Thursday, November 7, 2019

Viet Vets talk - Listen and hear them (Part 2)

I belong to a social media group that enables Vietnam veterans to “swap their experiences” and voice their memories. No politics allowed, nor profanity, nor disrespect. I have found their comments to be stimulating, filled with passion, tears, pride and great sensitivity. I thought I should try to highlight the themes these men and women present.

This is Part 2 of an expected 3.Part 1 is located at

The vets who belong to this group find great emotional and psychological rewards through sharing their experiences. Many have never done this before. I have eliminated all references to names. While I hope Vietnam Vets not belonging to this group find some benefit from reading this compendium of short memoirs, I very much hope that those who did not serve in Vietnam read this to better understand what these men and women have gone through, then and now.  

One point I have noticed is that very seldom do they talk publicly about actual battles, even within this group. At most, they might skirt around them. They tend to focus on their lives outside the battles and after they served, and they do bring back memories, some sad, some funny. You also will see that good ol’ GI humor that only GI’s can articulate.

Daily Greetings
“Just an old soldier looking to be in the company of other old soldiers.”

“RIP Brother.”

“I’d be glad to put my boots on the ground, but now at 71 with health not so good I guess I wouldn’t last long. That young man is gone and this old disabled man is all that’s left. I will stand my ground as long as I can. I’d rather die for something than die for nothing.”

“Good morning my fellow brothers and sisters! It's cool here in da bayou state! Baton Rouge Louisiana! Have a great day! Keep up the fight! You are never alone! We will always stand side by your side in our cause. Love you guys! You're the best!”

“Calling it a night brothers, sisters and family! You all rest well and pleasant dreams! Coffee will be on if anybody wants to stop by!” …. “Good night brother. Sweet, restful sleep …. “ I pray you have a relaxed and peaceful night’s sleep.”

“My dear Family...thank you again today for your beautiful words on the music. There is peace here....there is comfort here...there is understanding here...but most important...there is unconditional love here. Thank you all for being here and for your love. I love you all! G`nite and blessings to you all!”

“Today's morning message is for all of my Vietnam Veterans. Many blessings are being sent to you for a peaceful Monday. As one of those who has been protected by you, I will never know what you have experienced. What I do know is that I am forever grateful for each and every one of you. It's truly an honor and privilege for me to be able to thank you for serving our country. You will always have a special place in my heart. Welcome Home, my Veterans, Welcome Home! With much love and respect.”

“Keep your dreams alive. Understand to achieve anything requires faith and belief in yourself, vision, hard work, determination, and dedication. Remember all things are possible for those who believe. Wishing everyone a nice, peaceful Tuesday.”

Their pride

“For those that will fight for it. Freedom has a flavor the protected shall never know.”

“I read these posts on here and I am continually amazed at how many experiences and stories parallel mine and how they point out why we are all truly brothers and sisters for having served in Vietnam. I never worn any symbol of my service. I was in the Air Force and although I had been attached to the 101st, spent a year at beautiful Camp Evans and spent a month at Khe Sanh enduring some pretty heavy artillery, I really did not want to offend someone that had spent a year dodging bullets, mines, bungee sticks, and eating cold food from cans, sleeping on the ground, and going through what must have been a particular kind of hell. But in 2010, on a trip to DC, my friend said that I should wear my ribbons. And she was right. Here's what happened. Waiting on the shuttle near the Lincoln Memorial, a big, strapping guy, about my age, got right in my face, looked at my ribbons and stuck out his hand. Where were you, he asked. I told him. I asked him where he was and he proceeded to tell me that he was an Air Force fighter pilot, F-4's, made it a career and retired as a light colonel. We chatted a while and he told me that even though he had been stationed at Langley, had been in DC hundreds of times, and was now standing just up the hill, he had never been to the Wall. Just can't go, he said. I was amazed but as we talked I began to realize why he didn't want to go. He had told me about the bravery of combat troops on the ground, calling in air support right on top of their positions, and how close his ordnance would be to them. I felt that he held himself personally responsible for names on that wall. I said, Colonel, you got to go. For yourself, for them. We talked a little more and then we all got on the shuttle. I had spent the morning at the Wall and was not getting off, but I heard the Colonel behind me say to his wife and friends, 'Let's get off here.' When he walked past me, he clapped his hand on my shoulder and got off the bus. Had I not worn my ribbons that day, none of this would have happened. We are all brothers and sisters of Vietnam. Regardless of the duty.”

“We would have stood our ground, but every time we took it, they moved us off of it.”

“Vietnam 1967: My Nam buddy. He spent 6 months with the 9th ID in the Delta and 6 months with A Co 1/12th 1st Cav Div-- He always made us laugh even when things were bad and still makes us laugh today. One heck of a soldier in the heat of battle. I’m proud to have served with him and to call him a friend.”

“A pretty young blonde girl, no older than twenty, ran out and pressed a cold bottle of beer into my hand, whispered ‘Thanks, sailor,’ and kissed my cheek. I winked, took a swig, and passed it along to the next man.”

“Finally we approached the town square, which was strangely quiet. The reviewing stand was filled with town officers, military officials and (I found out later) visiting Soviet military officers. As the first Vietnam veteran put a boot in that square…

“In 1967 when I returned from our Westpac deployment it was less than it might have been. But don't weep for me or feel badly, for on that hot July day on the shores of Narragansett Bay, I got my ‘welcome home.’ We all got our welcome home.”

The pain

Clearly many vets, perhaps most, continue to feel a range of pain from the war, over 40 years later. “Hello darkness, my old friend,” one posted. Another, “The sounds of silence.” They offer their brothers and sisters enormous compassion. They urge people listen and hear.

“I met a Navy fighter pilot who served in Nam, 1968. He said he saw lots of NVA in a rubber plantation advancing on our troops. He could have killed most of them. The command told him to abort the mission. The tire companies back here owned the rubber plantation. The bombs would have taken the oxygen away from the trees.” … “I know we could not make gun runs there in our ships. Lai Khe. Michelin Rubber Plantation.” … “Lai Khe was built in the middle of a rubber plantation. The Army had to pay for every damaged or destroyed tree. As I recall it $125 each.” … “I was told by a pilot who flew for the 1st Infantry Division, that the Michelin company would call the Army and request that they get the VC out of the rubber plantation. They would go in and clear the place out. Then Michelin would present the Army with a bill for all of the damages. He refused to put Michelins on his BMW.” … “I don't think the temporary loss of oxygen was the issue... simply the physical damage. I heard that we had to notify the plantation management like 3 days in advance of operation. This gave Charlie (Viet Cong enemy) plenty of time to move out therefore minimize any rough stuff in the rubber... Bin Sonh was in our BearCat area.” … “The Michelin Tire Company's rubber plantation was reimbursed whenever a track vehicle ran over a plant and they also paid off the VC (Viet Cong enemy) to leave the place alone.”

A British Soldier who served nine tours in Southwest Asia said each time he was welcomed home with great fanfare. He asked the Viet vets if it was “true you lads were treated like crap by the public.” One response said, “It was like we came home to a foreign land. I was very confused about it all at first, then the rage hit.” Another, “Some of the past was very hurtful and still lingers.” Yet another, “Yeah, not so much that I was mistreated, but the lack of respect, and indifference by everyone. No acknowledgement, nor sense of accomplishment from anyone.”

“When we walked alone as soldiers it was during the Viet-Nam war. Had a bunch of protesters that hated the soldiers specially the colleges.”

“Another thing that changed for me in Vietnam. I could sleep through a tornado before I joined the Army. When I came back from Vietnam I could hear an ant crawling on cotton at 100 yards.”

