Author’s Note: Due to ongoing legal battles and for fear of repercussions, several names in this story have been changed to help protect the identity of the main character.
“The unwanted, doing the unforgivable, for the ungrateful.”
Jon Anderson. A 30-year-old husband, soon-to-be father and green beret in the 2nd Commando Regiment. At first sight Jon isn’t particularly threatening. He stands about my height, 5’8” or so, and has a medium to bulky build. It isn’t until we start exchanging stories that I realize that we are both a tad crazy, which is what makes men like us dangerous.
Our meeting has been arranged after a brief email. I don’t know what to expect as I walk down to the bar located on campus. I knew going into this story that many of these ‘interviews’ would take place over alcohol. You have to grease the wheels when you begin to talk about these types of things, such as carrying your dead friend, who could very well be closer to you than your own family, for 10 kilometers, refusing to hand him off to anyone else.
I told him about the first guy that I lost, how he had everything above his jaw-line taken off with an RKG grenade. This is essentially a small parachute-stabilized grenade, that when detonated becomes a shape charge, forcing molten copper and tungsten through an area no more than half an inch in diameter, to tear through the Humvee and through the back of my buddy’s head. Skull fragments splintered off and became shrapnel that wounded the other four Marine passengers.
We both sit in what others might consider to be an awkward silence. We sit, drinking our beer, looking into the glass as we fiddle them around with our hands, reliving these events over and over again in our minds. Sometimes it is best to just say nothing.
The conversation picks back up. He tells me how him and his guys were involved in a helicopter crash in 2010 and that they had lost five guys, including two Americans. “We lost five brothers. Three Aussies, two Americans,” he tells me. His unit would head back to Australia three days later. They had sustained enough casualties to arguably become combat ineffective.
His wife, Charlotte, also a first year university student, and his two-year-old Blue Heeler, Sidney, are his support group. “It’s amazing what they can do. Everyone should get a dog when they get out of the military,” Charlotte says. “I agree whole-heartedly,” I tell her as I pull my phone out to show her a picture of my pooch back home. “I’m glad you guys met each other. You need each other,” she says as she smiles. She understands, as much as a civilian can, about the brotherhood that is forged in combat, or as Jon puts it, a “universal understanding”.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): “A mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event such as war. If Combat Operational Stress (COS) is not recognized and appropriate treatment isn’t implemented, often PTSD is developed. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event,” as defined by the American Institute of Stress. This has been an increasing issue concerning troops returning from combat deployments since 2001.
There has been a 400 percent increase in PTSD claims amongst soldiers since Australia’s involvement in the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001. This is similar to the findings in studies conducted back in the United States that show that approximately 1 in 3 service members are diagnosed with PTSD.
The Australian Broadcast Corporation reported that as of April 2014 there have been three suicides for every one soldier that was killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan. Australian and American service members alike are typically unwilling to admit that they do need help. Those that are brave enough to seek help can expect a wait time up to a year to receive treatment. Some of these men and women awaiting treatment will seek refuge in suicide before Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) officials see their claims.
“In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.”
0200. June 21st 2010. It’s pitch black in the Afghan sky, with only the stars to illuminate the night. Even in the early morning temperatures can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius). Jon is playing with a ring that his dad gave him as he mentally prepares for the op. He rolls it around between his fingers and thinks about Viking culture.
This is Jon’s pre-patrol ritual. Some perform these routines as luck. Some believe that consistency is key and that these routines play some integral part before stepping outside the wire.
I think about sitting in the dark before patrols in Helmand Province. It’s been four years. I remember the silver dollar that my grandfather gave me before I left, that my great-grandfather had carried, taped to his wrist while he fought in WWII. I remember sitting in the dark with my head down and arms resting on my knees. I can still feel the weight of my flak jacket pulling down against my collarbone. The feeling of my gloves, the palm is worn down and has been patched up with duct tape, the fingers cut-off to maintain finger dexterity which could save seconds in a fire fight, seconds that can mean life or death for you or your brothers. I put my headphones in and I close my eyes. I listen to “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a tradition I carry on from one of my senior Marines. The words echoing through my head, “Don’t go around tonight, well it’s bound to take your life, there’s a bad moon on the rise.”
Four helicopters tear through the night at 200 kilometers an hour in a staggered formation towards an unsuspecting high value target who, unknowingly, has been marked for death. Genghis Khan once said, “I am the punishment of God. If you not committed great sins, God would not have sent a force like me upon you.” Thoughts such as these are streaming through the minds of Jon and his mates.
The helos stay low, 30 to 50 meters above the earth, making their way towards their target. They attempt to maintain altitude as they rise and fall over mountains, accelerating as they descend in order to maintain the speed necessary to maintain control of the aircraft.
