United States : an Afghanistan veteran tells us about his experience (2/2)
December 31 2014, after 13 years of clashes, NATO put an end to its involvement in Afghanistan, and handed over the reins to the Afghan army. Less publicized than the conflicts in Iraq, but also part of the “War on Terror” of the Bush Administration, the Afghanistan war caused around 90,000 deaths, of which 2,356 were American soldiers. Originally, it was a response to the September 11 attacks. While we often hear from opponents or victims bearing witness to the war, soldiers rarely express their views on the subject. At 31 years of age, Sean is in the final year of his Bachelor’s Degree in Geography at the University of Oregon. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he served between 2006 and 2007, he recounts his experience. Interview.
I’m completely going to change subjects and focus on you again. What would you say was your most recurrent feeling while you were there? Boredom? Fear? Sadness?
A lot of people describe going to war as hours or months of boredom, pierced by minutes of terror. And I would agree with that to an extent. We were certainly bored a lot of the time, but I was with a group of guys and we were fun! And we made our own fun. We’d pull pranks on each other, we dressed up for Halloween, and trick or treated around the base. Kind of shit like that, where, we did our best to entertain ourselves. I was scared every day we rolled out of the base. Because we would get rocket attacks, you know, these big seventy millimeter rockets, and they’d shoot them at us, but they weren’t very accurate. Because all they do is they lay down the rocket and attach it at an egg timer, the egg timer goes off, they runaway and the rocket just goes. All that is scary. I was really close to one, that was one of the time I got blown up. It landed like right where that tree is over there (he shows me a tree 2 meters away from us) , but fortunately there was an elevation differential and the blast went away up from me as opposed to shredding me, that would have been bad. That was kind of scary but we made a joke out of that. And if you survive it, it’s funny. You can make a joke out of it. The times that were scary eventually you have to accept it. Like, I’m here, I’m in Afghanistan, I’ve been trained to be a soldier for two years, asked to be a god damn soldier, this is what I’m here to do. Might die, like, might get paralyzed, might get whatever, but it’s out of my control, it’s out of my hands. Accept it, what you gonna do? You go to work and do what you got to do. If you’re well-trained and you got a good group of people around you, that’s what happens, you just go to work. And ideally, you know, none of your guys get hurt, all of their guys get hurt, and that’s the end of the work day. Kind of. I don’t know, you’re scared but you have accepted it, in a way.
Could you tell me about that story when you got attacked during the night?
Yeah, see, this is a good example of that kind of attitude. This was Mother’s Day 2007 (May 13), I was coming back from our little computer station, talking to my, I don’t know, wife, well ex wife at this point, or mom or whatever. And I walked back into the room and guys were playing cards, watching movies, doing whatever. And my buddy was asleep, because he had a guard shift coming up and he wanted to rest up before he had to go on guard. And I walked in, I set my stuff down, and then we hear (he imitates a machine gun), and we are used to that because the Afghan security guard, guys I told you about, they like to get high and shoot. How they entertain themselves, I get it. So we were used to that, but then we hear (he imitates the sound of an explosion), and that is an RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade), that’s a different sound, that’s not good. So we all started to put our stuffs on, we were figuring out we’re getting attacked. And I gotta wake up my buddy, I shake him by the foot. And he looks at me, he looks down his watch, he’s like “what the fuck?” and right then another RPG comes and hits. And he just goes “ooooooh, I get it”. He got his stuff on, we went out. Right when I went out the door, another RPG hit the building, across from us, that’s another time I got blown up. And I got covered with gravel and shit, but nothing, not a scratch. Then we went around and established our little base of fire on the wall, and that’s where you just get on the line and you shoot back. Then, we got air cover, and the Taliban had started retreating, the air cover just massacred them. We picked up bodies. Whenever you kill somebody there you got to pick up the body and then you return it to whatever the local village is, so that they can bury him according to their… stuff. And we were picking up bodies all damn day. Anyway, they were shooting us, I didn’t go knock on their door that day, so I don’t feel too bad about it, but it was a long day.
