It’s been a rough week. I haven’t written much because I haven’t been able to focus my thoughts. I’ve got a few drafts that just don’t make enough sense to publish. Plus, my momma always said if you don’t something nice to say, shut your mouth. Not that I’ve necessarily heeded that advice over the years, but I thought it prudent recently.
I lost a good friend a week ago. SSG Brian Cowdrey died October 13, 2011, during combat operations in RC-East. Brian was a medic with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. That night he went in to get 2 severely wounded patients, and once they were onboard, he went back out to get one who wasn’t as bad. He didn’t need to, but he did. He was hit by on his way back into the helicopter by the rotor blades as a result of high winds and only enough landing space for the chopper’s two front wheels. All the patients that Brian got that night are still living today. There were only two people who died in that firefight – one being SSG Cowdrey, the other being an American Soldier who had already expired when Brian got there.
The shock was difficult to process. We had just been emailing each other that day and I was waiting on a response to question I had asked him about what he does. We were working on a blog post together about the great work that MEDEVAC troops are doing in Afghanistan in spite of some reports.
Then, I read on his wife, Jill’s, Facebook page confirming rumors that he had died. Here I was in Afghanistan and had no idea this had happened and then the nearly 12 hours of silence from him hit me. The first thing I did was head to my email and shot off an email to Brian:
“Brian, you have to answer this. I think I’m seeing things and I need to answer this. I don’t care what you say or if you send me a blank email. Just reply to this email and let me know you’re ok.”
Nothing. Silence. Outlook just jeered at me in a pathetic lack of activity. Two days later, I was still not convinced. “I know now I’m talking to myself, but I miss you bro,” I wrote in a Facebook message to him. He always responded on Facebook. He didn’t respond this time.
The tears flowed freely and I took a day to myself, not leaving my little 5×5 cell. I slept most of the day because I didn’t want to face the world and have people see me in that state. I use the time to grieve and get all the emotions out.
Initially, I was angry because I had missed Brian when he came through when he first arrived. We were making plans to try and meet up at some point while we were over here, but recognized it wouldn’t be for awhile. We got here at about the same time and things hadn’t settled down after nearly three months. I began calling around to find out if his body was coming through Bagram or Kandahar. If I wasn’t here to welcome him to Afghanistan, I was sure as hell not going to miss him leaving!
I sent emails and made phone calls to my leaders asking for permission to fly to Bagram where the dignified transfer was to take place. I didn’t get any response to any of my messages, but I found out that I had missed him by two hours. Strike two.
I contacted his unit to find out when the memorial would be held. I again tried calling my unit and sent emails asking for permission to fly to Bagram to attend a good friend’s memorial. Nothing.
Strike three. I had failed Brian three times. I was blessed to have a friend I know and trust there with me here waiting to go on leave as I struggled with dealing with those emotions of loss. Though it was late at night, he stayed with me and made sure I was okay. Though he wasn’t in my leadership chain, it’s good to have people you can rely on. He’s one of the good ones and I consider him a friend, but I won’t embarrass him by naming him. He knows who he is and needs to hurry back for a new game of Killer Bunnies.
Instead of succumbing to my anger, I opened my scriptures and read. And it just so happened that the chapter I was reading that day was Jacob 3 in the Book of Mormon. The Lord spoke to me immediately in verse 1 saying, “Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.”
Now, that last part didn’t necessarily apply at the time, but it would. Because as this was winding down I was dealing with the ignorant actions of others that WERE seeking my destruction. People I never met, never spoke to, and who had no idea who I am were going out of their way to create problems and controversy where none existed based on lies. But, these people actively engaged in seeking to bring me down with misrepresentation and blatantly false allegations.
It gave me the opportunity to witness good and bad leadership at the same time. I won’t get into the specifics of which is which or who the players are, but suffice it to say that hypocrisy reigns in today’s military, but there are also beacons of hope and justice in the darkness.
As affliction after affliction began piling onto my shoulders, my training and therapy began to kick in. I decided to start painting since writing wasn’t helping me. The words were coming out too sharp and I wisely sought the guidance of friends (and my wife) who suggested I not publish my words in my current state.
Kandahar is a rough place to be deployed for a year. The layout of the place is dysfunctional and unorganized. The chaos of the layout and the many people coming and going all over the place is stress enough. Add to it the constant rocket attacks and the chaotic schedule that I seem to be keeping and it’s imperative to find things to keep one’s mind occupied. I just finished a semester that kept me busy in what little free time I had. I was taking two classes with heavy writing requirements.
Anyway, to deal with this chaos, Soldiers find ways to take away the monotony with distractions. On Kandahar, we have what is affectionately known as the Poo Pond. It is a 4-stage, water treatment facility. And it stinks. I guess the best way to describe the smell that permeates most of the base is to imagine a cross between the worst sulphur odor mixed with beer vomit and sickly diarrhea. And that still doesn’t do it justice.
The Poo Pond is sort of an icon here at KAF. You can’t miss it. At some point during the day, the winds ensure that its magnificence is spread equally to all four corners of the post. The only ones spared of its odoriferous wrath are the pilots and crews on the other side of the flight line. So, when given poo the only thing you can do is make poo-aide.
Soldiers and civilians from many different countries periodically decorate the Poo Pond with tongue in cheek signs and accouterments. Here are just a few examples of the creative ways the Poo Pond has been honored:
I had been laying the groundwork for a project of my own, but I decided to kick my plans in to overdrive and get started immediately on making my own mark at the Poo Pond. When it was impossible to find paint around here, a good friend rushed me some really good oil paints and brushes. I went to work sketching a design on some discarded plywood I found. My design had to be creative and different that what had already been done.
“Area Fifty-Poo” came pretty naturally. I was playing Killer Bunnies one day and someone played a card called “Area 51.” “Area Fifty-Poo” was a natural play on words and made me laugh inside. I also modeled my spaceship on this card. My partner in crime sent me a few 4-foot tall, inflatable aliens to go along with the theme and I knew this was going to be fun. For the past week, I worked diligently hand painting the sign. It kept my mind off all the trials and tribulations that fallen upon my shoulders over the past week. And the result, I think, is a work of art.
It’s important for Soldiers to find positive outlets for their angers, frustrations, and feelings of guilt and being let down. It will consume us, eating at us from the inside leaving behind nothing but a hollow shell. I didn’t do this during my last deployment. I allowed things to fester until little things became big, unmanageable things. I still don’t suffer stupidity and flagrant ignorance very well, I think I’m getting better.
I’ve exercised more self-restraint over the past few weeks dealing with morons and their moron zombie squads than at any other time. I’ve controlled my responses and found more private outlets for releasing steam. I’ve relied more heavily on the advice and counsel of friends I trust.
And Brian, I still miss you, bud!
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