Photo by nasim dadfar on Unsplash
2019 Stark State College Composition Essay Contest Winner
by Jonathon Stevenson
I was standing at the part of the gate that had been cut a few hours earlier. As I looked out in front of me, I had time to realize a few things about myself. I thought back to some of my fears: talking in front of a group, letting a girl I liked know, even my first roller coaster. I see now that none of those things were scary, at least not in the way I thought. This was scary. Being here, holding this rifle, wearing this body armor, being thousands of miles from everyone I loved. This is what I should have feared, and believe me, I was afraid.
I had been deployed for about five months at this point. When a soldier is deployed it can be quite a different experience depending on where that soldier is. There are three main places I could have ended up depending on my job title and branch of service: an Airfield Base, a COP (Central Operating Post), or an FOB (Forward Operating Base). I was stationed at FOB Salerno in Afghanistan. This was one of the better places to be stationed from what I was told.
It wasn’t a bad place to look at for the most part. It was quite pretty, mostly desert but still nice to look at. In basic training, I was told what may happen on deployment. One day you may be there, either in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was taught and trained on what I would need to do in those situations, whether it be handling an attack or just how to treat the experience. The training is very good, but it didn’t really prepare me for the truth of what I would be feeling or thinking when I was there.
I was working night shift. I started at 8:00 PM and went to 8:00 AM. This was considered the easy shift because not much happens during the night. I was working in an office where we kept track of who was coming and going for patrols on the base and the surrounding COP’s. When a soldier is deployed, they always need to be on alert, but I will not lie when I say it is easy to get complacent over there. About 90 percent of the time I was just kind of going through the motions. A unit goes out for a patrol, I log it, that unit talks to some villagers about some possible enemies, I log it, that unit comes back from patrol, I log it. This night was even quieter. There had been rumors of a possible attack on FOB Salerno, but we didn’t really think too much of it because there were rumors of an attack every day. On occasion we would get some IDF (Indirect Fire), where the enemy fired a mortar at us, but with no aim on it, so it usually didn’t even hit anything.
It was about four in the morning, and I was reading a book that had been sent to me in a care package when I started to hear it. I stopped reading and listened. It sounded like booms from some IDF being fired way off in the distance. I only heard the one, so I logged it and checked with the other guys on duty with me. We had a camera on this FOB that did 360° surveillance of the FOB and the surrounding area. One of the guys could control it, and we had him do a sweep. We didn’t see anything, so there was nothing more we could do.
I went back to reading my book. Not even two minutes later, I heard another boom in the distance. This time everyone looked at the screen as the sweep was made, and we saw something. Normally the IDF comes from the mountains, but that is not where we were looking now. Near the airfield, a long fence meant to keep people out of the FOB was being messed with. About 20 people were slowing cutting the fence chains.
Everyone in the room was looking at the screen. We realized that this was really happening. Our Battle Captain got on the phone and started alerting people as to what was going on. About 10 minutes later, the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) team was heading out to the location. As we tried to radio them, we realized the fence was completely cut open now, and people were starting to move onto the airfield.
The one thing any of us who were deployed knew is we must have communication with everyone when they go anywhere. Not having communication can be the difference between life and death. As we tried to radio the QRF, it became very clear that the communication was not working. As we watched the raid camera, we could see only about 10 people pushed onto the airfield; the rest were hanging back behind some trees. Our QRF team had gone outside the gate to secure the hole, but because we couldn’t talk to them, they had no idea they were heading for an ambush.
At this point I was starting to get scared. Our building was the only one with the camera. We were the eyes for the whole FOB. If we didn’t have communication with even one person, the whole base was in trouble. The QRF moved closer to the cut in the fence as we desperately tried to get radio comms with them. It was at this point I noticed one of the people hiding in the trees come out, and it looked like he was holding something.
“RPG!” I yelled.
Everyone looked up as the rocket was fired at the vehicle. It hit directly on the front side of the vehicle. Everyone looked white in the face around me. We had no way to know if anyone was okay. Could they all be dead? Just then we saw the back doors open and two soldiers get out. They started to fire at the enemy behind the trees. Two of them for sure had survived.
At this point, around 6:00 AM, we had gotten ahold of the Special Forces Unit on the base. They had snipers position themselves on roofs of the buildings in the FOB and started to take out the ones who had entered the airfield. We found out that everyone in the QRF vehicle was alive. They had taken out the enemy behind the trees as well. They were following a tip as to where the enemy had come from. Now they needed a few soldiers out watching the gate until it could be patched up. Myself and two others were selected to go out.
As I was getting my gear together as quick as I could, I felt my heart pounding through my chest. All the training I had received up to this point had to be enough. As they drove us out to the fence, I realized the ranks of the other two soldiers with me, PVT (Private) and PFC (Private First Class). I was a SPC (Specialist), which meant I was in charge.
Wait a minute, I thought. I had never been in charge before. I noticed how scared they looked, maybe even more scared than me. I leaned over to them and said, “Don’t worry guys, just remember your training and keep your eyes up.” They both nodded.
As we pulled up to the hole in the fence, I did a quick radio check with everyone just to make sure I had communication with everyone back at the office. Checks were good, so we got out and positioned ourselves just outside the gate hole. The plan was that we would be here for about an hour as another unit did a sweep outside the fence to make sure we were clear to patch up the gate safely.
It had been about thirty minutes, and things had been very quiet. Every ten minutes I had been conducting a radio check to make sure things still looked clear from a distance. At about 40 minutes I heard on the radio that three men were approaching us from behind the trees, directly in front of us. As we looked, we saw the three guys emerge from the trees. They had their arms up as they walked towards us. As I looked at them my heart sank; all three of them had vests on with wires across them, suicide vests.
“Stop!” I yelled at them, putting my hand up to indicate what I meant.
They did not stop but kept walking towards us. It was at this moment I realized that they weren’t going to stop. Their intent was to get as close to us as possible and detonate their vests. Doing that would not only kill me, but also the two soldiers with me. It would probably cause a bigger hole to be formed in the fence, which would allow more access to the FOB and put the lives of every soldier on the base in danger.
I called out one last time, “Stop moving, or we will fire!”
As soon as the last word left my mouth, at about 15 meters away, the three guys started to charge at us. There were three shots fired: One from each of the three rifles pointed at them.
Each round found its target, and in front of us three bodies lay on the ground.
After writing up my report on what happened at the gate, I realized the gravity of what I had to do. I thought back to some of the things that scared me in the past. Those things were not scary to me anymore. What I had just gone through was scary. Having to make the decision I had to make was scary. I then realized I had been holding myself back in life. I didn’t want to live life afraid anymore.
I think about that day often. That was the day I truly believe I lost a part of myself. At the same time, though, I know I gained a new understanding about who I am. In this life we are going to have fears, and those fears may very well control how we interact with the rest of the world. I learned that day fear is an emotion that we very much need. It keeps us out of harm’s way, but it also keeps us from living our lives. I don’t let fear control me anymore.
Jonathon Stevenson is an eight-year Army veteran who is currently earning an Associate Degree in Human and Social Services. He plans to continue his education and eventually become a licensed social worker. He wrote this essay to share his personal experience that “really opened my eyes and shaped me.”