2 October 2009
Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank, Logar Province, Afghanistan
“Oh, my God.”
The words escaped my mouth before I knew it, like the release of an emotional pressure valve. On the stretcher in front of me was Sergeant Eric Simpson, a 25-year-old kid from Nebraska who inexplicably had been machine-gunned to death by an Afghan police officer he had been working with.
His corpse was so skinny you could hardly detect any muscle on his body. His skin was more ghostly white than any I had seen in the past three months. His mouth was hanging open and his eyes still stared toward the ceiling of our tent, but what made me invoke the Lord’s name were the entry and exit wounds where bullets had peppered his body.
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As I worked my way up and down his remains to help my soldiers remove his personal effects and to inventory everything on him (from patches to socks), I could see the damage the Afghan bullets had done.
This was not the first corpse I had seen during my time in Afghanistan. But getting an up-close look at what bullets can do when they rip through flesh, bone and muscle proved momentarily overwhelming for me.
“Are you okay, sir?” asked Sergeant Scott Altgilbers, a communications specialist who routinely assisted my mortuary affairs team in processing remains.
“I’m good,” I replied.
Simpson’s eyes needed to be closed. Turning off my emotions, I gently brushed my hands down his forehead, shutting his eyes for the last time.
Road to Afghanistan
I had arrived in Afghanistan in early June 2009 after completing seven months in Iraq with another unit. I was 36 years old then and had spent 14 of those years on active duty in the U.S. Army. My new mission was to assume the duties of Support Operations Officer (SPO) for a brigade of 3,500 soldiers. As the SPO, I was to ensure the brigade’s logistical health by making sure they had all the supplies and services necessary to perform their wartime mission — such as food, water, fuel, ammunition, medical support, equipment maintenance and transportation.
My job description also included managing the mortuary affairs (MA) operations for our brigade’s sector of Afghanistan. This entailed processing the remains not only of U.S. soldiers but also those of Coalition forces and Afghan soldiers and civilians (including children). My team consisted of one soldier who was trained as a mortuary affairs specialist and four additional soldiers from other fields (ranging from cooks to a communications specialist) who had been assigned to the MA mission. Regrettably, though, they had received no prior specialized training on how to handle the sights, sounds and emotions surrounding their gruesome but essential duty.
I was but one of three majors in our battalion of 1,000, and no one expected me to assist the MA team with processing corpses. In fact, while the team handled 105 remains during its year-long deployment, my battalion commander and battalion command sergeant major never went to the MA tent, and my predecessor as well as my brigade commander went there only once.
However, I routinely assisted my MA personnel when they were handling casualties. After all, these soldiers worked for me. If they had to expose themselves to the gruesome things that can happen when a person is killed in a war, I needed to stand at their side, leading by example.
Of the 63 remains my team processed during my six months in Afghanistan, I was present for 27. Among other things, I saw two American soldiers who had been incinerated when an enemy IED (improvised explosive device) destroyed their armored vehicle and cooked off its ammunition while they were trapped inside. I saw a soldier who had a bloody cavity where his face once had been. And I held a dead 8-month-old Afghan girl at 2 in the morning who had been accidentally shot in the neck during a firefight between U.S. forces and enemy insurgents.
But for whatever reasons — unclear even to me — the day I met Eric Simpson still stands out in my memory.
Trying to cope
Early on that October Friday, I was awakened by a knock at my door. Another soldier, killed on a mission, was en route to the mortuary tent, and so about 1:45 a.m. I joined my MA team there.
The walk from my room to the tent took about 10 minutes. No matter how many times I saw a corpse during my time in Afghanistan, I was always filled with anxiety as I walked up the wooden ramp and passed through the canvas flap that served as the tent’s doorway. I never knew in what condition I would find the remains. Would it be an intact body that resembled the corpse at a funeral home? Or would I see remains that had been blown apart, dismembered or shredded by bullets, shrapnel or explosions?
