You get used to the danger.
I was interviewed by a reporter from Starts and Stripes, who asked me, “how does everyone deal with a life in which they could die at any moment?” I replied, “they cope by dismissing the danger. You can’t live life walking around and thinking about how you might catch a machine gun bullet in the mouth.” The men used a lot of humor to deal with the insanity of a life punctuated, nearly daily, with incoming rockets and machine gun rounds – from standing out in the open giving the finger to the known Taliban fighting positions, to taking bets on when the next attack would be. “Gallows humor” was perfected by my unit.
I have an edited helmet-cam video from that deployment that starts off, “[Our unit] loves the danger and fast-paced lifestyle of the Pech Valley”. That text is followed by two clips, about a minute each, of a drive down a stretch of road in the valley. The two trips occurred about a week apart. In both clips, multiple RPG strikes can be seen in a stretch of maybe a half-mile road. It’s surreal to watch the explosions and hear the gunfire. It’s also strangely comfortable. That was our lives.
But, the humor didn’t help when men died. A popular, older mechanic and a newly transferred mortarman were killed on the same day at different combat outposts by attacks. The men who dealt immediately with each of them in those were permanently scarred – one for the loss of a mentor, friend, and father figure, the other for the horror of a man bleeding to death in his arms.
The humor got us through the moment, but it can’t help enough as life returns to “normal” in the safe, secure, United States. Here, we are blessedly safe, and use our safety to attack people with words on the internet while searching for meaning. In that valley, our lives were always on the line, and decisions were meaningful, as brothers risked their lives for ours. Here, our lives are isolated in a world of social media while no one seems to care if we live or die.
The mortarman whose new teammate bled out in his arms never recovered. The infantryman who passed the helmet-cam video on to me, before we left the valley, never found meaning and purpose outside of the valley. Both left behind friends and family who loved them dearly as their lives ended at the bottom of the pit of depression. Neither had a faith that sees – that sees what purpose we are given beyond ourselves, that gives meaning to a life in a dark culture of empty comfort and entertainment. I never had a chance to really help them grasp that faith – or, if I did, I failed.
We were made for so much more than this.