by Command Sergeant Major Geoffrey Phillips
What is adrenaline? What is fear? What is anxiety? What is Post-Traumatic Stress?
It is late July of 2003, in the 130-degree heat of Baghdad, Iraq–sweating so much that you smell like ammonia. My heart pounds running to the MH6 Little Bird as the turbines begin to spin. Taking the number one position and snapping into the bench sitting right next to the pilot, only he has a windshield. I feel the lump in my throat grow larger as I attempt to breathe despite being sandblasted by the rotor wash.
Once secured I give the pilot a visual thumbs up in his peripheral vision. He grabs my thumb to acknowledge. I replay every moment of mission planning and preflight in my mind.
23 minutes to target. There are power lines on the east and west sides of the three-story target building. We land in the front courtyard, up and over the front wall. Primary breach, double doors twenty meters to the north of LZ. Friendly ground convoy linking up at gate 10 minutes after the last little bird drops off. Hand on the nose of the little bird when going around.
The bird takes off. It’s too loud to hear anything. Anything except for your heart pounding in your throat. The bird reaches cruising speed of 140 mph. I catch every bit of airflow from it, straining to keep my eyes and mouth closed. I force myself to breathe since it is literally taking my breath away. I struggle to keep my legs from flying back–I cross them and clamp down on the bench as hard as I can.
I think to myself as I strain to sit there, how long has it been? 5 minutes? 10? Then the pilot sticks his hand out giving the 1-minute signal.
“Shit, 1 minute.”
I frantically scan the ground ahead of us to identify the target building. I spot it. The pilot drops his altitude quick, fast and, in a hurry, as he approaches the LZ. That lump in my throat is gone. I see the target building and several unknown personnel on the roof. We’re the first bird to land. First ones in.
I raise my M249 with my firing hand and prepare to engage. Thumb is on the safety button ready to switch and fire in a split second. With my non-firing hand, I clench the safety lanyard, waiting for the final seconds. I hop over the front gate until final touch down. I cannot engage anyone on the roof until clearing the rotors.
I can breathe normally again, the wind blast has slowed to a crawl. Touchdown. Everything is in slow motion. I pull the quick release and run off the bench, my legs buckling from the previous 23 minutes of clinging to life on the bench. As I struggle forward to the breach point I strain to regain visual contact with the personnel on the roof. They are gone. They are in the building waiting for us. The breach is open. I and our team are flowing in. I hear a short AK burst coming from upstairs as we enter.
Here we go…
I have struggled significantly with Post-Traumatic Stress and several of my demons. It is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. However, I strongly feel that it isn’t necessarily a disorder, but rather a natural response to going through a significant traumatic experience or series of experiences. Most nights, I recall scenarios like this and others much worse. There were several nights in the early 2000s when I would turn to the unhealthy coping mechanisms that I am sure most vets have gone to.
Alcohol was mine.
There were many nights back then that I would return home from the bars highly intoxicated and re-lived many of the traumatic moments. I am not proud of this, but there were nights when I did come home drunk and stared down the barrel of my 1911. I just waited for the flash. It took a significant life event for me to come to my senses and start the path to healing.
My son was born in 2007. I fully recognized that no one was going to do it for me. It was solely up to me to take the first steps. I knew I needed help and started to reach out for it. It has taken a long time for me to figure out which methods of therapy work for me. Everyone is different so there is no cookie-cutter answer for everyone. There are plenty of people who are trained to help you out, reaching out and saying you are not ok, is the first step. I know I am not the only one who has fought these demons before.
The point is, you don’t have to fight these demons alone. It is ok that you have them. It’s knowing that you can combat them and win. Reach out and tell someone about it. I urge anyone that is going through their own version of hell to please reach out. I often speak to my formations about suicide and leave my final words of:
“My phone is always on, there is no judgment here, if you need help, reach out.”
I am Command Sergeant Major Geoffrey Phillips, still serving after 24 years of being in uniform. I served in nearly every flavor of Army there is except for USARC (Served in SOCOM, ARNG, FORSCOM, TRADOC). I cut my teeth in Bravo Company 3rd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment from March 2001 – November 2004, Indiana Army National Guard from 2004 – 2008, back to active-duty 1st Cavalry Division 2008 – 2010, Ranger Instructor in 6th RTB at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida 2010 – 2013, finally back to Indiana Guard from 2013 to present. Currently an Infantry Battalion CSM in 1st Battalion 151st Infantry Regiment, 76th IBCT.
I have multiple combat deployments, am a Purple Heart recipient, and lots of Post Traumatic Stress from combat. Writing as well as speaking about my traumas has evolved into one of my go-to “Healthy” coping mechanisms. Reading and hearing others’ stories has given me much to think about and process over the years.
The whole purpose of this is that there is a need for combat vets to regain the comradery and sense of belonging we once had so long ago.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.