“On this day in 1968 Bravo company 1/20 11th L.I.B. (Light Infantry Brigade) in Quang Ngai conducted a Combat Assault with 2 VC KIA and 3 VC detained and (then we were) sent to LZ Dottie. While setting up night position 2 Bouncing Betty's (anti-personnel land mines that when detonated launch into the air for about three feet and explode) were set off resulting in 5 WIA and 2 KIA …I still have nightmares about that horrible day.”

“Sometimes I feel guilty because I made it and some of my men died … I salute you all my brothers, dead and alive.” … “Yeah buddy, the survivor guilt thing hits me once in while,, though I was just a SP/4 … still, some of my pals, squad members didn't make it, my brothers …”

“We saw death and know how final it was......Easy to do, but please count to your age and think about all who will miss you. Life is life..., but it is life. The Lord will call you when it is time to go...all you can do is the best you can while you are here. God Bless!”

“They sent me and my friends and my generation to Vietnam to die, and some of us did. The rest of us have been dying in bits and pieces since the first day they sent us home.”

“I think it was the Indians that had a saying, ‘The eyes of a man are the windows to his soul,’ and I think maybe that saying was true. Did you ever look into the eyes of a combat veteran? There was always a dark secret hidden behind their eyes. The secret was always just a little out of sight like a curtain had been pulled and no man could see past it. There was a sadness to their eyes that would haunt them for the rest of their lives and it showed in those eyes. And then there were the people that had never seen combat. Their eyes were as clear as glass and when they laughed their eyes sparkled like diamonds, their soul was free of pain and it showed in their smile. For a long time those eyes made me sick to my stomach. It was like I had been kicked in the gut. Just to know those eyes were upon me made me feel dirty. For years I had a hard time looking into a man’s eyes, always afraid he would see what was in mine.” ... “I hope you are able to find peace in your soul Brother.” ... “A very meaningful and insightful commentary. What you said is true. We have often pulled the blinds down over the windows to our souls. I have often been told that I have sad eyes. Since I came back from Nam, I have never been quick to smile. It has been hard to make friends. Because I fear they will find out what the real me is about. I have often envied those who could seem so happy, and carefree. I am still fighting battles 46 years after the war. Thanks for sharing Brother.”

The resulting diseases

It is heartbreaking to read how many of the men are suffering today from diseases they believe are the result of the environment experienced in Vietnam. 

One huge topic of discussion is the use of Agent Orange, AO. There is tremendous anger about the use of Agent Orange and how it affected them. Agent Orange was a powerful mixture of chemical defoliants used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, as well as crops that might be used to feed them. 

“Sprayed and betrayed. Vietnam Veteran Agent Orange exposed. I was killed in Vietnam, I just haven’t died yet!”

 “My Father, a master sergeant, Vietnam Vet, died in 1988. Had 13 tumors on his brain. Started as melanoma. Turned down by the VA had to go to civilian hospital. Agent Orange.”

“My father passed away this January 5, 2013 from Agent Orange. He was in Vietnam 67-68, E-5 in the 1st Air Cavalry 2/5. They told him that they were spraying for mosquitoes but he said the bug spray he had would knock off a leach. He died of lung cancer, bladder cancer, diabetes, cancerous tumors on the brain and they spread thru out his body in the end. He had both hips replaced. That was his second round of cancer. And the VA denies him full disability. He was only 65 yrs old.”

“Those responsible for the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War will burn in Hell after God judges them. I am an American and Vietnam Veteran and Christian and am supposed to forgive them on the millions that have died from our exposure to Agent Orange. I can’t forgive.”

 “I’m still waitin’ for a brain transplant” … “I need a whole body transplant.”

 “Lost my friend yesterday to AO (Agent Orange), no apologies from the government. They only throw us a mere pittance and consider the subject closed” followed by the book cover, Waiting for an Army to die, the tragedy of Agent Orange by Fred A. Wilcox

“Four years ago today I lost the love of my life to AO. Seems like 100 years. It is hard and I miss my best friend as many of you do, also — feeling heartbroken.”

“Good morning brothers and sisters. Yesterday I had a ultra sound on my liver. Doctors found a spot there, there is another spot on my left lung. I am scheduled for another CAT scan on my left lung. In 2010 I had stage four throat cancer from our exposure to Agent Orange while serving our country in the Vietnam war. Agent Orange, 22 million barrels were sprayed on us and Vietnam by our own government and this deadly chemical was bought from Monsanto and Dow Chemical companies. I never smoked, swear to God. Both our government and chemical companies knew this chemical would be deadly to human beings. This chemical was sprayed so it would kill the triple canopy jungle so we could see the enemy. Well it did kill the jungle one day later after being sprayed on us and Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The stage four throat cancer has been in remission by God. My guess over one million Vietnam War veterans have died from our exposure to Agent Orange since the war ended in 1975. Out of 2.5 million heroes that served in country in the Vietnam War, my guess only 900,000 of us are left alive and Agent Orange has killed most of us. Those responsible for the use of Agent Orange have avoided prosecution. I am keeping a positive attitude. This cancer has not returned. It’s in God’s hands now. God bless you all.” 

“I have asked for prayers before for my brother in law Paul who is a Vietnam Veteran 69-70. He is back in the hospital with his lung cancer and blood problems tonight. If you could please remember him in prayer it would be deeply appreciated. This man has been in my life almost 50 years and is my friend and personal hero. He deserves better than what he has suffered for over 40 years from all the problems associated with Agent Orange. I thank you for him and my sister, as well as the rest of our family. God bless all of you and welcome home.”

 “Hello Brothers and Sisters. Wednesday I went for another Endoscope at the Ann Arbor VA, and they found more AO cancer in my esophagus. They once again scraped it out, and now I go to the University of Michigan medical facility (they have more sophisticated equipment) for a resection of the esophagus on 11/11 (Veterans Day, ironic? Maybe). Anyway, please, if you were exposed get to your closest VA facility and get checked out. Also encourage any others to do the same. Love you all for your service.”

 “Agent Orange is alleged to be a Monsanto product. Monsanto is now developing GMO's (genetically modified organism) for public use ... If they are like AO, in another 40 years we will know what the GMOs did.” ... “It’s just sad that so many of our Vietnam Veterans are dying today from the effects of a war they fought so many years ago and so many are not getting and help and are dying before their ‘paper work goes through,’ a real shame! God Bless All our Veterans!”

And then, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

“Just to know that so many of my brothers are willing to speak-up and tell us so many things that we forgot about many years ago...This is a great thing, that we can communicate...This is the end of PTSD (Post traumatic stress syndrome) …That we can share and learn from each other, is the beginning of healing! Keep talking! If not to someone else then to me!...At least we are talking!!! This starts the healing process!!! I am here for you brothers!” 

“The V.A. didn't recognize PTSD as a disability until 2003. They started the study in 1983. I think after two years it would have been a given in the twenty years it took the government’s brightest to figure it out. Untold numbers of Veterans committed suicide. Twenty-two veterans a day are committing suicide inexcusable.”

The Veterans Administration (VA)

“Wednesday I went to my local VA clinic for breathing difficulty. I have emphysema and was unable to complete a breathing test last month because of low O2 levels. My doc at the clinic put me on some meds and put an order in for oxygen. This morning the Ft.Wayne VA hospital calls me and tells me my doc at the clinic does not know what he is doing and his order for oxygen is crap. He tells me I need to come to Ft. Wayne for a battery of tests next week. They can bite me. I trust my doc at the clinic and I won't step foot in Ft. Wayne. If that means no oxygen so be it. They wonder why nobody trusts the VA well this is why.”

 “Bay Pines (VA) just called to give me an update on my PTSD Appeal that I filed December 2013 - 25,000 claims in, I have 12,800 ahead of me but he did wanted to emphasize that I had 11,000 + behind me.” 

