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Authors: Jennifer Clark

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166 Days: My Journey Through The Darkness

BOOK: 166 Days: My Journey Through The Darkness
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The opinions expressed in this manuscript are solely the opinions of the author and do not represent the opinions or thoughts of the publisher. The author has represented and warranted full ownership and/or legal right to publish all the materials in this book.

166 Days
My Journey Through The Darkness
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Clark
v3.0

Cover Photo © 2014 Jennifer Clark.  All rights reserved - used with permission.

This book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in whole or in part by any means, including graphic, electronic, or mechanical without the express written consent of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Outskirts Press, Inc.
http://www.outskirtspress.com

Outskirts Press and the “OP” logo are trademarks belonging to Outskirts Press, Inc.

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

 

This book is dedicated to my friends and family whose love and support carried through my time in Afghanistan.

 

To Tera….thank you for being my flashlight.

 

Becky, I love you so much and thank God it was you by my side. Friends for life.

 

To my Gerg….there are no words…you are my soul.
Without you I would have no purpose.

 

To my children. May you always see the beauty through the darkness and have the strength and courage to find the meaning in the life circumstances that you cannot understand.

 

To anyone out there who is going through something and needs hope to help them get through it….My story is for you.

Contents

Part One

Chapter 1

Who is this Woman?

Chapter 2

Almost Two Years Earlier…Leaving Home

Day 1: Boots on the Ground

Day 2: Waiting

Day 3: We have a flight

Chapter 3

Day 4: Saying Hello to Bagram Air Field33

Chapter 4

Day 5: The Flashing Light

Chapter 5

Day 6: Medic Warriors

Chapter 6

Day 7: How Bazaar

Chapter 7

Day 14: Salute to a Fallen Comrade

Chapter 8

Day 19: One Year Later

Chapter 9

Day 28: Final Destination Revealed

Chapter 10

Days 32 and 33: One of Our Own

Chapter 11

Day 37: Here We Go

Chapter 12

Day 44: The “No Limit” Soldier Has Limits

Chapter 13

Day 45: Preparing to Go

Chapter 14

Days 47 & 48: The MedCap

Chapter 15

Day 49: Happy Anniversary

Chapter 16

Days 53-57: Working with the FST

Chapter 17

Day 58: Arrival at the Firebase

Chapter 18

Day 59: First Taste of War

Chapter 19

Day 62: Settling In

Chapter 20

Day 63: Casualties of War

Day 66: Independence Day

Chapter 21

Day 67: Another Year Older

Chapter 22

Day 72: Touching Hands

Day 76: Similarities across Oceans

Chapter 23

Day 77: Missing My Gerg

Chapter 24

Days 80-86: Divine Intervention

Chapter 25

Days 87-88: Close Encounters of the Taliban Kind

Chapter 26

Day 93: A Different Kind of Wounded Warrior

Chapter 27

Day 98: The Best I Could Do

Chapter 28

Day 104: The Little Big Things

Chapter 29

Day 106: Out of my Hands

Days 107-111: A Father’s Struggle

Chapter 30

Day 112: Reality Check

Chapter 31

Day 113: A Day in the Life of a Green Beret

Chapter 32

Days 116-117: My War Within

Chapter 33

Day 121: Running for my Sanity

Chapter 34

Days 126-127: The Worst Day of My Life

Chapter 35

Day 129: My Grieving

Chapter 36

Day 132: New Hope

Chapter 37

Day 134: Shut Down

Chapter 38

Day 135: 9/11

Chapter 39

Day 142: Falling Apart

Chapter 40

Day 144: Leaving Hell

Chapter 41

Day 145: Back to Reality

Chapter 42

Days 148-161: Back to Bagram

Chapter 43

Days 162-166: The Journey Home

Part Two

Chapter 44

The Aftermath

Chapter 45

Back to Center

PART ONE

CHAPTER
1

Who is this Woman?

