The writer details the internal struggle with surviving war.
By Trish Russell
Survivor’s guilt is a complex beast that will take me a lifetime to understand but I do know finding healthy ways to remember the loss of comrades has made it possible for me to breathe better.
The constant question I face? Why did I come home, and so many others didn’t?
God, why did you take them, and not me?
Two weeks before returning home, we had a mission in southern Afghanistan I had been the point person on. We had ground and aerial support like never before. The counter drug mission for this poppy season was a big deal and I really wanted to see it through to the end. While women were not allowed to be part of combat missions, the first push out to Helmand Province was logistical so I could go.
My family asked me not to. My boss, a British Royal Marine, suggested I stay inside the wire and not take a chance.
When the day of the mission arrived, we were ready. Ground and air support had swept the route, the American and Afghan army units were ready to begin the summer mission to eradicate poppy fields. Those of us who stayed on the base were glued to our computers monitoring real-time updates and waiting to hear they arrived to the base.
As the nine-line report, a medical report for a combat injury, came in I scrambled to get information. I hounded the team leader to provide more details because the call-sign for the injured personnel belonged to the team from the North. It was imperative to feed updates to their leadership located in the northern part of the country.
During the chaos I remember breathing a sigh of relief, at least we didn’t lose another one of our guys. We had attended so many ramp ceremonies already and we were almost going home. I felt guilty for being relieved but didn’t have time to process the emotions.
It’s hard to recall how much time went by but finally we received the codes for the injured personnel. As my battle buddy and I decoded the numbers a deep horror covered us. These numbers did not belong to the team from the North. Our men were dead. Team members we traveled the Afghan roads with who provided security for our commander were no longer with us. The world stopped. Shifted. Was no longer a real place. I stood on the flight line at attention while their bodies were marched onto the plane, the sound of bagpipes haunting my ears. When we were dismissed there wasn’t anything to say.
More people we knew were gone.
Even though all of this happened ten years ago, it still feels like yesterday. The doubts still plague my thoughts: What if I joined the mission? Why did the support fail? How could we have prevented this? And some other thoughts… but are better shared over a meal.
For so long I felt as if I was taking up someone’s space on this planet and what they had to live for was so invaluable. To be honest, I still feel that way. I decided three years ago to find a way to remember that helped others.