Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Martin parked the truck outside the concrete slabs arranged in a defensive perimeter around the tactical operations center at Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan.
A layer of fine brown dust hung in the air. Out in the distance, high, snow-capped mountains ringed the combined U.S.-Afghan base. C-130 transport planes and Apache helicopter gunships roared overhead at regular intervals.
“You wanna see where the rocket landed?” he asked me.
“Yeah, of course,” I replied.
“How you doing?” he asked, knowing what was in store for me later.
“I’m fine,” I replied automatically, not knowing if it was a lie. “I’m sure it’ll sink in later.”
He said nothing.
It was December 2013, and I was embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent for United Press International. Due to the frequency of Taliban attacks, at the time FOB Shank was jokingly called “rocket city” by the U.S. soldiers stationed there.
Hills and urban areas dotted the enormous bowl valley within which the base sat in Logar Province, offering plenty of places for Taliban militants to hide and lob one-off rocket and mortar shots.
Consequently, the place was constructed like a medieval castle. Reinforced concrete and rebar bunkers lined with sandbags and stocked with first aid kits were never more than sprinting distance away.
When the air raid alarm went off, as it did several times a day, you had two choices.
If you weren’t near a bunker, you just dropped to the ground, covered your head with your arms and prayed silently that the incoming round didn’t hit anywhere near you.
You kept your eyes down and stared at a seam on the plywood floor of the room you were in, or at a pebble or blade of grass in the field into which you dove.
You focused on the sound of the alarm and waited for evidence of the exploding Taliban weapon, hoping that it was a distant thud and not a flash of red and white and heat and then darkness. Survival is reduced to a few seconds of waiting and pure luck.
If you happened to be near a bunker, then you went for it. You stopped whatever it was you were doing and got your butt under cover.
The entrances to the bunkers were open to the outside, with another vertical concrete slab a few yards away, ostensibly to block horizontal shrapnel.
You usually could see blue sky out the entrance, though, which always made me wonder what would happen if a well-placed mortar found its way into the little space between the open entrance and the protective shield a few feet away. Such a scenario would turn the bunker into a death trap.
But the odds of that happening were low.
Martin and I left the truck and walked over to a 3-foot-wide crater in a gravel clearing about 20 yards beyond the walls of the Army compound.
It was mid-afternoon, and we had just eaten lunch. A standard meal from the DFAC (a military acronym for chow hall) of some indescribable meat and soggy vegetables, topped off with a few Rip-Its for an afternoon caffeine kick.
“Jesus,” Martin said as we looked at the charred crater where the destroyed Taliban rocket had hit the earth. “We’re so [expletive] lucky to be alive.”
‘He’s Long Gone’
As if on cue, we both looked up and in the direction of the rocket’s flight path. Along that line of sight there was a tall radio antenna inside the Army compound, about 100 yards from the crater.
A few hours prior, Martin and I had been standing underneath the towering steel structure, chatting while we sipped on Blue Monster energy drinks. When the attack came, we survived by diving into a concrete bunker that, as luck would have it, was only a few feet away.
Farther out in the distance behind the antenna, slightly obscured in the valley’s eternal brown haze and well beyond the base perimeter, was a low bluff covered in typically drab Afghan buildings. Apache gunships still patrolled the skies above this area.
“That must be where they [expletive] shot from,” Martin said. “Although they always put the rockets on timers and run away before they shoot. Don’t know why they’re still looking for him. He’s long gone.”
Martin estimated that the Taliban militant had aimed the rocket at the radio antenna, since it was an easily identifiable landmark at that distance. It was a good shot, he said.
The rocket might have hit the tower had it not been shot out of the sky by the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System that guarded FOB Shank from indirect enemy fire.
“We killed off most of the experienced Taliban fighters long ago,” Martin said. “That one obviously had pretty good aim, so he’s probably been around a while. It also means he knows how to disappear, because we’re very good at killing whoever shoots at us.”
‘That Was Close’
That was how Martin convinced me that I probably wasn’t going to die in a rocket or mortar attack when I first arrived at FOB Shank. The Taliban didn’t live long enough to get very good at aiming its rockets or mortars, he assured me.
The Taliban refilled its ranks quickly, he said, but lacked experience.
I felt so relieved.
After the attack, we inspected the exterior of the bunker within which we had sought shelter and found it pockmarked by nickel- and dime-sized shrapnel holes. Any one of those supersonic, molten metal bits would have been lethal.
It was a miracle that Martin and I were alive, and the gravity of our near-death experience was beginning to weigh on me. My head was spinning as if I were drunk; time and emotions operated at some other speed than normal as I dealt with the what-ifs and the nauseating reality of how close I had come to dying.
“That sound,” Martin continued, referring to the laser Doppler sound that bullets or shrapnel make when passing overhead, similar to quickly running your fingernail down tightly stretched nylon. “I know that sound. That was close—too close.”
It’s a distinctive sound that, once you’ve heard it in the context of combat, will trigger the primal part of your brain that guides reflexive life-and-death responses.
Surviving on Autopilot
That’s probably why Martin beat me inside the bunker that morning by several seconds. As a veteran of two wars and eight combat deployments, he had been under fire a lot more than I had.
They say that when you’re faced with a life-or-death situation, your training kicks in, and you don’t think about what you’re doing anymore. It’s all muscle memory. You operate on autopilot.
That’s true, to a degree. Training, after all, is just a safely repeatable replacement for near-death experiences.
