JOHN BICKFORD (ARMY)

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by Dean Muehlberg, author of REMF "War Stories"

John has PTSD. It’s not nearly as bad as it was his first few years back from Iraq when he tried to mute it in hard alcohol and drugs. He has managed to appease it, push it back to a manageable place since he learned that trying to escape it in disorientation only kept it closer, kept its ugly face before him. John Bickford has now immersed himself in physical pursuits, vigorous tests of the body and mind, biking and hiking, sucking in the fresh air of Idaho, without the spiraling into himself brought on by the chemical reactions of outside stimulants.

John is still 5’10” of lean, mean fighting machine with bald pate, kind of Telly Savalas without the nose or the girth. He always wanted to be in the military as a youth. His father, Larry, was a Vietnam veteran with his own PTSD problems, and perhaps some of it came from that. The genes were also Teutonic, very male, very ordered, and it worked well alongside his desire to be a soldier.

He grew up in Rapid City, SD. His father ran a bar where he often had to help in the cleanup. His mother ran a record keeping business for trucking. They eventually split, a frequent occurrence where men have seen things they should never have had to see, and who cannot relate it to even those closest to them. The adrenalin high of brief encounters, living completely on the edge, interspersed with hours of the stress of constantly being on guard, are just not translatable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It leaves the combat vet alone, completely alone, unless he is with others who know what he is talking about, or unless he makes an extraordinary effort to understand where he came from and how he got to where he is. He needs to understand others really more than he understands himself. He needs to know that if a complete population of people were put into some of the same situation, a majority of them would have the same problems.

He spent almost eight and a half years in the army and is still “squared away,” military nomenclature for someone who has his ducks in a row, bed made to precision, uniform pressed, boots shined, quarters in order. He still has the military bearing, erect, ready to perform to exact standards, proud of the order it gave him, the chance to put himself up alongside other men, to step into the fire, and find himself not wanting.

He signed up before he even got out of high school. He had wanted to be a soldier, but it also was something to do where graduation posed the problem of what to do next. He left in September of 1996 for basic training in Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri, and advanced training as a “12B” combat engineer. He was assigned from there to the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, 2nd Platoon, 317th Engineering Company at Ft. Benning, GA. He spent three years in the same assignment there in the same unit, and got out in August of 1999 with the rank of Specialist E4. He drifted around at various construction jobs and attended Black Hills State University. Needing some extra cash, he decided to join the South Dakota National Guard, and was assigned to the 842nd Engineering Company out Spearfish, through which he attended commo and crane schools. In March, 2003 he received his sergeant stripes, one of the proudest days of his life, pinned on by his proud father, in a guard ceremony.

A month later he went active with the regular army, stationed at Ft. Meade, SD, and then to Ft. Carson, CO for more training prior to being sent to Iraq. On June 2 he and his unit arrived in Kuwait at Camp New Jersey in “full battle rattle,” flak vests, web gear with empty magazines (7 by 30 rounds), MOP gear in a pouch.

MOP is short for MOPP or “Mission Oriented Protective Posture,” or a mask and outer garment coverings, including, boots, for protection against nuclear, biological, and chemical attack. It is typical and necessary for the military to shorten these overwrought and laborious descriptions into something more manageable, in this case even shortening the acronym. In those days the possibility of this kind of attack was considered a very real possibility and the images of the results of Chemical Ali’s use of it still fresh in the minds of the young troopers. It was a cumbersome addition to their flak jackets, web gear, and camo in the hot climate, confining and restricting.

The camp was situated in the flat desert sand, a no man’s land where it appeared that nothing could live, individual units spread out over vast areas to prevent minimal casualties in the case of artillery and missile attack. It was the first time the soldiers saw other human beings in Middle Eastern garb, a little fear seeping in, making it all more real. They occupied large tents, big enough to allow for about two platoons of troopers. The sense of real heat hit them immediately, soaring to 120 degrees during the day, sun beating down relentlessly, sending them to bed early to get relief.

