That dude looks like he takes himself too seriously.
I’m not that guy.
I used to be a soldier in the United States Army. I served my country for six years, and in 2012 I was in my third and last tour in Afghanistan. I was in Ghazni Province in eastern Afghanistan. It’s very mountainous Like Colorado, it’s truly cold in the winter extremely hot in the summer. Like, you just can’t win, it’s not fun. Not fun at all.
My job was to pick up the wounded from the battlefield. There’d be soldier, coalition forces, or innocent civilians. Most of the deployment I went through that didn’t bother me because it was my job. Until it came this one point. I got the call to pick up this little girl that had just stepped on an IED bomb; an improvised explosive device for those of you that don’t know. A bomb, luckily … I mean more than likely intended for guys like myself. You know, to kill an American; but it was this unfortunate little girl who … Nine years old at the most who stepped on it.
I picked her up, brought her back, treated her for her wounds. Along with her father, who was practically crying and just desperate and scared, because he didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know what was going on. We told him that she’d be okay, she came out of surgery okay, but we had to perform some skin grafts and she would need further treatment. We were hopeful that she was going to get the care that she would need. But then came the call. We were told by our commander “Hey, we could not transport her to to the capital city of Kabul”. We were an hour of flight time away to the children’s hospital, and because of the fact that the Afghans needed to ready to stand on their own feet for when the United States leaves.
I was standing here, the rest of my guys and nurses and doctors, we’re like “this is a child”. We told the father, the father broke down in tears, he was upset. I felt, myself, everybody else, it felt like a failure. So we pulled together what money we had in our pockets ‘cause Hell, what do you possibly need money for in Afghanistan in the middle of no fucking where. (laughter) You know? And we put together roughly $200 and that was enough for, the trucker told me, to get him from our base to his place to the hospital, and then back. Whether or not that would cover her medical expenses, that I do not know.
But I remember him being so grateful, so thankful, that he started, his eyes started welling up; and he thanked each and every one of us saying we had just saved her life. Inside as he’s thanking me and all of my guys, I felt a little dead inside because I felt like I just let him down. Like, “I’m sending you outside the gates, and what happens after you leave the gates I don’t know.”
Still to this day I don’t know what happened to that girl. It’s something that I’ve thought about consistently, still think about it today.
Fast forward a few months, I was getting over it, you know more missions came, more came. And we’re seven days out from leaving, and man I tell you man, seven days … You can taste the freedom. You’re like “man, I can’t wait to go back and stuff my face like at Domino’s and like, all that good stuff!” (laughter) You’re thinking about everything you know? You can taste it, our replacements were here. We were sitting together at a round table, it was July 23.
It was a warm day, and we’re just sitting around the table and just talking to them. And we’re just bullshitting them, and we’re happy that we’re leaving and these sorry fuckers were happy that they just got here. It was like “yeah, you don’t know what’s coming”. (laughter) … Excuse my language, I just can’t help it sometimes … And we’re just talking, discussing, you know, and just having fun. And then, my commander happened to be there that day, and he gets a text message, his body language gets all … He gets up immediately, he gets on the secure line and makes a phone call, and no sooner than the other end picks up … You just see him clenching his fist and he grinds his teeth and just starts stomping forward in frustration. He said “I’ll be right there”, and he hangs up the phone and the first thing he says is like “Sergeant Williams has just been hit by a rocket attack, gotta go now.”
And he left to go to this other campsite, which was about 25 minutes away from where I was, and at that point in time it was so surreal. Like I couldn’t believe it, like this stuff doesn’t happen. I’ve seen this stuff happen movies, but you know, not in … This is my third tour, it’s never happened before, it can’t happen now, shouldn’t happen now. And for those few hours, not knowing the status of Williams, were just … Everything was fuzzy. You were scared, you were confused, you didn’t know what to do.
