It’s been 20 years since 9/11. It’s the mess that keeps on giving. It’s the mess that sent me to Iraq. It’s hard to believe it’s already been two decades. I feel revulsion when someone says, “thank you for your service”. I think the honest phrase should be “I am glad you made it home.” There is a saying about recent wars, “the American military is at war and the American public is at the mall.” I was at war. I remember. I can’t forget.
It’s an early Sunday morning in 2021. Cool breezes surround me as I walk towards my favorite Café on 32nd. Standing in the queue the conversations around me vary on of the usual trivial subjects of a serene life. The rising sun is creating warmth and I respond with a stretch of my body. A greeting of recognition comes from inside welcoming me forward into a further awakening of the senses. Coffee, fresh pastries filling the air with sweet promises. Behind the glass shield, mixed with radio broadcasting from Luxembourg, and the sound of pressured steam, comes a greeting. Hey, how are you? His eyes say it all. He has survived the Russian occupation of his country as a child. He has knowledge, he understands that life is fragile. He knows the both of us are not just drifting through life as a world away twists and turns in violent spasms. I tell him I am making my way on the planet…
With a nod I walk out with a hot café au lait and a chocolate croissant in my little white bag. This comfort is grounding, a piece of normal in this day. There is chaos at an airport in Afghanistan and my own unraveling begins. The warmth of my coffee in my hands, holding it a bit too tight, I remind myself to breathe. Closing my eyes, it does not take long to be to back at another airfield in another of our continuing wars. The memory/movie begins.
It’s 2003, and I’m flying into an airfield in Iraq. I am asked by the crew chief to come forward into the cockpit of our C-130 before we drop in altitude. He saw my rank, Captain, and the wings on my uniform. Recognizing I was aircrew, he needed extra eyes on the threats from below. I’m standing behind the pilot gazing out at the landscape. It was the monochromatic Middle East, hazy sky, forbidding. The aircraft dove then lowered into our approach. I steadied myself and scanned the horizon looking for the white spirals coming up. No high-tech shoulder fired anti-aircraft weapons, just rocket propelled grenades, RPGs, low tech capable of knocking us out of the sky. We violently jinxed in the sky to evade the danger.
An airframe, or aircraft as a layman might say, is most vulnerable at takeoff and landing. They have flare systems to deter heat guided aircraft killers. Against an RPG in the hands of a skilled person there is only fate. We land hard and the raw power of our engines stop our momentum. As we quickly taxi, I see an area of hurried activity. This war is early on, there are no tall blast walls, we are vulnerable to mortar dropping in, small arms fire. The ramp lowers creating a framed window of the debris of destruction, heat and smells welcome me to another walk on part to a war. I always traveled alone in my deployments which spanned nearly 30 years of service. I was assigned as a Joint Service Airforce officer to other services medical units. I provided the airpower needed to move casualties out of the “box”, the war zone. Meeting these units, as they are usually engaged deeply, was never easy. There is a general mistrust between the services, we may serve the same flag, however you have to prove you are worthy to serve under their situation and leadership.
Stepping off the ramp, the heat is sapping the energy out of my body. The airfield is a wall of noise. I realize just how alone I am now that the safety of the aircraft is behind me. Death can be a milli second away, that is the truth of war and what we humans can do to each other. There is no organized welcome to the war counter to check into. The weight of my side arm is suddenly noticeable. I unconsciously am compressing into as small a target as possible.
Scanning the chaos looking for something, looking out of place I see it, the stripes on a uniform. Air Force not Army, I have found another of my kind. She is a Staff Sargent, one of my deployed Aeromedical Evacuation Liaison Team, AELT. We are Air National Guard and this is her first time in a combat situation. Something most Americans do not know is the National Guard, be it Army or Air Force, carry a huge percent of the war fighting. She is one of two Tactical Radio Operators, TRO, assigned to my location. She is from Delaware and is calling me to a battered Humvee. She smartly salutes. I ask her to not do that, not a safe thing to do here.
