“People sing about victory, about liberation….They’re wrong. Who won and who lost is not a question. In war, no one wins or loses. There is only destruction. Only those who have never fought like to argue about who won and who lost.”
– Bao Ninh, former foot soldier in the North Vietnamese Army
Nobody had a better seat than Jon Downing as his convoy traversed the dusty streets and alleyways of Al-Kut, Iraq. It was now 2007. As Americans were learning about “the surge,” Jon was living the surge.
As he bounced along in the gun turret of his team’s lead vehicle, Jon scanned for threats, his eyes darting left and right, up and down. His hands were wrapped tightly around the grips of the Browning 50-caliber machine gun in front of him, his thumbs balanced gently over the trigger.
His team was rolling in tandem with another small unit of elite Iraqi police. Emblazoned upon their vehicles and uniforms – both American and Iraqi alike – were contours and images of scorpions. Similar to the bald eagle in the United States, the scorpion inspires feelings of pride amongst soldiers across the arid expanses of southern Asia.
Their trucks were all speeding, faster than normal. They were responding to a distress call, and they were bracing for another firefight.
Jon was standing out of the roof of his Humvee, his head and torso exposed, when they were ambushed. Insurgents initiated fire with at least three rocket-propelled grenades, or “RPG’s.” One round raced over their heads, and another landed wide by about 50 feet. The third round slammed into the side of Jon’s truck. In an instant, they were pinned down.
Less than a year earlier, when Jon had met his team in Kentucky, he had been told to literally fuck off. His friends laugh about it now, which is a good indication of how quickly they all warmed to Jon. In the end, it’s always easier to laugh at people you like.
Working, sleeping, eating and breathing in such close proximity to your teammates, the new guy has every opportunity to ruin it for himself. Even in training – especially in training, sometimes – as guys run out of dry clothes, run out of food, and as they’re dividing that last pie-slice of Copenhagen into fourths, all pretenses expire. Your slightest imperfections have nowhere to hide, and your true character is on full display.
“He definitely wasn’t the quiet type,” says Chris Moore,* Jon’s Team Sergeant at the time. “He was cocky, but he was genuine.”
If you’re not a good soldier – or a good person, for that matter – your quirks and deficiencies will be used against you. But if you are a good soldier, they’ll probably become what your teammates love about you the most.
“Jon was high energy,” recalls Jim Stevenson, another former teammate. “I used to call him ‘Turbo’.”
Toward the end of 2006, Jon’s team began prepping hard for Al-Kut. During the final two weeks of December, most soldiers are typically granted leave, or what the Army refers to as “Christmas Exodus.” But as they primed to deploy, Jon’s team had no time to waste. They spent almost every day training, dawn to dusk. They knew exactly where they were headed.
Another one of Jon’s teammates, Ben Smith, recalls vividly the focus, and intensity, of that moment. “I remember our Team Sergeant telling us, ‘Guys, we’re going to hell’”, says Ben. “Other soldiers were all at home, with their families,” he says. “I remember being out on the range, running night-fire exercises, until eleven-fifteen, eleven-thirty at night.”
Tired and hungry, Jon still managed to make his team laugh, but he switched to cool and calm when it mattered. Heavy, automatic weapons can and will malfunction. Jon could repair and reload the 50 cal. blindfolded. He was a deadly bird, and the turret was his nest.
By the time he departed for Iraq, his teammates had clearly made up their minds about Jon. “We wanted him there,” says Chris Moore. “We wanted him in that turret.”
If you indulge in the occasional action movie, then you know how an RPG looks, but you probably don’t know how it fires. On screen, the tulip-shaped, explosive rounds are depicted sailing through the air in what could accurately be described as slow-motion. However, these are, in fact, rockets, and not flare guns. Jon’s convoy was traveling through an urban environment, and they started taking fire from distances as close as 30 meters. Jon probably felt the RPG before he saw it, or heard it.
David Harris, another Green Beret weapons specialist currently recovering at Walter Reed Hospital from wounds he received from an RPG, explains what Jon might have seen. “Unless you spot the shooter as he’s getting set, there’s no warning at that range,” he says. “I did have some warning. We were in a friendly environment, and my driver noticed the guy in front of us, noticed his movements. He asked us, ‘Why is that guy walking so weird?’”
David was in the back seat of an armored SUV. He remembers eating snacks from an MRE, as his driver started talking. He was able to duck his head slightly, before the RPG round burst through the windshield and exploded in the trunk behind him. He survived, miraculously. He can recall being combative, a few moments after the blast, as his teammates were dragging him out of the vehicle.
“I asked them, ‘Why are you grabbing me?,” he says. “They told me to stay still, because my head was bleeding, from the explosion. I was like, ‘What explosion?’”