It was an especially bad sign whenever I walked into the tent and one of my soldiers would say, “Sir, you don’t want to be in here for this one.”
These thoughts would stew in my mind all during that walk. And when the rest of the base was fast asleep as I walked in the middle of the night — as I was doing now — it made me feel especially isolated and lonely.
Fortunately, this young man’s remains did not disturb me. All I could see was that the top of his head was bandaged, concealing the wounds which presumably had killed him. The worst part of the night was when I handled blood-soaked clothes the medics had removed from him earlier and when I saw his personal effects — pictures of loved ones, driver’s license, credit cards.
Seeing the dead’s personal effects was always hard for me and other members of the MA team. As a coping mechanism, my guys tried to keep themselves as emotionally detached from the casualties as possible. They even purposely tried to avoid learning the casualties’ names. Seeing the personal effects, however, served as a reminder that these corpses were people who were now leaving behind a wife or husband, children and friends.
Once the body was in our refrigerated storage units (“reefers”), I headed back to my office for a few minutes and then returned to my room to get some sleep.
Unfortunately, he would not be the only fatality we would deal with on that Friday.
That afternoon we received word that two more Americans would soon be arriving at the MA tent. For reasons we never fully understood, an Afghan police officer they had been working with suddenly opened fire, killing them both.
We followed our typical routine that day: Some MA personnel headed to the medical tents to await the casualties. Meanwhile, helicopters delivered the bodies to the base, where the doctors pronounced them dead. My boys then loaded the bodies into an unmarked field ambulance and drove them to the MA tent. That’s where I was, removing my uniform top, donning rubber gloves and waiting for the dead to arrive.
When the ambulance pulled up, the first stretcher contained the body of a young, well-built African-American kid. A couple of guys from his unit were waiting outside the tent, wanting to see his remains when we deemed the time to be right. Sergeant Altgilbers asked me to help him make this dead soldier presentable.
We unzipped his body bag and got to work. Unfortunately, making him presentable was easier said than done, as the blood was already dried to his face. I did my best to clear it off, but my concern about this was lessened by a more pressing problem. Looking down at the portion of the “human remains pouch” (the Army’s term for what is more commonly known as a “body bag”) that was beneath his head, I noticed gray specks of brain matter mixed with a pool of crimson-colored blood. If this kid’s buddies were to view his remains, cleaning up this mix of fresh blood and brain matter was more important than scrubbing the dried blood off his face.
I grabbed a handful of blue, medical-strength paper towels and tried to soak up the pool of blood, while Altgilbers proceeded to clean the face with gauze. Altgilbers’ efforts were in vain, though, as the blood was stuck to the skin. I also was facing a losing battle, as the neck and head wounds were seeping blood faster than I could soak it up. I eventually put the paper towels over the blood so his buddies couldn’t see it when they came into the tent.
When a member from the casualty’s unit entered, I stepped back to give him some space. He looked down at the soldier, placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder and muttered a few words I couldn’t hear before going back outside. It was clear he was trying hard to keep his emotions suppressed.
The MA team finished its paperwork on this first casualty, and when his body bag was zipped shut, we moved him to our reefers and brought the second corpse — that of Sergeant Eric Simpson — into the tent.
After the shock of seeing Simpson’s bullet-riddled body passed, I resumed my work. I helped Altgilbers search pockets for personal effects and lifted the body so he could look through the back pockets for more of the same. When the team was done with Simpson and had carried him to our reefers, I returned to headquarters.
As was my habit, I didn’t watch the “Hero Ceremony” our base held as the casualties were later loaded into helicopters to start their journey home to the States. After helping my boys process the bodies, I felt I had done my part to honor the sacrifices of these brave men.
Back in the office, my initial reaction was that I didn’t want to talk about any of it. I felt fine. As I was later waiting in line for dinner, however, I began to think about the afternoon’s events. All of it hit me then, but the most troublesome memory was closing Eric Simpson’s eyes. I had to fight hard to control my emotions; it was difficult to hold back my tears. Even eating dinner was a challenge.