Tossing my ruck and duffle bag into the back, she wheels us out into the rest of the airbase. It is one of many airbases in Iraq from the 1st Gulf War that was neutralized, huge concrete bunkers for aircraft with jagged gaping holes. The road is dusty and filled with tanks, vehicles all in a hurry, soldiers line the roads, everyone’s uniform is changing from desert camo to just the pinkish hue of this location. Through all the noise we are trying to talk, and I realize the situation is not going well already. The Army Medical Unit we are attached to removed the last team there. Unmistakably, the sound of an attack filters through all the noise. We dodge the troop movements and race for the 21st Combat Surgical Hospital, CSH. I have been on the ground less than 30 minutes
If you have ever watched M*A*S*H, a 70s TV series that was about our involvement in the Korean War, that is the simplest way of describing a CSH. It is the modern version of a Korean military combat hospital. A vast city of tents, dusty green with large Red Crosses. It is a miracle of military medicine capable of treating the horrific trauma that war produces.
We arrived at the 21st CSH, as I am walking to the ER entrance. I am trying to adjust my thinking from a civilian, photojournalist, to an Air Force Medical Service Corps Officer, MSC. I ask my TRO “are our radio comms up and running?” She nods they will be, and I trust her. That type of trust is not seen in your civilian life except for first responders and the like. We are dealing with human life in a fragile state, there can be no mistakes. For some a bad latte is the end of the world? That attitude doesn’t hack it here. The sounds coming through the doors are telling me get my shit together now, and I feel that numbness come over me that I need to deal with what awaits.
There is a cloud of dust that comes off the doors as they swing open, the familiar colors of the old mustard-colored walls of a CSH in full swing are assaulting my senses along with the bad fluorescent lighting. No one looks up from the lifesaving work they are doing, nor should they. A long row of stretchers lines the narrow walkway. Each has someone in need, like an island, fighting to stay alive. The sounds of suffering and smells of war show the toll taken on the human body. My awareness is heightening.
I am trying to find the senior enlisted Non-Commissioned Officer, NCO, in charge. Anyone in uniform in any service knows they make things happen. This is my first time on scene as an Officer. My background is as a corpsman. I have the urge to help the medical team. I cannot. I have my own mission at this moment. Surveying each scene of this struggle, I make note of what type and how many causalities are present. These souls will become my responsibility.
It is hard to walk in places. The floor is sticky and slick with blood, IV fluids, urine, this is war. I notice one troop and we make eye contact. He blinks a few times then the color of his face turns white as his head drops to the side his bandage falls away. There is a huge hole in his chest, the colors of his wound vivid. One of the hardest lessons for anyone who deals with trauma is the bitter truth you cannot save everyone. You try, your curse your God, you try and try. It is a fact you cannot change.
Working my way through the carnage of humanness, I felt a tap on my shoulder and my TRO said she has radio comms up. I told her to send out a message to a control facility in the U.S. for any aircraft of certain types to divert to my location. In the surgical suites, I examined each case and saw miracles happening. I would come to know these doctors, nurses, and corpsmen in the long months ahead. They would become my friends, my family. War reduces your world to as far as you can physically see.
Hours would pass, the repairs, stabilization and loss of life would unfold. The AELT, crew of the four of us now, assembled to grind out the mission needs. A plane was located and was on its way. I checked in with the medical side of things to see who could fly and who could not. You cannot just place people on an airplane. If they have certain medical issues they can die from the simple act of flying. I’m always hoping that those troops that could not fly, would survive longer, maybe get them on the next mission in two hours or maybe two days. Assembled on the tarmac we were exposed to mortars, small arms fire while waiting for the plane. When things happen, you protect the patients with your body. You are prepared to sacrifice your life to save theirs.
When a plane lands in combat it is violent landing. It approaches with engine roaring, and the tail swings over your head. The blast from the engines are super-heated and burns exposed skin, lungs cannot breathe, eyes are stinging to tears through your goggles, if you are lucky to have some. You hold yourself steady and do your job. In the back of my mind, I knew this was carcinogenic as hell. As best possible, you give what protection you can from the exposure to the patients. The pilots are standing on the brakes, the plane’s engines are at near max power to be ready to fly in an instant. At the first attempt to disable the plane it will leave no matter who is left behind. The hard facts of war, planes cost a lot of money and we are disposable. It is a reality that is understood and not spoken of.
