Lesson 3: Be Prudent in Your Risk Taking
The problem with lesson #2 is knowing when enough is enough. You gain significant credibility by putting yourself at risk with the soldiers, but at the same time, you are a very limited resource and must ensure that your efforts stay focused on your primary mission. You do not want to avoid the risk out of fear as risk is prevalent everywhere in the war zone. For example, 20 ft from my office was still the hole where a mortar had hit some 6 months prior and wounded a fellow Army psychiatrist and the office still had shrapnel holes in the wall from the blast.
But we do need to be prudent in how we expose ourselves. I learned this lesson with my continued involvement in humanitarian and outreach missions. In conjunction with the Civil Affairs teams I volunteered to be part of a group who trained one of the local Iraqi Police stations on combat lifesaver skills. We were back out at the police station bringing resupply for the combat lifesaver bags when we learned that the majority of the personnel we had trained were no longer at the station as they were identified as members of Al Qaeda.
I can recall that sudden fear and realization gripping me of knowing that we had spent a full day at a location with our protective gear off, teaching, interacting, and relaxing with these individuals who we later learned were insurgents. This brought images of the video that we all were required to watch prior to deploying, of the beheading of an American contractor by Al Qaeda reminding us of the ever present risk.
At the completion of our time at the police station we were heading to the vehicles when the station was attacked by insurgents. A 20-30 min firefight ensued with small arms, mortar, and rocket propelled grenade fire ongoing until American air support cleared the area and allowed us a safe return.
The event was definitely an adrenaline rush and admittedly did not curb my behavior in the short term. In the months to come when I took some time to reflect back on the experience, I asked myself, if the commander had to write a letter to my wife that day about how I died in combat, what would he say was my purpose that day. Why was I there?
It was not until my second deployment, that I put it into practice, but I was definitely more judicious with my risk taking and exposure. Not afraid or avoidant of the opportunities but ensuring that I had a task and purpose which was relevant to my role.