18 Veterans Share Personal Stories from the Front Lines in the Global War on Terror

Tony Russo
Nov 11, 2018 · 9 min read

Reflections on service, the military and what it means to deal with war’s aftermath

I host a podcast called This Is War, and for the last year have weekly spoken with people who have endured and overcome (or not) horrific tours of duty in the war on terror.

There will be all kinds of patriotic displays today ranging from maudlin to saccharine to genuine. I wanted to take a couple minutes to talk about the different stories I’ve been able to help tell so far, what they might mean to me, and what they could mean to us.

It’s important to say that there is nothing partisan about This Is War anymore than there is anything partisan about real people’s lives. Partisanship is connected to a paycheck, with despicable people intentionally riling up the honest because that is easier (and often more lucrative) than being productive.

What’s tough is that from the most gung-ho private to the most war weary veteran there isn’t a through-line, no overarching theme. Sometimes when I’m working on helping tell these stories I struggle with the question of whether we can ever avoid glorifying war.

I’m not convinced it is possible, but not because very many people think that war is great. War is complex. It is hard to hear or to tell these stories of true valor, of human loss and transformation without touching on that thing that makes us human: understanding and making decisions about our own mortality.

Weapons Systems Officer “Siren” understood that seconds counted when responding to requests for air support.

Nearly every person I’ve interviewed knew they were going to die, ate their fear, and did what they thought was best. When you hear a story like that, it almost is impossible to not wonder whether you could hold up under that strain. Whether what you believe in now is what you believe in when you are facing death.

So many of these stories don’t so much glorify “War” writ large as how great we each can be when we move past worrying about whether we will see tomorrow. For me, that always has been the big-picture takeaway when Veteran’s Day comes around.

It is right to make a big deal about the men and women who have turned over their wills to ours, and their heroism always will be more about what they have committed than about what they’ve done.

I get to talk about a lot of big picture ideas on the show, including (and maybe especially) honor and duty. These are themes I think about in my own life and ideals I try to remember. Just like you can’t run a marathon on your first go, cultivating honor and dedication to duty isn’t innate. It’s something you have to practice so that, when it comes time to make the difficult decisions, you’re comfortable with your gut-level response.

Medic Bryan Storemski treated his men while wounded and under fire.

The short version is to practice thinking about what you owe rather than what you want, what is expected of you rather than what you can get away with, what you want remembered about you rather than what you’d prefer be forgotten.

It has been my honor to have spoken with all of the people in the stories that follow. Since it’s best to hear about them in their own words, I thought I just would introduce them from my own perspective.

Note: I have linked each of the podcast episodes above the descriptions, but depending upon your browser settings you might see a “Do Not Track” warning instead. The links can be played in place or followed, but either way they’re safe.

1. Ian Mearns

This was an emotional interview because Ian was one of the first guys to put a face on PTSD for me, and it kind of set the tone for the rest of my practical understanding and experience. There’s this weird anger and anxiety that he did a pretty good job putting his finger on and showing me that there’s a broad spectrum when it comes to the way people deal with their war experiences, with coming home and with striving to build a post-service life.

Ian Mearns did two tours in Iraq. The first one was bad, the second one was worse, but his greatest challenge was dealing with the leftover fear, rage and anger once he got home.

2. Kevin Rumley

If Ian provided a jumping off point for starting to get a grip on the broader implications of dealing with PTSD, Kevin provided more than a little insight into addiction. Kevin’s experience with being blown up by an IED, waking up essentially already an opiate addict, and what it took to get beyond both the incident and its aftermath was a moving, personal glimpse into a part of the American combat experience those of us who aren’t military don’t really talk about.

Many of the men and women who enlist in the armed forces do so knowing they might die, but somehow meeting death face to face still comes as an absolute surprise.

3. Bryan Storemski

This was the first of several combat medic/corpsman stories I was able to help tell. The regularity with which these guys plug up their own holes so they can go to work on others is awe inspiring. It is really difficult for me to imagine being shot, but being shot and ignoring it so I can work on other people who also just were shot is extraordinary.

“My training just kicked in.” We hear that a lot. It calls to mind decisiveness and instinctual reactions to uncommonly dire circumstances. For an Army medic, it’s about worst case scenarios and hoping on some level that your expertise rarely is called upon.

4. Marcus Freeman

Marcus, who was born in New York, quit the Navy after 9/11 to join the Army and personally exact revenge on everyone he could. He didn’t even begin to soften until he found himself in a recently-destroyed school, doing triage on children. This remains one of the most intense interviews I’ve ever conducted. Marcus gets at the complexity of killing and healing as well as I’ve heard anyone else do it.

