Manhattan Project #34 Berman embedded in Afghanistan

(in which Maine newsman Jed Berman gets the inside story on how the U.S. keeps the numbers up out on the battlefield)

Everybody there obviously knew what was what; they knew it was dangerous just to be in that place. They had little posters up all over the place that reminded troops to always wear ballistic glasses, fireproof clothing, and nomex gloves when they went out, and to make sure they had a seatbelt cutter in their vest, and to wear seat belts in the vehicle. They warned them not to ever go out alone, to travel two to a vehicle, and make sure every vehicle had someone assigned as the shooter. There was lots of violence in Afghanistan, and we would see some before I came home.

We shipped out of Kabul in a convoy of trucks, tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. That’s what they put me in. It looks sort of like a tank only smaller, but it still has room for three crew members and six soldiers. It has a door in the back and they often run with it open, so they can stand by the doorway and look out. I got some great video as we rumbled along toward Kandahar and the camp where we’d be hanging out, in the eastern mountains, not far from the Pakistani border.

It was some barren looking countryside, lots and lots of sand, and amazingly hot, without a cloud in sight. Along the way I saw tents set up a short distance back from the road. The guys I was with said tribes set up there; they lived a life not much different from their ancestors a couple thousand years ago, except once in a while you might see someone with a satellite phone. There had been trouble along the highway a few days before I got there. I saw burned out trucks and a couple of smashed up hummers, but nobody bothered us on that trip the whole way to Kandahar. It was shortly after we got there that things happened.

I kept pretty busy in camp shooting stories about the soldiers and their life in this Godforsaken place. They took good care of me, and I found myself getting kind of attached to them, and I knew, as I wrote the pieces I would take home, that the Army had succeeded with me as an embedded journalist. When you know your life is in these guys’ hands, you’re a lot less likely to do negative stories about them or what they are doing there. I would show them the finished packages on my lap top when I got done editing. They thought that was pretty cool, but they were disappointed when they realized they’d still be ankle-deep in sand when the pieces hit the air and boosted my station’s ratings.

Forming a bond with those soldiers, most of them almost young enough to be my children, made me feel like I could at least dance around the questions that have plagued me for so long. I mean, it doesn’t get any more real than that, a place where somebody has to stay awake all night long to make sure the bad guys lurking off in the mountains don’t try something. Each soldier was different, but you could sort them into some basic types. Some were really gung ho about being out there to take down the Taliban and maybe snag bin Laden. They didn’t show any obvious signs of breaking down under the pressure. I remember one guy bragging about how they’d discovered this bunch of insurgents hiding in tunnels near the mountains. Some of them managed to get away, but the soldier told me he reached down in a hole just in time to grab one of the guys by the hair on his head. He cackled as he described how he pulled the guy’s head out of the hole and then kicked it off with his boot. No, I’m not making that up. It really happened. When he told me I tried not to show my reaction, but I was awfully close to retching at the thought of it. Yeh, he said the whole killing thing didn’t bother him at all, but I really wondered about that. It was scary to see someone so young so jaded, so seemingly untouched by the dreadful enormity of what he’d done.

Others admitted they were anxious to get back home, and prayed every night that they would, in fact, get back home. Some of them wrote letters or sent email to their families on a fairly regular basis. There were several kids from Maine. I thought it was interesting that two of them kept diaries, a lot like Nathan Thibodeau’s. One young woman showed me part of hers. She was doing the exact same thing as Nathan, writing letters—in her case to her two small children—that she never sent. She stayed in touch with them by satellite phone. She wrote some pretty graphic stuff in her journal; she said she wouldn’t want her kids to see it anyway.

There were some, maybe a third of the young Americans I hung out with that month, who readily confessed what they were doing bothered them a lot. They had trouble eating and sleeping sometimes, especially after a particularly violent day on patrol. They didn’t really want to talk about what they’d done, and often they didn’t have much of anybody back home to share all the bad stuff with. I asked a young guy in this group if he thought he was getting sick in the head from it. He looked at me for a long time before he answered.

“Yeh, I’d say it’s having an effect on my mental health. Christ, you’d be sliding downhill if you had my dreams every night. That stuff about war being hell don’t get the half of it.”

“Is there anyone you can talk to about it?”

“Well, I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

“Yes, but I’m not a counselor and I’m shipping out of here pretty soon. I can’t do much for you.”

“Yeh, I know,” he snorted, “I’m just messing with you. And the true answer is that there’s nobody when we’re out here that we can talk to. But there is when we head back to Kandahar or Kabul. It’s a pretty slick little deal. You ask to go see the shrink, the sergeant says fine, but there’s nothing wrong with you so get right back here. You tell the shrink you just feel bad all the time but your platoon leader says there’s nothing wrong and the shrink just smiles and walks over to a big wide drawer and pulls out a bottle of pills and says do two of these every day and you’ll be fine.”

“What do they give you?”

“Oh, it depends. Antidepressants, for sure, like Zoloft, and maybe something for anxiety, like clonazepam. It’s great stuff. I still feel like shit most of the time, but I manage to keep going.”

I leaned in close to him.

“So how many of these soldiers are on something?”

“I’m guessin’ here, but I’d bet close to twenty percent of these fine specimens of Uncle Sam’s fighting forces are taking antidepressants or using sleeping pills to make their eyes stay shut while the war keeps blazing in their heads.”

“You’re telling me our Army is out in the field stoned out on prescription drugs?”

He looked at me and smiled broadly.

“Oh yes, most definitely. It’s not really a secret. Didn’t you see that story in Time magazine? My mom ripped it out and sent it to me. What was the title of it?” He pondered for a second. “Oh yeh, America’s medicated Army. Right on, bro.”

“But I thought troops weren’t allowed to have drugs like that on the battlefield.”

“Couldn’t used to, they tell me. But you can now.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a plastic medicine bottle and shook it like a maraca. “Want one? We’ve got lots.”

“No, thanks. But I do have one more question. Why the change in policy?”

“Easy, dude. To keep us out here fighting. Used to be, if somebody started to crack-up, they had to send them home. Well, if they did that, who’s gonna’ fight the goddam war? You know?”

“That’s a little cynical for a soldier, isn’t it?”

He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“No, not really. How’d they put it in that article? Something like: the Army is willing to use drugs to preserve its most precious resource—soldiers on the front lines. That’s us, Mr. Berman. A precious resource they just can’t do without. Hell, I never wanted to be a precious resource. I was shooting to put in a couple of years stateside workin’ KP, then let the government put me through school. This is not my idea of a good time.”

Here was my ideal subject. I figured if anybody would take my life-and-death questions seriously, it was this kid.

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