By Joe Serna
It is the morning of 29 February 2006.
Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I fought in combat. It was also the first time my team fought against the Taliban together. There was not much to be said about my contribution. My truck hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). I was blown out of the bed of the truck. I did nothing. Of my friends in the truck, I was the only one that survived.
I don’t know why I survived. I don’t know why I only sustained a few bruises. I feel fine physically. Emotionally, I am a mess. I am emotionally overwhelmed with guilt and self-doubt. As I reflect upon the experience, my team gathers to discuss the details of yesterday’s engagement.
The room is quiet. No one says anything. The loss of our brother weighs heavily. I quietly say a prayer for EZ’s family and also for the two team members that were severely injured in the blast. Finally, the Detachment Commander speaks. He opens a discussion. We discuss the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that detonated directly below the driver seat of my truck, which killed my close friend, EZ. We discuss our tactics, our response, and our communication during the firefight. I am trying to pay attention, but I can’t.
We conclude the meeting. I walk back to my cot. I am overwhelmed with guilt and doubt. I think, “Why not me, and why them?” I start looking for help. I want answers. As days pass, I eventually find a book, “Man's Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. As I read this powerful book, a passage resonates with me, “ Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I mourn EZ’s death. If not for me, EZ might not have been in the truck. I choose to accept this harsh reality. I also choose to stop blaming myself for this accident. I choose not to doubt myself. I began to shift my focus from myself to my team. I think, “I am going to either quit or lace up my boot straps and bring hell to my foes.” For me it is simple. I choose the latter. I choose my own way, as Frankl suggested. I choose to take away lessons learned to prevent this from happening again, and just as important, I choose to not lose faith in myself or my team. I realize that the solution to my pain is to make a choice. I made my choice. I was here to fight.
As my focus begins to shift away from myself and to my team, I realize that our team needs a confidence booster. It was clear that we were no longer “invincible.” It was clear that we were each humbled in our own way. In quiet contemplation, I think, “How do we restore the confidence we once had?”
The answer is time. We realize that of the twelve members of our team, there are 12 different ways to heal. Each of us needs our own personal space so that we could start the healing process. We also knew that if we were given too much time, we would start to doubt ourselves. If unchecked, this self-doubt would eventually erode the team’s confidence. Although painful, we know that we have to get back in the saddle, and we have to do it sooner than later.
We spend a few uneasy days recovering. Our Detachment Commander gathers the team. He gives us 20 minutes to grab our equipment and meet at the trucks. This is the first time that we are going to be back in our trucks since the bomb detonated on us. I am nervous, but I know what needs to be done. I made my choice. Now I have to follow through with it. To my surprise, the Detachment Commander directs us to the firing range. We line up and start working on our tactics, techniques, and procedures. We test fire our weapons. We spend hours on the range. I realize that we could have jumped right into another mission, but the value added is more than training. It is about gaining confidence and trust in each other and as a team. It is about taking baby steps. This is the crawl phase in our ‘crawl, walk, run, sprint’ training methodology.
The next day, we go out the front gate to fight the Taliban. I feel like my mind is resolved, my confidence is restored, and I am ready for battle. I am not quite prepared, however, for what happens next……..