‘Contact. I.E.D.’

“Contact. I.E.D.”

When I served in Iraq, I’d hear those words on the radio, and my heart would freeze. It meant that one of our vehicles had encountered an improvised explosive device — a roadside bomb. It meant damage. It meant injuries. It meant death. And when death comes for your brothers, it leaves a wound on your soul that never fully heals.

The unique demands of military service mean that soldiers experience loss differently from the vast majority of civilians. In the civilian world, death interrupts our lives — we drop everything to rush to the side of a dying relative or friend. Time can seem to stop. We put work on hold. We cancel family trips. The rituals of mourning and comfort take priority as we pause, sit with our families and grieve.

In war, death interrupts nothing. Time doesn’t stop; it seems to accelerate. And that’s deeply unnatural. The moment that contact call — which indicates a violent encounter with the enemy — comes to headquarters, you’re split in two. The human side of you desperately wants to know if anyone was hurt. And when you hear the radio crackle with the sound of “V.S.I.” (very seriously injured) or “K.I.A.” (killed in action), part of you is overcome with fear and concern.

But only part. In that moment and in that place, grief is the enemy. It can cloud your mind and color your judgment. Lives are at stake, so you shove it to the side and focus on your job. At the scene, the job is often simply staying alive. You fight, you treat the wounded and you call for help.

Back at the base, a different kind of frenzy sets in. There is the urgent necessity of both directing the fight and responding to the loss. One set of soldiers directs the fight, routing air assets to the scene of the attack, dispatching a quick reaction force, or Q.R.F., to support the soldiers under fire and ordering artillery to respond to immediate threats.

Other soldiers gather the personal effects of the fallen and still others pull the plug on the internet, cutting off the base from friends and relatives back home. We did not want families to learn of their loss by text message or social media post. Even worse, the online rumor mill could misidentify casualties, causing horrible and unnecessary pain.

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