So, you managed not to get wounded too much before the “big one”?
Yeah, so I got blown up five times. And I managed not to take much in the way of damage. I did catch some pieces of bullet in my arm but that doesn’t really count, you know, that’s more of a “shit happens” kind of thing. And then, the big explosion was April 26, 2007. And I think an anti-tank mine, was what they determined that my truck hit. And, yeah, that was a big boom. Everybody thought I was dead, everybody thought we were all dead. We were the lead truck in the convoy, and we were running through this particularly whiny bit of road, so nobody could see us. All they saw was, you know, they heard the boom, and that giant plume of smoke and pieces of truck flying. So they were like “yeah well everybody is dead”. Obviously there was more emotion behind it than that. When that happens, when an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) goes off, you’re supposed to wait. Because what they were starting to do in Iraq by the time we got there, was what we call a “complex ambush”. They would detonate the IED, that would damage your vehicle, and then everybody rushes up the hell, and then they either detonate a second IED or initiate an ambush. So, you’re supposed to wait a minute, see if something else goes off, or if they start shooting.
If that didn’t happen, do you think you would have stayed there?
Oh yeah, I absolutely would have stayed. A bunch of my friends and I had decided to go to the special forces assessment and selection course, and they all made it. And I was at least as good a soldier as they were, so I would have been right there with them. Yeah, I would have made a career out of it. I enjoyed my time, I mean, don’t get me wrong, there were parts that were terrible. I had the worst luck, well, I have the worst luck in general, like, in my life. Like, you have night vision goggles, right, you have to tie it down to your helmet in case it falls off. So, there’s a little string that runs across and I’d be walking along through a forest, and all of a sudden, just a branch catches the string and… just, terrible terrible luck. I used to fall on my face all the time with the damn things on. I was cold most of the time, I was hungry a lot of the time, my feet were always fucked up, because you’re walking everywhere. But I tell you it was a great experience and I loved doing the job. I had a hard time holding a job since I’ve been out, because, like, the fuck am I supposed to do? Like seat in an office all the god damn day? It’s not what I am, it’s not what I do. And I’m trying to adapt, I’m kinda, I don’t know, I was in the hiring process for the FBI, and that was kind of a compromised position for me, that didn’t work out. So now I’m looking at cops stuff, and, I don’t know, man. I’m just not, stuff, you know. I’m just not, not feeling it.
Are you, kind of bored since you’re back ?
Oh yeah, no question. But I mean at the same time, the wars are over. Like, what the fuck am I supposed to do? I can’t just bounce around, fighting everywhere. I expect to have any kind of a normal life. I thought about the Legion (organization for veterans) actually, I’ve considered that quite a bit. I’m still in pretty good shape, I can make it, I’ll be fine. We’ll see what happens.
What were you told you were going there for?
Well, you have to understand that when you’re in that job, by the time you’ve gotten there, and you’ve earned your infantryman… Our symbol is crossed muskets (large military rifle), by the time you are in your crossed rifles, the “why you are going over there” isn’t necessarily, it’s academic, like, you can talk about it but doesn’t really fucking matter. You’re gonna go and you’re gonna do whatever, you know, you have to do. What was discussed with us, was that we were going to help secure the government of Afghanistan and spread, you know, not so much democracy because democracy is, like, above our pay grade, you know what I mean, but we’re supposed to be securing the area for this group of people. And I mean, I like to think we were successful, it’s hard to say. Someone asked me if I thought it was worth it, I think it’s a really hard question to answer. I thought about it a lot since, and I mean, I don’t know, I would give you a similar answer, which is, I think so… It’s hard to say. I don’t know what life expectancy there is, it’s not terribly high, I know that. And if we helped them have a good year, that’s not a bad thing. I guess, anything that anybody does matter. If you’re just trying to judge by failure to success ratio, everybody’s losing. I think it’s just up to you, whether or not you think what you did matters, and taking that responsibility for yourself.
What would you have to say to people who think the army is a bunch of violent and dumb guys who have no idea what they are doing?
