Interviews with men in combat
by Miles Cooper
Most American citizens do not feel the effects of the wars we are currently involved in. Living in the United States, we don’t have to worry about daily shellings, food rationings, militia groups or foreign forces occupying our homes. To us, the “enemy” is a man with a beard and turban brandishing an AK-47 and yelling words we do not understand. But, many of us are as removed from understanding our own Armed Forces as we are the “enemy.” Who are the men and women who fight in our Army? What is deployment like? What scars do they carry when their service is over? Many of the answers to these questions come in over-sensationalized ads the military pumps out, or through Fox News with its dearth of information and hyperbolic media culture. It is difficult to know what’s actually happening during war, and it’s rare to hear directly from veterans.
In order to more fully understand the experience of those in our armed forces, I interviewed a veteran and an active duty soldier, both of whom were deployed in Afghanistan. For those who have never been deployed it’s hard to imagine a world in which being killed is a constant threat. They gave me a peek into a world that the average liberal arts student can’t imagine: the world of the enlisted. Their stories are here raw and unedited for you to read and come to your own conclusion. To respect their privacy, I will refer to them as Joe and Collin, not their real names.
I first met Joe in a parking lot; Joe was stationed in Southern Afghanistan last year and is currently stationed at Fort Carson with the Army. Joe is originally from rural Oklahoma. I met the second soldier, Collin, in a U.S. Army chat room. He was born in Germany, but grew up mostly in New Mexico and South Dakota.
Before reading any further, please note that the following pages describe violence and alcoholism.
Miles Cooper (MC): Why did you enlist?
Joe (J): Cause I didn’t know what the fuck to do and wanted to get the fuck out of Oklahoma.
MC: What didn’t you like about Oklahoma?
J: I don’t know, it was boring and [I] didn’t wanna stay.
MC: Go more into what it was like being over there. What did you do day-to-day?
J: Most days were kinda boring. You’re on duty for 16 hours and then you’re off. You sleep a lot and watch movies.
MC: When we first met I asked you about firefights. Can you say what those are like? (Firefights are a battle during which guns, rather than bombs or other weapons, are used.)
J: Fucking firefights, it’s the biggest adrenaline rush in your entire life ... you never feel as alive than you do in a firefight. It’s better than anything, maybe even fucking.
MC: Did other guys you know feel the same way about firefights?
J: Yeah, I mean some guys didn’t like it but most guys love it.
MC: I gotta ask: You mentioned you’ve killed while you were over there ... what’s that like, any regrets?
J: I mean I’ve killed people with mortars and I’m sure that some of the people didn’t deserve it, but I didn’t really care in firefights. It was awesome, you just blow those fuckers away.
MC: What’s your opinion on the people in Afghanistan?
J: Fuck ’em. Afghanistan is never gunna be peaceful, they’re too bullheaded, we should fucking napalm the whole place.
MC: Just kill them all?
J: Yeah it’s the only way to fucking end those Taliban fuckers.
MC: What about the children?
J: Look, I have seen kids walk up to base strapped with pounds of explosives, fucking children.
Cooper: What about the Afghan Army?
J: The Afghan Army, those fuckers show up high on anything they can get their hands on. They love fucking heroin, the minute we fucking leave those Taliban fuckers are gonna retake the whole place.
MC: What about the police forces, are they any better?
J: Nope. Same shit, different uniform.
Joe’s interview reveals some of the effects of deployment on soldiers. Joe is 21, the same age as many students at CC, and he is clearly dealing with some demons. It is easy to judge him, but the fact is we are all responsible for this attitude. We ask our soldiers, especially those who actively serve in combat zones, to turn off some part of their humanity, to devalue the lives of enemy combatants and the people whose country they occupy. We want them to kill and feel nothing, yet we are appalled when they are robotic, like Joe. We can label him as a villain, and his mental state is hard to understand because he has ventured out of the gilded cage. For those of us in it, what do we know of the realities he faced?
However, Joe’s opinions are not the only ones. Collin has been able to maintain a sense of compassion through his deployment. Collin enlisted in the Army for a “new lifestyle” and nothing more. His deployment took place in Northern Afghanistan for 12 months from 2012 to 2013. He started out as a Private (Private First Class) and Specialist (SPC).
MC: Did you have any interactions with the Afghan police force/Army?
Collin (C): We did work alongside with them. They also had a compound nearby.
MC: How would you describe their capability?
C: Never went on a mission with them, so I cannot comment on their capabilities.
MC: What’s your opinion of the Afghan people?
C: I had spent time with Afghan construction workers and they were extremely kind and nice people. [I] have not met a bad Afghan person yet.
MC: Another solider I interviewed mentioned some drug abuse among Afghan policemen and military personal. Can you confirm?
C: I cannot. I had minimal contact with them. However, some of the locals were having lunch and offered some sort of dessert with opium in it, so maybe it’s normal over there?
MC: What about the reports of children and women being strapped with explosives and sent to bases? Did you encounter or hear of incidents while deployed?
C: Yes, they would send women and children to the gates. We have to go through a lot more red tape to shoot women and kids.
MC: Did the fact that the enemy could be anyone — a child or a woman — change the way you perceived who the “enemy” was?
C: The enemy was hard to tell. Since we are not fighting a conventional army anybody could be the enemy. Best thing to do is to keep your eyes and ears open and assess the situation.
MC: Did you feel that the locals trusted U.S. soldiers?
C: I do, we have had several village elders give us information on Taliban activity.
MC: What is it like to be home?
C: It’s great to be around family and spend time back home, but yes, I do miss it every once in a while. It can be a relaxing experience and adrenaline-filled at the same time.
Joe saw the “enemy” as anyone outside of a U.S. military base, while Collin managed to maintain a nuanced outlook on the situation. Collin was not forced into becoming the automaton of war that was required of Joe. Collin is still sympathetic to the Afghan people even after being deployed while Joe has no such sympathies after being a combatant in firefights.
Survival required turning off empathy. What impact does doing so have on our military? Turning to alcohol seems to be one. According to a 2013 report by NIDA, alcohol use is also higher among men and women in military service than among civilians. Almost half of active duty service members (47 percent) reported binge drinking in 2008—up from 35 percent in 1998. In 2008, 20 percent of military personnel reported binge drinking every week in the past month; the rate was considerably higher, 27 percent, among those with high combat exposure.
Alcoholism is rampant among veterans, especially those who are homeless. I had to cancel interviews with Joe twice due to the fact that he was belligerently drunk. When I had the opportunity to meet his friends from his battalion, they all mentioned alcohol as a means to alienate pain.
Opinions like Joe’s don’t make it onto the news because they highlight the disturbing realties of war that we try desperately to avoid. The voices of soldiers like Joe aren’t the ones that people want to hear—it’s too raw. If the heroic warriors return home not with their heads held high, but downtrodden and suffering, we, as civilians, should be forced to examine our culpability in their suffering.