“What a bunch of as&*&^ working at the VA Claims Office in Florida. I filed a notice of disagreement Oct. 2012. I called June, Aug and Sept this year and was told claims is in the process. Today I get a letter from these as&*&^ and they now tell me the original paperwork is lost. The letter continues to tell me to fill out the enclosed form but no form enclosed. Can you spell idiot? You call the 800 number and told all lines are busy try your call later. I got thru and the knuckle-head tells me, all he tells me is the same thing. You cannot talk to any one in call center but they can have someone call me within 10 days.”

“ May depend on your region. I'm in Buffalo region, filed June 2013 through Purple Heart. Took 10 months to get a C&P review, one month later I got my rating for PTS, money, including back pay, came shortly thereafter. Then PH filed for Individual Unemployability; she said it could be a year before I heard - one month later, I had it. Should be the same all over the country, but apparently, it isn’t.”

Memories generated by old photos

A lot of the vets dig out their old photos from the war zone and share them with stories and pride. Many will comment about how young they were and how young they looked. While they enjoy this photography, some will comment about how the photos can cause a tear. 

A group of Soldiers disembarking from a Huey helicopter in the field, ready to fight. One said, “That quiet and that feeling in the pit of the stomach when the chopper's sound was fading in the background. We were on our own!! Survival instincts had kicked in.” Another, “Who can forget a Hot LZ (landing zone with enemy nearby).”

Nothing better than a stand down at their home camp, enjoying a “few hot black label beers (Carlings Black Label), A/2-506 101s Airborne.” Three guys just sitting there, all smiles, sucking up those hot beers! One remembering the old tabling, “Mabel, Black label.” Another saying, “When there was no ice, you learned to like hot beer. Even today, I still drink hot beer.” ... “Vietnam Nov. 1967 Dak To-- Our forward supply Sgt. Chuck Suggs sent enough hot beers for everybody in the company to have one.”

A squad of Soldiers walking through water up to their knees. One commenter took a friendly jab at the Navy, saying, “Quite a contrast to the carrier pilots whose ‘feet wet’ meant that there aircraft was over open water.”

“Let it rain.” ... “Where's the Condos you all were promised when signing up?” ... “I feel miserable just looking at the photo.” ... “As we sat there getting soaked, we joked about all the ‘wusses’ back in the world who were sooooo afraid to get wet and would be running for some place. Weren't we all so damned ‘hard core.’” ... “I like to sit and watch the rain but I want something more than a poncho to sit under. It was a good way to get drinking water.” ... “Settin’ in a foxhole waist deep of water and mud with a 20mm.” ... “The plus side was that if you sat there long enough it would rinse off some of the mud.” ... “This was some of the most miserable times I remember. Pretty hard to keep your feet and socks dry.” ... “After the rain came the mosquitos!” ... “And after the rain stopped, we had to deal with the clay mud. It clung to those grooves in the soles of your boots and made it damn hard to walk!”

“Think I've said this before, but will repeat myself. In all of the pictures from the Vietnam War, none of the soldiers appear to be overweight, in fact, most look downright skinny. Wish I could be in that shape again ... 6'2" 165. Came home 130 with 3 bullet holes ... “I went to Nam at 136 lbs. Stayed that weight till I hit middle age. I can’t complain, from then on I'm only 154 lbs at 5' 11" ... “I stayed the same weight, but I wasn't humping the boonies all the time. The chow hall wasn't bad, either.” ... “I have even had old high school friends make comments about how skinny I am in my profile picture. 6' 4" and 138. 9 months after I returned I got married and weighed 153.” ... “I was drafted at 5’9” and 110 pounds and left for Vietnam at 125. I came back to the 105 pounds. I too wish I could be in that shape.” ... “My husband was so skinny that when I hung his clothes outside my neighbor asked if I had a little boy!” ... “I went over weighing 145 and came home weighing 112.” ... “I’m in shape.....round is a shape!” ... “I went in at 130, discharged, at 155 but my weight yo-yoed, now I’m 210. I was also only 5 ft 6 in at enlistment, came out 5' 8”.” ... “I went to Nam and weighed 180. I'm 6'1" tall. When I came back weighed 165. Now I need to lose at least 20 lbs. Because I weigh 216 now!” ... “I landed in Vietnam at about 180 lbs and probably came home around 150 which was up about 25 pounds from my lowest. ‘What,’ may you ask ‘was the secret to losing so much weight?’ It wasn't Nutrisystem, I assure you ---it was Amoebic dysentery something I don't want to experience again.” ... “Some kind of parasite ran rampant for awhile in our Company. Practically took up residence in the outhouse. Our SGM (sergeant major) had it the worst. Medicine our medic gave us was worse than the effects of the parasite. Was truly thankful when it finally ran its course.


Great Life Magazine cover photo of a trooper on the radio while his colleagues were nearby. He has a serious look, but one vet commented, “I want to order 46 pizzas.” Another commented, “And don’t forget the beer,” while another said, “…and a dozen Playboy Bunnies.”

“This man was a USMC 1969. Steel pot stop a round.” ... “A friend at our VFW post had a bullet spin around inside his helmet. He was a medic.” ... “ I had a buddy in A Co, 2nd Bn, 14th Inf Reg, 25th Infantry Division, that had the same thing happen, sometime in April 1968. He has a ‘permanent part’ in his hair.” ... “Vietnam March 1968- Ron and Doc. Ron was shot in the helmet with an AK-47 round which took the top of his ear off and he never left the field. A few months later Ron was KIA 5/6/68 while walking point in the Ashau Valley -- A Co 1/12th 1st Cav Div. RIP Brave Soldier.”

The men have posted plenty of photos of their Hueys all shot up. Here’s a few.

“Now that’s the true meaning of ‘taking fire, taking firm taking hits.’ Said that a few times but never that bad. Oh my God.” Another called them “Grunt Angels in I Corp.” A few other guys showed no sweat, saying “Minor patch up for the windows.” … “A little Bond-O and a coat of paint.” In other words, no big deal. ... “A good aircraft could make a running landing…just as long as that big blade is turning and he can hold at least 40-50 knots.”

"I think that one of the greatest bonds ever was the bond between us grunts, and you Huey (helicopter) boys. The perfect symbiotic relationship. We relied on you Huey guys for everything......even for our lives. Thanks for being up there. I got a little payback once when my squad rescued a chopper pilot who went down. He sure was happy to see me running towards him carrying my M-60 gun.”

Here’s a trooper unpacking the C-Rats, the “groceries” as they were often called. One member said, “Yeah, we got them the same war, humping that shit was heavy…We did not know how long we would be there. 30 days every time and we did not leave any behind.” Another guy said, “I will call the picture, ‘Lookin’ for beans and wieners.” One opined that anything would taste better if it had some cheese mixed in there!

“Dennis (Denny), USMC, 1967-1969. Silver Star, 4 Purple Hearts. Grandson of Joseph, French Foreign Legion. Denny was classified 4F (medically unqualified for the duty and the draft) and fought all to enlist. 10 days after Graduating Mater Christi H.S. June 1967,in NYC, he left for Parris Island. At the tender age of just 17. Denny lost his right leg on Mutter's Ridge, June 2, 1969. Denny died from his wounds on August 26, 2000 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. RIP Den your family is so so proud.”

Saturday, October 26, 2019

On patrol in Afghan: Always stressful. Must be zoned in.

“We’re playing big boys’ games ... What I’m interested in is getting the job done, and let’s face it, getting the boys back safely.”

Lieutenant Colonel Carew Hatherley, Grenadier Guards, Britain

"We're at war out here ... That means patrolling aggressively from the first to the last day of our deployment. The Taliban will cut us no slack, and we return the sentiment."
Lt. Col. David Bradney, USMC

What was it like to be on a ground patrol in Afghanistan 2013 and earlier. This attempts to convey some of the experiences, a glimpse, presented by one who has not done been on such a patrol.