He ran into men from his old unit, the 317th Engineering Company, which had just finished their mission, and were leaving the country. They brought each other up to speed on the last year, traded jabs and kidded, and moved on, going different directions.

He volunteered for the Port Advance Party to escape the boredom of the camp, coordinating the unloading and assembling of the unit’s equipment from ship, bulldozers, scrapers, cranes, and the vehicles that supported their mission. After about two weeks of this, he again volunteered for the advance party to Baghdad. They would be assigned to the 389th Engineering Battalion out of Iowa, under the 1st Armored Division from Germany. They became Company D.

They rode out with about thirty people, a couple of Humvees, various trucks filled with supplies and water. It is here that the deep and mysterious bonds of men at war truly begin, the faith and trust that even King David of the Old Testament acknowledged when he mourned the death of his good friend Jonathan, son of Saul, in a song of honoring upon hearing of his death: “I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan. Very pleasant you were to me. More wonderful was your love to me than the love from women.”

He was accompanied by Sgt. Delane Erickson of Bison, SD as they locked and loaded their weapons for the first time, and set out on the infamous Highway One for Baghdad, many miles and two days travel to the north. They spent their first night in a glorified truck stop, a small base in the middle of nowhere set up by the army for refueling along the way to and from Baghdad. They reclined in the sand for a night of patchy sleep, interrupted by the ever present sand fleas.

The farther north they went the more the tension and anxiety infiltrated their beings. They were scared, but pumped up on adrenalin, ready for adventure, ready to fulfill their mission. They were not aware that this was the start of a period that would be a couple of months longer than a year. It began a marathon of little sleep, and 24/7 of the reflexes necessary to stay aware of one’s surroundings during all of those moments that passed so that one stayed alive. It was even more that was so wearing; the knowledge that even with constant surveillance there was no reason to believe that a stray round, a mortar, an IED, a suicide mission would come out of nowhere and waste you. It would be fourteen months of never knowing when their duty was up, no sure date to look forward to for going home, for relief. It would be a life of forced asceticism, living in Spartan conditions, no alcohol, no brothels, no AC, and a lack of good food. They even had to make sure they didn’t inadvertently irritate the natives by displays of their predominant religion. How do you let out your frustrations, your loneliness, your fears when the height of your dreams was a nightly two beer maximum for the couple of days out of the year when you managed to snag a couple of days of rest at an in country center. It was asking a lot out of them beyond the fact of conflict.

The advance party set up their base camp in the extreme southern corner of the Baghdad International Airport, an area divided from the surrounding farm land by a high wall that had been constructed by Hussein’s Republican Guard. The airport was canted at a northwest to southeast line. Their area of the wall had three guard towers that they were responsible for manning on a rotating basis. There were explosions, intermittent incoming mortar and rocket rounds, and stray rounds from the day they moved in until they left. They set up tents, established security check points, and waited for the rest of the unit.

They spent months doing “routine” runs for partially destroyed equipment with their cranes and flatbeds, or doing road work for the rapidly expanding contingent of American soldiers, especially at Camp Victory, the growing military compound to the north. These pickup duties were far from routine, being sent out into the countryside among the population, one driving the truck, one sitting in the crane high up like a sitting duck in an arcade. Perhaps a guard of a couple of Humvees accompanied them, little protection when a few well aimed RPGs could wipe the entire detail out in seconds or a determined individual with good aim take out the infidel in the crane, where John usually sat.

Six months in, during Ramadan, a time of fasting and great religious significance to Muslims, John’s detail was to head out north of the airport to a munitions collection point. It was on a compound that had formerly been used by one of Sadam’s sons for his horses. The stables had marble drinking troughs for the animals. They were to load the captured ordinance onto truck beds so that it could be hauled away and detonated at a safe site. Their little convoy of truck and crane and a couple of Homes had to proceed to Abu Ghraib Expressway, a modern four lane road. The crossed over it on a raised cement roadway, passing a couple of MP Humvees sitting on the overpass. They curled to the right and around to gain entrance to the big road from which they would soon exit to head further north. As they passed under the overpass with the MPs they immediately came under fire, and could tell the MPs were now also under fire.

