium? The question that struck me as the most odd was “Was it scary?” Several people asked me if it was scary or if I was ever scared during my time in the sandbox. I had never thought of life in Iraq as scary so the question made me pause for a minute before I answered: “Uh…nope.”

Some people reacted to my answer with wide eyes and the reply that they would most assuredly be scared if they were in my position. “Oh I couldn’t imagine being so far away from home with all that bad stuff going on.” Really, well maybe that’s why I was there and you weren’t. What people often fail to recognize about soldiers is that we aren’t afraid, sure some anxiousness comes into play at times but I wouldn’t call it being scared. We train and train to do our jobs and when we finally get to do them it is the same as mechanic fixing a car, a garbage man picking up the trash, or a teacher delivering a lesson each day. The people in those professions don’t wake up each morning wondering if they might die that day and neither do we. We might face a bit more of a chance of getting shot or blown up then they do but it is all part of the job. I think they call them occupational hazards.

So what exactly do we think each day? Most soldiers debate what player they should bench on their fantasy sports teams, what new pictures to put up on their Myspace page, how many days they have left till they go home, or what exciting topic they are going to titillate their readers with next (okay that last one was just me). My point is that we think about the same things as people do back home it’s just that we are doing so in a different time zone. Sure getting blown up might briefly cross my mind once or twice a week but it is a passing thought and goes as quickly as it comes. Why think about that stuff? If it happens it happens, what am I going to do about it? What are you going to do about getting in a car wreck besides taking the only necessary steps you can?

Admittedly these thoughts change and occur more often depending on a soldier’s job but the fact is no one in the military gives it much thought except the extremely morbid. Thinking about death too much would only hamper our ability to do our jobs. If each time I drove through a city I worried about getting hit with a car bomb or an IED I wouldn’t be able to focus on my driving. We do occasionally get hit with IEDs but that is no reason to fear them every time we are on the road. I find myself having a hard time explaining this feeling in words right now. How can I not be scared of that which might kill me each time I leave my base? I imagine these feelings might change if anyone from my unit had died on the road but so far no one has.

Lets try another example. If the soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6th 1944 were too scared to do their job then they wouldn’t have broken through the Nazi defenses that day. Sure some if not all of them were scared but too much fear only hampers one’s ability to do their job. Soldiers look at their work as a mission that needs to be accomplished in order for the greater good of the operation they are participating in. If they don’t complete their job then it will hurt others and possibly place the overall mission in jeopardy. To do that would be complete failure and we cannot let something like fear overcome us when there is a job to be done.

Shame also plays a big role in motivating soldiers to move past their nervousness in order to get the job done. In basic training this idea is put to use over and over by drill sergeants. “Private if you don’t make it up that rope your ass is going to be mine! Your gonna let your whole platoon down!” At least for me I know the thought that millions of soldiers have done the same thing I have done in the military (and much worse in times past) motivates me to do my job when the going gets tough. I remember a particular time in basic training when I was at the end of a long ruck march and I thought it would be easier just to quit then complete the last couple miles. Then a thought of shame crept into my mind as I remembered all of the less athletic kids than I that I knew completed the very same training.

Whether wrong or right, or rather, just merely chauvinistic thinking on my part I have never dropped out of an army PT run that a female was in. I cannot let myself drop out while a girl is still running no matter how bad I may be hurting. Very stupid I know and chastise me accordingly but my point is that most soldiers, male and female, think along these same lines. We cannot simply quit when others are counting on us. We cannot be afraid when our jobs call for steadfast dedication.

I imagine I’ll get the same questions when I return home in a few weeks. Civilians yearn to know what it is like for deployed soldiers even if they don’t know the right questions to ask. My advice is to stay away from general questions like “So what was it like?” and “So did you like it?” What was what like and did I like what? Try and connect to the soldier and ask questions about their job or the area they operated in. “Now I understand you were in northern Iraq, how was the weather compared to the more southern cities?” or “What kind of problems did you encounter each day while doing your job?” These types of questions will lead the soldier to remember certain stories and from there they will probably open up about some real experiences they had.

It wasn’t until several months after I was thoroughly sick of answering any and all questions that people had of me that I started to open up on my own about certain things I did. Given a bit of time to myself I finally felt like talking about my deployment and was met with more accepting ears when the stories came out willingly on my part. I doubt I could say the same for all soldiers but I felt like it was my duty to tell people what life in Iraq was really like because I found that most people had no clue what was going on. Times have obviously changed from 2003 but many people know nothing more than fighting is still going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. I once had a girl back home ask me what an IED was and that was this year.