A  Marine sums up well how many of our combatants there have felt, at onetime or another:

“Definitely the hardest part about being out here is watching your friends get killed or altered for the rest of their life. Civilians don’t wake up in the morning and see, huh, am I going to lose my legs today or die today, so, I won’t tell anybody anything. I mean, nobody wants to know what anybody saw or did out here. If you really want to know about it enough, you should come out here and do it yourself.”

An assistant patrol leader echoes that view:

“The (American) civilian populace, they stay in their own little bubble, you know, they’re content in that little bubble they stay in. They don’t need none of this shit. No one needs to know the shit that we go through. ‘Cause if they start asking us questions about the shit that we go through, they wouldn’t have any understanding because they were never there, they would not know what you felt, of how it affected you mentally and physically. They wouldn’t have nay idea of what it feels like to hold a tourniquet on somebody’s leg like while you’re watching him bleed away. They wouldn’t know any of that.”

Spc. Kyle Klobuchar,USA, put it this way:

"Play your A game. It would be a shame if we let up on our last patrol and somebody got hurt ... You can't afford to break concentration, even for a second ... It's so stressful. You always have to be zoned in. You can't ever get distracted."

The Terrain

Our forces do a lot of climbing in this terrain. One captain said:

“The terrain here will kick your ass. It’s not a joke (even though he was smiling). And you can feel it in your lungs, feel it in, you get that feeling in your chest, you feel like (and then he blew out air). Every day.”

And they spend a lot of time in valleys. They often find themselves located below enemy hideouts. The enemy can engage our forces downward, with rockets, grenades, rocket propelled grenades, machine gun and small arms fire downward at our forces.

Or they are on a plateau with many ridges and ravines where the enemy scoots around unseen.

The enemy

The men on patrol know their enemies are not idiots. The enemy knows what he’s doing. They have state-of-the-art weapons, including thermal seeking weapons to attack helicopters. 

One Marine said:

“They have been fighting in these mountains for years. They know how to fight. We have a hard time countering them.”

The enemy is often hard to locate. Our troops receive hostile fire, but have to find the source. A Marine commented:

“Alls I want to do is put two cross hairs on him and shoot him right in the face, but I can’t.”

He can’t because even when only 700 meters away, our guys often cannot see their enemy. The common refrain is, "Get eyes on the enemy."

The enemy likes to conduct hit and run attacks, only a few strong. They’ll hide, take a few shots at our patrol, and get away as fast as they can so there cannot be much of a reaction.

The enemy likes motorcycles, often two per bike.

The enemy has his own way of fighting. For example, enemy fighters leave their homes and families in the morning as they go to work to fight against the Allies, and then return home at night for dinner and sleep, just like us going to the office!

A radio operator said:

“I don’t think I had a respect for the Taliban that I do now, they just kinda seemed like random farmers, but their tactics, they are wicked smart. Mines and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are ingenious, like how they use them, how they employ them, as well as guerrilla warfare in general, dressing them up to match the local population, is like crazy smart because you don’t know who they are, they could be watching, they could be shaking your hand.”

Friend or foe?

The  trick is to get “eyes on the enemy.”

Locating the enemy is one challenge. Another is to identify people as enemy or innocents.

Rules of Engagement (ROE)

Rules of Engagement (ROE) rank among the top complaints of Soldiers and Marines on the ground.
  • They oblige our forces to be certain, almost dead certain, the target is enemy.

  • The troops must hunt the enemy aggressively, fight hard, yet be good guests, earn the people’s respect, reduce civilian casualties.
One soldier said:

“During the Bush administration, we were able to engage terrorists planting IEDs with greater ease. Now, if we see two guys on the side of the road and it looks like they're planting an IED, we are told to wait -- because they might be farmers.”

Philip Smucker reported, “The US military will rarely bomb a column of fighters without knowing precisely who they are and what arms they have stored.”

One officer said this:

“We are willing to restrict ourselves to the point of helplessness to avoid even a possibility of civilian casualties. I have personally watched the same man arm and disarm 12 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) over a week, with no strikes allowed due to collateral concerns.”

Another officer said:

“We’ve embraced the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine without remembering to maintain the true power of the US military, which is an unstoppable killing machine. Now the buzz words are ‘development’ [and] ‘partnership’.”

The villages

Many villages are safe havens for the enemy. Many have served as Taliban strongholds for a long time, places to store weapons and supplies, recruit. The enemy co-mingles with the villager; hard to identify

The enemy often threatens the villagers, obtains protection money, and kidnaps villagers.

For our forces, the villages are important for several reasons:
  • Expand area of control.
  • Rout out and kill the enemy, capture their supplies.
  • Mingle with the villagers, impact them in a positive way.
  • Obtain intelligence.
Our troops go into areas they know to be hostile and dangerous. SSgt. Christopher Gehart said:

“You grow up quick out here. You’ve got to. You can’t be a little kid when your buddy gets blown up next to you ... It doesn’t matter which way we go, because we’re going to get in a firefight, and we’re not going to get far. I need (my men) to have your game faces on. This is what we do here every day."

When entering a village, the men on patrol may regularly stop, look around, assess, then proceed, most with their weapons pointed downward. It receives hostile fire. The patrol stops for a moment. The men look around for the source, then disperse to take cover. Get “eyes on the enemy.” They have to keep their heads on a swivel. Know where your own men are. Coordinate quickly, professionally. Call out for air. It comes in. The enemy leaves. Go into the village, talk to the people, find out who was shooting. The villagers are scared, and may claim ignorance. The patrol moves on.

Commonly a patrol will walk in single file, leaving a a distance between each member, silently. In the background dogs barking, kids playing, some Afghans watching. The patrol remains stone cold silent. Hand signals only.

Patrolling in the bazaar is filled with risk. There are many people walking and mingling around the area. It is hard to tell who is who. One soldier might mingle with as many as 50 Afghans. Or a single vehicle with a .50 cal mount might through a massive amount of people in close quarters, at very slow speeds.

Attacks have occurred in the midst of a crowded bazaar. In one case, one enemy was wearing a suicide vest. A patrol in a rough single column approached. The bomber closes in on the patrol just before pulling the trigger. Three American and sixteen Afghan soldiers were killed.

When patrolling through villages, quite often our forces, along with their Afghan Allies, must break into homes. Captain Max Ferguson, USA, said: 

“We hate going through doorways. Every time I take a step through one of those I flinch. It's just a role of the dice whether you are going to step on anything."


The presence of children in a village present special problems. Children in Afghanistan have shown hostile intent and have helped the enemy.
 On many occasions the troops walk through narrow passages in a village. The kids will tag along.

The problem is deciding who is a legitimate target. Debate has arisen over even the phrase “legitimate target” when applied to a child. Some argue there is no such thing; i.e., no child is a legitimate target.

Some argue that identifying children as having potential hostile intent and then targeting them is unlawful.

Patrols in villages are often immediately surrounded by children, many wanting to try their English, many just wanting to mingle with the troops, most of them laughing and smiling. 

 Most often the kids look innocent enough, but it has to linger in a soldier’s mind whether that child is so innocent. On the one hand, the patrol would like the children to get away. On the other they are good for intelligence.

This is hard for many American soldiers. American GIs have long been known to love being with the kids,

“Pushing out”

Our forces do live in fortified compounds. The enemy often lives in caves. The US military is a maneuvering one. There is no such thing as a routine patrol.

Our troops will pursue their enemy through small but dense cornfields and treacherous, rocky mountains. The cornfields magnify the heat. Commonly the soldier cannot see the enemy. But they know the enemy is out there, hiding. Ambushes are common.

Some ambushes end almost as fast as they started, employing only a few enemy, lasting only a few minutes, hit and run style, so the enemy can run before seen. Some fights go on for many hours, even days, but others just last a matter of tens of minutes. There is no such thing as a routine ambush.