6 December 2009

Tonight I realized I was in serious trouble. After fourteen months of suppressing any emotion that reminded me of that horrible time, I finally reached the point of no return. I rolled over in bed, exhausted from the previous two sleepless nights. I looked up at my alarm clock and saw it was 12:00 am. My tiny newborn daughter was screaming in hunger from her bassinet at the foot of my bed. I dragged my tired body of out bed and picked up Ayla and cradled her in my arms. My new angel was such an amazing little person already and I was so grateful to have her in my life. She was my whole world; my love for her was incredible. I knew this love would make all the hurt I was trying so desperately not to feel go away. It had to. I had come to where I didn’t know what else to do to avoid going “there” and she had become my reason to move on.

I wanted to do everything by the books and be the best mom I could for her, so I was adamant about breastfeeding. She was born three weeks early and we had struggled with this in the hospital, but I was determined. I sat down with her in my bed and began to try to feed her. She continued to cry.

“Ok, Jenn…be patient, you can do this,” I told myself, “Remember the different methods they taught you in the hospital.” I thought about the endless piles of paperwork they gave me when they discharged us two days before and tried to use the recommendations. Unfortunately, I had no luck. Her screams became louder.

I have to do this!
I thought.
Why can’t she just do what the books say?
I felt my emotions bubbling under the surface; a situation that had become such a norm for me over the last several months since I returned from Afghanistan. I had mastered the art of avoidance; keeping all of my pain at arm’s length by dodging anything that reminded me of what I had been through.

Now she was screaming.
Oh my God, I don’t know what the hell to do!
I was losing my composure. I looked at the clock again, 2:00am. Two hours had disappeared into the night and I was still in the same place I was when we started. Her screams became louder and her little voice was becoming hoarse.

My Physician Assistant instincts kicked in.
What if she is dehydrated
? I thought. I reached down and put my finger on her tongue; it was dry.
Oh, my God! She is!
I looked down at her with concern… but I didn’t see Ayla. I was holding
that
baby - the dying baby in Afghanistan. Her brother had carried her into my clinic in what looked like a potato sack draped over his shoulder, plopped her down on my gurney and untied his sack. I looked inside and saw the skin and bones of what used to be a healthy baby girl, now minutes from death. There was nothing that I could do to save her. As I looked down at my daughter I was right back there, in that horrible place. I could smell the filth in the air and I could hear the breaths slowly leaving the baby girl’s tiny, dying body.

I snapped. “Greg! Wake up!” I screamed at my husband as he lay next to me completely oblivious to my rapid descent into panic.

“What is it, Jenn? What’s wrong? Is Ayla ok?” He jumped out of bed braced for the worst.

“She’s starving! I can’t feed her! She’s dehydrated, look at her!” I screamed.

“Calm down, sweetie. It’s okay,” he tried.

“No! It’s not ok! Please! Do something! Please Greg! Go to the store and buy some formula, look at her!” I pleaded.

“She’s ok, don’t worry! Remember they gave us some samples at the hospital? I’ll go fix a bottle.” He rushed to the kitchen and returned shortly with a bottle in hand. “Here, I’ll take her,” he said, and finally our screaming baby was content.

Alone in bed, I began to cry. I realized what had just happened, my first flashback. This thing was real. I was not ok. I was damaged goods, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I knew the deployment would change me, but I had no idea that
this
is who would come back from it. Who had I become? The once joyful, funny, optimistic person who had everything under control was lost and nowhere to be found; instead this damaged, emotional wreck had taken over.

I thought about Ayla. Her name had been predetermined for many years; Ayla, after a strong female character in the novel
Clan of the Cave Bear
that was passed down through the generations of women in my family. The story illustrated a young lady, who despite all odds grew into an amazing woman of strength and character. Her middle name Lee was in honor of my grandmother who was such an influence for me growing up. I had thought I was going to be that strong influence for my daughter, but now I had no idea who I was anymore. My little girl would never know who I once had been. I knew the deployment would be a major part of my life, so I kept a journal to document that time in my life for my future children. Now that child was here; what would she think of her mother?