When I returned to my section’s office, I began to email a friend of mine in the battalion the details of what had happened in the MA tent. It was difficult, as I had to keep from crying in front of the personnel who worked for me while I typed away at my desk in close proximity to them. Once I was done with it, though, I felt fine.
Or so I thought at the time.
One of the things I learned is that MA stress is cumulative. The emotional impact each casualty had on me built upon my previous experiences in the mortuary tent. Before I knew it, I felt like I was shouldering this great emotional burden that, when added to my normal job stress plus personal stress from being away from my family, was almost unmanageable.
Finding support for myself or other members of the MA team was difficult. As one of the most senior officers in the battalion, I had only a handful of people in the unit from whom I could possibly seek support without risking the appearance of impropriety.
Regrettably, when I tried to talk to one of the other majors about my stressors, he didn’t even look up from his computer screen. When I referenced my exposure to mutilated corpses while arguing with a civilian government employee over email, the employee forwarded it to my battalion commander. My commander’s response was to make me apologize to the civilian for my conduct.
My MA soldiers had similar problems in finding understanding among their peers and bosses, and we too often had to put rank aside and gain support from each other. But as great as these people were in providing a shoulder to lean on, my rank as their superior put limits on how close we could be as friends.
One night I woke up and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I walked around the base for hours, trying to wear myself out so I could return to bed. I was terrified as the full weight of my situation hit me: I was alone.
I was surrounded by people who knew who I was and who would stop me in the shower tent or the dining tent to ask me about work. But they did not seem to care about me as a person. I felt like an astronaut stranded by himself on Mars. I could handle the job, even with the additional experiences in the MA tent. But to deal with all this in Afghanistan with my family and friends on the other side of the world . . . it ate away at me. Each day felt worse than the previous one.
Eventually, even toughing it out till the upcoming end of our deployment was looking like a hell I was losing the strength to resist. With everything in the world to live for at home, living here had become too agonizing for me.
In the final months before coming home, I was tempted with suicide more than once, believing death would be preferable to the mental anguish consuming me. At those times I found my hand caressing the leg holster that held my loaded M9 pistol, feeling comfort and reassurance in the thought that, should the pain become too unbearable, I could always find peace by taking my own life. Often, when I was walking around the base late at night and saw the lights of a vehicle coming toward me, I would yell, “Come on, you sonofabitch! Hit me! HIT ME!”
I was enraged that my men and I had endured so much death, blood and carnage, only to be surrounded by others who shunned us or who preferred to live in denial of the grisly reality of death, even though we were in a war zone. To most of our battalion, the “war” was limited to the chow hall, the motor pool, the gym and their bunk. Even when I walked into our headquarters with a dead man’s blood caked to me, my commander was more concerned about receiving an update on details of minor importance.
I returned from Afghanistan just after Thanksgiving 2009. Throughout my career, my experience has been that coming home from war is more difficult, in many respects, than being in a combat zone. Although you are now surrounded by family, loved ones and a grateful and respectful civilian population, most of these people have no way to relate to the images, experiences and emotions you’ve just endured. Your military buddies are still there to support you, but they are also now increasingly occupied with their own lives and families.
Whether it’s bullets whizzing past you or contending with four mutilated corpses, many of war’s experiences are impossible to reconcile with the events of day-to-day life in America.
With the memory of Afghanistan so fresh in my mind, I wondered to what extent the MA tent would be part of my daily life.
The first thing I noticed was how angry I was. As 2009 rolled into 2010, I usually felt fine, but periodically an uncontrollable rage aimed toward not only my boss but also my battalion and brigade flared up. The rage was so powerful that, whenever I drove past brigade headquarters, I would flip it off and scream at the top of my lungs, “F—- YOU! F—- ALL OF YOU!”
