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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.