Turret gunners are vulnerable. One was hit in the head, through his helmet. He fell to the floor of his Humvee. One troop provided first aid, another walking outside jumped in, manned the turret, and returned fire.

Convoys are frequently struck, some trucks on fire. The trucks provide good cover, so some troops use them and return fire. Others move into other positions. The leader might study the map, able to get only a general position. The smoke may make it hard to see. The men fire into general locations, hoping to force the enemy to show himself. The trick now is to get the convoy moving, as fast as possible, leaving behind the burning vehicles.

A British patrol went in single file through farmland. Occasional trees around behind which the enemy could hide. The last man in the patrol was swinging back and forth, often stopping, pointing his rifle at a spot or two. At one point, he seemed worried about a stack of hay. He , stopped, gazed at it for a minute or two, was ready to engage at a moment’s notice, and then he decided to move on. The rest of the patrol saw him lagging behind, so it stopped, spread out, waited for him to return or engage. He returned and on they went.

While out on patrol, the men sleep for the most part in fighting positions, often curled up behind trees, weapons by their side, trying to stay warm.

On their return to the outpost, many will simply drop all their gear, fall on it, and sleep right there on the ground. Once done, hygiene is a top priority, their bodies, their clothing, their weapons. The men will recount the day, adrenaline still pumping.

Steve Mumford reported on a truck convoy in 2005. A staff sergeant briefed:

"We’re gonna be traveling slow this morning -- I’m taking my time. No one’s in a hurry to get here; no one’s gonna tell me to be in a hurry out there!

“Canals -- be careful! Remember that truck from the other company that slid into the water a couple weeks ago? Guys couldn’t get out -- they drowned to death! Take it slow and smart.  Don’t wind up with guys in dress blues showing up at your parents’ house to tell ‘em you got killed for a stupid reason. . . now let’s do this. This is awesome! I am motivated to be here!"

The Improvised Explosive Device (IED)

There is little in this war that worries our forces more than the IED. Our young fighting men are very fearful of losing limbs, most fearful of losing their “manhood.”

Jon Boone of The Guardian wrote this in July 2011:

“The threat of IEDs have come to shape nearly everything in this war.”

Some IEDs are radio activated, but most are victim activated by walking on a pressure plate.

Patrols often walk on well used paths, which can present a major IED threat. The men will walk carefully, in single file, slowly but steadily, perhaps 20 ft. separating them, trying to walk in the footsteps of the man in front of him, led by the minesweeper. He’s known as the “sweeper.” Some call the path the walked behind the sweeper, "The pathway of life."

Following a battle, a patrol, what was left of it, worked its way back to the outpost. The pressure plates of hidden bombs did their job. Two soldiers lost their legs, another lost a leg and some fingers, and shrapnel scarred two more in the face, all in less than an hour.

The best sweepers can combine their technology, tracking skills and intuition sharpened by studying past bomb placements. The also can feel their gut, sensing when something is not right.

In 2012, a patrol could only move one-half mile in eight hours. Incredibly, their sweeper, SSgt. Kelly Rogne, known as the “IED Whisperer,” found 29 IEDs on that movement.

A “sweeper” commented:

“Lately I’ve been sweeping, it’s been my job, and when we first got here it wasn’t as bad, but now, the IED threat is getting a lot heavier. It’s kinda starting to suck, each day, like going out, I’ve got to sweep again, but I’d rather it be me rather than anybody else. So definitely quick to let everybody know I’ll do it. I mean, I’ve lived, I’ve enjoyed my life, if I die, shit I’m in a more peaceful place than being around all this shit, so I really don’t care.”

Hal Brenton has written:

“Those who plant the IEDs are often elusive, quick to duck under trees that hide them from overhead surveillance cameras. Under cover, they can drop their weapons or bomb-making materials, put on new clothing and transform themselves from fighters to villagers. They are also canny scavengers, even turning a staple of Army field life — the foil wrappers that encase Meals Ready-to-Eat — into the outer casing for a pressure plate. U.S. soldiers are wary of contributing to the bomb-making materials. They are under orders to cut up any big, empty plastic jugs, such as those that contain protein powder, before leaving them in the base trash. No one wants those jugs smuggled off base and packed with explosives.”

Soldiers must think before they react to receiving hostile fire Moving too fast could take thm into the path of IEDs.  Command Sergeant Major Eric Volk said,:

“They are shooting at us to try to force us to go in a certain direction, which is more dangerous than if you just stay put. The men have to display a lot of discipline.”

First Sergeant Michael Robinson said:

“It's a mindset. If you let the fear take hold, it will rule you, and a bad thing will happen. If you understand that the IED is just an obstacle — something that is just there: You can identify it. Go around it. Or take it out. But you have a choice.”

A gunner said:

“I imagine losing my legs or arms all the time, and we just make jokes about it. You see all the time people losing their legs and you have to help them out, and then you think about yours and, man I can imagine going to Germany and getting your surgery and get healed up and then I get my little ‘tink-tink’ legs, is what we call them, our little metal legs. We talk about it in jokes and you know, I think swimming would be so much easier if we just attached paddles to our little metal legs. It’s all about making jokes out of it. If you don’t make jokes, it would be too grim.”


The prospect of taking casualties, especially when bringing on new guys, weighs on the NCOs.

Sgt. Andrew Bragg said:

“I don’t want my guys going … I’ll go for them. I want revenge. It’s not worth another casualty, but I personally want to go.”

Sgt. Adam Lachance said:

“I don’t want to see people get blown up, because that sucks. I don’t think that this entire war is worth losing people for, so that sums it up for me.”

Staff Sergeant Rosa, a senior squad leader, said:

“This is a tough one for me. This is my third deployment with this platoon, and this is the first time we’ve gone through all this bullshit with casualties. My guys have been going out every day. We’ve lost a lot. But at the same time, we can’t lose ground. Especially with the (new) unit coming in. They need a good handoff. They could get slaughtered out there. If I gotta go out, and I’m going out with this group here, that’s fine with me. When we cross that second canal, I think there’s going to be so much shit set in there, we’re going to have a catastrophic IED that’s going to take out a bunch of people.”

Medics and Medevacs

Medics and Corpsmen often travel with the patrol. Most warfighters have at least elementary medical know-how in case a medic is not there, or there are more casualties than can be handle by the medics on hand.

The immediate challenge is to get the wounded out of the killing zones. Someone has go out and drag the wounded a safer place. The enemy often will engage. The medic often has to protect the wounded with his own body. Next comes stabilizing the patient. Next is to get him out of the battle area. Calls go out for medevac.

If airborne medevacs cannot come in, a vehicle will have to do. If no vehicle, they’ll have to gut it out until some help arrives.
Quite often, the medevac flights take considerable fire. Quite often, Apache attack helicopters accompany medevac flights. Apaches’ job is to suppress the enemy attacks.

Enemy snipers commonly wait for medics to move the wounded.

Editor's note: You may wish to read a story I posted in April 2019, "'Doc, let's go!' And she went." Spc. Monica Brown, USA, 19, a medic. She received the Silver Star for her heroics.

Air power

Air power, especially close air support (CAS), has been a core feature of the Afghan war.

The air power oft times crushes the enemy, forces him to break off the fight and flee.

But it’s not always that way. One pilot, commented:

“Often you arrive to a smoking hole and guys calling for medevac, and (in a jet or attack helicopter) you feel pretty helpless.”

Pilots with advanced technology can often watch a firefight from the cockpit, from many miles away. Many times the battle is complex, there is confusion on the ground. The enemy is hard to pick out and track. 

Lt. Paul Oyler, USN, a F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot, said the enemy would hide under trees in the gullies. He said:

“It was the biggest firefight I had ever seen. For the next two and a half hours we were overhead and doing our best to track it.” 