And the word comes down that Eric didn’t make it. And me and my buddy, we’re just kind of sad and our Lieutenant, she comes over and she tried to tell us in the most stern voice she could and it wasn’t working, she said “Williams is a hero“and you could hear the crackle in her voice. And, as soon as I heard it it felt like my soul had just been ripped out of my body. Luckily I had sunglasses on, because that was the only way that I could hide my pain. And I’ve been around death so many times, you know I’ve been around death my entire career in the Army. That was the first time where it really got to me, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was seven days away.
The last time I saw Eric was a couple of months prior, when I visited him at the other base that he was at. I had deployed duty there for two weeks, and I remember him telling me not to stay in that tent because there was rats in it.
And, right before I left, the last thing we said to each other was “I’ll see you back at Bagram.” Bagram is that headquarters base in Afghanistan. And, I said “well I’ll see you back at Bagram”.
In hindsight I wish … And had I known what would happen, I wish I would have told him that I loved him. His body was transported to Bagram Air Base to be airlifted back to the United States, I was still at Ghazni Province, and I was trying to find the first flight to get back to Bagram. And, as I’m trying to go back, I’m trying to get on this flight and I couldn’t help but think that I should’ve been there with him. See that’s the problem with it, because a couple hours prior to Williams getting hit I was supposed to be right there with him at that base.
But due to events unforeseen and unknown to me, they told me “Hey, you’re just going to go later”. You know? As fate would have it, you know, later never happened. I got to Bagram eventually, and Williams’ body, I was hoping to catch the ramp ceremony; which is that ceremony when the casket gets loaded onto the aircraft as you’re saluting that service member. I didn’t make it to that, so I never got to see him.
Two years later, in 2014 I got out and I started my personal career at Stockton; and I thought it was going to be all great and you know, a new chapter of my life and all that stuff. But I never realized how hard the transition was going to be. I was walking around these hallways just, aimless. Like, literally I was like a zombie just walking around. I probably walked past a bunch of you a bunch of times and I didn’t know that you were alive.
And I might have look hacked off, might have looked angry, probably was angry; but it wasn’t at you. I had survivor’s remorse and I had guilt for that girl, that I couldn’t do enough for that girl and I couldn’t do anything to save my friend Eric. And why did I have to live? You know that’s something I struggled with every single day. Until it reached a breaking point where one day I had sent a text to my friend and I just said “you know, I’m thinking about suicide man.”
I just thought about taking myself out of the equation. And luckily they did what good friends should do, and they called the cops and I end up at the hospital.
And as I’m sitting in that hospital room and I’m waiting to be admitted, I’m thinking to myself like from an extrinsic source: “Man would Eric say if he saw me here? And that girl? You know her life was forever changed from that explosion, she’ll never look normal. Like here I am a healthy person for all intents and purposes, and I’m here wallowing in self-pity and regret and guilt. You know I’m not doing them a service, I’m doing them a disservice by just, you know, being a loser.”
It was at that moment that I realized I needed to get help, and so I did. I started going to therapy, I started healing. And eventually I’ll walk out these doors right here a Stockton man, you know and that change the seasons. I know it sounds all melodramatic, but you don’t understand what … When you have PTSD everything seems hazy, it’s like when you don’t sleep for days and you don’t know what’s going on. You can’t tell one day from one day, every day’s a one day. You don’t notice anything that’s going on around you, you’re just a mindless zombie. And for the first time I walked out, and I could actually see the change of the seasons and I could actually smell the air. And like, that one day I couldn’t … I think people must have thought I was weird or something because I stood there in the middle of the parking lot and just did this (laughter).
Yeah, like I was taking in the ray of sunshine because for the first time in a long time I felt alive. So my message to you is: I’m forged by struggle, and each and every one of you are going through your own struggles. And let that struggle forge you because like a samurai sword, if you allow it to forge you, you will become unbreakable. You will not bend, and you will be indestructible.
Salman was a speaker at Dear World Live from Stockton University on January 31, 2017