They turned at the road taking them to their duty and sped away. Adrenalin and blood were now pumping fast within them. All the pent up frustration of being a combatant receiving daily random fire without being able to answer back, without being able to engage in the things they had been trained to confront, without being able to prove themselves in the line of fire, came to the fore. They left the equipment at the site and turned to go back and enter the conflict, to assist the MPs who were naked on the ramp. There was no communication between them, no ability to immediately coordinate; other GIs were in trouble.

They came to the junction with Abu Ghraib and John and SP4 Shane Covell dismounted and advanced, firing at the perceived positions of the insurgents across the highway, hearts pumping overtime, taking rounds. They ended up in front of a brick fence rather than behind it, the kind of “ooohaa” move troops in a first engagement make, high on fear, high on forced courage, the things that degrade the mind’s ability to think cogently.

They pulled back to the naked Humvee again, surprisingly no one being hit, to coordinate an attack per their training. There was a modern footbridge that spanned the highway, going directly across to the area from which the incoming fire was coming. A SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon that can put out a maximum of 1000 rounds per minute) man was assigned to enter houses next to them, to find a high point from which to provide covering fire. They would cross the footbridge, two spaced men at a time per their training, cutting in half the odds of winning the lottery that you didn’t want to win. One NCO was at the front of the assault and one at the rear. John brought up the rear, and was to cross with the last man left, who had brought only one magazine. He left him and ran across to the men on the other side. The men proceeded down a road behind the houses from which the fire came, John again being rearguard and left to prevent entry by anyone to it. A few minutes later a couple of U.S. tanks arrived on the scene; the cavalry had come. The terrorists eventually faded away, and after two hours, it was all over, and they went back to their detail. They were pumped so high on adrenalin that they were still riding its waves when they returned to their base camp that evening. For John, it was a zone of emotion and buzz he had never experienced before, and acknowledged that he probably never would again. It is the kind of thing that is unnatural and that changes a human being forever, leaving anything that follows not quite up to par. It is a feeling that a person involuntarily wants to feel again, it being so pure and ecstatic, so exhilarating that it can relegate other emotions to a lower point of importance. It is a thing that has taken many a veteran to despair, to a need to continually find it again to feel alive, to go back and continually search for it. The majority realize it is not where they should go. Some are affected enough to need counseling, knowing it isn’t quite right, but seeking help. And there are those that cannot live at all in the old world, and completely dissolve while trying, or become hermits, tired of trying to explain or tired of what they have found in other human beings or themselves.

In a another footnote to the story, and to craziness of first contact, John found after the affair was ended that he had had only two rounds left in the magazine of his rifle when he assaulted across the footbridge. Someone seasoned would have jettisoned the near empty mag for a fresh one; it was something that wouldn’t happen again for him if a similar situation came up.

After their duty loading ordinance they were put on detail at what everyone called the “Haji 500.” Troopers always find a word for their antagonists or societies in which they are immersed. The Hajj is the pilgrimage that every Muslim is expected to make once in a lifetime to Mecca. The troops began referring to the locals, both friendlies and combatants, early in the war, as Hajis (pronounced Ha Gees). Other conflicts had theirs; krauts, dinks, nips, etc.

The Haji 500 involved the movement of vast amounts of fill gravel and earth, all moved by Iraqi trucks and drivers. The 842nd were assigned to the entry avenue. Long alleys of HESCO barriers had been erected that both protected and fed the trucks into Camp Victory. The barriers were huge bags that were filled with earth, and stacked in rows, providing rapidly built abutments without the need for concrete. Every truck had to be inspected thoroughly, load probed, chassis inspected for bombs with mirrors, hoods opened, and then accompanied to the place they would be dumped. It was where they learned a little Arabic, if only to instruct the drivers what they were going to do next. They also got to actually enjoy getting to know some of the drivers, where a Haji actually began to seem like a human being, a regular joe. They were curious about anything American, and sitting next to one in a truck was contact few of them could seldom experience. The radios played Arabic music, they answered questions back and forth as best they could, and razzed each other like buddies. The 500 lasted until April of 2004.

