By Joseph Serna
It was a crisp winter morning, a slight breeze helped clear the morning fog from the baseball diamond. I am standing on first base. The cheers from the crowd catch my attention. The umpire yells “Play Ball!” I feel as though I am on top of the world.
The pitcher slings the ball. I take a two-step lead off the bag. Regardless of how this pitch turns out, I am stealing second. I run. I slide head first to avoid being tagged out. I come to rest. For a brief moment, I wonder if I safely made it to second. I slowly raise my head off the ground and let out a violent cough to clear my lungs.
Off in the distance, I hear a loud crack. The sound is the loud crack a wooden bat makes when it makes contact with a baseball, a homerun shot! Instinctively, I fall down. I am now lying face down with my face in the dirt. I hear a volley of loud snaps. The sounds are getting closer. I notice the dirt from the infield popping up all around me. At first, I think rain is causing this phenomenon, but there isn’t a single cloud in the sky.
I push myself off the ground and shake my head to clear the ringing in my ears. The snapping sounds are now a constant. My world is beginning to change, still confused, I look to my right and the dark green grass in the outfield turns to hard packed dirt. The tall stadium walls gives way to thick mud walls. I take an inventory of my body. I look down at my hands- flipping my hands front to back; nothing seems out of place. I am wearing batting gloves. I look over my uniform and immediately I am overwhelmed with a sense of fear. I am no longer safe. I am no longer on a baseball field. I am wearing a military uniform, kneeling in the middle of a dirt road in an unfamiliar country. This is the reality of Post-Traumatic Stress. This is what I deal with every day. According to recent statistics, over 120,000 deployed Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are currently diagnosed with PTSD also. Although we are diagnosed together, we suffer alone.
The Safe Place
I find myself in a familiar spot. I am sitting on a dirt road. I can’t quite put my finger on where I am, but I know that it somewhere safe. I look around. I remember being on this dirt road when I was young. I’m not quite sure why I was taken back to my childhood days. I can only assume it was my safe place, or I was still innocent and had not yet pulled a trigger. Nevertheless, I sit on this dirt road briefly questioning my commitment to continuing life. In my contemplation, I realize that I cannot endure the challenge alone. I need help. I need a team. I need my brothers. I learn a valuable lesson. I need to rely on my team to restore my commitment.
January 2006 Kandahar, Afghanistan
My first combat tour. I just arrived into country. I was assigned to Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) ODA 784, 7th Special Forces Group on a twelve man “A-Team.” I am the Detachment’s Senior Special Forces Communications Sergeant. I am the first one there. The team would be arriving soon.
We go on a patrol 10 miles from camp near the village of Mirabad, Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan. Not much is going on in the area. We were a month into the deployment, and on our fifth patrol, and we still haven’t seen any combat. In my head, I would always game plan my first fire fight. “Would it be a single pot shot from a lone Taliban fighter or would it be a coordinated attack?” Either way, I confidently welcome the challenge. I assure myself, “why would I think any different?” I have twelve bad ass bearded Green Berets with more fire power than the Afghan National Army, supported by the world’s best Air Force, ready to cut our teeth in combat.
On the early morning of February 28th 2006, the team staged the vehicles for departure next to the tactical operation center (TOC). Minutes before we departed, my friend, EZ, who was not assigned to the team, stopped my truck and said that he was approved to join us for this operation. I jumped out of the driver seat and jokingly told him that he had to drive. I then climbed in the bed of the truck.
A few hours into the mission, we were slowed by road construction. As we entered the zone, I felt a violent shake. I blacked out. I awoke 20 feet behind the truck in the midst of enemy gun fire. A grey plume of smoke rose high above a dust cloud that had formed around the truck. I was alone. I was covered in dust and without a weapon. I knew then, that my truck hit an Improvised Explosive Device.
This was my introduction to war
We recovered and fought our way back to base. We accounted for battle damage. The blast severely injured two team members and my friend, EZ, was killed in action. Later that evening, as the adrenaline was replaced by reality, I sat and reflected on the day’s events. I started to question my own mortality. I was a month into my first rotation. My very first fire fight, I lost a brother that shouldn’t have been driving. I was no longer invincible.
How could I survive another eight months? If I mentally wanted to stay in the fight, I had to somehow control this emotion. Where can I find the strength to overcome the adversity of our first fire fight, the death my friend, and the mental strength to continue mission? How can I live with myself? What will I do when I go back out there?