I spent May of 2010-April 2011 in the Pech River Valley of Afghanistan. Our area of operations included the Waygal, Chapadara, Shuryak, Korengal, and Watapur Valleys. There have been several books and movies written about that area – because it was a shooting gallery.
My battalion was involved in over 1200 “TICs” (Troops in Contact, involving direct and/or indirect fire) in less than a year. Three of our four combat outposts (COPs) were in the Top 5 of all of Afghanistan for number of TICs. We had exactly two 24-hour periods in the entire year that didn’t involve a gunfight. It was a crazy time. We endured a casualty rate of about 1/8 of the unit, losing 17 total men to death and around total 150 wounded.
Every week I would travel by road between the COPs. Sunday at Blessing, Monday at Michigan, Tuesday at Able Main, Wednesday at Honaker-Miracle, and back to Blessing on Thursday. I typically would be on the receiving end of gunfire and RPGs on at least one of those transits each week. One platoon playfully called me a “bullet magnet”. My vehicle was attacked with IEDs three times (though only one was successful), and I had countless near misses on the road and on foot from RPGs, rockets, recoilless rifle rounds, mortars, and small arms. Mind you, as a chaplain, I did not carry a weapon. It was a crazy life.
And, I miss it. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the guys who were happy to see me – some because they liked me, some because they felt better when a chaplain was around, and some who just knew another week had passed because I had arrived. I miss hanging out with the infantrymen, the supply guys, the medics, the mortar team, the cooks, the leaders, the radio operators, the mechanics. I miss chilling over coffee, sprinting to the aid station during an attack, leading field services, and holding the hand of a wounded warrior. I miss the thrill of knowing I just escaped death again. I miss Call of Duty with guys who were doing it for real 4 hours ago. I miss helping guys through tough times.
I just finished Sebastian Junger’s “Tribes”, which took me by surprise. On the one hand, it’s encouraging to know my reaction is pretty normal. On the other, it’s hard to hear how difficult it has been for those who had similar experiences. No, it isn’t PTSD trauma itself that has been biting my brothers and sisters, it is the lack of community in these divided states.
We’ve lost more than a half-dozen men to suicide since we returned. They all had people they could have called, but they didn’t. Some did identify as Christian, some didn’t. But, none of them had real community they felt a part of, at least not like they did in war. None of them had a vibrant faith centered on the One who made all things, and who is making all things new. When things looked worst in their lives, they didn’t feel like they had anything to live for, even when they had wives, children, parents, and brothers-in-arms who loved them and needed them.
So, while my book is aimed at growing in faith, the goal isn’t merely people who know more. It’s people who are part of the community of faith – living, growing, loving, supporting, sacrificing – for themselves and for each other. A life dedicated to the one who gave his life so that we could have new life is one that looks like this. It’s one that gives meaning, hope, focus, and purpose…and those are things we all need to survive this world.
(Photo Credit: J.J. McCool, http://jjmccool.net/, taken at COP Michigan with a bunch of men I love)