What do you do with rage when you don’t have any place to point it but inward? When there is no satisfaction in revenge and no way to put things right? Marcus Freeman spent nearly a decade as a combat medic, fighting the insurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan with his healing power as much as with his weapons. But some wrongs can’t be righted, they only can be reckoned with. And when you can’t do the reckoning, the price you pay can be tremendous.

5. Joe Post

Joe Post didn’t do much to hide his Pennsylvania accent, not that I’m certain he could. He was the first soldier I spoke with who talked about the post-9/11, American flags everywhere phenomenon. He said something like, “I was one of those guys with the flags on his truck.” Post also was the first guy I spoke with who felt the Army changing him, wearing away at his empathy and making him rethink the call to glory he thought he was answering.

Being under constant assault in a war zone wears a person down in both expected and unexpected ways. Sure, it wears you down physically, psychologically and emotionally, but it also can wear down your soul, taking chips out of your humanity.

6. Joseph Alotto

Joe was human and articulate and was the first person to give me a little insight into “self-medicating” PTSD. For him, traveling, dealing with his fears and allowing himself the space and time needed before jumping back into civilian life was the key. More than that, though, him talking about how important it was to resume leading his guys not long after being shot in the neck by a sniper provides a chilling perspective into the intricacies of real courage.

Duty is above the letter of the law. It’s a way of calibrating what you want to do with what you’re responsible for and matching that up against how you see yourself as a person.

7. Louis Garcia

Louis was the first Marine I spoke with who was already enlisted on 9/11. Stories like his fascinate me because they’re so singular. He also was the first guy to tell me what it was like to hear his son born over the phone. For all the carnage he saw, what sticks out for me was when he talks about gathering the personal belongings of those killed in action to see if he could return them to their families.

Violence is a necessary part of combat, and that is something every Marine understands when they step on the yellow footprints that first day of bootcamp. But really accepting your mortality is on some level the easiest part. Acknowledging the mortality of your brothers and sisters is another thing altogether.

8. Kara Lydy

I never have had to write about sexual assault before in any kind of personal way, but interviewing Kara, who was so tough and forthright and open, gave me a new insight into toughness. The story of having to be afraid both of the Iraqi army during the day and one of her comrades at night was harrowing to hear. The way she overcame it and used it to make herself even tougher is genuinely inspiring.

For Kara Lydy, fighting was a way of life from early on. Overcoming adversity was a part of her day to day routine nearly from her moment of birth. But when you come up fighting, you can get the impression that toughness and hard work are enough, that being a superior soldier is all that’s required of a member of the American military.

9. Cody Jones

Faith always is a tricky thing for me. It’s so often that people use it as an excuse to fail their humanity rather than to better express it. Cody Jones had such a matter-of-fact attitude, not only about some of his objective acts of courage, but also dealing with the loss of his leg and worse, that his story kind of gives you a little more faith in faith.

For Cody Jones the commitment he made to himself was part of a larger perspective, a way of lining up the world so that it made sense easily and immediately. When you give yourself a couple basic rules but then live up to them without fail, that’s what makes you reliable.

10. Shane Shelton

The combat stories Shane told astounded me because he was in so many extended firefights, but what stuck with me from the first time that I spoke with him was when he talked about stopping by a USO table in the airport and recording himself reading a book for his unborn son before heading back to the war.

When Shane Shelton had to delay his entry into the special forces to go and fight in Afghanistan the only thing that buffered his disappointment was that he would get the chance to fight. But as he would come to find out, being in top physical condition is secondary once the shooting starts.

11. Siren

Lots of times people prefer to be called by a nickname, but this is one case where it makes the most sense. When Vanessa Mahan earned the call sign “Siren” it marked the end of an impressive struggle and the beginning of an impressive career. Providing air support means that every second you’re on your way to the battle, someone else could die. It’s tough to overemphasize how seriously she takes that proposition.

From early on in her training, Vanessa Mahan learned that being an aviator is more than just a test of strength and stamina, it also requires an unrelenting will and focus. What it requires most of all is the ability to shoulder the heavy burden of life and death for dozens of people every time you’re on a mission.

12. Kristofer Baskett

What always sticks with me about Kristofer’s story is his understated fury when talking about IEDs from a Navy corpsman’s perspective. Especially when he’s talking about shooting (but failing to kill) a man trying to detonate one and then having to save the man’s life. You know how sometimes you join the Navy and end up in the desert? The amount of responsibility a 19 year old in charge of patching up Marines shoulders is mind boggling.