Well, we are pretty good at the violence part. They’ve got us there. (laughs) I mean, I’m going to be honest with you, as far as the enlisted ranks go, I’m an exception. But I’m not that much of an exception, like I had a bunch of friends that were very well-educated, and could have a conversation while I don’t agree with them on everything. I, for example, was the only registered democrat in my little group of people. And I took a lot of shit for that. But the average American has no connection whatsoever, or maybe their grandfather served, but they don’t talk about it. It’s a dehumanized thing for them, I’m not a person. Even the supporters, I’m barely a person, I’m a hero, I’m a symbol of whatever they want America to be at the moment. And that’s tough, I don’t like being called a hero. I’m just a guy who did the job, that’s more my thing. So I think that, if that’s their preconceived notion, I would just encourage them to know soldiers better and former soldiers. And I mean, by and large, they’re just people. You don’t have to agree with them all the time, most are pretty conservative and whatever whatever, but, I don’t know, doesn’t make them bad people. We all eat pizza and drink beer, right?
Was there a moment when you were there, when you saw one or more Taliban as normal human beings and not the enemy?
It’s an interesting question. I always looked at them as people. The army trains you to dehumanize and disconnect. When you’re on a shooting range, you are firing at a target, at an enemy or whatever. The Marine Corps on the other hand I think they have a much better idea of how to do this. They are teaching you to fucking kill. And that’s what we’re doing. Let’s be honest about what that job is. So I think you always have to look at them as people, if you’re being honest with yourself about what you’re doing. And I think it’s partly why I handle all my post traumatic stress stuff, fairly well, is that I don’t have a gap between, like, “this is the Taliban but he’s also a person and I feel bad because I killed the person while I was fighting the Taliban”, and fuck that. That guy shot at me and I shot at him, what are you gonna do?
You said you felt bad once about shooting a young man?
I felt bad about shooting that kid, absolutely. You could describe me as somewhat remorseless in my application of violence, but that’s only because I felt it was justified. If I had ever unintentionally shot somebody, obviously, that’s fucking bad, I would feel incredibly devastated about that. That kid I felt bad about, because he was young. I feel bad that he had that gun in his hands. But ultimately, he did. And there is not a lot I can do about it at the moment. I’m not taking a bullet for an Afghan kid that is trying to put it in me. I would take a bullet for a random Afghan civilian, sure, fine, fine, that’s fine, happy to do it. But some kid who is trying to shoot me, that’s jut not gonna happen. So, I don’t know, this bullet, or those bullets I should say, I shot him twice. He earned those bullets the same way anybody else, 16 to 36, if you pointed a gun at me, my friends, an Afghan civilian, if you threatened anybody, you earned the bullet. That’s that.
If it were to do it all again, would you do it?
Oh, I absolutely would. I’m thinking about trying to get back to the military right now. The downside to that is that there’s no war going on. I can’t go do my job. But yeah, I would. I would definitely do parts of it differently, but I would ultimately do it again. I would even get back in that truck, on April 26th, 2007. I absolutely would. Because, I tell you what, the other guys in that truck, driver was married with kids, truck commander was married with kids, we had an interpret in the back, and then a guy that I didn’t know very well, he was new, I just didn’t know him. But if I don’t get in that truck, some other guy, who is married with fucking kids, he is. And I can’t do that. I cant leave that work to somebody else. If I didn’t do it, and somebody else did, and didn’t survive it, or got hurt worse than I did or whatever, I’d be responsible for that. And I couldn’t handle it. I’m sorry, that’s an emotional question for me. The American army is fucking volunteer. And if you don’t pick up that riffle as an American, you are leaving that to someone else. And it’s kind of like voting. There’s a saying in this country that if you don’t vote, you don’t get to to complain. And in my mind, if you don’t take a riffle, and take part in what’s going on and do your best in that job, then you don’t get to complain either. I just couldn’t leave that to somebody else to do.
Ex-rédactrice en chef, étudiante en Science politique à La Sorbonne, féministe et fan de Rihanna.