‘Facing Stigma’ with Blayne Smith

“The last few years of high school I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go to college. I had a golf coach at the time who was a retired Army officer, and he really pushed me toward one of the service academies. Once he started helping push me that way, I learned more about West Point and warmed up to the idea. I decided to go in 1997, and at that time there wasn’t a lot of conflict going on around the world. I graduated in 2001 right before 9/11, so the way I viewed my potential military service and the way it actually played out were two totally different things. I was a tank platoon leader while the war was going on in Afghanistan, and that’s when I got the itch to go into special forces because I saw all the stuff that was going on in Afghanistan on CNN. I got really serious about wanting to get into special forces, but then my unit deployed to Iraq in January of 2004. I was a scout platoon leader in both Baghdad and Fallujah while we were deployed. We were making some really good progress doing rocket and mortar missions, smuggling interdiction missions, and a lot of reconnaissance and surveillance. Only one of my guys suffered a significant injury while we were there, and we actually made it out of there without any casualties. It was a tough place to be, but it was a good deployment in the sense that I felt purposeful and engaged. I worked with a lot of special forces guys while we were there, and I got a chance to see and meet them firsthand. I saw the way they operated from an operations perspective, and I realized that if I was going to come back I wanted to do it like that. I actually was able to leave Baghdad a little early because of my special forces selection date. The month I got home from Iraq was the same month I went to special forces selection.

I went back overseas on a deployment to Afghanistan after becoming a special forces Green Beret. The two theaters of war were very different in the sense that Baghdad was a reasonably metropolitan city for the most part, while Kandahar felt like a shanty town. The terrain was a lot different too. It was really mountainous, and by the time we arrived in January it was snowy and cold. The deployment also played out a lot different than my first one. One day early on in the deployment, one of my team members was killed after getting shot by a sniper. The whole team had to deal with losing a teammate that was like a brother. Then eight days later we hit a massive IED and lost a whole truck full of guys. That day we lost one of our interpreters and three more of my team members, so in a span of eight days we lost five guys. That was a really, really difficult time. We still had five months left, so it was a challenge to keep the team together and moving forward. We were slow to get back up to speed because we were devastated, and our families back home were devastated and terrified about what was going on. It was a weird swirl of emotions being there and losing so many friends, and as a commander I felt really responsible for the whole thing. Then being responsible for getting my guys back out there and into the fight. Sometimes you have casualties and you are forced to keep pushing forward with the mission, and that’s part of your job as a soldier. It was really challenging for me on so many levels. Then we come home and I’m excited because my son was born a week after I got back. It’s a weird combination to be at war and see your friends get killed and be a part of all this madness; then come back and transition into bottles, diapers, and life. I don’t think most of us really processed the loss of our friends, because when you’re down range you just have to stuff it for later. Then you come home and don’t want to dig that stuff up, so you just suppress it and hope you don’t have to ever talk about it again. That stuff doesn’t ever stay buried because eventually it bubbles up and comes out.

Most of us struggled with reconciling what happened and what our role was. The thing is everyone can figure out a reason why they should have done this or done that, so we all struggled in our own ways. It came to light with me because my marriage really started to struggle. My wife at the time let me know that I was acting a lot differently than I had before. I was easily frustrated, more irritable, and acting more distant. It hurt to feel like a failure as a father and a husband, mixed with this loop I had about being a failure as a soldier and leader. I felt like I had failed at everything that was important to me, and it became a lot to deal with. I drove to the VA the next day to see how I could get help. They got me into a post deployment clinic and I got to see a good doctor. I went to see him every week for months. I had something that I was able to look forward to each week. Between that and getting back into physical fitness, I started focusing a lot more on self care. I started giving myself permission to do things that would make me feel better. Whether that was going for a run, writing in my journal every night, or even something as small as flossing every day. They were tangible things that kept me accountable, and know I was taking care of myself. I started spending a lot more time with my dad and parents as well. I started calling up buddies that I hadn’t talked to in awhile. People that I knew I trusted and had a real relationship with. I started spending a lot more time on the phone with those people. I started spending a lot more time with my kids and really investing in our relationship. That investment in me, in my parents, in friends, and my kids got me to the place I wanted to be.”

Healing the hidden wounds of war