Letter from Iraq: When you’re the ‘battle buddy’ unexpectedly in trouble

Letter from Iraq: When you’re the ‘battle buddy’ unexpectedly in trouble

Here’s a sad comment from Capt. Tim Mills, who is now serving in Iraq.

By Capt. Tim Mills
Best Defense guest columnist

On April 23, I submitted an opinion editorial to the local paper. It ran with a picture of my kids and expressed sincere appreciation to my family for supporting my military service. In that editorial I said, “I don’t know the total ‘cost’ this deployment will have on my family.” Unfortunately, the editorial was outdated before it ever went to print.

I arrived at the airport on R&R leave April 29 and struggled to understand the awkwardness and inability to reconnect with my wife. On May 11 I discovered the security of a fourteen-year marriage had been compromised and the life my family had enjoyed seemed headed for destruction.

Boarding an airplane at 5:15 a.m. on May 15 was one of the hardest things I’ve done. Struggling to breathe and unable to sleep I weathered the endless hours of travel from the U.S. to Iraq. How does a Soldier board an airplane for another six months of deployment fearing his family being torn apart? The same way soldiers going through similar adversity boarded the plane at the beginning of the deployment.

“Take a walk in someone else’s shoes. Step out of your own and try to view situations from a different set of shoes,” these were my words of challenge to the unit before we deployed. I viewed this as an “elective” not a “core” requirement and didn’t know I would involuntarily experience the pain some of them had already endured.

I have joined them. I’ve struggled to survive the injuries from a different battlefield — the mind. The wounds my unit has sustained have largely been fought on this hidden battlefield. The fear of losing someone they love or someone who loves them can be consuming. Relationship struggles, newborn complications, back-to-back mobilizations, fearing the loss or losing a family member and fears resulting from deployment experiences have threatened the stability of my unit.

Little rest can be found on this battlefield. The synapses are on auto and continue to fire. Even with eyes shut the mind won’t stop. Anxiety tops out and a spirit of defiance kicks in. Forfeiting sleep to craft an articulate e-mail or carry a phone conversation into the next day provides a false sense of hope that chaotic events can be controlled from thousands of miles away. Reality eventually strikes, along with the grim awareness that the opportunity to affect the desired outcome might not exist.

It is at this dark hour, this pivotal time when hope is challenged, that buddy aid is critical. I never envisioned that I would be on the receiving end of that care… after all, I’m the commander. My battle buddy has kept an eye on me every day since I returned from R&R leave on May 18. I’ll forever be indebted to him and two others — the chaplain and a contractor friend.

The ability to bandage an unseen wound is difficult. I’ve tried as a commander, but at times have struggled to know what level of care to administer. Sometimes a listening ear and an occasional nod is all a soldier needs. At times, more specialized care is required.

One of my soldiers returned home early to receive specialized care. I am fortunate the soldier was able to articulate their need and a battle buddy saw and responded to the signs.

Questions continue about the increase in Army suicide numbers over the last couple years. Efforts to mitigate risk have resulted in numerous briefings, hand outs and standard operating procedures.

Behavioral health has become a catch phrase. To some it carries the negative connotation of instability and probable self-harm. Soldiers fear it has the potential to make them non-deployable or negatively affect their career. They fear the potential consequences of seeking help or the perceptions of their peers knowing they’re receiving help. I’ve had soldiers go to the Combat Stress Clinic, talk things out with a battle buddy, or like myself, meet with the chaplain.

What is it that helps a soldier weather adversity? Is it God, determined resiliency, a battle buddy? What allows a soldier to continue to function on the visible battlefield while a battle rages on the hidden one?

Over the last four months through e-mail and phone conversations, I’ve witnessed my fairy tale life unravel. There is little I can affect from Iraq, but I’ve walked the hidden battlefield and have a better understanding of what some of my soldiers have endured. Sometimes you just need someone to listen. Sometimes you need reminded that God is with you. Sometimes you need to talk to someone who’s witnessed hope on the other side of adversity. How do I know? I’ve walked a few days in these shoes.

Captain Tim Mills is deployed at Contingency Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq. He is the Commander of the 135th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Iowa Army National Guard.