Off the 500 and his crane broken down, John assumed security duties with SP4 Charles Ford, riding “shotgun” for pickup details, manning a fifty caliber machine gun while standing in a Humvee. On Easter he and Sgt. Ed Heisinger were away from camp doing laundry. When they returned their company area was under full-fledged attack. On March 31st insurgents had ambushed a patrol in Fallujah city that included four Blackwater USA security agents. The four were dragged from their vehicles, beaten, and set on fire before their blackened corpses were hung on a bridge over the Euphrates River. They had been delivering food supplies to a caterer. The smoke of the conflict could be seen from the airport.

The three guard towers on their section of the wall, along with some help from some Apache helicopters, were able to return enough fire to keep the insurgents in the fields at bay. Those not in the towers hunkered in bunkers, organized and ready to fight if the wall happened to be breached, taking stray rounds and mortars all around them.

About this time most of the bridges south of Baghdad were blown by insurgents. A lot of the duty was accompanying road equipment south on MSR Tampa (another name for Highway One) to repair the damages and keep traffic flowing. It was always spooky duty standing behind a fifty cal, an obvious key target for the beginning of any attack. They were approaching June, and had high hopes of leaving after a year. The 389th got orders for home, and they believed they would get theirs any day. It wasn’t to be. They were extended with no set date of departure. It was a cruel trick, and added to the stress of their hot and sandy existence. Morale was going down and the days dragged by like a sloth crawling up a branch to some unfathomable objective.

They spent a night in the desert protecting stranded tanks. They laughed at the day John claimed in humor that his fellow trooper, SP4 Randy Roseland, had shot him. They were on some mission, sitting with weapons out the window, Randy on a SAW. From nowhere there was a loud bang in the cab, and they were immediately on high alert, both scanning in terror the surroundings from where a round may have come from. No one else in the little convoy was alarmed which mystified them. John had felt a slight blow to his foot and they examined the cab. Next to his foot was a slug. In the bandolier for the SAW was an empty link. Somehow the round had gone off, either heat or perfect contact by some object with the cap. It had no chamber to form the force needed to project it so had just made a big noise and spit out the slug, perhaps bouncing off the cab and striking John. No wonder it had set them on edge. It was good fodder for later laughs and BS.

They spent a week on some detail in Babylon, perhaps walking the same road as old Hammurabi. They were in the Polish jurisdiction and had the misfortune to be camped next to a bunch of Spaniards who had just gotten notice that they were going home early. Plied with alcohol they bated the troops of the 842nd to where it was difficult to keep them in line.

After two extended months, they finally got the word they were going home. They left the tents, squared away the equipment that would go back with them, loaded trucks with whatever other accoutrements went along with the unit, and headed down old Highway One. It was a reversal of what had occurred when they had first encountered it on the way up, a slow and steady decompression. On the way their convoy was held up for a couple of hours for an accident where another trooper going home had had an accident with a Humvee and would not complete the trip except in a body bag. As they neared the Kuwaiti border there were signs all over that told them not to point their weapons at Iraqis. “Yah right,” they thought. They weren’t about to let their guard down just yet. At the border all their weapons were taken away, leaving them feeling naked, but also letting it sink in that they were probably safe for the first time in fourteen months. John and Chuck Ford slumped onto the supply bags in the back of a truck and began a twelve hour sleep over the remaining rough roads, a longer period of pure rest than they had had in fourteen months.

They made it all the way back to Ft. Carson, CO where they got their first real night on the town in as many months as they had been gone. He borrowed a pair of jeans from someone and they hit up a Cottonmouth Kings concert, a punk rock thing. They were amazed at how well they were received by the tattooed and pierced crowd. Eventually they boarded the Greyhounds for the trip back to Rapid City

PTSD. Where does it come from? I had expected that John’s story would include more of the type of thing of having someone beside you wiped out in the blink of an eye. There wasn’t any of that, but before we measure, we need to think about it. A rear echelon Vietnam vet myself, I didn’t see any of that kind of thing, but the war still made a huge impression on me, coloring my life, exposing me to things I had never come close to experiencing. It angered me to see the abandonment of my generation by the vets who came before, labeled as cry babies who hadn’t really went through anything like they had. It was even worse when the rest of the populace abandoned us, scorning and looking down their noses. That should never happen to any group of men or women that put their life on the line for their country

Each generation is different. I don’t want to say that those coming after World War II were really of a softer sort, but they grew up in different conditions. They weren’t forged in the hardships of the great depression. They knew not what it was like to feel like three squares and a cot was a pretty damned good lot, with clothes thrown in. Each generation came with more handed to them, perhaps not in their eyes, but they did. In times when there wasn’t welfare, food stamps, or Medicaid, people just went without or died. Vets who came after the “big one” were probably less able to cope, and their sacrifice was as dear, and as horrifying as those who performed before them, perhaps even more so, considering the cushion of the more modern times.

Then throw in the contradictions that the electronic age has put before them. There are a lot of war game videos out there where war is a game, no real ramifications of doing something wrong, or guilt for killing or maiming. Countless hours have been spent playing war only to find that the real thing isn’t quite as imagined. Add in modern communications where a person can be spitting sand and dodging bullets one moment, and the next on Skype, talking to a loved one across the world, defying the connections of one reality with the other.

Each succeeding generation has been exposed to a creeping and growing political correctness that defies the very appellation that is war. As much as those back in their comfy and do-gooder offices want to think, one cannot really fight a war effectively if we are to worry about an enemies’’ dead getting urinated on right after they have most likely just killed one of your friends. Or to refrain from cutting off ears or other acts of degradation. It is not what is expected or hoped for, but they are things that happen when human beings are thrust into ugly situations. It would be nice to place a gun in the hand of those detractors and send them off for months to strange places where someone is shooting at them, killing the people next to them who have become more than brothers to you.

It is unnatural for the man or woman to be on high alert for so long of a time without relief, sleeping in fits and starts whenever they can grab a few. These wars have been specifically stressful, fought without lines or identifying uniform, without any conscience exhibited by the other side. Soldiers come back with guilt for firing into populated houses from which fire had been taken. The other side has no qualms at pushing forth children or women to take their blows, or blowing them up in markets or roadblocks. The GI has to fight his natural tendency to protect them in such situations, often to his own demise. Contact always turns well planned missions into immediate chaos, calling for life or death decisions in seconds. Often decisions are wrong, achingly so, and for the modern trooper who is working under unrealistic rules and the eye of the worldwide media, it can mean death or disgrace in an instant.

Troops kept in operations under these conditions for long periods of time eventually get wound too tight or muted by the constant strain. Those with responsibility for troops under them are harder hit. Few people have to live with imminent threat to their lives for even minutes. Imagine living it hour after hour after hour, always on guard, fight reactions constantly at the fore. Imagine no time of the day when a stray round or a haphazardly set mortar could suddenly end your life, or maim you, streaking out of the great unknown to change everything in an instant. Imagine doing it for fourteen solid months.

Veterans get off the bus from their experiences, and can find no one who has any idea of what they went through. They go to work, and someone complains that it’s a little too hot, that they just can’t take it anymore. Their chair isn’t comfortable enough. They don’t want to stay an extra half hour to get something done. And the vet tells himself these people are foreign to me. They have no idea. The veteran can’t explain in a lifetime to these others how little they have to complain about. They have an inability to communicate their feelings, and they have an involuntary disgust for those who cannot understand them. Sometimes they give up. Sometimes they don’t.

John Bickford didn’t. After ending a tough divorce, so often a derivative of the veteran and PTSD, he strives for understanding and fulfillment. He did honor to the uniform and his country, suffered because of it, but is getting his groove back.