From day one, I was trained to defend myself and to kill if necessary. With underlying tones of staying physically fit and making the proper choices, I learned the Army values and the basic skills I needed to be an American Soldier. During my second week of Basic Training, I wandered around in thick woods and brush with three other Soldiers counting paces and looking at a compass in order to learn land navigation. During grenade training, I hid in bunkers, popping my head up like a groundhog long enough to assess my objective then quickly ducked back down. I chucked the spoon, pulled the pin and with an all-in-one standing and throwing motion, launched my grenade toward my target then quickly ducked back down. My combatives partner and I were the same height and weight, only I had twenty years on her. My first sergeant felt this would make for an interesting match so I took and dished out as many blows as I could. Spent, I awaited the match-ending whistle expectantly. During rifle marksmanship, all the practice of sighting and breathing techniques from the weeks before came into play. Laying prone on a cement bunker, with two eyes open and my dominant eye looking through my iron sights, I waited patiently and watched my lane for pop-up green silhouette targets to appear. I steadied my hand, slowed my breathing, and gently pulled the trigger sending my 5.56mm round down range in attempts to hit my target center mass.
As a Soldier preparing to become a non-commissioned officer, I attended the Warrior Leader Course (WLC). I learned concepts such as composite risk assessment and leadership skills needed in garrison and tactical situations.
As a Soldier getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan, I endured hours of slide-show classes on Afghanistan… everything from cultural sensitivity to terrain. I practiced again with grenades and re-qualified with my rifle, even qualifying additionally on a 9mm hand gun. I practiced detainee operations, scouring over inches of my battle buddy’s body looking for pre-placed weapons. I practiced roll-over drills in up-armored vehicles and had my reactions to simulated Improvised Explosive Devices tested.
I role-played with actors during exercises at the National Training Center. My mock-Afghanistan came equipped with the desert features of hot days, cold nights, and sand storms. The actors, some of who were actually Afghan-born, ran me through near-real scenarios that I could potentially encounter in country.
I was encouraged to read books on Afghanistan and the war on terror. While still in the United States, I emailed my public affairs counterpart in the ‘Stan to talk to him about life on deployment and his surroundings there. I searched the internet… I Googled images… I read news stories… I watched videos… I talked with Soldiers who had deployed there before… I did everything I could to be immersed in “the war in Afghanistan” in preparation for my upcoming deployment.
All of this learning, training, and interaction had now, so I thought, prepared me to go on my first deployment. I was headed to northern Afghanistan on a mission to help the Afghans help themselves before American troops would have to withdraw from their country. I was anxious to get there and to put all of my training to work.
I recall having an immediate and high sense of awareness when I finally got to Afghanistan in January 2012. On the first night I arrived on my post, I gave myself a headache as my mind slowly gripped the reality of where I was and the possibilities of things that could go wrong. It was like I had hit my head on a brick wall and I grew a level of nervousness that didn’t leave, despite what efforts I attempted to make it subside.
My new-found baseline of nervousness was proven on my first walk to the outer Entry Control Point (ECP). It was not a casual stroll to the gate. I shook like a wet, cold cat emerging from an accidental fall in an icy lake. My eyes darted from point to point trying to take in absolutely every bit of detail. The Afghan soldiers near me, standing in their dark green uniforms and holding their rifles, unknowingly and unintentionally injected a unique anxiety into me. I had no personal reason to distrust or fear them but I kept flashing back to the vivid images of ECP bombings I had burned in my mind from the hours of photos and videos I had watched during training. The figures that I had seen in those pictures and videos were now real, not photographed, and stood just a mere few feet away from me. The Army had filled me with conflicting thoughts of these soldiers… these men. I had grown an apprehension of them… yet we were there to work with them, to train them, to better their country.
On my early missions, I literally had to stop myself from thinking in order to focus on the tasks I had before me. I would scare myself sick just with the thought of a possible suicide vest under a woman’s burqa or that any random Afghan could just start firing at my convoy at any moment. It was a possibility and there was no way to truly measure the likelihood of an event either.
People were no longer people to me… they were threats and potential targets if the circumstances materialized.
Legitimately, there is certain threat level to being an American Soldier in a country torn as to whether our presence there is a hindrance or an impetus. That threat level is exactly why the Army trained me the way they did. With every piece of training, a drill sergeant, team leader or someone with experience was telling me why I had to learn that particular bit of information or skill. I was told I had to learn it in case I ”ever deployed”, in case I “had to defend” myself, or in case I “had to kill someone”.
I had been told those reasons repeatedly throughout my training yet, now that I was away from my home and miles across the sea, it was really settling in and I was scaring myself. My mind, out of fear, had conjured up the thought that these people were all like those I had seen in the photos and videos. In my mind, they were all capable of pulling the trigger or pushing the button… and were just waiting their turn.
Ignorantly, I viewed these innocent, hard-working Afghan people as vicious predators… and without real cause. I had created an uneasiness in myself against an entire culture of people who I really didn’t know.
Who had I become? Where was this bitterness coming from? Had the Army made me into this? How dare I judge these people and mistakenly categorized them into something they weren’t?!
Fear had distorted the logic of my psyche as to whom the actual enemy was… and, at that moment, ironically, my fear was admittedly the most dangerous enemy I truly had.