Two more F/A-18s arrived. No one dropped bombs. They were not exactly sure where to put them. So they strafed, each strafe about 150-200 rounds, working in sections until they cleared the whole area. The F/A-18s ran low on fuel but two USAF A-10 Warthogs arrived to take over. The battle ended.

The pilots rely heavily on ground controllers, whether trained professionals, or men from the unit under attack doing their best to guide them in.

 The interchanges are fast and furious. The men on the ground are engaged, but have to give instructions.

“Danger close” means incoming fire and/or bombs from the air will be close to where the good guys are located. The ground controller will clear the fighter in “hot.” The pilot may warn,”I’m coming in not, danger close. One controller responded, “Roger, cleared baby. Gimmie the run baby.” A female voice recording alerts the pilot he is too low, “altitude, altitude, pull up.” The pilot continues in to the target, and hits it, "danger close." The men on the ground might clap, holler happiness, and shout, "Make it rain, baby, make it rain."

On top of the list of worries is to avoid civilian casualties. The US may control the air, but it cannot be used to full power. 

Ground controllers and pilots have be quite cautious.

C.J. Chivers, reporting for The New York Times in January 2012, said this:

“The use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political costs and sensitivities of civilian casualties caused by errant or indiscriminate strikes and the increasing use of aerial drones, which can watch over potential targets for extended periods with no risk to pilots or more expensive aircraft.

“Fighter jets with pilots, however, remain an essential component of the war, in part because little else in the allied arsenal is considered as versatile or imposing, and because of improvements in the aircraft’s sensors.”

“Show of force” missions are used a lot. These warn the enemy, and demonstrate intimidating capabilities to kill and destroy. Cmdr. Layne McDowell, USN, an F/A-18 pilot said:

“So much has changed from when I was here the first time. Now I prefer not dropping — if I can accomplish the mission other ways.”

In one instance, a medic was wounded. His Marines could not get to him, pinned down by a sniper. The call went out for air. A F/A-18 was nearby and responded. The pilot could see the Marines taking fire from multiple angles. A controller asked for a 500lb. bomb,”danger close.”

The pilot decided “no.” Instead, he made multiple passes at 500 ft. and 550 mph directly over the enemy. He released flares over them. The enemy persisted. The pilot strafed, which slowed the enemy enough to get a medevac helicopter in. Two Super Cobra Apache attack helicopters arrived, the fighter pulled away. The Apaches laid down fire. The enemy broke off the attack.

The Air Force Tactical Air Controller (TAC) on the ground is quite the story. Under heavy attack by mortars, heavy machine gun fire, RPGs and small arms fire in 2011, a patrol was trapped.

The TAC was a Senior Arman, such as shown here, the third enlisted rank, pay grade E-3, a “three striper,” called in two USAF F-15E Strike Eagles to support “Troops in Contact,” TIC.

The battle was so intense and noisy he had to yell his instructions on the radio. The F-15s orbited overhead, awaiting their instructions from this Airman.

In this case, he had to stop and tell the pilots “Standby.” He saw a soldier shot badly in the legs, ran over to him, picked him up and carried him to a covered location. He ran back and forth retrieving wounded soldiers, administering water. He then ran back to the radio, he asked the F-15s to “smoke in” on a show force, high speed and low latitude. The fight ended, helicopters came in and picked up the wounded.

Men on patrol and in the outpost pay attention to what’s in the air. They love hearing a helicopter approach, hoping it has fresh supplies, maybe a letter from home. They’ll cheer when a fighter sweeps in at fast speeds. Sometimes they’ll listen to the air-to-ground communications. A pilot once radioed how many seconds before his laser bomb would hit the target. The men in the outpost did a count-down, and then bang, and then cheers.

The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF)

The quality of the Afghan forces who are leading many combined US-Afghan patrols can be worrisome.

Insider attacks, called “Blue on Green,” have been a problem. For example, there were 61 Allied forces killed in 45 insider attacks in 2012.

ANSF use of drugs can be a problem. One group with a British patrol took a break, sat down, smoked opium or hashish. Then a few jumped up, grabbed their weapons, ran out and fired off rounds, often in the air, like wild drunkards.

The Afghans have told their American partner they would not go out with them. Their concern was the Americans were too aggressive. On one day, Lt. Kurt Hoening, USMC, a platoon commander, told the local police they did not have to patrol with them, they could stay behind in enemy territory, without Marine protection. The police decided to join the patrol!

Friday, September 27, 2019

Corpsman down, CPO Holly Crabtree's fight for life

"Today we celebrate serving with a hero"

I was drawn to this photo of Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Holly Crabtree's retirement, taken at Naval Base Bremerton, Maine. The Navy medically retired her on August 23, 2012. She was still in the process of recovering from a sniper attack in Iraq on April 15, 2010. Chief Crabtree is saluted by her colleagues as she departs the retirement ceremony, walking with the help of a cane. At the time of her retirement, she was a 14 year veteran, 32 years old. Her story is something to behold.

This photo gives you a close-up of CPO Crabtree standing at the retirement with SFG Leroy Petry, USA, an Army Ranger and recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor in Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan, the enemy shot him through both legs. Despite that injury, he saved fellow Rangers by picking up and throwing a live grenade, which blew off his right hand. He wears a prosthetic. He heard about Crabtree and decided it would be his honor to be there.In the opening photo, you can spot him in the front row wearing camouflaged fatigues and a beret, saluting with his prosthetic right hand.

Following her basic training and basic hospital corpsman school, the Navy selected her to attend the 12 month Navy's Independent Duty Corps (IDC) School. This is a special school designed for highly motivated Hospital Corpsmen. Graduates earn one of the most respected Naval Enlisted Classifications in the Medical Enlisted Community. That qualified her for a wide variety of jobs, one of which was with Special Warfare units such as the Navy SEALs. Graduates are considered "The Best of US Navy Medicine."

Crabtree was then sent to the Navy's Expeditionary Warfare School. It trains corpsmen and other specialists to work with special operations teams.

She received the Expeditionary Warfare (EXW) qualification certificate from the Navy SEALs. This in turn qualified her to wear the Expeditionary Warfare Specialist Badge and serve with the SEALs.

Petty Officer 01 (PO1) Crabtree was then assigned to Iraq, joining Task Force West (TFW)/TF Dagger, Colonel John Mulholland, USA in command.

At the time, most US forces had already left the western Anbar province. The Iraqis were largely in charge. However, TF Dagger was there. It was a multinational task force, mostly US special forces, with British and Australian special forces forming the bulk of the TF.

TF-Dagger was assigned the western part of Iraq and was tasked with neutralizing the threat from Iraqi SCUD tactical ballistic missile launchers. Dagger was also to conduct reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations in the area.

Crabtree was said to be providing medical support to SEAL teams. This photo shows here prior to a mision.

In addition to that, she also served on cultural support teams that assisted Green Berets, Rangers and SEALs while on combat operations. She was fluent in Arabic which was a great advantage. The Tampa Tribune indicated that Crabtree was selected to go on SEAL missions because of her language skills.

Viewed broadly, the females on the Cultural Advisor Team (CST) were embedded with the special forces on a patrol or a raid. Their primary job was to interact with Iraqi women during missions.  An instructor for CST training described their role this way:

"You are CSTs and you have a very particular job to do on the battlefield. You have to de-escalate whatever situation you are drawn into, and engage with the women and children. But we are not at war to pass out blankets and hugs. I need you to find out where the bad guys are, as quick as you can.”

Crabtree and an female Army Soldier were on the mission of April 15, 2010.
The photo shows an Army female engagement team in Afghanistan. You get the idea.

These women had to be physically fit and ready to take on the punishment of battle and difficult environments.

At the time, TF Dagger was operating near Ramadi, Iraq. Ramadi had earlier been the scene of fierce and bloody battles. It was still the site of contention when PO1 Crabtree arrived in 2010.