At a signal, patients are loaded quickly into the aircraft onto hanging stanchions five patient slots high. This means two personnel are lifting a patient who might weigh 200+ pounds over their heads. The adrenalin makes this happen. Your body takes the punishment because this is your mission. This happens as quickly as possible. The head count done, and the plane is gone. There is a moment of silence the body senses, the pressure suddenly gone, then reality hits and you get to safety quickly. As the plane finally is no longer a dot in the sky, I would send out a message of “wheels up” to the outside world. I waited a little longer usually in case we lost that flight due to ground fire. Luckily, I did not lose any fixed wing airframes. Each flight that made it out I said a prayer to the universe for the wounded that they would survive to have some type of quality of life. That the people at home would accept who they are now. That there would be some happiness in their lives. There was no true closure of each mission, physically the body is covered in the oily exhaust fumes, ears ringing from the scream of the engines, you tingle all over from the adrenalin expended. There is no hot shower awaiting you, coughing up exhaust for hours, the next mission begins, war is 24/7. Logbooks fill up with mission numbers, patient types, names become faceless as the toll climbs.
I witnessed the loss of two medical helicopters in Iraq. We called them “Witch Doctors,” full of patients coming from the battle areas. My TRO would be talking to them getting the wounded info, then silence, that feeling of getting kicked in the stomach and dread. The memory of talking to the crew in the morning and the void now cold and hard in their place. The crews were a part of our family, our tribe of healers in this place of hope in the middle of death and ruin. During my time in Iraq and other places hundreds of wounded passed by me, hands on each was a chance to save a life. They were someone’s mom, dad, brother, sister they mattered to me. Each deserved the efforts expended, even to my own detriment. That was my mission.
This mission is much more than what the media bias shows. As a photojournalist and disabled combat veteran I feel anger at what is being shown and manipulated. Some politicians have hijacked this herculean humanitarian effort in a grotesque display of self-indulgence the media so freely spews outward. They are complicit if you do your homework and read a book or two. It is an end to a something that never should have happened. Iraq was the beginning of a war. Kabul was the painful ending of one. There is much finger pointing and armchair generals who never saw a uniform except in a parade. If America wants to have their heads in the sand, at the mall, this is what happens. Eisenhower said it quite clearly and with conviction about the military industrial complex and congress in his farewell speech leaving the White House. It is the one of the greatest threats to our democracy.
I understand needing a defense and the military. I just want the war for profits and nation building to stop. Wars are fought by a tiny minority of Americans who are largely forgotten and misused. I think every American should serve two years in some capacity for service to the country. Able bodied or not there is something you can do to give back for the better of us all. Among veterans there is a feeling about those who did combat and those who did not. The combat veterans hold a feeling of pride that is personal, deep borne from experiencing something few know about. The percent who did is smaller in numbers that those who were in the rear with the beer. Too often these days those claiming the lie of combat service are growing. Social media is rife with these tales.
We are now in an age of calculated super patriotism, devoid of true meaning and not from the heart. Done with programed gestures and symbols for some self-gratifying personal effect. It has slowly eroded who we thought we were. In New York city as the towers tragically crumbled live on our screens, we watched with morbid fascination at the waves of boiling clouds chasing living ghosts clad in fine dust down the once carefree streets. On that day America changed forever, collectively we stood up for America, for each other, our eyes weary, looking outward. In the days that followed a monster of sorts was born. We gave up freedoms without much of a whimper, slowly over the following months the fabric of our spirit started to separate. War was the only answer to politicians, and they drove that bus long and hard into a darkening future.
We all watched fearfully the death rattles of a contractor driven war in Afghanistan. Felt our emotions changing from moment to next news cast moment. Many Americans stood up again, driven by the sense to do the right thing, while others used the unfolding events to spread more darkness. That same darkness born from the mortal blow of 9/11 is growing stronger in this country. Words like freedom and justice have become meaningless, are used to obscure and devalue the truth of America. We all belong. We all matter. We must be the bright light in this darkness. 9/11 was a generation ago the world has changed in many ways. We must stand up for the spirit of what America is and is not.
My coffee is cold now and my appetite for my treasured treat is gone. Breathe, I tell myself and the grounding begins. I cannot feel the warmth of day any longer. It has been replaced by numbness. A young mother is walking by with a stroller, her two young gentle spirits eyes alive with life. I smile, and she behind her mask, smiles too, I silently hope she never has to fear for their lives to be wasted in some future war we should not have stumbled into. It is up to each of us to insure that never happens again.
Dominic Frederico is a North Denver resident, network news photojournalist, retired U.S. Air Force Major disabled combat veteran, father, yoga instructor, art lover, cook and environmentalist. He is proud to have served for almost 30 years in the military and now is finally starting to tell his story.
Jad Davenport / December 22, 2021
Fantastic and moving essay from someone who has seen what war is really like.