The history of humans is the history of war. People have always found a reason to fight others. Sometimes for a great cause, sometimes for almost nothing at all. The one constant is that people die. A fight to the death on the dusty ground of some field is bloody and violent. But when there is a piece of terrain that’s occupied by fighters from “the other side”, there’s ultimately only one way to take it and make it yours; the pointy end of the stick.
Killing isn’t easy. Yet it is. It’s hard to explain until you do it. Killing another person is a powerful moment. Depending on the circumstances, you may not realize this until later. Modern combat means it’s not always a face to face engagement. This doesn’t change anything. Killing is killing. Sometimes it just has to happen. It isn’t clean and it isn’t fair. It just is. Some people never realize this and this causes them a life of grief and pain. War will change you. There’s no way around that. It’s how you control that change that will define the rest of your life. You went to war. You killed people. They killed some of your friends. Again, it isn’t clean and it isn’t fair, but it is a part of war that will happen whether we want it to or not.
Do not “dehumanize” your enemy. I know what some books, or people with PhD behind their names may say but, don’t do it. They are humans. They are capable of thought and action. That guy facing you is as capable of good things as he may be capable of evil. He has emotions and may be afraid. He may also be one hard son of bitch. He was once a child and ran around playing the same games as you. You are facing a person; a person that can kill you as quickly as you can blink. Never give him that opportunity. It is far better for you to leave his body in the dirt than it is for you to be the one that dies. That’s war at the ground level. It doesn’t matter what led up to that millisecond. It doesn’t matter if you are assaulting a position or just standing around with host nation Soldiers at a range. You must be prepared when that unforgiving moment finds you. You must not falter, you must not fail. When it’s time to pull the trigger, pull the damn trigger.
Keep your senses sharp. You are never safe. Do not let this thought paralyze or consume you. Let it guide you. Look at any situation you are in and say to yourself, “I’m not safe right now”. Assess the situation and do whatever is necessary to make it safer. This principle applies as much at home as it does anywhere else in the world. The foxhole always needs improvement. In combat, there’s always work to be done. Seek it out. Help the men and women who are on your left and right. Just as killing in war is a historical fact, so is the bond amongst warriors. Protect each other. Do everything you can to ensure they get home to their loved ones.
In your soul know this isn’t always possible. Call it fate, fact, or just bad luck. People get hurt. People die. You will live with the memory of them forever etched on your heart. Death anniversaries of a good friend you may have held as he died will come every year. Social media will fill with their pictures. Other times of the year, it may be a dream or a song that reminds you of them. You may see a movie on your computer and remember watching it with them. Their number will remain in your phone and you’ll run across it looking for another. It’ll take your breath away. Your eyes will sting as you feel your heart beating through your chest. You will want to call or text them. To hear their voice. But they are gone. Regardless of how it happened, it happened, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to go back and change it.
Live for them. Do not sink into despair over what happened. Never harm yourself because you and I know damn well your friend wouldn’t want this. You’ll never convince me a lost friend would actually want harm to come to you and your family. Instead, live in their honor. Remember them. A person dies twice; once when they pass and again when their name is spoken for the final time. So never stop speaking their names. We all have a time. Every one of us will die. For some that time is a firefight, others may die in an explosion of fire and dirt, others still will die old and in their sleep. Death is traumatic and the experience will stay will you. It’s undeniable. It’s ok to be sad about this. It’s equally ok to think of your friend and smile at their memory while you remember a good time shared. Like the “you are never safe” mantra, the key is to not allow your memories to overwhelm or consume the life you are still living. Think about that. You are still living. There’s no guilt in that. It’s just a fact. In war, some people die and others live.
When it’s your time to go to war, know that others are proud of you. Be a warrior we can be proud of. Kill those that need killing. Protect those that need protecting. Do not lose yourself in the experience. You are a human. You are the best of America. You are a fighter as capable of great deeds on the battlefield as showing an act of kindness to a small child waving on the side of the road. Harden your soul but allow a place for the good. Savor the friendships. Enjoy the goodness of the day. Fight through the bad days with a merciless spirit that can only be found in heart of someone willing to face evil. You have chosen to enter that breach the same as many before you. War was there waiting for me on the winds of time and now it has found you. Go and do what must be done. When it’s over, live a life worth living. Show goodness to others. You’ve seen the bad, now spread the good. Build up those around you. At the end of your life those relationships are all you have. Nothing else matters.
Jim Thompson was born in a small town in Mississippi. He recently retired after 29 years of military service; 26 of which was Active Duty Infantry and Special Forces.