She was on a combat patrol mission with SEAL Team 6 (ST-6) near Ramadi on April 15, 2010.The main task for this patrol was to collect intelligence, especially that intelligence which would help locate enemy leaders. However, given Ramadi's history of violence, all hands had to be ready for anything at any time.

She has remarked:

“When we walked into a village, they would know I was medical because I had the big pack."

That "big pack" probably revealed to the enemy that her job was to provide medical care to the villagers, which was something that the villagers would appreciate, and which was something the enemy would not. The Navy corpsman shown in this photo is preparing to leave camp on patrol; you can see the "big pack" holding supplies he might need in the field. It has a distionctive look.

On April 15, 2010 the enemy ambushed Crabtree's patrol. An enemy sniper struck her with a shot that pierced her helmet near her left temple, entered her skull, and came to rest behind the ear.

She says she remembers being hit, and would say later:

"The first thing I remember after I woke up is that I was still in the Humvee. I was embarrassed. I thought I passed out from the heat."

But then she could see her arms were covered in blood. 

She was evacuated right away to a field hospital. When she got there, her case was classified as "Hope Trauma," which I understand meant little hope for recovery. She endured a six hour surgical operation and was not expected to live through it.

Incredibly, she survived and was stabilized. She was then evacuated from Iraq to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland. 

It took her about three months in the hospital before she became fully aware of what was going on around her. She had paralysis on the right side, and suffered a traumatic brain injury which affected her memory, speech and motor skills. She commented:

"Things were tough for a couple of years. I wanted to snap my fingers and get better. I was going through depression so bad as well as trying to get better so hard I was hurting myself … I stopped eating. I wasn't hungry. The only thing that kept me going was my daughter, Leah."

I won't go into the detail here, but I should note that Holly, like so many others, knew she had enormous challenges in front of her. It was natural for her to fall into deep depression and a feeling of defeat.

She was then transferred back to her unit's home base at McDill AFB, Florida for physical rehabilitation at the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital. 

This is a photo of Holly Crabtree with her sister, Sarah, in the hospital. Crabtree had been getting seizures every week or two since she was shot. She has commented,

"They (seizures) surprise me," meaning she could not tell they were coming. She reportedly had had two strokes, partial paralysis and epilepsy.

While in the Haley VA Hospital, Crabtree started to break out of her depression and distress. She began to accept her situation, and entered therapy which among other things would help her see her future diffently. Indeed she "inspired and motivated several critical wounded soldiers and instilled a positive, can-do spirit." 

Because of her medical issuues, the Navy decided to discharge her. That aggravated her a bit:

"I wanted to stay." She had learned how to walk again with help, but she still had problems with her right arm and vision. She commented, "It cut my vision in half." Holly Crabtree was a "go-getter." In high school she played three sports. One observer termed her as "an athletic rambunctious young woman." 

She said:

"I plan on still helping wounded warriors and seeing as many as I can to give them encouragement to keep on going. I want people to know this injury changed my whole life, but to tell wounded people there's still hope."

Originally the Navy intended to retire PO1 Crabtree at that rank. However, she studied Navy regulations and found that she was eligible to take the exam for chief petty officer (CPO). She had problems reading, so a CPO read the questions to her, and she answered them. She passed it, and was promoted to Chief Hospital Corpsman in 2011. That meant, among other things, the Navy would retire her as a CPO instead of the lower ranking PO1. That was huge since she had a daughter, Leah.

Following retirement, Crabtree wanted to help others. This photo shows her talking to students at a school outreach after retirement.

In 2012, she went with a group of other combat-wounded veterans to a remote river in Alaska on what's known as the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, designed for those with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was a pack-rafting challenge. She went on the trip just two weeks after being released from the trauma center at the Haley VA hospital. She carried a heavy pack on her back, slid down a rocky hill on purpose, and adapted to two weeks of the rigors of the wilderness. She walked, tripped, fell and slept on rocky ground, and experienced being drenched by rain. In this photo she is climbing up a "hill." I'm not sure which one she is, but I think she is number three in line. She worked with her team to navigate and row raft on a cold and swift river, using her left arm to row.

This photo shows Crabtree shooting an AR-15 as part of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. She reportedly hit the target in a tight grouping, the first time she had fired the weapon since she was wounded.

Following the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, she said:

"I was at the point where I'd given up hope. I was doing that because I'd locked myself in a box. I took a chance and went on this trip and it turned out to be the most awesome and therapeutic thing I could ever walk into. I don't even feel like the same person. So I encourage anyone and everyone to take the step outside that box and try something. Now that I have that faith in myself, it's like there are countless people I can have that faith for."

In 2012, Crabtree received the Vigiano Family Hope & Courage Award presented by the organization Hope For The Warriors®. This photo shows her with her daughter Leah receiving the award along with actor Gary Sinise, who served on the Hope for the Warriors Advisory Council. Please note the Expeditionary Warfare pin above CPO Crabtree's medals.

This award is named in honor two Vigiano sons, NYPD Detective Joseph Vigiano and FDNY fireman John Vigiano II. Both were killed as a result of the September 11 attacks in New York. Their father, John Vigiano, Sr., shown here,is a former Marine and retired FDNY Captain who has volunteered his time and resources to help Gold Star families and wounded heroes. He is on the honorary council of the Hope for Warriors.

Each year the organization presents awards to service members and military families who have demonstrated both hope and courage in facing challenges after their injuries.

Reflecting back, Crabtree said,

“I don't regret anything that happened. I love the Navy. I love my job … This is our job.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Cpl Nick Ziolkowski: "The Angel on my Shoulder"

"Operation Phantom Fury" was among the fiercest urban warfare battles in American history, fought in Fallujah, Anbar Province, Iraq. Fallujah was the stronghold for insurgents in Iraq at the time the operation was launched. The battle of November - December 2004 was non-stop. 

Cpl. Nickolas Lee Ziolkowski, USMC, shown here, a Marine scout-sniper was one of the Fallen. He was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF), B/1-8 Marines for short.

Sgt. Monty Devenport: Devenport said,

"Fallujah wasn’t hell, but it’s in the same area code."

Christoper Thomas wrote,

"Sgt. Monty Devenport, 1-8 Marines, said the anger he had while serving in Fallujah is still with him, though he said it’s mostly due to a nation that doesn’t seem to know or care about what he and his 'brothers in arms' did during that month in late 2004. He hopes Americans come to understand and appreciate what coalition troops did while serving in Fallujah." Thomas quoted Devenport, "I hope they understand what we gave up for that land and why we feel the way we do. This was no insignificant event and it seems like the American people don’t care. They don’t even know where Fallujah is … But, I gained the kind of perspective the average person will never get."

What does "Fallujah" mean to you?

Bing West, in his book No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, wrote:

"The men who died in Fallujah were not victims. They were 'aggressive warriors.' Stories of their bravery deserved to be recorded and read by the next generation … A cottage industry has sprung up in academia to study counterinsurgency as if it were a branch of sociology. In (my) book, a narrative of war, you meet the troops. War is the act of killing. As a nation we have become so refined and so removed from danger that we don't utter the word 'kill.' The troops in this book aren't victims. They are hunters."

Marine Major Francis Piccoli, USMC, served in Fallujah, and told Voice of America this:

"This is all going to come down to that young man, that 19, 20 year old corporal, lance corporal whether he's a soldier or a marine, leading his particular fire team or his squad through the city, house by house, block by block, room by room."

Dexter Filkins of The New York Times was embedded with B/1-8 Marines, a rifle company. He has several insightful articles on the internet from which I will draw.

