It happened five years ago today in a remote village in Afghanistan.
An ambush. A battle. Bad decisions. And 11 Americans and many Afghan nationals were forced to hunker down and fight for survival in what is called simply by its village name: Ganjgal.
That one word conjures up pain in the hearts of those who were there, and their families. At the end of the day, three Marines, a Navy corpsman, and eleven Afghan coalition fighters had given their lives, and a month later an Army soldier died of complications from wounds suffered on the battlefield.
It was a day of heroics, and a day where leaders failed. Communication broke down, and men were denied the support they needed to survive. It was a day that raped the souls of several great men, some who are still reeling from its effects.
I learned of this battle about two years ago while sitting in my office, listening to an interview on tape. I heard the tearful story as a pilot recollected that day. What he said gripped my heart – “I can still hear the voices of those Marines crying out. They visit me night after night.” And then, a long pause.
I stopped the tape, went to the computer, and after reading about it, knew immediately this story had to be told.
Thus begun my personal connection to the battle of Ganjgal.
The following months I researched, read other men’s accounts, and grew puzzled as things didn’t add up. My co-author, Emmett, wrestled with the idea of including this chapter in our book (Selfish Prayer) because it had become so cumbersome. I suggested we interview one more medic who was there. To our surprise, he lived nearby.
That interview changed everything.
It was also the one that hit me hardest.
I had seen pictures of this guy when he was in Afghanistan. He was huge, handsome, fearless. Who I saw in person a few years later was someone who was broken – a man damaged by post-traumatic stress disorder. I barely recognized him. And the battle of Ganjgal was his nemesis.
I had to process my thoughts and emotion for the next few days.
During that interview he mentioned that he had camera footage of this battle. As we watched, we couldn’t help but marvel of what unfolded before us. We took a copy with us.
The next couple weeks were a blur. Emmett contacted the man who was portrayed in the video – a soldier whose career had ended because of Ganjgal, and whose nomination for the Medal of Honor had been illusive. He’d spent much of his time near Seattle in solitude and anonymity since leaving the army. Once we found him, Emmett offered him the video, and invited him to come to Sacramento.
To our surprise, he accepted. We brought him to the CHP Academy along with several of the Medevac guys who had been at the battlefield, gave them a several hour tour, and bought them lunch. It was a perfect beginning to a weekend of debrief. Over the course of the weekend, the men talked about the battle of Ganjgal, each giving their recollections, watching the videos (a second one surfaced as well), and clarifying facts.
It was technically a critical incident debrief, three and a half years after the fact.
Even after several years, this weekend brought clarity and healing to the memories that plagued these men.
The soldier on the video returned home with renewed purpose and vigor. Those close to him said that something changed within him. He himself commented publicly that the video contained truth he thought had been lost.
Within seven months, that soldier, Captain William Swenson, was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama at the White House. Chief and I, along with several of the Medevac guys, were there in person to witness it.
The video is the only known footage of a MOH recipient’s heroism in action. It has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people via television and YouTube.
As I look back to a day of blood, sacrifice, and death, I mourn for those who lost their lives. I now wear a black band on my right wrist given to me by a widow to remind me of them, and to pray for their families.
I also saw with my own eyes the power of critical incident debriefing. In this instance, there was no chaplain or counselor present, just those who were affected. They shared meals, and stories, bonding activities, and then bravely entered back into that battle together. They were comforted by truth, and banded together like brothers, sharing pain and memories and the consequences.
And although it didn’t heal all wounds, it did much good. It provided clarity for some, peace for others, and in Swenson’s case, brought him back to the army with an MOH around his neck, a voice of change within the ranks, and a new purpose.
THAT is why I do what I do.