How had I come to this point? I thought of the journal. It held the key to who I was and who I had become. It was the story of how my life changed forever due to the most traumatic experience I’d ever endured. That night I knew what I had to do…I had to relive it, in its entirety, if I had any hope of rescuing the lost soul inside of me.

CHAPTER
2

Almost Two Years Earlier…Leaving Home

24 April 2008

It had finally come. After all the preparation time, anticipation, and dread, the day had arrived. I felt so overwhelmed with every emotion possible that I was beside myself as I sat in the terminal waiting to board the plane out of Panama City. I showed up at the airport in civilian clothes, and once I got there I saw another Air Force member in uniform. Greg saw me looking at him and I blurted out, “Greg! I should go change…I knew I should’ve worn my uniform. I am going to look so stupid being the only one showing up in civvies!”

“Jenn, no you’re not. You’re fine; you don’t need to put on your uniform until you’re leaving the country. You know that. Relax, dork!”

I was so nervous. Neither one of us wanted to prolong the goodbye, knowing it would make it that much harder. So we quickly hugged and gave each other a kiss and that was it. Typical of me, I let my nerves get the best of me, and as soon as he left I rushed to the bathroom and changed into uniform, despite his advice. I had never done anything like this before, and it was so blatantly obvious by my actions. I was traveling from Panama City to Norfolk, VA where I would fly out the next day to begin my journey to Afghanistan. This was my first deployment after being in the Air Force for almost eight years.

When I said goodbye to my Greg that day, I couldn’t help but realize I was saying goodbye to the life I had known up until that day. I knew without a doubt this experience would change my life in many ways, and I hoped that change would be all in a positive light. I was scared to death and excited all at once for what I was about to do.

After being stationed at Tyndall AFB for just under a year, my squadron commander called me into his office one morning to inform me I had a deployment tasking. I would be going to Afghanistan for six months. My orders were very vague, so vague, in fact, that no one at Tyndall even knew what I would be doing once I arrived. At one point I was told I would be working with the “female detainees” at the prison at Bagram Airfield. Through networking and research I was able to make contact with the PA I was replacing. I emailed her so many questions; “Can you tell me about the female detainees? What type of working conditions should I expect? What are the most common ailments you see?”

Her response was not what I was expecting. “Jennifer, I am sorry to tell you this, but there are no female
detainees
. You are not going to work at the prison. They didn’t tell you that you would be outside the wire?”

Um…no! They did not
! I thought to myself as I read her words.

“You will be attached to a team of Green Berets at a firebase, running the clinic there, meaning you will be treating the locals and the team.”

My jaw dropped.
Oh my God
.

She continued, “I am sorry you didn’t have these details. I am happy to help with whatever information I can. You need to prepare yourself to see a lot of trauma. This is not the medicine we are used to practicing back home.”

Her words jumped off the computer screen and became entangled in my emotion.
Green Berets. Outside the wire. Local nationals. Trauma. Danger. War. I’m not prepared. Oh my God. Combat
.

As one might imagine, I experienced many emotions upon receiving this news; fear, sadness, excitement, disbelief, surprise to name a few. Greg and I had many long discussions anticipating what was in store for me. We often laughed at the irony of the situation: I had tried to dump him several years before over the “idea” of his wanting to be involved with Special Forces when he was active duty, and now I was the one getting
all kinds
of involved with them, in Afghanistan of all places.

I had always had an urge to do humanitarian medicine, and it certainly sounded as though that was exactly what I would be doing. I knew it would be scary, sad, beautiful, heartwarming, and chilling all at once. Admittedly, up until that point in my life, I was a very “innocent” person when it came to what I had seen and done in my career. I was a brand new Physician Assistant and a brand new military officer, with just under a year of experience in both. Understandably, the majority of the time I felt completely out of my league with many of the things I had to do on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t have much of a backbone for no other reason than the fact that I had little to no experience to back my decisions. I hoped I would be able to grow that backbone quickly where I was going.

