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Not every wound is visible or inflicted by the enemy

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Stephen Eager back in Jacksonville After service in Afghanistan.

Stephen Eager back in Jacksonville After service in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Eager

Photo courtesy of Stephen Eager

Stephen Eager back in Jacksonville After service in Afghanistan.

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan. — Everything is quiet in “Tent City,” an area that gets its name from the rows of tents that serve as soldiers’ quarters.

It is a breezy, clear night. Billions of stars fill the sky in this southern province of Afghanistan. The smell of fire and smoke pervades the air from the many campfires burning at our forward operating base. The lights of FOB Sakari Karez glow dimly with the red and green flickers of generators.

Inside my 20×20-foot trailer, I sit on my 2-inch-thick plastic mattress, back against the wall, legs stretched before me. It’s uncomfortable, but nothing compared to the drastic action I’m about to take. A lone red lamp glows softly, just enough light to see that I’ve loaded the magazine of my M4 service rifle correctly. I’ve convinced myself that this is the only decision left. After a long deployment marked by sadistic hazing at the hands of an individual charged with my welfare, this was the only way to end my pain and abuse. If someone were to peer into my trailer at this moment, they’d glimpse a man in despair, the black silhouette of a soldier facing death as he stared down the muzzle of his own rifle.

***

“Eager! Eager! Calling Cpl. Eager!” yells Staff Sgt. Ortega, as I stepped off the buses that had taken us to our new temporary homes. It’s early April 2011, and although my unit had arrived several days before me, I was still in time to reach them before departing for our assigned areas in-country.

“Bring your bags to Tent 5 corporal, that’s where the NCO’s sleep.”

Both Ortega, and Sgt. 1st Class Critton are inspirations to me. They see the great potential in my soldiering ability, and they’ve always worked to ensure that I’ve had every opportunity to advance. Ortega is bald Mexican-American whose face breaks into deep dimples every time he smiles. We are good friends, even off duty. Critton, white, is fair and honest, a highly effective NCO, but he is not a man to be crossed. As mean as he is tough, he’s nevertheless soft spoken and only smiles when he gets mad. If he is smiling, bad things are sure to follow.

“Corporal, things have changed since we got here,” Critton said in his quiet, direct tone. “To make things go smoother, you’re going to co-lead a team with Sgt. Tejeta and Alpha Company.”

“Roger that, Sergeant,” I said, though I am not fan of Alpha.

That unit is filled with arrogant egotistical pricks, though not atypical for a Cavalry Scout unit.

“You leave in four days,” said Critton.

***

 After four days of downtime, and with new assignment orders in hand, I headed off to Combat Outpost Anaconda, a compound about five miles from the FOB. But the rugged terrain and ever-present insurgent activity still makes it a five-hour drive.

There are four tents for sleeping and one for an office. We also have an overhang for the COP’s makeshift gym. The outhouse is nothing more than a pipe in the ground for pee, and a hole in the ground for poo. The entire COP reeks of sewage. My stay here is to be short lived, though. Less than a week later, I receive word that I am to return to the FOB and assist Staff Sgt. Kingsbury in leading the unit’s maintenance program.

Now, returning to the FOB certainly has its good points. An actual bed to sleep in, soap, shampoo and snacks. But the bad thing is that I am now working for Kingsbury.

Kingsbury is big and bald, about 350 pounds and topping 6 feet, 5 inches tall. His huge belly hangs over his belt, but his massive arms still bulge with muscles. Kingsbury once had a run-in with a scorpion that left him with severe allergies. Now, he is on powerful medication, a side effect of which is massive weight gain. Because of this, he is exempt from the Army’s height and weight standards.

***

            It’s 0930, and time for work call. We have been in country for almost a month, and I have been back at the FOB for a little less than 12 hours.

“Fall in,” says Kingsbury, loud.

“Eager, fall out and fall in on me! Now turn around and face the soldiers. Why are their living quarters in disarray?”

“Never mind, Eager,” Kingsbury said. “Do not try and explain. Spc. Agee, run into my office and find that sledgehammer.”

“Sledgehammer,” I thought.

“Roger,” said Agee, hurrying off.

Thirty seconds later, Agee reappeared toting the massive hammer, a good 20-pounder with a 3-foot shaft. We use these to knock wheel bearings off 5-ton trucks.  Kingsbury snatched the tool and jabbed it into my ribs. It hurt. But my entire platoon is looking on. What hurt more was losing the respect of my soldiers, a respect I’d fought hard to earn.

From that day forward, the “hammer treatment” became a recurring event, at least once a day, most every day. The first time, I got three jabs. Sometimes, I’d get five or six. Many nights I’d go to bed with sore and badly bruised ribs.  It always hurt, and it always knocked the wind out of me. But I had to stand strong. I couldn’t show weakness—especially in front of my soldiers. An NCO isn’t worth much without that, right?

***

  I came to work the next day. My desk sits next to Kingsbury’s in our cramped office space. He crouches at his computer. Blocking the path to my desk rests the hammer.

“You hid all of the sledgehammers didn’t you?” he says. “This is the only one that I could find today. And the only reason I could find it is because it was with me all night.”

“Do you see what that says?” Kingsbury asks, pointing to the long wooden shaft.