Jon watches out of the open helicopter door as the ground whizzes by as a dark blur. His mind temporarily wanders. Jon is in the second helicopter. All of a sudden there is a fireball on the ground. Jon watches as a glowing object is hurled past the open door on the helicopter. The object is part of the main rotary blade. The lead helicopter has crashed and a portion of the helicopter blade has launched into the night sky.
The pilot of the first helicopter is a relatively new pilot and has not had adequate flight time on nighttime missions, which rely heavily on night vision. As a result he has flown his helicopter straight into the ground at 200 kilometers an hour as he descended down a mountainside.
Jon is in disbelief. Shock begins to set in. He can’t believe what he is seeing. A nightmare from which there is no awakening. “Angel Down” comes in over the radio. Catastrophic mission failure.
“My eyes weren’t really registering what was happening in my brain,” Jon tells me.
The remaining three ‘helos’ circle the crash site while awaiting permission to land and secure the area. Finally orders are issued to land and perform a mass casualty evacuation. The situation has gone to FUBAR; Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. A term reserved for situations where any sort of plan has gone to hell and you do your best to save as many lives as you can.
Jon’s helicopter lands near the downed bird and the men rush towards their brothers, who have begun to burn alive as the jet fuel catches fire and flames engulf the cockpit.
Rounds from the door-gunner’s ammunition box begin to cook off and fly every-which-way. Jon’s helo has to take off again and relocate to a safer location to avoid losing another bird and creating more casualties. It is a miracle that nobody is hit from stray rounds.
As he draws close to the bird he notices body parts and clumps flesh strewn about on the deck. The smell of burning flesh has a unique and pungent odor. This smell is soon overtaken by the stench of burning fuel.
They come across a mate of theirs who has broken his neck. He would later tell them that the American pilot was screaming and calling out for help as he was cooked alive in the cockpit. Their mate was unable to move, not just because his neck was broken, but because he was still strapped to his seat, which was ejected from the helicopter upon impact. He finally gets his seat belt off and falls to the ground, incapacitated and unable to help the pilot. He lies motionless as the American is cooked alive in his own helicopter.
“Another mate was sitting upright leaning on a piece of metal. He had broken two femurs and appeared to have two femoral bleeds. The plastic kept breaking, and we had been asking for the metal ones for ages. It has haunted me until now. We put three on and three broke.”
In the military it is common to have equipment that was purchased from the lowest bidder, even for vital lifesaving equipment. It is unknown, and probably best left as so, how many lives have been lost in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan due to faulty equipment. High-ranking military officials and politicians hear of complaints such as these, but more often than not these complaints fall upon deaf ears.
Jon is doing his best to stop two femoral artery bleeds. It takes approximately 90 seconds to die from blood loss if a single femoral artery has been lacerated. He eventually stops the bleeding. He would later learn that the soldier died midflight on the way to the field hospital.
Another soldier’s jaw is slacked and hanging to one side. His jaw has been destroyed. His throat must be cleared to prevent any blockage. At the moment he is speechless, not just because he is physically incapable of talking, but because adrenaline is coursing through his veins and he is in shock. He is fortunate to only be physically present at the scene as his mind struggles to comprehend the situation. Fear and panic will soon overwhelm him.
“The birds were landing and we loaded up the CAS (casualties), they would fuck off, and then another would land, load the CAS up, and they would fuck off. Tactical went right out the window,” Jon explains.
American aircraft light up the night in support of the downed helicopter and the men on the ground.
The sun begins to rise. “He was proper fucked” Jon explains to me as he describes the American door gunner, the last casualty he would evacuate. With all medical supplies exhausted, Jon and his mates grab the door from the aircraft and use it as a stretcher. Jon and a mate use the door to drag the door gunner to safety and onto the medical evacuation bird. He is concerned that the man will choke on his own tongue so he secures it to his lip using a clothespin.
The door used as a stretcher has since been restored and is now in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
I notice the tone in his voice becoming flat as he painfully relives these events. I think of the stories I have shared with him. I listen back through the recording of our interview. It is strange how we can talk about these macabre scenes with such monotony. No different than explaining a ball game to a stranger.
As he walks through the wreckage he begins to pick up weapon parts and other articles that belonged to his friends. He distinctly remembers his buddy’s watch.
The investigation crew eventually lands and takes care of the helicopter crash site as well as the casualties that Jon and his mates were unable to save. The Americans took special care to remove the bodies of those that were burned alive, their bodies being too crispy to safely preserve as they were removed from the charred skeleton of the iron bird. “He was the one dude we couldn’t get out cause he was burnt to shit,” Jon tells me.
Australian Chinooks show up to pick up Jon and his boys from the crash site. Needless to say they were reluctant to get onto another helicopter.
The men wait to board the helicopters as they continue to sweat in their rigs. Jon notices that he has blood trickling down his chest. It begins to coagulate. He began coughing it up near the end of the night from inhaling the smoke from the burning bodies and jet fuel. The combination of blood and dirt forms a dark brown cake on their trousers. The blood sticks on their hands and begins to peel off as the sun dries it out. “We must have looked like zombies coming back in after the job.”
There were 15 men on the lead helicopter. Three Australians and two Americans died. Those that survived are still recovering today. Jon’s face lights up. He is excited as he tells me how one of his mates broke his back, pelvis and legs. “He’s a fucking legend,” Jon tells me. “I can’t believe he’s alive.” Another guy broke his back in 18 places and survived.
We wrap up our interview. Jon invites me over for tea. I later find out that what he meant to say was whiskey. “Mick always calls it ‘tea’,” Charlotte tells me. Charlotte makes dinner for the three of us and elaborates that if I don’t like it I don’t have to eat it. I feel blessed to be in such great company. We talk about their child who is due in April. My mind begins to wander to baby gifts.
Often times those who survive events such as these can develop Survivor’s Guilt, which comes from the survival of a traumatic event in which others have died. It is not the victim’s fault, yet they carry a burden that they, for some reason, should have died, or question why they were allowed to live.
Some people renew their faith in religion after near death experiences. Service members who develop PTSD from events such as firefights or Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonations often turn to other means to cope. Many veterans struggling with PTSD today turn to self-medication, relying on alcohol and substance abuse to numb the pain.
Upon leaving the military some veterans have a sense that they do not belong around other people. They believe that they cannot relate to family and friends who do not share their experiences. Others do not want to be an emotional burden on their loved ones and choose to alienate themselves.
Jon has managed to avoid self-medication and substance abuse. I believe it is because he knows what is at stake, and because of the overwhelming support by Charlotte and his parents.
“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”
I’m on the beach in Cronulla, a middle-to-upper class surf town just a short train ride up the coast from school, waiting for the surf to pick up. At the moment I am wrapping up “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway. The ending has been ruined for me after it was referenced in a recent film. So I thought.
I read onward as the main character, an American ambulance driver serving in the Italian Army, abandons the war and escapes to Switzerland with his pregnant wife. With only a small portion of the book remaining I know that tragedy is looming in the novel. “Fucking bitch, she is going to leave him, or the baby will be black, or some shit like that. Same story as the shit that goes on today,” I think to myself, reading page-by-page, anticipating the bad news.
I read the last page and close the book. I calmly lay it down in the sand. I find myself short of breath. My heart rate has become elevated. My sense of hearing, which is impaired because of machinegun fire overseas, has been heightened as I hear the sound of waves crashing along the beach and the laughter of kids playing around me. A fictional novel has managed to give me a panic attack.
I immediately understand why the guy in the film threw it out a second-story window. I want to throw this shit into the ocean and strongly consider it.
The novel ends with the main character’s child being strangled to death during birth from the umbilical cord while still inside the womb. As if that isn’t enough the wife begins to hemorrhage heavily while on the operating table and the doctors cannot stop the bleeding. She dies. The book ends with him alone in a hotel. Far from home.
I’m still in shock. I look around at the happy beach-going families. To my right there is a family of four, a young boy and girl, I estimate around six-years old, playing in the sand with their parents. I look to my left and see other children, some playing a pick-up game of rugby with kids from nearby families. A day at the beach after a long week’s work. They look ecstatic.
I think of Jon and Charlotte, their expected child, scheduled to make his or her appearance in the first two weeks in April. I think about the conflicts he has had in the Army concerning his medical discharge and his disability pay. I compare his life with that of the main character in Hemingway’s novel.
I continue to watch these families. I set the book down over an hour and a half ago. I watch and think and think and watch. Analyzing. Running scenarios through my head.
My mind goes back to Jon and Charlotte. It wanders to the thought of the baby. I think again about the novel. I see the three of them, years from now on this same beach. I watch Jon teach his son how to fortify his sandcastle. He points out the tactical flaws concerning the watchtower placements, explaining that they do not have intersecting fields of fire, thereby limiting their defensive capabilities. He makes a note of the water bottle, half protruding from the sand less than a meter away, and how it provides the enemy with cover while still allowing them to drop 81mm mortars on their fortress. Charlotte watches on and can’t help but laugh as Jon lectures and briefs his son on standard operating procedures. Sid lays idly by as he chews on his newly acquired rawhide bone. Sand covers his nose.
My mind circles back to my own life. The thought of a son comes to mind. A wife. The eight years I have been single. Thoughts like these have been linked to the rising number in veteran suicides, which chime in at 22-per-day back in the U.S.
I pray that Jon’s story doesn’t go down the road of Hemingway’s novel. The lives of veterans in recent times, unfortunately, seem to be littered with tales of tragedy and heartbreak. I think about April, as it approaches day by day. I think of the end of the novel. I feel ill again. Unfortunately bad things happen to good people.