Insurgents in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, are physically small and frail men. They often fight in robes and sandals, and they are virtually all – to a man – malnourished. They are also, in many cases, fanatical. American grunts know that they might die. The most lethal and effective insurgents know exactly when they are going to die, sometimes down to the hour, and the minute.
Amidst recent quagmires – in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan – there is an instinct among people back home to attribute failure to politics or motives. We easily lose sight of certain, fundamental truths about warfare. Big armies make for big targets. Successful insurgents might be crazy, by our standards, but they are not stupid. They are precise, and methodical. America doesn’t fight big wars anymore, because small wars are the only way to beat us.
Standing out of the roof-hatch of his convoy’s lead Humvee, Jon was practically a sitting duck. The role, however, was a privilege, and not a punishment. After enough time in combat, everyone wants that job. Chris Moore, originally a medic by training, was Jon’s Team Sergeant. Jon followed Chris’ orders. “Every now and then I would tell Jon to get back in the truck,” Chris says. “It’s my turn now.”
Bravery explains part of it. Emerging from a turret takes balls, and there was certainly no shortage of testicular fortitude on Jon’s team. But balls, as an explanation, would be incomplete.
“Catch-22,” Joseph Heller’s ageless expression, originated from his story about warfare, and for good reason. Back in 2007, well-designed and well-positioned improvised explosive devices were making confetti of American military vehicles. Some soldiers were scavenging through garbage piles, and welding scrap metal to the exterior walls of their trucks. The Pentagon paid attention, eventually. Gun trucks and personnel carriers got bigger, and stronger. But so did roadside bombs.
In the turret, Jon was vulnerable, but he could at least take an inventory of his surroundings, and engage his opponents in an instant. Inside many of these vehicles, soldiers might have been safe, but they had no idea what was going on around them. As armor got thicker, and windows got smaller, soldiers in the most aggressive units started finding ways to poke their heads and arms out of their trucks, through doors or hatches. They had been drilled in the importance of situational awareness, and then stuffed into what felt like a bank vault on wheels.
Jon’s Team Sergeant, Chris, was sitting shotgun when the third RPG round hit the truck. What happened immediately following the blast is still a blur to Chris, due to what was almost certainly a concussion. “My ears were blown out,” he says. “I had bad headaches for weeks, months after that fight.”
What Chris remembers first, as he regained his senses inside the truck, was the 50 cal., roaring to life overhead.
“Jon was on the gun somehow, engaging them,” says Chris. “That’s the first thing I remember.”
To this day, it’s hard for Jon’s teammates to explain how he could have maintained consciousness – let alone composure – in that turret. Jon was fortunate that he lived. His team was fortunate that he lived. The ensuing firefight lasted between two and three hours. None of Jon’s teammates were killed, or grievously injured. They credit Jon with keeping them safe that day, but also point to that attack as one of worst the hits Jon’s head and body ever took.
The ambush was neither the first nor the last time Jon would perform under those conditions. One difficulty, in researching Jon’s story, is the honest inability of his teammates to differentiate one firefight from another. There were simply too many of them.
They routinely fought house-to-house, and door-to-door. They travelled with a special operations liaison from the Air Force, and called in airstrikes frequently. Sometimes help arrived from a helicopter or attack aircraft, right over their heads. Sometimes it arrived from very high altitudes – from bombers that Jon couldn’t see or hear. But regardless, the bombs kept falling. Jon was engulfed in destruction.
Had he been seriously injured, Jon would have been well taken care of. The story of David, the other Green Beret, at Walter Reed, is a good demonstaration of how far military trauma care has evolved.
His medics administered ketamine, soon after David was pulled from the SUV. The most advanced Special Operations Forces medics are favoring ketamine now, over morphine or fentanyl. Opioids, like morphine, depress blood pressure and respiratory drive. Although ketamine has amnestic, profound analgesic, and dose-dependent anesthetic actions, it will – simultaneously – stimulate the cardiovascular system as well, which is helpful to combat medics when their patients are losing blood. (On a side note, this incredibly powerful and psychoactive drug is classified as “Schedule 2” by the federal government, below Marijuana, which remains “Schedule 1.”)
Ketamine deletes memory, but in David’s case a shattered skull would have all but guaranteed that anyway. David doesn’t remember the flight medics working on him inside the Chinook. He doesn’t remember the surgical teams at Bagram Air Force Base, or Landsthul, Germany. He woke up three weeks later, in Washington, D.C.. He will continue to require, and receive, a regimented schedule of surgery, therapy, and medication.
The American military can save lives, without a doubt. But can we, as a nation, preserve those lives? Jon was not mortally wounded in Iraq. When he got home, it took years before his friends understood what was wrong. The military didn’t necessarily abandon Jon. The VA didn’t abandon Jon. But is it possible that, rather than pills or disability benefits, what veterans like Jon need is more simple? We’ll explore that question, in the next installment.
* For the purposes of telling this story, all the names of current and former service-members have been changed