Analysis

The Hidden Cost of War

Zaranj is the capitol of Nimroz province, arguably the most isolated province in Afghanistan. The 14th of August, 2012, was the day before Eid Al Fitr, the most important holiday in Afghanistan. In Zaranj, the main bazaar (located across the street from the only hospital in the city) was packed with holiday shoppers. Two suicide bombers had already detonated next to a police fuel station and the governor’s compound that day, which was a rare but not unheard of event. As the ambulances and police trucks arrived outside the hospital with the wounded from those attacks three more suicide bombers cooked off in the bazaar killing and maiming hundreds of mostly women and children.

Zaranj is on the border of Iran in the southwest corner of Afghanistan.

The governor of Nimroz back in 2012 was Al Haji Karim Barahwi, a well known Baluch Mujahideen commander who had fought both the Soviets and the Taliban after graduating from the National Military Academy of Afghanistan in the 1970’s. He saw this coming, two years earlier the Taliban had launched a coordinated suicide bomber attack against him but failed to account for the roads we (CADG, the only USAID contractor operating in the province) had had cut, as part of that years USAID FIRUP road improvement program. I wrote about that attack in this post, Happy al-Faath Day.

This is what happens when a suicide bomber panics, they run until trapped and then blow themselves up. They do not like getting shot to death before they can fire their charges which is weird, but a universal behavior. Note the ball bearing impacts on the wall — these are nasty anti-personnel bombs designed to kill and maim unprotected people.

When the Taliban struck on the eve of Eid in 2012, the governor had two options available to him: he could call on the Iranians to send medical help or he could call the Marines at Camp Leatherneck. He called the Marines, who responded with the only airframes they had that could make such a long trip, the tilt-rotor Osprey, which carried their on-call TRAP (tactical recovery of aircraft or personnel) package. A TRAP package is normally a platoon with extra enablers (forward air controllers, extra corpsmen, artillery FO’s, snipers etc… enablers are mission dependent).

A Marine Corps Osprey landing at the Zaranj municipal airport in 2010.
When I lived in Zaranj, our planes would have to buzz the runway to get all the feral dogs off the strip before they could land.

One of the Marines on that mission in 2012 was a young Lance Corporal named J.T. Perry. Perry was a trained artillery counter battery radar technician who was part of the brigade security element (every Marine being a rifleman first). He was trained to fire artillery, trained to fight as infantry, he was a skilled communications specialist and a motivated young Marine prepared to face most anything. Badly wounded and dying children, screaming in agony, was not one of those things.

A Marine security detachment fans out as they escort senior Marines to a meeting with the governor of Nimroz, Al Haji Karim Barahwi.

Look at the picture above and imagine those Marines running for a couple of hundred yards to the airport entry gate that leads to a dirt parking lot containing hundreds of men, women and children with grievous blast injuries. This is a face of war seldom seen by those who were not there. You can find stories about the IED attacks in Zaranj if you look hard enough, but you will not find any coverage of the Marine response.

One of the little known facts about the Afghan war is that the forward deployed surgical teams in places like Kunar, Herat, Leatherneck, Kandahar, etc… treated more Afghan children in their trauma units than ISAF soldiers. My friend Col David Anderson, USA (Ret), a certified trauma surgeon, commanded two surgical teams — one in Kunar in 2009, and another in Herat in 2011. He mentioned several times that the number and severity of pediatric trauma cases caused his soldiers more emotional stress than dealing with wounded American service members.

The children treated in NATO facilities were sent there by NATO soldiers. I have never seen a media article discussing, nor have I seen one describing, giant mass casualty responses by NATO forces, but I am certain the Eid bombings in Zaranj was not the only time American-led forces rescued and treated hundreds of casualties from a single event.

J.T. Perry is now a Staff Sergeant stationed at Camp Lejeune, who was directed to attend Mike “Mac” McNamara’s Post Traumatic Winning class last January. He wasn’t thrilled about attending a 3 hour mandatory mental health presentation but that changed as soon as Mac started to talk. J.T. is happily married, doing well with his career, but had a problem: he did not tolerate being around children and wanted nothing to do with them. His wife, however, wanted a baby and never understood her husband’s reluctance to even discuss the topic. SSgt J.T. Perry was expecting to lose 3 hours of his day to another boring class, but instead heard the truth about a topic that was causing him big problems for reasons he did not understand.

Fellow Marines had chastised J.T. about ruminating thoughts regarding the injured children of Zaranj. He didn’t shoot any of them, he didn’t even fire his weapon in Afghanistan, nor lose a member of his unit, so why was he whinging about that deployment? The truth is his feelings, regarding the avoidance of children, are almost universal among the small subset of the population who dealt with pediatric trauma on a regular basis. Once J.T. understood that, he understood he needed to explain what had happened to him to his wife, and is now past a huge hurdle in his married life. That is how his story ended up as the Post Traumatic Winner of the Week on All Marine Radio.