It was so hard to say goodbye… to everyone. You don’t realize the impact people have on your life until you are in a situation where you are completely alone. I was the only person I’d have to lean on for the next six months.

As I sat in the terminal in my newly donned uniform, I watched the other Air Force guy pass through security. His eyes scanned the crowd and he locked eyes with me and smiled at the familiar face in uniform and sat down beside me. “How are you doing, Ma’am?” he asked.

“I’m fine; how are you?” I replied. We began to talk about where we were heading. I told him my story and he told me his; he was off to Virginia as well for training and a possible deployment.

And then he said it. “Man, I wish I could change. The only reason I’m in uniform is because I came straight from work and didn’t have time to change clothes.”

What
!? I felt like a complete idiot! I had managed to force myself into flying in my uncomfortable uniform for no other reason than letting myself overanalyze the situation and let my nerves get the best of me. Oh well! I laughed to myself thinking about what Greg would say.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I lied. What an idiot I was! The attendant called for my boarding group and I quickly gathered my things, wished him well, and boarded the plane. I found my seat by the window. As the wheels left the safe and familiar asphalt of the Panama City runway, tears streamed down my face. I realized that I wouldn’t see this place again for six long months. I watched the city slowly fade away in the clouds and pulled myself together thinking,
I am in this now
.

Once we landed in Atlanta, I made it off the plane without any complications and successfully found the connection gate. As I was waiting to board, I looked around and noticed many other military personnel. They were not in uniform, of course, but I could tell by their haircuts and demeanors they were in the service as well. I was the only one in uniform, and that was very apparent. I felt even more uncomfortable as the moments passed, but that was not the end of it. As we were getting ready for take-off, the flight attendant grabbed the intercom and began her standard preflight instructions of exit rows, oxygen masks, etc. So naturally I began to lose myself in my newly found addiction of Sudoku.

Then I heard it: “Attention ladies and gentlemen, we have a VIP on board with us today! I would like to bring your attention to our
only
uniformed soldier, Lt. Clark, sitting in the back of the plane. Let’s give her a round of applause and thank her for her service.”

My face turned every shade of red possible, especially knowing that there were at least ten other military members on board who were smart enough to stay in their civilian clothes. They were undoubtedly getting a laugh out of my situation. Honestly, I couldn’t help but chuckle at it myself. I could just imagine what Greg would say. I decided not to even try to guess how many “I told you so’s” would come flowing from his mouth. It was the very first travel day, and I was already pulling out the “Jenisms”.

 

25 April 2008

In Norfolk, VA I had my last dirty martini for six months with my friend Tony. I met him at Advanced Contingency Skills Training (ACST), a combat skills course that we had to complete prior to the deployment. He was a Logistics officer, who as luck would have it, would most likely be in charge of the logistical needs of my unit. This meant he would be able to secure flights in between the forward operating bases (FOBs) which was a much better mode of travel than the alternative of vehicle convoys. He had also been very helpful with my out-processing from Tyndall AFB. No one there seemed to know what was going on with my deployment, but Tony had much more insight into the system and his advice made it as smooth as possible for me. That being said, it was still a logistical nightmare to actually get to the point where I was. If I hadn’t read the fine print on my orders and out-processing checklist as carefully as I did, Lord knows what would have happened to me. As we sat and ate dinner looking out over the water I said, “Tony, I just want to thank you again for your help during my out-processing. It was really nice to have some support.”

“Jenn, no biggy; that’s what we do. We take care of each other. I promise to continue to help in whatever ways I can,” he said.

“Thank you” I said.

Our rotator flight was scheduled to leave that night at 2030 hours. We were scheduled to make several stops in Canada, Iceland, Budapest, and The Republic of Georgia, ultimately landing in Manas, Kyrgyzstan where we would likely be for several days until we could get a flight out to Bagram Airfield. Manas is in the Area of Operational Readiness (AOR) and from what I had been told, once we touched ground there, the deployment would officially start.