This particular segment grabbed my attention:

“Despite their youth, the marines seemed to tower over their peers outside the military in maturity and guts. Many of Bravo Company's best marines, its most proficient killers, were 19 and 20 years old; some directed their comrades in maneuvers and assaults. Bravo Company's three lieutenants, each responsible for the lives of about 50 men, were 23 and 24 years old.

“They are a strangely anonymous bunch. The men who fight America's wars seem invariably to come from little towns and medium-size cities far away from the nation's arteries along the coast. Line up a group of marines and ask them where they are from, and they will give you a list of places like Pearland, Tex.; Lodi, Ohio; Osawatomie, Kan.”

You might have asked why I highlighted Cpl. Ziolkowski. While browsing through some photography, by chance I focused on this photo of Cpl. Nicholas Lee Ziolkowski, USMC. Frankly, it looked like he had been through the wringer, a bit ragged. If so, why was he smiling? Maybe just happy to be alive. Then I remembered I had forgotten what we looked like in the Indochina War, at times pretty ragged as well.

So I looked him up. I quickly learned he was a Marine scout-sniper with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF). The shorthand for all that is B/1-8 Marines. Then came the hammer: He was killed in action by enemy fire while fighting in Fallujah, Iraq on November 14, 2004. That being the case, he now had my full attention.

Cpl. Ziolkowski was known as "Ski" to his fellow Marines. “Ski” was 22 when he was killed.

Nick was from Towson, Maryland. He graduated in 2001 from the Boy’s Latin School of Maryland, in Baltimore. This is the oldest, independent and nonsectarian college preparatory school for boys in Maryland, founded in 1844. The school emphasizes integrity, courage and compassion for others. The school on average has about 640 students enrolled kindergarten through 12th grade.

Ziolkowski was the captain of the school’s cross-country team in his senior year. At 17 he completed the Navy Seal Odyssey program, the 24-hour version of the Navy’s “Hell Week,” finishing in the top ten among several hundred participants and the youngest man to finish.

Nick left for active duty with the Marines less than a month after graduation, on July 2, 2001. This photo shows him at his Marine barracks when his mom, Tracy Miller visited. He was said to be intensely patriotic, one who planned to join the military since ninth grade, selecting the Marine Corps in 10th grade. He began running and lifting weights daily to get himself into shape.

While in the Marines, he often returned to the school to talk to students who were taking military history classes. Butch Maisel, the military history teacher, said:

“I let him teach the whole class. The kids were spellbound ... He really seemed to love what he was doing … People respected his decision to join the Marines … When he came back, he always drew a crowd."

Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said, "He loved his country more than any person I know that age."

Ab Logan taught English when Ziolkowski was a senior. He said:

"He was just real clear -- the reason he was so envied by the other kids, he seemed so clear about what he wanted to do … They didn't want to be Marines, they just wanted to be Nick."

In the Marines, Ski, shown here at war, was a team leader and scout sniper. He also led a number of squads on several occasions.

He had originally planned to make the Marines a 20 year career, but while at Camp Lejune, he reportedly told his mother, “I feel I have this chain yanking me back when I want to do something.”

Nick had been in Iraq since June 2004. He was scheduled to leave in February 2005 and planned to attend Towson University, north of Baltimore.

While planning to go to Towson University, he wanted to live in the residence halls, but his mother said,

“He promised he would come home for dinner every night!” Of course he would! He was not going to leave mom's cooking behind!

Killed in Iraq on November 14, 2004, Cpl. Nick Ziolkowski was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on November 24, 2004, ten days after being killed and one day before Thanksgiving. This photo was taken at his burial.

Dexter Filkins, described Ziolkowski as follows:

"Tall, good-looking and gregarious, Corporal Ziolkowski was one of Bravo Company's most popular soldiers. Unlike most snipers, who learned to shoot growing up in the countryside, Corporal Ziolkowski grew up near Baltimore, unfamiliar with guns. Though Baltimore boasts no beach front, Corporal Ziolkowski's passion was surfing; at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Bravo Company's base, he would often organize his entire day around the tides. 'All I need now is a beach with some waves,' Corporal Ziolkowski said during a break from his sniper duties at Fallujah's Grand Mosque, where he killed three men in a single day. During that same break, Corporal Ziolkowski foretold his own death. The snipers, he said, were now among the most hunted of American soldiers … Intelligence officers had warned him that this time, the snipers would be targets."

This is a photo of Ziolkowski up front, his close buddy Dominic with the glasses behind him. This apparently was the last known photo of Nick prior to his being killed that same day. 

I mentioned Ashley Gilbertson earlier, a New York Times photo journalist working with Filkins and embedded with B/1-8.

Gilbertson described Ziolkowski: "Cool, (Ski) was really cool, a really nice guy. Ski said that he had been looking for a particular sniper, one that had been, one that had been firing at him, and he had been looking for, for the whole battle."

Tom Foreman, a CNN correspondent with the B/1-8, in a conversation, asked, "How could he identify this (premonition that an enemy sniper was hunting him)?"

Gilbertson responded, "I have no idea."

Sgt. Aubrey McDade, B/1-8 then interjected,

"He knew the sniper was trained. He didn't know if he was Chechnya or Serbian or whatever, but he knew that."

Foreman then asked, "But he had a real sense that there is a guy out there that was trying to get him?"

McDade responded, "Yes, sir."

Foreman then talked more about Ziolkowski:

"What no one is expecting is what comes six days in. The men had been led to believe the entire battle would be done by now. Bravo has pushed nearly to the southern edge of town. They are exhausted, edgy, in need of any kind of relief. So, as they hunker down for another sleepless night, it helps that Ski sits easily among them, talking about home, college plans, surfing. When morning comes, Ski, the sniper, climbs back to the roof with his rifle to scan the horizon."

There is then a quick exchange in the interview among several B/1-8 Marines:

Lt. Chris Wilkens, B/1-8: "And, all of a sudden, we hear one shot ring out."

LCpl Blake Benson, B/8: "I remember sitting there, and I hear, you know, one crisp shot."

Wilkens: "And then they carried him (Ziolkowski) out on the stretcher right in front of everybody."

Benson: "That totally destroyed me there. That was very hard to see."

In his book On Call in Hell: A Doctor's Iraq War Story, Lt. Commander Dr. Richard Jadick, USN, talked about Ziolkowski's last moments:

"Bravo Company was still heading south. They held up momentarily at about seven thirty a.m. on the fourteenth (of November 2004), along with some members of Scout Sniper platoon, waiting for forces from the Army's 2-2 Task Force to link up for joint advance. The Marines went firm, posting security at the perimeter and along the rooftops. The sun was just coming up as Corporal Nicholas L. Ziolkowski, everybody called him Ski, one of the friendliest, most popular guys in the battalion, raised his head above his high powered scope for a moment.

"A skilled sniper, the twenty-two-year-old from Towson, Maryland, was scanning the surrounding area for movement; in a firm situation like that your snipers are one of the most important aspects of force protection. Maybe it was a glint from his scope, or the movement of his head, I don't know. But something attracted the attention of a counter-sniper on the other side. One crack, one shot, and Corporal Ski went down.

"HM2 Kevin Markley, Bravo Company's senior company corpsman, was there on the roof with him right away, and he saw, he knew, there was no way with a head shot like that. But you do everything you can, always. First Sergeant Whittington wanted to get his wounded Marine off the roof, so Markley did what he could to stabilize the man, and they moved him down."

Foreman: "Ski is rushed to the aid station, so badly injured, only when Dr. Jadick sees the name on his uniform does he realize who this is. He quietly asks his staff to leave."

Jadick: "(Ski) had some significant, massive trauma to his head, and he wasn't going to make it. And I didn't want the memories to -- to hurt the corpsmen."

Foreman: "Every death reverberates throughout Bravo, and this one, so close to what they think is the end, is especially hard."

Wilkens: "It was like, I didn't have that angel on my shoulder anymore, you know, because Ski wasn't there."