I stand up and head for the water with my surfboard. I need to wash thoughts like these from my mind.
“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”
Since the helicopter crash the government has been attempting to force Jon out of the military under an Administrative Separation. An Administrative Separation looks poorly on a military service record. This could tarnish a veteran’s reputation and could even lead to lack of employment due to misjudgment of a veteran’s character and military service.
Glenn Kolomeitz, a 46-year-old veteran and barrister, offers legal counsel for veterans free of charge. Kolomeitz believes that the Australian Defence Force is separating soldiers administratively because of the number of soldiers who will be claiming compensation. “These are entitlements, not benefits,” he explains. “They make it so hard to get out on medical discharges; admin separation isn’t the way to handle these guys. It’s a disgrace.”
Kolomeitz also provides legal services for veterans who have criminal cases that come from PTSD. “They can’t afford defense council and end up going to jail and not getting treated. The PTSD contributes to the crime. They need help, not jail.”
Military service has left Jon with a slipped disk, an impinged nerve, and three ruptures. Every six months he heads to the doctor’s office and awaits a catastrophically painful series of injections into his spine.
Jon and Glenn are still fighting the Defence Force’s decision to separate him in order to retain his entitlements, including disability pay.
Kolomeitz made it clear that unfortunately cases like Jon’s are not uncommon, and that it is a bigger problem than the government will admit.
Even after his discharge he struggles to receive the treatment that he needs. I told him how I had been waiting two and a half years to receive my disability rating and how my back was messed up from a vehicle roll over. We compare our stories. He tells me, “Veterans affairs here are the bottom of the barrel.”
I ask Jon what it is that he wants. At the end of the day what is it he hopes comes about from his fight with PTSD, his disabilities, and his fight with the DVA. There is silence. “My injuries might seem alright now, but when I’m fifty I’m gonna be walking around like a fucking 70-year-old. I’ve lost the ability to have a healthy longevity. People don’t understand that when you do a job like special operations, most guys die before they are sixty because their bodies can’t take any more,” he replies.
“I don’t want any glory. I don’t want people to shake my hand, I want what I signed for. I killed and put it all on the line, I put myself out there for it. They are supposed to care for me if injured and they wont. I don’t want to pay for my injuries out of my pocket. I have a kid on the way. I don’t want he or she to be like me and join. I don’t want my kid to have to fucking do what I had to, I don’t want to put them through that.”
I hear the sincerity in his voice. His words are, as clichéd as it sounds, the same as Sylvester Stallone’s at the end of Rambo: First Blood. He wants what all veterans and active duty service members want, for our country to love us the way we love it.
He goes on to talk about the decision that will be made by the DVA. He explains that it will come down to a handful of people whether or not he will be taken care of. That it is up to people like Glenn Kolomeitz to give him the legal guidance necessary to defend his entitlements.
“My hardest fight is that I cant have legal representation. They have a lawyer, a doctor and a high-ranking military person sitting on the board. It’s up to those three what I get. The government has made it illegal for me to have legal representation. We don’t live in a democracy.”
Jon is re-arranging his house in order to have a room for the baby. His physical ailments, although he may not admit it, bother him. I have minor back issues and they ache all day. He gets injections once every six months. I know he hurts.
I crack open another beer. Self-medicating again.
I watch the movie Jarhead, a true story about an American Marine and his time in the Gulf War in a scout sniper platoon. Another beer. I think about my friends back in the states, also struggling with PTSD, suicidal thoughts, Veterans Affairs waitlists and physical ailments. I think about Mick and his summer recess spent preparing for the baby while he fights his legal battles.
The semester is over and students are beginning to head home. I wonder what it is that I have learned over the last five months. Another beer.
I realize that although my issues back home are difficult, they could be worse. The Veterans Administration back home has been exposed to the media over the last few years for covering up deaths of veterans waiting to receive care. I’m still here. I’m allowed, and encouraged, legal representation, from multiple organizations, to fight my legal battles with the VA.
Jarhead begins to come to an end. Marines love this movie. The ending always hits home. The hair on my arm stands up. Heartbeat is escalating. Eyes are fixed on the film. My breath is shallow, hitting a natural respiratory pause as my lungs empty out. I think about being behind my rifle in Afghanistan.
“A story. A man fires a rifle for many years. and he goes to war.” the narrator says. “And afterwards he comes home, and he sees that whatever else he may do with his life - build a house, love a woman, change his son's diaper - he will always remain a jarhead. And all the jarheads killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert.”
It has been over four years since I left Afghanistan. My body hurts and it will never function “properly” again.
Back home there are an estimated 22 veteran suicides every day.
Plato once said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
I hope they have found peace.
The most fucked up part about this entire story, which is the story of every veteran, is that we would do it all over again.