Kristopher Baskett was 19 years old when he arrived in Iraq. He had enlisted in the Navy with his sights on underwater demolition but a little more than a year later he was a corpsman doing his best to fit in with the more seasoned Marines to whom he had been attached.

13. Kenny Lyon

Kenny grew up near me, although we never met and he since has moved. A mutual friend put us in touch. This is another of the several veterans I’ve spoken with who has been indefatigable in recovery. He brings up a point that really isn’t hit upon enough when it comes to treatment for catastrophic injuries like his (as well as for the mental-health a lot of veterans don’t seek). It’s an abiding surety that there’s always another vet who needs it more.

Kenny Lyon was all about finding roles and filling them. Whenever he could see the world as a set of instructions, he could follow along nicely, and that got him pretty far as a Marine. One of the toughest requirements he had to meet, though, was figuring out how to go beyond instructions, to see them as a template, but to make your life your own. Doing that takes its own particular gift.

14. Brandon Mitalas

Brandon joined the Marine reserves mostly out of spite for his parents, who wanted him to get a job. When his unit was slated for its second tour, he asked to go and ended up being responsible for sending home “Fallen Angels,” performing the flag ceremony over so many of his fellow Marines that the flag itself became almost unbearable for him to see. Meeting with the family of one of the Marines he sent home put him on the road to reconciliation.

The flag-draped coffin is one of the most enduring symbols of war. It is a reminder of the cost and also of the responsibility that young men and women take on as part of their service to their country. By the time Brandon Mitalas had sent 226 marines and sailors home under the stars and stripes, he truly understood the weight of remaining always faithful. He also learned something else: Sometimes it isn’t about you.

15. Daniel Knapp

There are always a couple basic questions I ask during the initial talk I have with prospective subjects, one of them is, “How did you decide to get out?” After hearing all of Daniel’s stories about running gunfights, various promotions and how tenaciously he pursued excellence as a Marine, I was dumbfounded to hear he got thrown out for having too many tattoos. I was even more surprised at how he’s made peace with it and just moved on with his life.

Cowardice and recklessness are opposite reactions to the same inclination: putting your wants before the needs of the people you have promised to be faithful to. With Daniel Knapp it is more than that. There is an element of wanting to both emulate and get the respect of those above him.

16. Zebulon Jensen

“I wanted to be the first kid in my town to actually be like, ‘Yeah, I killed somebody for my country.’” The kind of naked honesty these people have when they speak with me is something I takes very seriously when I’m putting together their stories. The transition from wanna-be warrior to combat veteran says so much about our aspirations versus what we genuinely should expect of the world. Reconciling those two things is a very personal and specific journey but each time someone relates theirs we learn something a little deeper about life.

Even when you spend the better part of your adolescence dreaming about warfare, and your teens preparing for it, there still is an unnavigable distance between theory and practice, especially when there isn’t even a war on. But when the war and the enemy are real, it is nothing like you possibly could have imagined.

17. Tom Satterly

This was my first two parter and I barely scratched the surface of this career. Tom Satterly’s first deployment as a Delta Force member was to Samolia where he was trapped in a house during the Battle of Mogadishu and ran the Mogadishu mile. It wasn’t the last time he would have to guard a downed helicopter overnight on a battlefield. He was in the air on 9/11 and on the ground for the capture of Saddam Hussein. Then, he nearly blew his brains out in a parking garage in Akron, OH.

During one of the most storied firefights in recent U.S. history, nine special forces soldiers held a house in Somalia, guarding one of the Black Hawk helicopters that had crashed during a routine operation.

18. Brian Avalos

Brian talks fast. It’s the result of a TBI he got after stepping on an IED, being launched through the air and initially declared Killed in Action. What I found the most compelling, though, was the role his family played in his recovery and eventual return to the civilian world.

When you enlist and take the oath of service, you take the oath by yourself, but not on your own. The oath implicates not only your family and friends, but also your future spouse and children, it implicates people you haven’t yet met and, in the case of a distant enemy, people you may never meet.

Almost everyone I speak with for this project shares with me the details of some of the worst days of their lives, and for most those aren’t the days when they have killed people or watched them die. It’s when they realize the inevitability of confronting their experiences, what they’ve seen and done versus what they had hoped to see and do, and incorporating all of it into a future they can endure.

For our part, the best we can do is listen without judgement and bear witness to their stories.

Tony Russo

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The world is all that is the case.

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