Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Afghanistan 2002

I was scared. We all were, though not one would show it or verbalize it. Few of us had ever been in actual combat before. Our Special Forces team was flying on a Talon EC-130 into post-9/11 Afghanistan just months after our initial invasion. Our mission was to rout the Taliban and to deny Al-Queda sanctuary and freedom of movement within the borders of Afghanistan - and sometimes beyond.

We were all locked and loaded, each carrying an M4 Colt carbine and an M9 Beretta with a full battle load of ammo, forty pounds of body armor, and a seventy pound ruck sack. I remember wondering whether or not I'd just bought a one-way ticket, or if I'd make it home in one piece. I wondered if I'd ever see my wife and 2 year old daughter again. After viewing decapitation videos, and the video of the horrendous torture and eventual slaughter of the Navy SEAL who fell out of the back of the MH47 Chinook earlier in the war, we were advised to save one bullet for ourselves should we fall into enemy hands.

We bumped around the country at 10 miles an hour in our dust filled Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks wearing civilian clothes, hiking boots, baseball caps, and full beards - somehow thinking no one would know who we were. Afghanistan was the most heavily mined country in the world with some 20 million land mines scattered throughout the countryside by Russian and American forces 20 years ago. It wasn't just the land mines we were wary of, but the remotely detonated booby-traps set up to kill us, and to set us up for an all out ambush. These booby traps were usually well placed around tight curves and sheer rock mountain walls on one side so the majority of our team would be in the "kill zone" with little way of escape.

As we traveled we saw dozens of burned out Russian armored personnel carriers, tanks, helicopters, and planes. All had been scavenged for any part that was considered usable. We discovered weapon stockpiles - mostly Chinese rifles and mortars. We discovered mass graves with skulls, femurs, humeri. We found fields laden with opium poppies and hashish. Much of this served to remind me of the frailties of human life. Psalm 23 kept running through my head - "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me".... The Lord's protection of King David as he engaged in hand-to-hand combat many times throughout his life, encouraged me and gave me hope and confidence.

I was there for a purpose. I was the FOB 201 Special Forces Flight Surgeon and Diving Medical Officer with the US Army's 1st Battalion 20th Special Forces Group, (Airborne). I was responsible for all things medical in the two-thirds of Afghanistan that our unit controlled. My responsibilities included advising our commander with regard to medical issues, training our Special Forces Medics (who I trust more than I trust most medical or surgical residents), setting up medical supply delivery throughout our area of operations, coordinating and providing medical care to our forces in safe houses throughout the country, and setting up, coordinating, and overseeing Medevac routes and logistics - especially for those places north of the Hindu Kush as winter rolled in (helicopters just couldn't make it through the treacherous mountain passes in bad weather). We also organized and ran medical services for the indigenous population.

One of our most successful indigenous clinics was just outside of Asadabad just miles from the Pakistani border. We treated otitis, colitis, pneumonia, chronic pain, leprosy, and shrapnel injuries. This was the same place we mobilized from for our frequent forays into the surrounding areas with the CIA and Delta. We quickly discovered that our "allies" were anything but. We were held at gunpoint until a $50,000 ransom was paid to the Pakistani government. Along the border, Pakistani forces were told to engage us, and even went to arms on our forces - until a couple of Army A10s moved in with a low pass over the heads of our "friends" causing them to stand down.

Some ask why I gave up my job at the University of Tennessee and left my family to put myself in harm's way. As I sat in my living room watching events unfold on the morning of September 11, 2001, I realized we were at war. I realized life would never be the same again. I realized I must act to protect what I believe, and must sacrifice if my children are to grow up in a world free from fear. I experienced every emotion that morning from shock to sadness, from anger to bewilderment. We were at war. It was a religious war, and it was a war of values.

In the weeks before we deployed, I took my entire medical section to New York City where I had spent a couple of years of my life. I gave them each a New York Metro Subway token to place on the chain with their dog tags. As we viewed the site where the World Trade Centers once stood, we cried - Special Forces soldiers standing there in tears as we imagined people jumping from 80 stories above; we stood incomprehensibly envisioning planes flying into these symbols of freedom; we stood steeling our determination and resolve to find those responsible and meet justice to them.

The line from Braveheart rang true. "And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom".

Would I do it again? Certainly. Do people truly understand and appreciate what the average soldier sacrifices? Hardly. I do wish I could tell America that freedom is bought with a precious price. Appreciate it. Stop whining and complaining. Stop bickering. Unite. Learn humility. Give thanks. Get along. Love one another. Aim high. And remember, "Every man dies - but not every man truly lives".


GMan said...

Amen to that, sir and thank you so very much for your service.

GingerSnaps said...

Wow. I am incredibly moved by this post. Thank you for your service to our country.

ss said...

Omar- thank your for your service to all of us:)
Your Friend,
Steve Samudrala MD