When I was deployed, I was often at odds with my battalion commander since he seemed to me and others mostly consumed by our battalion’s performance — as it affected our reputation and, by extension, his own reputation and career. When four of our brigade’s soldiers were cut to pieces by an IED, my battalion commander was more worried about receiving a mission support briefing from me than he was that another soldier’s blood saturated my uniform. After we processed those two soldiers who had been burned alive when the IED blast trapped them inside their vehicle, my battalion commander was more concerned about receiving updates from me on fuel tankers than on my team and me contending with what we had seen in the MA tent — corpses scorched so completely that we couldn’t tell if we were looking at the head or the feet. I still think of those two men when I smell a backyard barbecue.
In my view, not only did my battalion commander create a toxic command climate that added unnecessary stress to my time in Afghanistan, he preferred to milk more work out of me than to let me detox for a few hours after a gruesome evening in the MA tent. This pattern of his never asking how I was coping with stress continued when we later returned home.
I struggled with the thought that, when I was deployed, my commander, my peers and my battalion’s other personnel devalued my life to such an extent that I ceased to matter to them as a person. This hit me particularly hard because I loved the Army. Being a military officer was a part of my self-identity and my sense of self-worth. I realized, though, that I was begging for some acknowledgement from the Army of my suffering and that of my MA team. But that would never come.
I still wonder if my bosses and unit were targets for misdirected anger. Yes, I was suffering because I was exposed to battlefield death in order to uphold my soldiers as they faced the nightmares of the MA tent. The Army preaches the “Band of Brothers” concept of “Leave no man behind.” Whether it is while bullets are flying during combat or after a deployment when soldiers are wrestling with their memories of war, we are expected to stand by each other.
Leaders also are expected to look out for the physical and emotional safety of their subordinates, and they must be willing to demonstrate through their actions a willingness to expose themselves to the same hardships and dangers as those of the people who work for them. That’s basic leadership, and it’s all I was doing by going to the MA tent to be with my personnel when they had bodies in there.
Introspection and intensive therapy sessions showed me how my commander, peers and fellow soldiers failed to live up to these principles. I really believe that handling death and my job’s normal stressors could have been bearable for me in Afghanistan, but what broke me was having to face this without a strong support network.
Part of the problem, I think, emerges when looking at the difference between combat and a pile of dead bodies. In the military, an aura of glory surrounds combat and those who experience it. Understandably the Army affords special honors to those who survive combat.
Combat also causes an adrenaline rush. George Washington once said, “I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” Soldiers return from patrols feeling pumped up from encounters with the enemy.
With mortuary affairs, though, there are no adrenaline rushes, no special badges and no glory. Who wants to see what occurs when the dead are brought to my MA boys and we have to go through their pockets and view their personal effects, see and handle the dead children, and look closely at what happens to a body that has been shredded and broken by war? Dead bodies are a sobering, emotionally disturbing, gut-wrenching reminder of what war is really all about.
People can return from a mission and think it’s “AWESOME!” they got in a firefight and will be able to tell war stories about it. Processing the remains from those glorious fights are my “war stories” from Afghanistan, and people — even fellow soldiers — cringe when I tell them.
While the rest of my brigade relaxed following our return to the States, my battalion commander placed me in charge of the brigade’s maintenance refit from the deployment. As I contended with stress and my anger, I found myself still haunted by memories of the MA tent. When images of what happened there filled my mind, I had to hold back tears and even had to clutch onto something — a desk, a car seat — until the emotions subsided. I was especially haunted by the dead 8-month-old Afghan girl whose lifeless body I had held in the middle of the night.
Yet I refused to admit I had a problem. I remained in this denial even as my deterioration persisted four months after my return home. One night in April 2010, I drove around town like a maniac, angered to the point of madness after my commander snubbed me at his farewell banquet. Tormented by the memory of the deaths I had seen, I could not handle the thought of how my unit abandoned me in Afghanistan and continued to ignore my plight — despite the Army’s anti-suicide campaign that no soldier should be left behind. I repeated this same pattern of reckless driving at work one day, on the eve of the brigade’s change-of-command ceremony.
