Wanting to get into the fight

Updated: September 18, 2011

RU Writer Kelly Crigger penned this piece for The New York Times.

Just because you volunteer to serve your country does not mean you will ever be sent into harm’s way, even if you want to. No matter how patriotic or noble your intentions, the needs of the military come first, and that organization is a very focused machine that maintains a combat force structure based on units and their capabilities, not individuals and their desires. That policy has a side effect of leaving some of us bearing a burden of guilt at not having done more.

A little background. I’m the son of an Army colonel who was the son of an Army colonel who was the son of an Army colonel. My military ambitions were those of Lieutenant Dan in “Forrest Gump,” only none of my ancestors had perished in combat. They had all served multiple tours and lived to fill my head with stories of bravery and honor on the battlefield that made me want to do only one thing in life: be like them. So I joined up straight out of high school in 1986.

In 2006, the global war on terror was in its fifth year and I still had not been deployed. Since 9/11, I had either been in school or assigned to a nondeployable unit in South Korea. I pulled every string I had to get reassigned to a “Hooah” unit that would allow me the honor of getting a ride overseas to be with my brethren.

Finally, I got my ticket. I was assigned to the First Special Forces Group, but guess what? They were off rotation for the next couple of years. Another obstacle. After much ballyhoo, I finally got myself sent to Afghanistan to be with the Third Special Forces Group. Obstacle surmounted. I was elated, which I know is hard for many to understand, but that’s part of the warrior culture.

Upon arrival in theater, I was hit with another setback — I would be confined to a desk in the Joint Operations Center (J.O.C.) at Camp Vance. I rationalized it by convincing myself that I was at least making a difference, that for every war fighter embracing the suck, there were eight support personnel behind him and that everyone in the Army has a job and that job is to support the infantryman.

But it was lipstick on a pig. I wasn’t out on the streets leading troops or in the markets looking for weapons caches. I was behind a desk directing those brave troops from a distance. At that level, being responsible for the death of an enemy combatant is no different than playing a video game. When I saw death, it was usually a photo brought back by our operators or a live Predator feed (dubbed “Kill TV” in the J.O.C. for entertainment purposes). I personally gave the order to kill four Taliban fighters one night as they were emplacing an I.E.D. (improvised explosive device), and then went to sleep comfortably in my hooch without a second thought. It was complete separation and disaffection of the deed from the consequence.

Meanwhile, the troops out on presence patrols were living in crappy conditions with their head on a swivel, holding memorial services for their friends, and dealing with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) when they returned home. Those of us who killed from a distance have no real issues to speak of … but should we? Should we feel guilty at not having done more? Should we feel remorse for not having suffered the trauma of killing at close range?

There are war stories that make you say “Whoa” and there are war stories that make you say “That’s it?” But what people don’t realize is that those of us whose war stories fall short carry the guilt of not having the “no joke, there I was” tale of standing toe-to-toe with the entire Mongol horde armed only with a rusty knife and a gigantic set of cajones, covering the retreat of our comrades. If war is apathetic to its casualties, so is the guilt of not having fought one.

In the movie “Gardens of Stone” the lead character, Jackie Willow, aches to follow in his father’s footsteps and prove himself in Vietnam, a sentiment I can identify with. But instead, Willow is posted to The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery to ruminate on how he’s not doing his duty. When he finally gets his chance to deploy, he’s met by two Vietcong bullets to the chest, and Francis Ford Coppola leaves us thinking of the utter futility of standing up for something we believe in. The audience is led to the tired, predictable conclusion that war is bad and that anyone who wants to take part in one is flawed.

We all weep over Jackie Willow and ask the question “Why did he want to go over there so badly?” It’s not an easy question to answer, and the party lines are as close as anyone can really come to explaining it: because we hear the sound of a different calling; because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves; because we want to make a difference; if I have to explain it, then you won’t understand.

Trigger pullers will have no sympathy for guys like me, and they shouldn’t. They’re the ones who slogged across the mountains smoking the bad guys out of their caves. Not me. I wanted to be out there with them, but no matter how much I jumped up and screamed, there just wasn’t any need for a soldier of my age and background to go outside the wire. And I don’t mean that in an insincere “Oh, I wish I could have gone out there with you, but I had a hangnail” way. I was jealous of the guys coming in off a mission covered in dust, sweat and the satisfaction that they had made it through another day. They had the honor of knowing they gave it their all. I didn’t.