In his book, “Outliers,” journalist Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that becoming an expert at a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. Perhaps that’s true. But one near-death experience has a similar effect to those 10,000 hours, ingraining in your memory every action, no matter how minute, that kept you alive.
And when any portion of that near-death experience is recreated—the sound of an air raid alert, a car backfiring, the Doppler sound of passing shrapnel, the pop of miniature sonic booms as bullets pass overhead—the unthinking responses that saved your life are triggered automatically as if they had been forged by 10,000 hours of practice.
As a former military pilot, I’m aware of this phenomenon.
In pilot training the instructors would put students in simulators and subject us to unsurvivable situations again and again. We would emerge from the simulator dripping in sweat and with our hearts beating out of our chests.
Even though we were just sitting in the simulator working the controls and flipping switches, our bodies responded to the effort as though we were doing back-to-back Ironman triathlons.
Why Time Appears to Slow
But that’s the point. The hormones released by high-stress situations instruct the brain to imprint memories more deeply.
Evolution taught us that trick: The caveman who could best remember how he escaped a saber-toothed tiger attack had a statistically better shot at surviving the next one.
That’s why time appears to slow down in a car crash or while you’re getting mugged. The adrenaline coursing through your veins triggers your brain into hyperactive memory storage. Your mind and senses go into overdrive, absorbing every sensory detail with superhuman lucidity and completeness.
Because of this, an event that might only last a split second occupies as much mental storage space as a week or a month. Years later you can recall details, feelings, colors, smells, and sounds more vividly than you can remember this morning’s breakfast.
Two years later, I can remember with perfect detail Martin’s facial expressions when the rocket exploded overhead. I specifically recall a spot of whiskers on his face that he had missed shaving that morning.
In Ukraine last September, I had a Kalashnikov pointed at me at a separatist checkpoint. Today I can recall the vein pattern on the hand of the soldier.
This hyper-alertness often extends beyond the actual experience that sparked it. For hours, maybe even days after you evade death, life just seems, well, better.
You laugh easier. Things smell better. You notice little details in places and things you have seen countless times before. You want to talk about what happened, you want to tell friends and family that you love them. You live harder and truer than you ever have before. And it feels good.
‘I Feel So Alive’
The evening I returned to Florida after my time in Afghanistan as an embedded journalist, I drove across the Everglades at sunset.
I pulled the car over on the side of the road, stretched out my arms and felt the sun’s warmth on my skin. I closed my eyes and could see the glowing red of the fading day’s light through my eyelids.
“I feel so alive,” I remember thinking. “I wish I could live my whole life like this.”
That is PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s the inability of normal life to ever match the amplitude of living that you achieved in war. It’s the letdown of survival, and the worry that normal life is just a countdown to a gentle fade-out.
Ask most combat veterans to name the worst experiences of their lives, and they’ll probably tell you it was war.
But here’s the confusing part. When you ask them to choose the best experiences of their lives, they’ll usually say it was war, too.
This is nearly impossible for someone who has not been in war to understand. But the lesson to be gleaned from this confusing truth is essential to understanding the experiences of the 0.75 percent of the U.S. population who are in the military and the 7 percent who are veterans.
No Pity Required
Contrary to the steady stream of Wounded Warrior Foundation commercials on TV, combat veterans are not broken, and they are not victims.
They should not be pitied or looked at with a sad shaking of the head or some reflexive “Geez, what a shame.” Pitying them belittles their experiences and misrepresents the challenges they face after military life.
Combat veterans have experienced a spectrum of emotions whose breadth supersedes by a number you cannot imagine the emotional fluctuations of civilian life. That’s why it’s hard to care about normal things when you come back. Ask a combat veteran about this; it’s a common feeling.
Normal life, whatever that is, seems silly and pointless. It’s a gray rerun that leaves you feeling hollow. You live on a razor’s edge, only skipping across the surface of life, never returning to the heights or the depths of what you felt in war.
But PTSD isn’t nostalgia. Nostalgia is really just forgetting the bad parts of a memory. You never forget the bad parts of war. The pain of losing a friend or the images of the dead reflect in everything you see and echo in everything you hear in peace.
Yet, even in times of comfort, you find yourself missing the hardships of deployments. The tough times at least made you feel something. And that’s what you miss the most—feeling truly alive.
You say things like: “I was happier living in a plywood hooch in Afghanistan with my worldly possessions reduced to whatever fit into a backpack than I am now, living in this apartment, where everything I could ever want is within my grasp.” That’s from a veteran who now works on Wall Street.
Reflections of War
How does that make sense? Why do the fantasies that sustained us through the toughest times of our lives seem like such a disappointment when we come home to live them?
Maybe, for those who have been to war, the metric by which you measure pleasure and pain is permanently reset.
You’re not sad. You’re just flat. You start to lust for the feelings to which you didn’t realize you were addicted, but required the worst experience of your life to achieve.
You grow resentful of those who go about their lives indifferent to your experiences and the sacrifices of the brothers and sisters with whom you’ve served. The little pleasures and achievements that drive most people’s lives and the challenges they claim to have overcome all seem inconsequential.
You see reflections of your wartime experience in every part of life, and you wonder, knowing what you know now, how those around you can live the way they do.
That is PTSD.
Combat veterans aren’t damaged. They are enlightened, complicated souls forced to live life by a set of rules and expectations that can make pursuing true happiness feel like chasing the moon.
And for those who ultimately descend into a darkness from which they cannot save themselves, it was not war that broke them.
It was the peace to which they returned, but never found.