This isn’t a story about combat heroics. It’s just about doing what needs to be done, in the very essence of the phrase.
It was the middle of the Afghan night; the air was hot and my sweat was cold, matting my clothes to my body under my kit. I breathed heavily as the NODs weighed down on my face and peered into the crackling green night. I heard the rat-tat-tat of an AK-47, followed by the return fire of M4s. I wasn’t on the primary assault force — I was secondary for that mission, which meant I was just outside the target compound. We switched positions mission by mission, and that was my squad’s duty during this one.
Instead of charging under a hail of bullets, we stood just outside the walls and pulled outer security while another squad took care of business. It was my first deployment and one of my first exposures to a firefight; my Team Leader, Jay, came sliding in next to me. He shoved a gloved finger down a nearby alleyway and said, “Watch the fucking alley.”
He didn’t have to say anything else. He moved to the my buddy Patrick and told him what to do as well. He was to watch two nearby doors and a couple second story windows.
I moved to a position that provided sufficient cover and I watched that alley like a hawk. It was a small, dark alleyway with one doorway to a nearby courtyard on the side. It formed a “T” with a road turning off into the unknown in either direction. I didn’t know who might come swinging around either way, or might come bursting out of the doorway. My thumb itched on the safety and all of my faculties were dedicated to those few dirt walls lit green in my night vision. My whole life didn’t matter anymore — my whole life was that alleyway.
That mission would get a lot more complicated, with a civilian casualty and some serious fire from the Afghan National Army on our position — to include an RPG, mortars and grazing machine gun fire. However, I never fired my weapon that night. I kept my situational awareness and knew what was going on around me, but until Jay pulled me into the compound to reposition, I never took my eyes off that alleyway.
It was an inglorious task. Sure, there was a chance that Taliban fighters would come careening around the corner, and that I would tear them apart with my Mk 46 — but it was unlikely. But I did what was asked of me, and I did not question it because I trusted that when it came to combat, Jay knew infinitely more than I did.
True servanthood is necessary in combat. We need bulldogs, we need men with monsters deep inside of them ready to unleash violence upon their enemies — but it needs to be controlled, and it needs to be humble. It needs to be able to throw a frag and return fire in a close ambush, just as readily as it will sit and pull security for hours or even days. That’s combat servanthood, doing what is truly necessary in every sense of the phrase.
It needs to “watch the fucking alley.”
I’ve taken this philosophy to my life outside the military. In college, for example, there were times when I was knee-deep studying the subject I had set out to study. But there were also times where I had to power through an elective that I had no desire (or business) studying. The reality of the situation was that I needed to take the elective, and I do not like bitching about something if I’m in no position to do something about it — so I put my head down and did what was necessary. I watched my alley, as inglorious as it was.
I try to apply this idea to multiple facets of my life. Is there an event that needs help setting up? I can unload chairs all day. Do the dishes need washing? Give me a sponge and I’ll get to work. The more I feel like such a task is beneath me, the more I’ve been trying to make myself get down in the dirt and just do it. Everyone wants to be the first man in the door, but if someone’s already there, there are other tasks to be accomplished. I don’t always succeed in those regards, but I’ve been giving it a shot.
Featured image provided by the author.
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