Four months into deployment overseas and the war began to take over, as the missiles flew across the sky, falling in various places on base, the sirens screaming the sound of danger approaching, telling us to get to bunkers. This was just a glimpse of my life as SW2 McDowell, that’s what the patch on my chest says anyways. Heck I still can’t get over being called by my last name for eight years. My days consisted of being driver, and sometimes a gunner in the harsh environment of Afghanistan, moving from one base to another. Sometimes down rigorous roads, up steep hill sides through the mountains of Afghanistan, and through small villages made from clay and straw, with no clear signs of electricity; all the while doing this during the darkness of night and sometimes during the scorching daylight.
Most weeks involved explosions near the various bases and fobs (forward operating base) we were at, in this time I had seen death, heard death, smelled death, and feared death, wondering if I would ever go home or even make it home. As war starts to consume you, you try to find a way out, well my way out was going to be my M4 rifle; it could have been so easy, sitting there in my room, alone, with no one to interrupt me, a M4 by my side, with eight clips, thirty rounds in each one, of 5.56 rounds; granted I would only need one to take the pain away, to end it all, you could say “taking the easy way out.” At this point in my life, I had no god by my side, no family besides my brothers and sisters of the armed forces, I had no support but myself to make a choice, life or death.
“Now that’s the kicker isn’t it, with us losing 22-veterans a day to suicide” we all see it, we just choose not to believe it, until it becomes our issue.
It’s not that we don’t have support, or someone to call, it’s that the time we have alone, can be our most vulnerable point, it’s as if once left alone, we get locked in a box, with all the tools needed to give up, it becomes a mental battle, do we choose life or death, do we keeping driving on, or do we kill the engine?
As the night falls, the wind blows the smell of dirt, gunpowder, and death all around, and the sirens scream “take cover”, you stop to think, will this ever end? and if so when? Every day is the same here, somedays are different, but for the most part there is a way of life here, and nothing can stop it. It’s as if you’re in the land of death, where the reapers rome, watching and waiting for their next victim of war. At night while you sleep, the darkness embraces you in a blanket of fear, while during the day darkness confronts you around every corner, always keeping you on your toes, never knowing when your time could be.
In a world unknown, we have the greatest strength a man or woman could ever find physically, but mentally we weaken as every day passes. Death becomes a part of you, whether you see it, hear it, smell it or think it, it’s there. Living with death everywhere, you begin to change, not much, but just enough for it to lay dormant in you until it finds its moment to attack you from the inside out. You don’t know it yet, but in time this darkness will reveal itself to you little by little, until you become someone who you can’t recognize in the mirror, it’s as if there is two of you, one side good and one side bad. This darkness begins to manifest itself as you, within yourself, where you can see yourself doing things you would never do, but you are helpless to stop it.
People, doctors, family and more never understand a veterans disabilities in a way the veteran can from their experiences of war; unless you experience it, you don’t know, some things are physical, such as amputees, or pains and aches, but the mental side of things is what you don’t understand from my perspective, whether it’s my dreams, or lack of sleep, depression, anxiety, anger and so much more, it all stems off our memories, you can’t erase my mind, or my thoughts, my experiences and memories, and this is the problem because whether it’s a year after this trauma or ten years, when you hear a boom, it takes you back; when you see a flash, it takes you back; there are so many triggers out there, that bring back memories, and every day is different; if it’s an off day for you, it can through you into an episode, sometimes small, sometimes big, sometimes it progresses throughout the day, week or even month. It all stems off memories, which makes this battle forever lasting.
What do you imagine when you think of death? Well what I imagined was what I’d already seen, which is friends and family dying from old age, disease, cancer and such, or the norm you could say, but the most horrific death I’ve seen firsthand was when I was at war.
Three days in and I saw the aftermath of a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device,) while in a IED (improvised explosive device) training class, it was as if it were yesterday, standing there seeing two locals outside the wire walking to this spot in front of us about a hundred yards out, not quite knowing what they were doing until they stopped. Then one of them laid a flannel shirt down on the ground, the two men pick up the torso of the man who bombed the base in the VBIED; there were no arms, no legs, and no head on this torso, they picked up this body, laid it in a shirt, wrapped it up, then through it over their back like it was Santa with a bag of presents, then walked away as if nothing happened. If that doesn’t tell you this isn’t a game, I don’t know what does, because this image that’s burnt into my brain, will forever trap apart of myself here in the dessert.
The second time was at night, I was heading to the chow hall like I did every night, except I pushed it off this night, due to getting caught up in a conversation with my roommate, thankfully, because originally, I had planned on leaving thirty mins early, and the walk alone took ten minutes. But on my way to go eat, I heard this sound which I can only describe as a weapon of some sort having a miss fire, then a boom with the sound of something hitting metal. At this point I was nearly there. The missile that fell from the sky had hit the roof of the chow hall, the roof deflected most of it, but what had made it through, killed a 22-year-old EOD kid in the army, face down in his dinner, and a piece of scrap metal hit one of our senior chiefs in his neck, causing him to be life flighted to Germany. Everyone else either took cover, or ran for cover, until it was safe to help, go seek medical attention and get back to our way of things during war.
This one affected me because if I would have left when I wanted to, I might not be here today, and that’s not me procrastinating, that’s the truth, I would have been somewhere in that galley eating, at the mercy of flying metal with the force of death behind it. Not to mention there were plenty of close calls, from the IED explosions either on the road we were driving, bomb scares, and explosions right outside of where we were located, as well as driving through mind fields due to a careless driver, and one of our vehicles being hit by an anti-personnel mine which blew off the front of a tactical vehicle, injuring four of our people. Hell, our battalion even has its very own Forrest Gump, which will forever live with him. I still remember that day, Doc up on the wall, patrolling the perimeter, then wouldn’t you know it, we started receiving fire. Well guess what, Doc got shot in his ass. It wasn’t funny at the moment, but when everything was all said and done, we sure had one hell of a laugh. But this was just some of many incidences, it was the way of life at war.
Then lastly the death in our minds, from the nightmares of everything we have seen and experienced firsthand, the fear of dying and never coming home, how we could possible die in this country surrounded by death. Which all of this eventually manifest into death personally on the home front. An example would be, let’s say, driving. I always have these thoughts of dying in a car crash, sometimes by my own dewing, but other times by other drivers, then what I would do in my final moments of life, who would I call first, would I walk my bloody mangled body home to say my final words to my loving wife, my beautiful daughter, and my smart boy, what would I say? You see the thing is death lurks around the corner waiting for our moment; sometimes I feel as though I have a glimpse or an idea of how it will happen, but when? How bad? We fear what we can’t control, the mind being one of those things. Death is a very vivid picture in a veteran’s mind, whether it be the past, present or future. Many of us have seen death first hand, our lives revolved around the ultimate sacrifice for your country; not that we want to die, but that we would gladly lay our lives down for the people and country we love, so they may live a life of freedom.
“Isn’t that what we do for love? We sacrifice.”