Upon returning from our tour in Afghanistan, the leadership of 2nd Stryker Brigade (Re-flagged from 5th Stryker) decided to provide its soldiers with a series of adventure team building exercises. My platoon was assigned to a white water rafting trip.
We started out slowly, on a few Class 3 and 4 rapids on Washington’s White Salmon River of the Columbia River Valley. The initial few rapids were gentle, but as our journey progressed, we encountered a vigorous notch in the river’s formation that could throw our crew of rafters head first into a rock wall. Our guide maneuvered the raft to the east bank of the river and we walked onto shore while a second guide trailed our raft over the dangerous obstacle. We skirted the river up a steep hill for almost 300 meters. Upon reaching the top, our guide introduced us to Decision Rock. “You’ve got two choices here, boys. You can walk over to that rope and gently lead yourself to the raft, or you can jump off this rock wall into the river and swim. Its your choice.” For a second, I considered that the soldiers would prefer the safety of the rope descent, but I knew these young infantrymen would relish the opportunity to beat their chests with a brave leap of faith.
Soon, it was my turn to jump. I stood on the precipice of that thirty-five foot cliff, staring at the mighty river below. Its gushing rapids reverberated through the jagged rock walls, overpowering my soldiers’ jeers from below, “Don’t chicken out, Sir! Do it!”
I hesitated. I hated this. I hated the fact that the water was 40 degrees. I hated that I could not see the river’s depth, nor where the hard rock floor began. I hated that this rock valley was so narrow…if I jumped too far or too shallow, I’d certainly break bones along the limestone boulders below. My toes clinched, attempting to find balance on the slippery stone perch.
I loathed this feeling; the sensation of being scared, yet having no control over my options. My eyes closed, and for a moment, I was back in the deserts of Kandahar. My mind took me to one of countless missions where, either on a Stryker or on foot, I had to maneuver my platoon from one point to another through an IED ridden landscape. There was no choice to turn back. Whether my mission was to bring my boys back inside the wire or take them further out, the movement was an order. I had no choice but to execute.
I remember dark nights, my platoon moving across the green brush of Zhari District. My heart rate sped as we passed choke points where the terrain forced us through vulnerable passages: ideal locations for an IED. There were no orders to give over the net. Just silence. I’d pull my radio away from my mouth and breath, long and deep breaths, doing anything to keep my heart rate down. Sweat would pour down my face in the balmy air. And even as a man of only mediocre faith, I’d pray to god that nothing would happen.
And more times then not, my soldiers succeeded. We’d complete our maneuver to safety, and I’d let out a cry of relief with my chest pulsating under my body armor, as if my heart had just been released from a vise.
But here I was again on that same precipice, digging deep to overcome this jump into unknown waters. The soldiers yelled below. Just as I’d give the radio order for the platoon to “move out” on those precarious patrols on the enemy’s turf, I did the soldier’s gulp and made the leap of faith off of Decision Rock.
Water filled my nostrils as I plunged into the subcurrents of the river. I swam to my boys on the rafts. They patted me on the back with brotherly vigor and cheered as the rest of the platoon completed their jumps. I was okay; hell, I was more than okay. I was invigorated! And it occurred to me just how averse to risk I had become since leaving Afghanistan. My body and mind had been put in dozens of risky situations. Now, having achieved a sensation of permanent safety, I felt the urge to guard and protect the blessings I had thus far preserved.
But to equate risk taking in Afghanistan to risk taking in civilian life is a rash comparison. Though my apprehension must certainly be understandable, it’s also not founded. This isn’t post-traumatic stress. This is simply an obstacle of reintegration that most people don’t ever understand. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of combat hardened soldiers who have returned to the States from their adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many may not have physical wounds; many may not have issues with post-traumatic stress…but how many of us have become so scared of taking chances with our lives that we never step out of our comfort zones? How many of us have been programmed to always seek the most secure paths in life, costing us the opportunities that come with risk? I’m not talking rafting or skydiving or bungee jumping. I’m talking about the soldier who can’t find the courage to start his own company, go back to school, or combat his addiction to alcohol or tobacco. How many more suffer from this aversion to risk? A soldier’s natural aversion to risk sounds like a simple matter, but its repercussions are life altering…or life-stagnating.
As the final man jumped off the rock face and hurled into his raft, the guide announced to the group, “Okay fellas, time for round two. Ahead of us is Husum Falls. It’s the tallest raftable waterfall in North America. It’s a Class V rapid…who’s in!?”
The hands and cheers went up in all directions. I smiled and nodded. I was in. And not just because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was not going to let my fear in Afghanistan define me for the rest of my life. And most importantly, I was going to be doing it with my boys. The guide mounted the rear of our raft, and we pushed off, navigating through whatever obstacles that mighty river brought our way.