So go ahead and ask away because you’ll easily be able to tell if your question is dumb by the look on the soldiers face. Remember there are no dumb questions only stupid people.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I hope lots of people read it and take it to heart!

Antediluvia said...

Fantastic! I also hope lots of people get a hold of this post. A number that I know need it. Too often people just don't understand what it is like for soldiers during a war (myself included).

strykeraunt said...

This post provides excellent insight for us back home. I remember asking one of my nephews after his plane had barely touched down on U.S. soil, how does it feel to be home. I expected him to say something like, awesome, great, or what a relief! Instead his response was "scarey." This response surprised me. However, he explained that you reach a point where being over there becomes the norm and coming home becomes the unknown.

I never have asked either of my nephews if they killed anyone, and I never will. I figure if they want to talk about it they will bring the subject up themselves...and they never have. I am pretty confident that they are not holding back for my sake, but rather it is something they just don't want to discuss. They have shared plenty of their other experiences just not that.

t.h. snure said...

Ask the secretary (I'm sorry the administrative assistant) if she is scared everyday going to work because she might get a paper cut or more likely that she will get in a wreck on the way to work because she is putting on her make-up while she is supposed to be driving.

I guess there was a part of me that thought it might be a bit scary being in a war (almost 11 years on active duty, and I never got there), but like you say, if you dwell there you'll never get the job done day to day.

Strykeraunt, I like the explaination your nephew gave on his return. There are a lot of questions in a person's head when they return home after being away a long time, questions that no training can help you with (will my kids remember me? is my girlfriend still MY girlfriend?). These questions can turn your gut inside out a lot more than the sound of an explosion that you are trained to deal with.

Tim, I don't even think that I will have any questions for you when you get back, I'll just hand you a beer and listen to your stories (you notice I didn't even ask if you wanted the beer).


PS Helen does remember you, as for Eva I have to still remind her who I am after a nap.

mamaworecombatboots said...


Of course there are a few people who are just clueless but I think for the most part people are sincerely trying to establish a connection. For the average citizen, speaking to a member of the military is sort of like addressing a citizen of Mars.... what we do is as alien to them as if they had discovered ET in their backyard. (One look at a soldier in full gear and you can see where they might get that idea).

A civilian can always quit--we can't/won't. Big difference in mental processing.

Rakkvet 101 said...

I have to 2nd the request to stop asking a veteran that has been in a combat zone, "Did you kill anyone?" It makes my blood boil.

If I did, are you sure you want to hear about it?

If I didn't, does that mean I didn't do my job?

It's not like the movies kids. Real people die. Bullets don't leave clean holes. Grenades, rockets and bombs don't just make you fly really high in the air when they explode. Sorry, for the rant. I'm coming up on an anniversary you don't celebrate with cake and presents.

Tim H.

Melinda said...

Another excellent post, but I'm not surprised there! Thanks for yet another look at things from your perspective.

gypsy said...

Thanks for the additional insight t.f. I remember when my cousin came home last year, some of the questions were a bit...well, you know.

Stay safe and take care!

Leta said...

It's unfortunate that more civilians don't read milblogs and posts like this one. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

It is also unfortunate that so many Americans believe only what they hear from the MSM and don't bother to 1) educate themselves about what you all REALLY do depending on your branch/unit, etc as well as where you have been deployed and 2) VOLUNTEER - Oh, did I just use THAT word? I will NEVER understand how "we" depend on you all to VOLUNTEER to defend us yet "we" can't get off our lazy fannies to VOLUNTEER to support you all (which would help a heck of a lot with the dumb questions from stupid people) by joining an FRG, getting involved with AnySoldier, Soldier Angels, volunteering at a local VA hospital, etc. NO excuse - just no excuse.

I'm through the Atlanta airport 2 or more times a week and I constantly amazed at either the questions I hear asked OR the pitiful looks I see given to our military. Disgusting to me. Oh, I do hear a few "thank yous" and I see a few handshakes. Unfortunately, more often I hear the stupid questions.

Leta said...

You are a breath of fresh air.

Thank you for your "apology" - it is so REAL. It is unfortunate that posts like this don't make the front pages of the newspapers and the lead stories on TV.

Thank you for your service and for your commitment.

We DO support you all. Believe me we DO!

T. F. Boggs said...

Thank you Leta, your words are encouraging. Also thank you for your support, we appreciate people like you.

rashmi ramesh said...

Hey I'm working on a project to help soldiers on field. Can you help me by mentioning the various problems you face while you are at war, fighting? My project has a lot to do with GPS and communicating with your troop, sudden weather change issues,etc.