Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Stories Series Episode #2: What Haunts Me

CJ Heim
1 April, 2014

It was June 4, 2005 when I made a decision that has haunted me for years.  As usual my squad was on site at Al-Nasir Police Station on Route Bravo.  Route Bravo was a divided road with two lanes of traffic on each side of the concrete divider.  Nasir was a dangerous station as it was deep in the city and was the lowest building around.  However, the real danger at Nasir was getting in and out of the station.  The parking area was completely enclosed and could only be accessed by a sliding door in the front right of the station.  The parking area had covered areas to the left and rear and was full of Iraqi Police vehicles.  The only way to get the armored trucks inside the parking area was to stop traffic on Route Bravo and back the vehicles in the station.  This street was always packed with cars and people as it was an access point to the Sadr City Market. 
By June, I had done this a thousand times and became comfortable with the danger level.  As always, my vehicle was the lead vehicle.  I would have my driver and gunner mount up in the vehicle while I would walk out in the middle of traffic to halt the flow.  Most of the time I would not even need to raise my weapon to stop the vehicles. On this day in June that was a different story.  The first two lanes of traffic stopped immediately so I continued across the concrete divider and into the other two lanes.  As I looked to the right, traffic began to stop except for one vehicle.  I raised my hand and shouted “Awgalf”, the Arabic word for stop.  The vehicle kept coming.  I raised my weapon and again shouted “Awgalf” but still the vehicle kept coming.  I switched my selector level from safe to semi and heard the metallic click.  I can still feel my heart beating out of my chest as I slide my finger over the trigger.  The vehicle kept coming.

The seconds that passed seemed like hours.  I aimed at the driver’s windshield and gently pulled the trigger to the rear.  I don’t remember hearing the weapon fire.  The only thing I remember is the metallic click the weapon made when I released the trigger.  Before I even looked down the barrel of my weapon at what had just occurred my mind caught up with my body.  Something felt off about what had happened.  I knew subconsciously that my mind made a decision my body could not.  It was as if my body was in the fog of war and only knew how to react.  At the same time my mind was clear and was still able to act upon the morals buried deep inside me.  There was something very different about this incident, I just didn’t yet know what I would soon find out.  I looked at the vehicle down the barrel of my weapon and it had veered off onto the sidewalk stopping in the middle of pedestrian traffic.  By this time my squad leader was standing next to me and we moved out with a fire team to do damage control as the crowd flocked around the vehicle.  I was the first to see what had happened.  The driver of the vehicle was a small boy.  I didn’t have to wait for the interrupter to tell me what had happened as I could already see.  The boy could not reach the brake pedal and that is why he could not have stopped.  My round was off target as it was a child and not an adult driving the vehicle. 
This event still gets to me, if it wasn’t a boy in the truck but a man with a truck full of explosives and I didn’t take the shot, me and my men would be dead.  If it was a six year old boy who couldn’t reach the brake pedal and I did take the shot, I just killed an innocent young boy.  I cannot answer why my shot was off.  I also cannot justify why I waited so long to pull the trigger.  I should have had enough time to fire a shot into the grill before the windshield but I hesitated.  This hesitation could have caused me my life or the men in my squad their life.  I still constantly think about it.  There are other days that haunt me in my down time and in my sleep but I will not subject you to all of my horrors.

           In my years since deployment I have struggled with how to handle some of the things that haunted me. I wanted to share what has worked for me in the hopes that someone else would read this and maybe it could work for them. The method I used was writing out the scenario that haunted me including every detail. I would right the scenario much like a movie script as capturing every detail was not an issue for me. As I closed my eyes the movie began and I could remember it like it was yesterday. This is not easy to do and I understand that but once you get through it the healing process can begin. Once you have written your story do some relaxation technique. I have an excellent 15 minute CD that relaxes my entire body and mind. The next part is the hard part and for me I used someone I trusted to help me. I would place a large rubber band on my wrist. Then I would read the story aloud to the other person in the room. The other person’s job was to watch my reaction and listen to the tone of voice. Once it started to become where I was getting aroused the other person would snap the rubber band on my hand. This immediately stopped my thoughts of the story. However, I would have to do the relaxation exercise to bring me back to reality. After the first few times I was able to practice this on my own. This was a long process but it has allowed me to control my thoughts instead of the thoughts controlling me. I will never be able to forget my experiences but I can put them in the closet and close the door. I chose when the door opens now. I will admit at times the door surprises me but I used some of the tools I have learned to put it back into the closet.

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