Self Expression Magazine

Reality Check

Posted on the 11 September 2013 by Kcsaling009 @kcsaling

Talil Air Base (c) KC Saling, 2003

One of the things I love the most about blogging is that it’s given me a way to connect to so many people throughout the world, in different jobs and stages of life, and to hopefully show you that men and women serving in the armed forces aren’t robots or soulless automatons or all that different from the rest of the world. We’re people. We’re people who have likes and loves and hopes and dreams and would like nothing better than to just go about our business, but we believe enough in what we’re doing and what our country stands for that, when asked, we will go protect it.

Or so we promise.

A lot of us go through our lives without having those bets called in, never knowing whether what we’ve pledged to do is something we will really do when push comes to shove, or if we’re just making big talk at the poker table.

Twelve years ago, today happened and tilted the whole world on its axis.

Maybe some of you lost friends or loved ones in the September 11th attacks twelve years ago. Maybe you just saw them on the news and struggled to make the horrible images of the twin towers connect with the reality that we’d been attacked. Maybe you knew or even were a first responder. Maybe you were, like me, entering into the service with expectations about what your life would be like and seeing everything change dramatically. You were probably wondering just what it all meant.

What would we do? How would we respond? Where would the next attack come? Why? Always why.


My first platoon (c) KC Saling, 2003

When these pictures were taken, I was twenty-three. I’d been commissioned for two years, but out in the active Army for about a year and a half. The September 11th attacks occurred when I was at my officer basic course, and completely turned what I thought I was going to be doing on its head.

I started out with a heavy construction battalion. One of the things I loved about this particular type of unit is that we always had a mission, in peacetime or in war. There were always things to build. But when I was heading out there, I thought that the biggest thing we would have to do would be participate in one of the humanitarian construction missions we do in Thailand and the Philippines. That had been all my predecessors had had to do.

Then we got the order to go to Iraq.

A lot goes through your head when you’re standing in formation and all of a sudden, your boss and your boss’s boss are standing there in their full kit, telling you that you’re going to go. There’s a fundamental difference between holding your hand up and swearing during the oath ceremony that you’re going to go if the President and Congress decide you’re going to go, and then hearing that you’re actually going to go.

It’s like sidling up to a high-stakes poker table. You throw out your opening bet, you bluff a little, and you win some. And then, all of a sudden, one of the heavy rollers decides to go all in. Your bluff has been called. You knew it could happen, but you weren’t necessarily counting on it.

Things become suddenly, sharply real.

You sit there for a moment, trying to mentally put together what just happened. He said what? He just called in your bluff, so you’ve got to show your cards. Wait a moment…what are your cards? How well do you know what you have in your hand? How do you know that it’s going to play well against the table? Why the hell didn’t you check before you bluffed in? And there isn’t any kind of graceful way out of this, you’re going to have to play.

And that really is the mental cycle you go through when you hear, “Gear up.”

It’s whoa followed by oh, shit followed by a realization that, yeah, you signed up, yeah, this is what you said you were going to do, and you’re going to have to see how what you’ve got stacks up.


Boat patrols on the Tigris (c) KC Saling, 2004

We were tested. We were tried.

I was a twenty-three year old in charge of telling 53 people what to do in a pretty hellish situation when pretty much all of them had more Army experience than I did. I had to count on my brain to count for something.

I had to figure out how to make myself keep going in situations like that top picture, where I’m leading a patrol through a nasty dust storm in a chemical suit that I’ve been wearing for thirty days so I smell like the armpit of hell, and when none of us have had a hot meal in weeks, just fabulous MREs, so naturally our bellies aren’t too happy with us, and we’d give a lot not only to have a real toilet but to be able to use it.

I had to figure out how to answer questions from my troops like “What are we doing here?” or “We took Baghdad, why aren’t we going home?” or “I thought we were supposed to be doing this in Afghanistan,” and not only answer those for my troops, but for myself.

I had to figure out whether or not I could make good on the promises I’d made not only to myself, but to my troops. Someone was dumb enough to put a twenty-three year old in charge of their lives, and I had to step up with the best possible game I could bring.

And all my troops were trying to figure out the same thing as I was. Our bets had been called in. Did we have enough inside us to cover those bits? Did we have enough inside to fulfill the promises we’d made?

What promises have you made, to others or to yourself? What would YOU do if those were called in?

It’s a tall order when you have literally said you would die for a cause and someone says, “Okay, prove it.” But I watched with pride and amazement as my soldiers rose to every challenge placed before them. We all learned together that not only could we make it through things that sucked, but we were all pretty good at convincing others that they could, too.

And bit by bit, we discovered it wasn’t a question of whether or not we had what it took to make good on our promises. We were there, we raised our hands, we made our promises and we kept them. We had what it took. We just had to find that within ourselves every day to keep going.


Giving a mission brief (c) KC Saling, 2003

There are lots of thoughts that go through my head whenever another 9/11 rolls around, but mostly, I think of the way it has tested us. Tested us as an Army, tested us as a nation, tested us as the human species. And I remember all the amazing people I’ve seen step up to that high stakes table when their bets are called in, and not only answer that call, but say, “Is that all you’ve got?”

To all the men and women who have served while our nation has been at war, whether you are soldier, sailor, airman, marine, political attaché, Department of State representative, humanitarian aid worker, embedded war correspondent, police officer, fire fighter, emergency medical tech, or anyone else among those who have been brave enough to make promises and, when asked, to keep them, you have my thanks and respect. You keep me in awe of what humanity can do when challenged, and I count myself fortunate beyond measure to have served with you.




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