While many Americans now tell their kids about their combat experiences with pride, I hang my head and hope they don’t ask. When they do I quickly change the subject not because I can’t talk about it, but because I don’t have anything to say. “Well … um … I sat behind a desk and, uh … I clicked a mouse and I made decisions,” just doesn’t cut it. In the end, I’m rational and know that at least I volunteered and deployed to combat. I know that at least I gave something, even if there are so many who gave so much more.

Full story here




  1. Mr. Twisted

    September 19, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    LTC Crigger,

    I read the article Friday on the NY Times site and I have to say that it was incredibly moving, as well as being easy for me to relate to.

    In May of 2002 after making it through 2 1/2 weeks of RIP, I was told I was done because A) I had a broken hip and B) was 29 years old — 75th Ranger Regiment had no use for a 29-year old PV2 with a broken hip. So instead I was sent to 6th RTB — land of Ranger training, but not Ranger deploying.

    After another injury at SFAS years later and then finally joining a PSYOP unit I was deployed to Iraq in what can only be described as a gigantic waste of time and resources. I felt like I got there after everything had already been done. I wasn’t part of any “fight,” but rather part of an effort not to get blown up while overseeing the building of schools and roads. Not exactly the stories of legend came from that year.

    In other words, you are certainly not alone in your thoughts. Very well-written piece and I am grateful for all that you have done.

    Mr. Twisted

  2. SSG_Mandingo

    September 20, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Good Afternoon Sir,

    I too, have felt this turmoil that you have been through, more so that I have not been able to set on foot in the AOR. I’ve tried re-enlisting three different times for a deploying assignment/unit, PCS’ing 4 times, I even put in a packet to join the 75th Ranger Regiment (not sure how you exceed the standards but then are turned away for lack of deployments, but that is neither here nor there). I am currently in a unit slated to go downrange. Sadly, this will be my first trip over the pond no matter how many times I’ve begged whatever chain of command I’ve been in, calls/emails sent to my branch/assignment manager, or how many drug deals I have tried to instigate. I have had more friends not come back then I could fit on 3 bracelets (believe me, of the companies I approached, even the smallest font wouldn’t fit them all), I’ve seen kids grow up without parents, and parents mourn the loss of their children. Passing 12 years now and I’ve never been able to do my share “100 percent and then some,” as it is stated in the Ranger Creed. I feel a constant sense of guilt whenever I am asked “what’s it like over there?” or “Ever seen any action?” Knowing full well how all my efforts have been exhausted. I am currently putting my packet for Ranger School in the hopes some unit with enough cloat will simply bring me on board to stay out there for enough time for me to find peace. My grandfather fought during Korea and Vietnam. My dad fought during Grenada, (missing out on Desert Storm for being stuck on the Drill Sergeant trail) seeing Somalia, Panama, and Haiti as well. This is an excellent eye opener to those who do not know or would typically write others off as “deployment-dodgers,” or “fobbits.”


  3. Nate R.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    I had the honor of serving with (then Major) Kelly Crigger during his tour with 1st Group. One of the best examples of an “Iron Majors” we had in group, IMHO. LTC Crigger was a consumate professional with an incredible work ethic, who managed to get the job done and inspire junior leaders while maintaining humility and a great sense of humor throughout his staff time.

    My point is not to heap praise on the author, but to add some context that the author is probably too humble to point out himself: some of our best and brightest are not always afforded the opportunity to serve in direct combat. I feel Kelly’s viewpoint needed to be expressed, to advocate for the numerous “behind the scenes” NCOs and Officers that keep our military functioning. Thank you for writing this, Kelly, and thanks for what you do.

    • Kelly

      September 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm

      NATE! What’s going on big guy? Shoot me an email through my website at http://www.kellycrigger.com. I would post it here, but then the spammers would get me. And thanks for the kind words. It was an honor serving with you.

  4. SSgt F

    November 26, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    I did deploy to Iraq, Camp Bucca to be specific, and worked in the TIF. Those who know what a TIF is know what I’m talking about and those who don’t, well to be honest it doesn’t really matter. It is not that I’m addicted to danger but the fact that I find valor in protecting people who I have never met before and also protecting my brothers in arms. I have volunteered for multiple deployments but to no avail. Even if the term “fobbit” is used to describe my deployment, it is by no choice of mine. God bless the men who do live and breathe in the dust, grime, and CLP.

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