As the weeks passed, the generals and colonels who were on my team grew more comfortable with me and let me in their inner lives. I stayed up late many nights listening to their stories. They were so rich and full of excitement and adventure. One of the colonels told me this story:
I was stationed in Afghanistan with my battalion and another commander and her battalion. She was trying to figure out how to get some equipment to another post. She tried to get another unit to transport the item, but was unsuccessful at convincing anyone to make the journey to our remote location. When I looked at the item, I knew that it could fit in a HumVee. I told her to load it in the back of the vehicle and then drive it into town. It would only take about 12 hours. She looked at me as if I had asked her to shoot her mother.
“I can’t do that,” she said.
“Why not,’ I asked.
“Because it’s dangerous,” she replied.
I nearly flipped my lid. “Of course it’s dangerous,” I yelled. “This is war! It’s supposed to be dangerous. And you’re a soldier. Danger is your job.” I finally had to transport the equipment myself to show her how real soldiers did their jobs in the face of danger.
Danger was a part of these guys lives for decades, along with all of the ugly parts of their jobs that people don’t want to talk about – the killing, death, and mental anguish. Being a soldier is serious business and not for the faint of heart. I learned about what it’s like to have a friend die in your arms and how it feels to watch a person being cut in half by a sniper’s bullet.
One of the generals spoke some telling words during one of our late-night story-telling sessions. Out of the blue, he muttered, “I’m sick of fighting wars. I’ve been in the Mideast since 1991 and I’m tired of it.” He went on to tell me about the depression and suicide that is rampant in the military and then left me with one final message: “Freedom ain’t Free.”