Combat Veteran. When I see those words, I think of heroic acts. I think of people daily facing firefights. But in truth, a combat veteran is someone who has deployed to a combat zone or received hazard duty pay. So even without direct combat, you are a combat veteran. A quick search of the internet made me realize that I’m not the only one who struggles with this. This did I do enough to earn the right to call myself a combat veteran.
While deployed for nine months I saw direct combat one time off base. There, of course, were the occasional incoming rockets shot at or into the base but truthfully I was very lucky and most days were combat-free. And although my job required me to be off base for project inspections throughout Kapisa, in all my time outside the wire (off base) we were generally left alone. This doesn’t mean we didn’t do our part to make sure this was a case.
We were restricted on where and when we went on missions to help ensure we were safe. A road known for IEDs was commonly driven on after sunset to avoid direct conflict. There were a few times that we avoided areas or wrapped our inspection early based on the intel we received. But most of our time was spent in Nijrab that was very friendly toward US forces. And with the job of the Provincial Reconstruction Team being there to help the Afghan people not engage with the enemy most days were uneventful.
So does it really mean I am a combat veteran?
Back to my struggle. I was only in one direct firefight. Luckily, in this attack, no one on my team was hurt. And looking back on the whole event if the insurgents had waited five minutes for us to enter or head closer to the entrance the story could have been much worse. And if you know anything about military strategy you know that the low point is not the best place to attack from. I often wonder if the insurgents’ strategy was ruined by our choice to visit this site first. Often we would head up to the northern sites first and hit this last site right before we headed back to the base. So, I’m sure when we changed our routine and visited the school first instead of last it triggered a chain reaction of events. Events that could have changed everything about this event.
Even so, the truth of the matter is we were in real danger. Poor planning by our attackers was the only reason we all made it home with no injuries or deaths that day. Had the Rocket Propelled Grenades had better accuracy and landed a few feet away instead of three hundered the story would have ended very differently that day. Had they waited until we walked to the entrance or even after we had all arrived inside the school we were going to inspect. The story would have been different. These scenarios run through my head as I think back to that day. Even ten years later.
Maybe that’s why I downplay the event we people talk to me about my time in Afghanistan.
I don’t like remembering the fear I felt in the moment that the first blast went off. Sure I had on my helmet and my chest plate, but I was out in an open field between the school and our trucks. And even when I was in the truck the fear of an RPG landing on or dangerous close was still a grave concern. So, many things happened that day in that short twenty-minute experience. When I think about that day, I can see a lot of what-ifs. A lot of realization that we were protected that day. Even amidst an attack, we were truly lucky.
And yet I still struggle.
In my mind, it can quickly turn into a comparison game. Ws the danger I faced enough to share my story. Someone else has a better story, so how can I tell mine. Everyone on my team came home. I know other friends who can not say the same thing. My struggle wasn’t as great as someone else’s. But does that matter? Does saying you are a combat veteran mean that you experienced the same thing as someone else? If you are injured in combat, you get a purple heart. If you displayed a true act of bravery you can be put in for higher awards.
A combat veteran has seen combat maybe directly or indirectly.
One-time, countless times. That is not the defining factor. And when you think about the last 17 years we have been at war there are so many people you can compare yourself to. It just puts you in a lose-lose situation no matter what you have experienced. All I know is that day forever changed me. The memory of that event. The intense fear full of adrenalin will never be forgotten. The worry, the prayers, the moment in time where my training overtook my feeling and propelled me to take action to get to safety.
Both the Army and the Air Force granted me the awards to show the event happened. The Army quickly gave me a Combat Action Badge and months after the event I was granted my Combat Action Medal from the Air Force.
When I joined the Air Force I never expected to be on the dusty roads of Afghanistan interacting with the Afghan people.
I knew I would likely deploy. But being on the front lines of war before women were technically allowed to be there. That wasn’t what I expected. But when I signed up, I gave the Air Force and my country my word that I would do whatever was asked of me.
So that is what I did.
That is what we all do.
We go where they send us.
We complete the mission required.
No one wants the title of combat veteran or the awards given to those who face direct combat situations.
No one wants to come to a place where fear grabs hold of you and change the projection of your life.
I am a combat veteran.
And I am choosing to stop living as if I don’t deserve to say those words. I served my country. I was shot at by the enemy who had the intent to kill me. And I am going to stop the comparison game because all our stories have value. Combat veteran or veteran, does it change the oath we took? No. We signed up to serve our country, not knowing what was to come.