I make out the words “Eager Beater” scrawled in bold, black letters. I shrug and try to go about my business, hoping he doesn’t see that it bothers me. But it does.

***

Every day presented new challenges, new experiences. Sometimes, it was boring. And those were the times I thought offered the perfect opportunity to train my soldiers. On this day, it was time to learn about the new mechanics tool trailer.

“Eager!” I heard from afar, heavy footfalls approaching.

“What are you doing here?” Kingsbury barked.

“Just training,” I said hesitantly.

“Do you know what that is?” Kingsbury asked, pointing to the table vice.

Before I could say a word, he grabbed my arm and pulled me over.

“I bet you can’t get out of this!” he crowed, clamping the vice down onto my thumb.

The other soldiers, the ones under my charge, laughed as I fought to free myself. I grabbed the handle and loosened the grip, releasing my hand. Some may think this is fun and games, but I do not. I stormed away, my frustration evident.

***

Times change. Assignments come and go. Ever the life of a soldier.

“Cpl. Eager, I need you to be the NCO in charge of force protection for the FOB,” said 1st Sgt. Anthony Toney.

I’m thrilled. A great assignment. It means longer hours. But it also means I get away from the motor pool…and Kingsbury.

***

It is Nov. 15. Moving day. Our mission for the area is complete, and all units are ordered to move west. This means new jobs, assignments, and posts. We pack up and head a few miles west. Worst of all,  I’m now back under Kingsbury’s thumb.

We usually sit together during chow time, family style. Critton thinks this helps with team building. The chow hall is an old, cavernous building once used by the Afghans.

“Agee,” says Kingsbury during our first meal at the new FOB, “let me see that ERB I told you to print off earlier today.”

Each soldier’s Enlisted Record Brief contains important information such as home of record, PT, weapon, and ASVAB scores.

“Wow Agee, you are smart. Don’t look at Eager’s. I saw his scores. He is pretty dumb.”

“Corporal, why do you take all this crap from Kingsbury?” Critton asks.
“When are you going to stand up to him?”

I just smiled and kept eating, all the while thinking, “You’re his boss. If you see it why don’t you stop it?”

***

November turned to December. The holidays always meant added stress during a deployment. Most missed their families, feeling guilty about not being there. Critton was one of the lucky ones. He got to go home for the holidays. That was great for him, but not so great for us. Critton’s absence meant Kingsbury would be in charge of everything. And so it was that at 0900 on Christmas morning, we mustered for formation.

“Eager, why are these vehicle logs jacked up?” says Kingsbury. “Come here!”

I didn’t want to, but I dared not disobey him.

As I drew near, he wrapped his massive arms around me and squeezed like a python. I felt my bones cracking as he hoisted, then body-slammed me to the ground. The pain was almost unbearable.

“Fix it by tonight!”

He turned to face the platoon. “The rest of you, I’ll see you tomorrow; enjoy Christmas!”

I staggered away and back into my trailer. The pain from that injury stayed with me for over a year.

***

February 2012 had come, and only one month left in this deployment. 3/71 Cavalry had done some good work building schools, securing neighborhoods, and offering a blanket of protection most village people had only dreamed of to this point. So it only made sense to squeeze in one final mission and put another award in the books. In its continuing attempt to build relations with the Afghan people, B Company was on a mission to build a combat outpost about 15 miles north of our current location. Of course, this meant that maintenance company assistance was needed. Critton tapped me for the job.

“Eager, you’re shipping out tomorrow, go pack your bags,” he said.

But by this point, I was scared of my own shadow. I knew at that moment that I was not the best soldier for the job. Moving now meant being cut off from those who truly kept me going: my unit, my friends, my family back home. Such a move meant isolation, few resources, and worst of all—no email access to talk to my wife and kids.

“I simply cannot go!” I thought.

So I devised a master plan—finally end it all. I had the weapon to get the job done right. But what was stopping me? Of course, it was the voices reminding me of my family at home.

“Shut up!” I screamed at those voices.

***

I didn’t pull the trigger that night in my trailer. Instead, I opened my computer and had a brief but brutally honest FaceTime conversation with my wife, Cassandra. At her urging, I took the long walk to mental health services. I was finally seeking the help that I so desperately needed.

Warned by our mental health staff of my current psychological state, First Sergeant called me to his office.

“Can you go on this mission, Cpl. Eager?” Toney asked. “If you say no, that is okay, I won’t send you.”

Defeated, I slowly shook my head. Message received. Kingsbury would have to find someone else to torment at the new COP site. I was finally free.

***

We lost 31 soldiers from our brigade on that deployment; many more suffered injuries. And the losses didn’t stop there. Five soldiers took their own lives upon returning home. Alpha Company, the Cavalry Scout unit, underwent an investigation for hazing, as one of the suicides was from that unit. For me, the biggest challenge wasn’t life in a combat zone. It was the leadership that had been put in place, supposedly to look after my well-being.

I’d love to be able to tell a great war story about how brave I was, about how I’d charged into a nest of insurgents and blasted the enemy. I’d even love to be able to say that most of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is due to that grim time I spent as the unit’s mortuary affairs rep. But none of that would be true. Instead, I am the product of a flawed leadership system, where sadists like Kingsbury are allowed to reign over the men and women in their charge. And I am not alone. There are many others who are just like me.

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