I am amazed that the Post Traumatic Winning program that Mac has developed and deployed has not received the media attention it deserves. The program is not just for Marines nor is the topic of trauma confined to battlefield deployments. Staff Sergeant Perry is a good example of a person being bothered by his reactions to an extraordinarily unpleasant event when, unknown to him, his reaction is a near universal (and healthy) human reaction.

This story is also interesting because it reveals a side of the military seldom seen in news reporting, but one essential to the self image and institutional identity of the American military. We see ourselves as the good guys, we fight to protect the weak and the vulnerable, we are the ones who bring aid and comfort to all within our reach. That is a highly idealized meta-narrative that was once shared by a majority of the population when I was growing up. It is based on our ascendance as a world power after World War II, but it started to unravel during the Vietnam War.

Over the past 18 years the military contractor has become the liberal progressive boogeyman, while the military has remained a popular institution in America. That can change in heartbeat given the polarization and politicization of the American public by social media conglomerates. For now, the American fighting man is safe from opprobrium generated by the media or Hollywood mainly because all the fighting is being done by less than 1% of the population. But the American military is again fighting a war it cannot win unless it changes the rules (eliminating safe harbor for Taliban in Pakistan).

Afghanistan is not going to end in a way that will validate the unbelievable amount of money, time and personnel we threw into that country. When the end comes, the “media” (if history is an accurate guide) will search for scapegoats to stoke outrage so they get more clicks. It is entirely possible that the American fighting man once again becomes collateral damage, portrayed as a clueless monster raging around the countryside killing people willy nilly because he’s not smart enough to understand a foreign land or foreign people. This meme could stick because most Americans have no idea about the military, they don’t have family or friends serving or know anyone who does.

Meta-narratives are stories designed to chunk a lot of information into a cohesive narrative. When a meta-narrative takes shape regarding our Afghanistan adventure, I doubt you will hear much about the thousands of Afghan children who were saved via medical intervention by NATO doctors, nurses, medics, and regular grunts. Nor will many understand the price average Americans, who volunteered to serve, paid during that service. If that does transpire, stories like SSgt Perry’s will be important to remember. The American military represented the people of this country well during the last 18 years, but that fact may prove irrelevant in the war to control the dominant media narrative. If the media turns on the American military again, remember this story.

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clluelo
Member
clluelo

One can only hope that with the exposure of so many false media reports ,this won’t happen and the public will continue to turn their backs on said Media . CNN is bleeding viewers as is FOX because of their bias reporting and outright fake stories .

homanj1
Member
homanj1

Only the extreme viewpoints seem to be reported (or distorted) by the media today. Throw in social media trolls with an agenda, and stir the pot. For some reason, news reporters don’t seem to report unbiased news without opinion. That could be why they are rapidly becoming distrusted on a level equal to Congress. There are not grains of salt big enough to help digest the BS we are fed 24/7/365 by our media or politicians. So I read novels or kill paper at my local shooting range. The quiet solitude of reading or the noisy cacophony of gunpowder exploding… Read more »

Susan B
Member
Susan B

That is precisely why sites like this one and articles like this one are so important. They can be used to spread truth rather than propaganda of many hues. And it is important that more and more military men and women leave military and then serve as voices in the media or in the halls of the legislative branches of government. They have seen first hand and can tell the truth from the trash.

homanj1
Member
homanj1

Exactly. Great insight and article by Tim.

shooten1st
Member
shooten1st

I’ve read a few books about Afghanistan by veterans and the injuries to children and non-combatants seems to be the worst in terms of how the authors felt. Thanks for finding the nerve that seems to be there.

Mason
Member
Mason

Tim, you and I have discussed in the past, but I devote a significant amount of time learning about our adventure in Afghanistan. Everything you write here, I am aware of. This event not as much as more mundane technical attributes of combat, but aware of the situation in Nimroz, Helmund and the proximity of the Taliban in the area and the remoteness compared to other parts of Afghanistan. I will wax at length to any layperson who will tolerate my in-depth treatment, surprisingly, I get a lot of takers. Keep feeding us Tim, we will get this out. I… Read more »

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Thank you, Tim, for these stories. When I read articles from those who were there, and on the ground, the picture and understanding are far more insightful then listening to the mainstream media. In war, the children suffer so. Being in the military, aid workers, missionaries, etc. and on the ground in these volatile areas of the world takes a lot of courage. Being a doctor, nurse, or a medic is overwhelming at times when mass injuries occur and involve adults and their brothers and sisters, and when it’s children, dear god, the children. Keep telling the stories, Tim. Thank… Read more »

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