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Over the radio, I hear the sound of a calm South Carolina drawl say,  “Bill’s been shot in the head,” and then–BOOOOM–followed by another two closer explosions.  Then, nothing but dust and a brown-out inside the Afghan mud hut, in a compound deep inside ISIS-held territory in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. My ears are ringing, my eyes are blinded, and I see gunfire and hear screaming instantaneously. I do what every rational human being does in that situation–I start moving towards the blast, push to the gunfire, and put myself between the next blast and bullets and my teammates that I’m in charge of. 

I assess the situation, which is terrible: a call just came over the radio reporting my best friend and teammate has just been shot in the head, I’m in charge of about 30 Afghan commandos who I have yet to make sure are accounted for, and I have to make the decision to push through where the IED just set off ten meters from me.  I continued to push into the courtyard and room where two follow-on grenades had been thrown.  The grenade had burned holes in my shirt, chest, and shoulder.  On top of all that, there’s a huge donkey inside this room.  Since ISIS had very often used pack mules rigged with explosives as IEDs, I’m more scared of him kicking me or blowing up, than an unknown number of the enemy fighters barricaded atop a landing 15 meters from me with a machine gun, more grenades, and likely a suicide vest to boot.  Only in Afghanistan…  

So, I begin to push forward, having accounted for my guys behind me, and ask the Afghan commando if he has all of his men. He gives me a thumbs up. I take another step to eliminate the enemy as all the Afghans run out of the house and then I stop. My experience and, maybe spider senses, say no. If I charge in and get hit, who’s gonna treat me? Am I going to let my teammate with a brand new wife and kid on the way and a brand new lieutenant on his first combat mission rush behind me and set off another IED and kill us all.  Will I, not some ISIS ass****, kill myself and my men because I can’t think under pressure and breathe? Hell no! 

I stop and dump a magazine through the walls and shove my men out of the house. Everything slowed down, I was in control of the uncontrollable, or so I thought. Once outside, the commando team leader tells our “terp” (military lingo for interpreter)  that there’s one more Afghan inside.  This can’t be happening! But, then again, it’s not uncommon for them to leave a man behind. I’m also on the radio trying to get an update on Bill’s condition, assuming he’s KIA, yet I still have my job as assault leader and I have to make a decision on what to do. 

I tell the commando leader, he is coming with me, and we are going to get his man out of there NOW! He refuses and says he is probably dead. I have no doubt he is, but we never leave a man, EVER and we are not going to allow this man to be beheaded or used as propaganda in a video. I insist again, he walks away with his men and shelters in the next building. Still no word on Bill…

Now I make a plan: hasty, but well thought out, and as simple as the first battle drill Alpha you learn and refine in basic training–I take control. I get Zeir (the Afghan commando leader) by myself, away from his men, and I tell him the honor he will feel and the show of glory unto Allah that he will have with his men if he follows me.  He says his comrade is with Allah inshallah (God willing).  So, I go to tactic #2 and insist he allow me to draw fire and expose myself while he takes a couple of his men in and grabs his man and pulls him back to safety.  He agrees. So, I take two of my men who have never seen combat before, since they were just attached to us from the 4th infantry division, along with one of my guys who had plenty of combat experience.  We expose ourselves and wait for the Afghans to go…they don’t budge.  I get my men out of harm’s way and call up to my captain, “Sir, it’s been some time but we’ve got a plan, it’s this… and I’m going to execute it…more to follow… out.”  My captain gives a “roger that” and it’s now or never. 

I pull the Afghan commando aside again and I convince him that he will either be a hero and a martyr tonight and lead his men, or he will die quietly at the tip of my blade that I now have held firmly in my hand. We again expose ourselves to the enemy and get closer to the backside of the compound and begin to fire as the commandos get in and grab their guy and pull him back to the adjacent compound. I had climbed up a steep pass to expose myself and figured lobbing a couple of grenades into the compound would be appropriate, but again stopped, as we may need these and my captain just called in for the F-15 and AC-130 gunship on station to flatten the compound.  So we needed to get out of there now.  I also need to get into the compound to treat one of the casualties since I was the lead medic as well. I get him stabilized, apply tourniquets, a chest seal, and start IV access and get a unit of blood on board as I ask for help from a platoon of Army Rangers covering us in the hills. God bless them they help package the patient and carry his gear. But before we can all get to safety, I hear “30 seconds to impact danger close” over the radio. My immediate response, “OH SH$T! 30 meters away!” and then, BOOM! BOOM!  Two 500-pound bombs dropped with pinpoint precision on the barricaded shooters and compound were just inside.  My world is rattled and my head is spinning.  I again assess, make a plan to move the patient, and execute the exfil (exfiltration, or the process of getting out of the zone).  We call in the 160th “Night Stalkers” who will land anywhere and they do a pinnacle landing in the most treacherous terrain known to man, which we carried the patient out to. 

Now I had time to wonder and ask, how is Bill? The Night Stalker team responded, “We were the last chalk out after Bill and others all casevaced out. Bill lived. Bill got up, assessed his wound, made a plan, and executed it! He cleared the house with his M249, eliminated the enemy, and lived to see another day.”  That’s what it’s all about:  ASSESS, PLAN, ADAPT, AND EXECUTE.  

There are simple applications in everyday life. Even under the most stressful situations, having the experience, having been through stressful events, welcomed them, trained them, and learning from them, all allowed me to remain calm, composed, and able to adapt and not give in to a rash decision or panic. Instead, I was able to take a breath. These are the keys: be present, assess what’s going on, make a plan, adapt to the environment, and execute. I was able to do so because, in the military, we train and put ourselves through extreme training, hardships–physically, mentally, and emotionally–to succeed in the harshest environments and situations. We become masters of chaos. We were not born that way but trained to be. Many before us have done so as well. 

Without our training, we allow ourselves to be defined by our limitations and fears, not realizing how capable we are. Just as fire tests gold, suffering tests men’s strength. All of our past failures and setbacks do not define who we are. They only prepare us for how we view our successes ahead and allow us to appreciate the good because we conquered the bad. So every “failure” was not a setback, but a springboard to success knowing that we are still here and present. No matter what life throws at us, we control how we react.  That’s winning and that’s control. You are capable of that, everyone is.

Goals

  1. What’s the most stressful event you’ve been through?
  2. How did you react to it? How would you have liked to react?
  3. What do you think the value or take away from this story is?
  4. How can you apply it to your situation/life?
  5. How can you apply…. ASSESS, PLAN, ADAPT, and EXECUTE to your daily life and goals, physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually?