It was the second Monday of the eighth grade when terrorists came to my school and killed six people. They came with AKs, fully expecting to slaughter as many children as they could.
I was walking from a classroom to the library when the first shots went off. My initial thought was that someone was lighting off fireworks as it was a friend’s birthday, so I just sort of stopped and listened for a moment. Seconds later, a woman screamed. I had never heard a scream like that before, though in my adult life I would hear a few more.
She was screaming for her life as she had just been shot in the wrist. I made my way to the library, where my friend Simon and I would hide under the desk for several hours. I peeked out the second story window, saw some movement and ducked back. Other than that I did little but hide; there was little else I could do. My heart would nearly leap out of my throat every time someone crept around the corner.
In a moment of facetiousness, Simon and I carved a note under our desk: “Luke and Simon, August 05, 2002, Hiding from Terrorists.” I think humor in combat is an essential quality for anyone who hopes to make it a career later in life, though I certainly wasn’t thinking that far ahead then.
I had been living in Pakistan for around nine years at that point. Soon I would move to Thailand and begin a new adventure there, though I would miss the home of my youth—a place I will very likely never be able to fully explore again.
It’s strange thinking back to that moment, now after having been a Team Leader in the 3rd Ranger Battalion and deployed to Afghanistan several times. To have been a civilian in combat and then a soldier neck deep in it.
What’s the biggest difference? Usefulness.
As an eighth grader, I was hiding under my desk as gunmen were murdering others nearby, and I felt a profound sense of uselessness. I just had to sit there and let it happen.
Over half an hour after the shooting stopped, we were still hiding for good measure. We had no idea what was going on outside, but people had to go to the bathroom. I volunteered to escort a couple of people back and forth, but that was about as much as I could offer. I didn’t know how to react to contact, how to clear a room or how to try to disarm an armed man twice my size.
It seems obvious. No one would expect a child to know these things, but a child in combat is not a child at all. The only classifications in combat are the living and the dead; a bullet doesn’t care how old you are. Still, at that point I was among the living but I had absolutely no means to keep myself there. I had no tools of war, and even if I did, no idea how to use them. It was quite the opposite of empowering.
Fast forward to my first firefights in Afghanistan, and the fear of my eighth grade self was still there. I was still afraid for my life and the lives of those around me.
The biggest difference? Usefulness.
I knew what to do and I didn’t hesitate to do it. The fear was pushed to a deep corner in my mind where it held no power over me, and I completed whatever task necessary with the training instilled within me.
There was no epiphany of bravery, no magical endowment of courage. Only countless hours of training and hard work. Training to finally become useful.
Seeing combat from a civilian and soldier’s perspective has given me some perspective into the nature of the beast, and it’s funny how life seems to have some kind of dark poetry to it.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons