My story used to be hard to tell. It gets easier as time passes and my 6-month tour in Afghanistan, chronologically, is in the distant rearview mirror. Emotionally, I often feel I am still there experiencing all that comes with and from a military deployment. Like most veterans serving in harm’s way, I learned to survive my tour by way of a deliberate and strategic emotional shutdown.
This began before my plane took off in St. Louis, Missouri when I left for my deployment from Scott Air Force Base. I remember thinking how there was no longer a “front line.” Our Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and our decade long presence in the country ensured the Afghanistan people served side by side with us, not only as military but as food service workers in our chow hall and in many more roles. I knew that the majority of these people were caring, family- and communityoriented and that it was a small percentage that sought harm of me and my brothers and sisters in arms. This small percentage was enough to drive a warrior crazy if one spent his/her tour in a constant state of fear that the interpreter with them or someone that somehow got past our security was carrying a bomb set to take us out of this world.
After about 2 days of travel through Germany and Kuwait, I remember landing in Afghanistan and feeling I had achieved my desired state of numbness. I did NOT realize that it would take a lifetime and a considerable amount of support from others to try to turn “back on” that emotional part of me. Indeed, I would only realize long after I returned home that the process of emotionally surviving added, unbeknownst to me, layer upon layer of emotional scar tissue that would be a heavy burden to bear—and a defensive shield to keep anyone and everyone from potentially harming me.
Three days prior to returning home, I remember becoming increasingly anxious that I was so close to making it through the deployment and praying to God that I would still make it home. I had seen fellow troops and coalition forces members from other countries wounded and some killed in action. I had seen Taliban fighter bodies mutilated from attack. I saw the results of poorly manufactured mortars hit unintended targets (including sleeping doctors and nurses) and thinking, “I might die from a target not even intended to be me!”
I got asked to conduct a special mission at a forward operating base (FOB) that was in Taliban-friendly country. When completing my mission, I was dropped off at a helipad for what would be the next “flight of opportunity” back to my main base. The young soldier that dropped me off waved and I remember thinking, “when the next helicopter shows up, I will grab a ride and it will be a mere days and I will be back home with my wife and three children.” I looked around and realized quickly as I took in the terrain that I was next to (and not inside of) the FOB. In the not too far distance I saw what appeared to be a local village. There was no wall or security perimeter between me and that village.
It didn’t take long for a few men from the village to walk my way. They spoke Dari, a language I spent three months learning prior to my deployment. They spoke to one another about how they would take me back to the village and how much I was worth. The grabbed my arm and motioned me to come with them. I stood there, refusing to budge and pretending not to understand their words. They went through my pockets and took personal items of mine. I thought about drawing my weapon but I knew I would likely only get a few shots off and then what? More villagers would inevitably come and my end would be potentially much worse. I prayed…and interestingly enough, not for survival. I prayed my children would never have to see a horrific video of me being tortured or decapitated. I prayed my wife would be strong when the military casualty notification team came to our home to alert her as to my death.
When I shared this story (months after returning home) nonmilitary people could not understand how/why I did not fear what would happen to me. We were trained for these things—my family was not. As I prayed, and after what seemed like an eternity, a helicopter appeared in the sky and the villagers began to scatter. By the time the helicopter landed, they were safely back in their village and an Army Brigadier General looked out the helicopter window and asked me if I needed a ride. My response was, “Hell yes, sir.” He asked where my ear protection and eye protection were. I said I was a dumb Air Force officer and had forgotten them. He laughed and I chose in that moment not to speak of what happened to me…to anyone.
When I read Eternal Soldier's assessment of whether or not Saul had PTSD, it spoke to me in a way that nothing had since returning home from Afghanistan. He too had nightmares. Mine are intermittent and bring me right back to that desert and sometimes those villagers are successful in taking me. I am constantly in a state of alertness that draws a sense of fatigue…I must be on guard. After all, I was fortunate to have escaped my potential capture in Afghanistan. I might not be lucky in the event someone else attempts to harm me so I cannot afford to be anything other than on guard at all times.
Saul too was in a constant state of battle—both literally and figuratively. He had intrusive thoughts and emotionally re-experienced his battle experiences/traumas…just as I continue to do. I know my enduring battle for becoming the person I was prior to my deployment is futile. I have changed forever. I am an eternal soldier with many invisible wounds and a lot of scar tissue. I had been put in harm’s way by being dropped off where I was. I’ll never know whether or not it was intentional or on accident. Based on what my sensitive mission was at that FOB, it may have been intentional.
I will spend the rest of my days wondering if and why someone would knowingly leave me alone outside the wire. As a result, I find I am overwhelmingly and increasingly unable to trust others—even those who I know are trying (and at times succeeding) in helping me—just like Saul. I search desperately for things that bring me even 5 minutes of peace. Like Saul and his Lyre, I find fleeting peace and comfort in music. And I find peace in telling my story to other veterans—and knowing I am not alone. To think that thousands of years ago—and since—that veterans have similar experiences is tremendously cathartic for me.
I found peace the moment I re-read Saul’s story from a PTSD vantage point. I pray those that read my story know they too are not alone and that while it may take a lifetime, recovering from battle is possible and worth it. Our stories, your story, must be told. Millions over thousands of years, we are all eternal soldiers.
ERIC B. JOHNSON, JR., MPSA, CPS, CAAMA, CHS, CHEP, CDP USAF Veteran,
Medical Service Corps Officer (2002-2011)
Operation ENDURING FREEDOM Veteran (2010)