 

26 April 2008

After stopping in Newfoundland and Iceland I found myself sitting in the airport in Budapest, Hungary; it’d been a long trip. We had one more scheduled stop in Georgia before Manas. It had been so interesting stopping in several countries. We were there for such short periods of time, but still got a small glimpse of their cultures by having some interactions with the people at the airports. Such a minimal exposure to different cultures gave me new insight into many things and I found myself longing to know more. In Iceland (probably the most barren and desolate-looking place I had ever seen) the people actually still spoke the language of the Vikings! I noted that, at the time, the American dollar was not worth much in any of the places we stopped. I’d found the same thing to be true when Greg and I went to Ireland just prior to my departure, and I discovered the mighty Euro.

Seeing these places made me think of the deployment. Now that I was on my way, parts of me were actually excited. For many years I had dreamed of being able to practice humanitarian medicine and now I had an opportunity to live it. I thought of all the people I would be able to help and I smiled. I was going to make a real difference for these people; what an honor. I knew there would be dangerous parts of it, but I just knew the people I would treat would make it all worth the risk.

 

27 April 2008

At 0300 hours we finally made it to the last stop before Manas…Georgia. We were on the ground for approximately one and a half hours but were unable to go into the terminal due to security reasons. We were thankful to at least be able to deplane and stretch our legs on the runway while the plane refueled.

It felt surreal as I stood on the tarmac in Georgia, under a large full moon gazing into a sea of the silhouettes of two hundred soldiers and airmen on the verge of entering the war. Some were so young and inexperienced; no more than eighteen years old, while others showed signs of age and experience through their grey hairs and determined eyes. I had to ask myself where in this continuum of knowledge and experience I fell. I was older than most of the young soldiers, and had experience from my eight years of enlisted service, but I felt I was glowing a fluorescent “green” when it came to my understanding of what it took to be an officer and a leader, so much so that it felt eerily similar to how I felt the day I got off the bus at Lackland AFB for my first day of Basic Military Training. I concluded I fit somewhere in the middle.

Seeing such young troops surround me made me reflect on my own life. I joined the Air Force when I was twenty years old in August 2000. I was a sophomore in college at Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS and had come to find myself lost without a passion, a very uncomfortable feeling for someone who thought she had it all figured out. When I went to college, I had a scholarship for broadcasting, with every intention of becoming the next Barbara Walters, but when I started taking the classes I realized very quickly that Barbara and I were just not going to have that connection. The industry was not what I thought it was; therefore, as time went on, I felt increasingly confused, having been so sure about my choice of a major when I graduated from high school.

Disappointment was an understatement. I was now that young person I once felt “sorry” for as the wise and all-knowing eighteen-year-old that I was. Once confident that I had it all figured out, now I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up….and I was scared. Around the time of this newly acquired humility I enrolled in a biology course. I had an amazing professor who was passionate about her field, and I quickly came to realize I was falling in love with the study of life and began to feel a sense of hope in finding my new career path. I started to research avenues I could take, and healthcare became the missing puzzle piece.

Around the time of this personal epiphany I met Will, a boy I dated, and our short time together changed my life forever. He was an Air Force brat, and in many conversations he would tell me how he felt I should be an officer in the USAF. I thought that was absolutely ridiculous and I would laugh saying “Yeah! Right!
Me
? Do you even know who you are talking to?
No thank you
.”

Again, I obviously knew everything, after all, I was eighteen. Interestingly though, something happened; the more he persisted the more open to the idea I became. I began to see what an opportunity it actually was. Several months later Will and I broke up and I was devastated. I found myself picking up the pieces to my life. I had lost my major. I was brokenhearted and emotionally lost, due to all that I had invested in the relationship. Then, one day of many that I was immersed in feeling sorry for myself, I opened the USAF website, clicked on the link to request more information, and the next thing I knew I was on a bus to basic training in San Antonio, TX. I got selected for a job as an Air Force medic, so after I completed basic training I went through technical school to learn the skills of a nurse assistant and EMT-Basic.

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