Life After War: The Men of Bravo Company

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ben Kesling headlined “Life After War: The Men of Bravo Company”:

Sergeant Alex Jauregui doesn’t have any legs, but in a way that makes things easy for him. Deployed to Afghanistan more than a decade ago with Bravo Company in the 2-508 Parachute Infantry Regiment, everyone can see he’s been in combat and paid a price, with two prosthetics to show for it. Veteran groups have happily supported him in launching his business, and in turn they get to use his photo in their brochures. It’s a good deal for everyone.

Other veterans have wounds invisible to those around them or even to themselves. The men of Bravo Company have spent years reckoning with their harrowing experiences, offering a snapshot of what hundreds of thousands of veterans experienced over the course of America’s 20 years of war in Afghanistan.

Sgt. J, as he’s known to his Army buddies, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1985 and came to the U.S. illegally with his parents when he was a child. He and his family were able to stay in the U.S. under immigration policy at the time, and when he grew up he wanted to serve his adopted country. He chose the Army as a career after he graduated high school in 2003. “My friends had joined, and seeing the pride friends had when they came back in uniform made me really want to join,” Sgt. J said.

His first deployment was to Iraq in 2004 as a mechanic, but after a scrap with insurgents on his next deployment, he decided to become an infantryman. In 2009 he became a sergeant and was deployed to Afghanistan with Bravo Company, but firefights with the Taliban were rare. Instead the unit patrolled the undergrowth and orchards of the Arghandab valley in the southern province of Kandahar, trying to avoid IEDs, every step a horror of uncertainty.

The men used dark humor to cope. “At first we said, ‘If I lose a limb let me bleed out,’” Sgt. J remembers. They were unable to fathom living without a leg. But as more and more men lost legs to booby traps, their attitude shifted: “We changed to saying, ‘If I lose two limbs, let me bleed out.’”

Sgt. J made it through that deployment, but when he returned to the Arghandab in 2012, he stepped on an IED while on patrol. As soon as he regained consciousness he knew he was going to survive; he’d seen so many other men lose limbs that he trusted the Army medical system to fly him out and save him. Which it did.

“I’m not mad at anybody,” Sgt. J told me recently. “Not even the Taliban. They were just doing their job.” That’s how he describes it: matter-of-factly and without rancor. It was a day when the Taliban did a better job than the U.S. Army. Both legs gone, just like that.

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he recovered and learned to walk again, “There were a lot of guys who were disgruntled or pissed off,” Sgt. J said. “You either accept it right away or you try to find someone to blame.” Sure, he misses his legs—who wouldn’t? But what he really misses is the Army, those bonds of brotherhood he found while in uniform. That was the best job he could ever have wished for: to hang out with his buddies all day and jump out of airplanes.

“It’s the hardships, the training and going through the hard stuff together,” he said, wistfully. “You don’t do that kind of stuff in everyday life, you can’t replace it.”

Sgt. J’s prosthetics might make it look like he’s been broken, but he knows his experience contributed to what he is today: a successful beekeeper in California, a loving husband and an attentive father. Without that IED, who knows if he would have the life he has now, which is pretty damn good. He’s alive and healthy, and although he doesn’t collect Air Jordan sneakers like he once did, he’s content.

Sgt. J misses the Army, but he’s gotten over it. Tyler Koller just can’t find a way to do that. Raised in a conservative Christian home in downstate Illinois, he was a Royal Ranger as a kid, part of a group that made the Boy Scouts look like ne’er-do-wells. Koller joined the Army at the age of 18, and his first deployment was with Bravo Company, along with Sgt. J.

In his Army days, the fire in Koller’s belly was stoked by belief in his mission and faith in a just and loving God. He’d gather his squad to say a prayer before they stepped out of the wire to go on patrol, and he wouldn’t ever say a cuss word, even though his fellow troops used to offer him money to say the F-word out loud. “No way,” he’d say. It would be an affront to the Lord and to his mother, who raised him in the Pentecostal church.

Koller wasn’t physically broken in Afghanistan, but something did happen to him. Like many men and women who went to Iraq and Afghanistan over 20 years of war, he suffered a moral injury. A soldier heads to a war zone with a carefully tuned moral compass that parents and preachers and teachers and friends have helped to calibrate.

But in a combat zone, soldiers see, hear and do things that aren’t aligned with the true north of that moral compass. Koller saw horrible things in Afghanistan: the killing of American and Taliban soldiers but also the inadvertent maiming of children. He learned of bacha bazi, a slang term for the sexual abuse of young boys by corrupt Afghan policemen.

“The faith that I had went away,” Koller said, though “I have hope in my heart that there’s a higher being out there.”

