Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Martin parked the truck outside the tall concrete slabs arranged in a defensive perimeter around the U.S. tactical operations center at FOB 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 didn’t reply.
Due to the frequency of Taliban attacks, FOB Shank is jokingly referred to as “rocket city” by the U.S. soldiers stationed there. Nearby hills and sprawling urban areas dot the enormous bowl valley within which the base sits in Logar Province, offering plenty of places for Taliban militants to hide and lob one-off rocket and mortar shots.
Consequently, the place is constructed like a medieval castle. Reinforced concrete and rebar bunkers lined with sandbags and stocked with first-aid kits are never more than sprinting distance away. When the air raid alarm goes off, as it does several times a day, you have two choices.
If you’re not near a bunker you just drop to the ground, cover your head with your arms and pray silently that the incoming round doesn’t hit anywhere near you. You keep your eyes down and stare at a seam on the plywood floor of the room you are in, or at a pebble or blade of grass in the field into which you dove. You focus on the sound of the alarm and wait for evidence of the exploding Taliban weapon, hoping that it is 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 happen to be near a bunker, then you go for it. You stop whatever it is you’re doing and get your ass under cover. The entrances to the bunkers are open to the outside, with another vertical concrete slab a few yards away blocking horizontal shrapnel, but still allowing easy run-in access in a pinch. You can usually see blue sky out the entrance, which always made me wonder what would happen if a well-placed mortar round 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 are low, and the bunkers’ designers obviously prioritized quick access over a perfectly sealed enclosure.
Martin and I left the truck and walked over to a three-foot-wide crater in a gravel clearing about 20 yards beyond the walls of the Army compound.
It was midafternoon, and we had just eaten lunch. A standard meal 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 impacted the earth. “We’re so fucking lucky to be alive.”
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. Martin and I had been standing underneath the towering steel structure, shooting the shit 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 eternal brown haze and well beyond the base perimeter was a low bluff covered in typically drab Afghan buildings. Apache gunships were still patrolling the skies above this area.
“That must be where the fucker shot from,” Martin declared. “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 the Taliban militant had aimed the rocket at the radio antenna since it would be an easily identifiable landmark at that distance. It was a good shot, Martin remarked. The rocket might have impacted 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 cocksucker obviously had pretty good aim, so he’s probably been around a while. It also means he knows how to disappear, because we are very good at killing whoever shoots at us.”
That was how Martin convinced me that I probably wasn’t going to die by a well-aimed rocket or mortar attack when I first arrived at FOB Shank. The Taliban didn’t live long enough to get very good at aiming their rockets or mortars, he assured me. They refilled their ranks quickly, 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 me down. My head spinning like I was 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 always trigger the primal, reptilian part of your brain that guides reflexive life and death responses. That’s probably why Martin beat me inside the bunker that morning by several seconds. As a ground combat veteran of two wars and eight deployments, he had seen a hell of a lot more combat than I had.
They say that when the shit hits the fan your training kicks in and you don’t think about what you’re doing any more. It’s all muscle memory. You just 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 as 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 as 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 student pilots in simulators and create unsurvivable situations again and again. We would emerge from the simulator dripping in sweat and with our hearts beating out of our chest. Even though we were just sitting in the simulator working the controls and flipping switches, our bodies responded to the effort like we were doing back-to-back Ironman triathlons. 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 slows 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.
One year later, I can remember with perfect detail Martin’s facial expressions when the rocket exploded overhead. I can specifically recall a spot of whiskers on Martin’s face that he had missed shaving that morning. In Ukraine this September I had an AK-47 pointed at me at a rebel checkpoint. I have a perfect memory of the vein pattern on the hand of the rebel soldier.
And this hyper-alertness often extends beyond the actual experience that sparked it. For hours, maybe even days after you almost die, 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 want to make love like time is closing in.
You live harder and truer than you ever have before. And it feels good.
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.
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 fadeout.
Ask most combat veterans to name the worst experience 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 experience of their life, 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 in the military and the seven percent who are veterans.
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 give a damn about normal things when you come back. Ask a combat veteran about this, it’s a common feeling.
“The first time Chris came home, he was really disgusted with everything,” Taya Kyle wrote about her husband, Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, in American Sniper. “With America, especially. In the car on the way back to our house, we listened to the radio. People weren’t talking about the war; life went on as if nothing was happening in Iraq. ‘People are talking about bullshit,’ he said. ‘We’re fighting for the country, and no one gives a shit.’”
Normal life, whatever that is, seems silly and pointless. It’s a grey rerun that leaves you hollow. You feel like you are living on a razor’s edge, only skipping across the surface of life, never returning to the heights or the depths of war.
But PTSD isn’t nostalgia. Nostalgia is really just forgetting the shitty parts of a memory, and 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. 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 quote is from a veteran who now works on Wall Street.
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, profound souls forced to live life by a set of rules and expectations that 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.