I don’t care how this ends, I repeatedly thought to myself. Even if it ends badly, it has to end.
That same April, my deterioration reached the point where I drove to post and checked in to the behavioral health department’s after-hours care center. That night was the beginning of my road toward making peace with my ordeal in Afghanistan. Although the Army teaches soldiers that being “resilient” or “hardy” through a positive attitude is the key to emerging victorious from the horrors of war, my own healing required eight months of therapy and the use of antidepressants that I still take.
My wife and son served as my bulwarks against taking my own life. My wife, who had been a rape crisis counselor, understood the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and pushed me to get help when she saw me deteriorating. I also didn’t want my 4-year-old to be scarred forever by his daddy finally coming home . . . only to take his own life.
Another factor that saved me was the antidepressants. By the time I finally collapsed that April, no amount of therapy would have been able to help me even though I had never experienced depression or any other psychological issues in my life. My mind was too distorted to process anything my shrink would have to say. Antidepressants helped to rewire my mind so I was able to comprehend my therapy and allow it to help me.
What also helped was the arrival of a new brigade commander and battalion commander five months after I returned home. Both men were good commanders and good people, and I quickly found myself embracing their vision for where they wanted to take our unit. Before long, no one was prouder than I was to be a member of our brigade.
Over time, I learned to deal with my anger by placing emotional distance between myself and the Army. The Army is still an important part of my life, but I make a conscious effort now to not let it control my life. I set firm boundaries with the military — not working past a certain hour, living off-post, respecting my wife’s wish not to participate in unit functions. In the Army’s place, I now focus more energy on the things that make the most sense to me in my life — my family, my friends and my travels.
Even as my anger subsided and my medication helped make me feel better, I struggled with the fact that the men who passed through the MA tent had such a powerful impact on me and yet I knew little about them. Although some of my MA team members handled stress by keeping an emotional distance from the casualties they handled, I needed to learn more about the soldiers in order to advance my recovery to the next level. I remembered many of their names from looking at their ID cards in the MA tent, but I tried to learn the names of the others, as well.
I also was determined to visit the grave of at least one of them. When I transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and learned that Sergeant Eric Simpson was buried there, I called the cemetery office to get directions to his final resting place.
It was a cold Friday afternoon in late February 2011 when I trudged through the snow of Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery toward the white headstone of Sergeant Eric Simpson. I was accompanied by a longtime friend of mine who had just spent the afternoon confiding in me her own struggles following two recent deployments to Iraq. Although Simpson’s marker was virtually identical to the thousands of others around it, his was easy to spot, as the black lettering on his new headstone was clearer than the older ones surrounding him. Brushing the snow away, I planted three American flags in front of his marker and chatted with my friend about the circumstances that led to Simpson’s life briefly intersecting with my own.
I felt very much at peace with the experience. Somehow, it helped to know that the young man had been cremated, and so buried beneath me were his ashes and not the body whose eyes I had closed for the last time in Afghanistan nearly 17 months earlier. His grave serves as a place where I can honor his life, along with the lives of the other U.S. soldiers who passed under my team’s care during my months in Afghanistan.
Perhaps more important, visiting his grave helped me remember to live a life worthy of his sacrifice and the sacrifices of the other Americans whose lives intersected with mine during the Afghan War. The future is promised to no one — a tragic fact for Eric Simpson and one of his buddies in Afghanistan on that Friday afternoon in October 2009. I feel a sense of obligation to live my life on their behalf, which gives me an added sense of purpose that has also helped me make peace with my ordeal in Afghanistan.
Eric Simpson’s obituary closed by saying, “He was an ordinary man who, by his words and actions, did extraordinary things.” It is my fervent hope that the rest of my days are a fitting tribute to the life he never will have the chance to live himself.
Major Andrew J. DeKever is a native of Mishawaka, Indiana. Out of respect for the deceased’s family, “Sergeant Eric Simpson” is a pseudonym.