He decided to leave the Army in 2011 after his enlistment was up, but years later he regrets the decision. Even though he saw bad things in Afghanistan, he was one of the good guys trying to do something about it, though it was a Quixotic task sometimes. He and his buddies had a mission in life.

That all went away once he chose to leave the service, and for years he bumped from job to job without finding a true purpose. “My army experience was the highlight of my life so far,” he told me last year. “I knew I was making a difference, had a purpose. Since I got out, I don’t feel like I did anything.”

Donald McAlister, known as Mac, was the senior noncommissioned officer in Bravo Company during their Afghanistan deployment in 2009-10. A self-described “podunk dude” from Ponchatoula, La., Mac had a rough road in high school, getting expelled at one point for smashing mailboxes. But as a kid he saw the movie “The Longest Day,” with Henry Fonda and John Wayne as paratroopers, and that sealed the deal for him: He had to finish high school so he could join the Army.

Mac was too much of a hard-ass to have any friends in Bravo Company. He had been blown up by an IED on a previous deployment and nearly lost an eye, and he knew it was his job to keep such things from happening to his men. There was no time for pity or sympathy for anyone. And that’s the way Mac remained for years after the deployment.

Many combat veterans can’t find solace in their own hearts because they refuse to give solace to others. They want to one-up the next guy with tales of their own trauma. Mac was that way, but when he got ready to retire from the Army in 2017, he came to the realization that this approach wasn’t helping anyone, least of all himself.

“I went to see a mental-health professional saying, ‘There ain’t shit wrongwith me, I’m just stressed out because I’m retiring,’” he remembered. “Then I start bawling my eyes out. I truly didn’t realize the anger and pain and guilt that I had locked away.”

Today, Mac speaks publicly about how people who were leaders in the Army—NCOs and officers—can’t walk away from their obligations once they take off the uniform. The one-time hard-ass has become an unlikely ally for anyone fighting demons, no matter what those demons might be. “I’m f—ed up, too,” Mac told me recently, and that candor is his welcoming embrace for fellow veterans. Men in Bravo Company who might have hated him when they were in Afghanistan more than a decade ago have found a friend and an ally in Mac.

Jared Lemon is one of those who have found an ally in Mac. He grew up in Alaska, near Anchorage, where he learned to hike and shoot and fish. He was an Eagle Scout, and when he got old enough he became a soldier in the 82nd Airborne. In 2009, Lemon made his second deployment to Afghanistan as part of Bravo Company, expecting to go into combat. “I don’t think you hope for it, but you’re ready for it,” he said.

In April 2010, Lemon lost his arm to an IED. His buddy was trying to climb over a mud wall and gave Lemon his light machine gun to hold; he was holding it with his arm fully extended when the bomb detonated, killing his friend and mangling Lemon’s arm. He was evacuated by helicopter, and Army surgeons tried to save the arm, but they told him it would be pretty crappy even if they succeeded, so he said to take it off. He was left with just a stump.

“You can’t just look at someone who’s missing an arm and say they’re not f—ed up,” Lemon said. Sometimes you might forget you’re talking to a guy with prosthetic legs, but one with a missing arm always has that stump waving around, a constant reminder to everyone of what he’s been through.

After completing his physical recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Lemon bumped along with no path and no goal. Then he got involved with a veteran group called Ranger Road that helps men and women get out and do things—set goals, find a reason for being here. He climbed a mountain alongside some Special Forces guys and realized that if climbing a mountain with all your limbs is a big deal, it’s even bigger when you’re one short.

One of those guys asked him what he was going to do now. “You might be lost, but start moving and you’ll find yourself going in a direction,” he said. So in 2017, seven years after leaving the Army, Lemon enrolled in community college, starting with computer science classes; soon he transferred to the University of California, Riverside. He also decided to set himself the goal of running a marathon. He began to contact his Bravo Company brethren, trying to cajole them to run it with him in 2023.

His feeling is that if he talks enough people into doing it, then neither he nor anyone else can back out. If they all have to rely on each other, then they’ll get it done. “The older you get, the more you realize your life isn’t yours,” Lemon told me recently.

Soldiers who died have Memorial Day as their remembrance, but Veterans Day is for those who are still here. Their legacies aren’t in museums but in their everyday lives. Veterans want to be heard because telling their stories keeps their service alive, giving meaning and a renewed presence to their experience.

Veterans also have stories yet to unfold. The military was just one part of their lives. If they served honorably, they might still tarnish themselves; if they have yet to find honor, they can still do so. The men of Bravo show how much potential can be found in a single Army company.

Ben Kesling is a Midwest correspondent for the Wall Street Journal where he focuses on domestic security and veterans issues.

Speak Your Mind

*