A Hard Day in Iraq

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I didn’t know Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Kordsmeier, you probably didn’t either, but as a combat photographer attached to the Bowie Brigade from the 1st Cavalry Division on the afternoon of April 24th, 2004, I watched his body torn to pieces as a final volley of shells fell to the ground of Camp Taji, Iraq.

I didn’t know Kordsmeier, but to this day, I keep a reminder of him with me nearly everywhere I go.

More than 10 years later, some of the memories from that day… from that 16 months… still play in my mind clear as a movie reel, some feel like I’m seeing them just below the water’s surface and others — I’m unsure how much memory is meshed with lore.

When the shells started, everyone made it safely to the bunkers. We were new, we really didn’t know what to expect — we were just waiting it out. For most of us, April 24th was our first experience with heavy shelling.

One minute of silence, then five, then ten…

Waiting, waiting, waiting. I emerged from the bunker and looked down along the line to see a few other intrepid souls doing the same. With a crack that will never leave me, 50 – 100 yards away from where I stood Kordsmeier, Capt. Arthur “Bo” Felder, Staff Sgt. Billy Orton, and Staff Sgt. Stacey Brandon were gone in a plume of dust and blood. Their final screams hit as hard as the shockwave.

If only we had stayed in the bunker until the all clear sirens had sounded … if only, if only, if only.

That was the first, the last and only time I ever moved before the all clear.

There was only that one final mortar round.

At the time, I didn’t know any of the guys and gals from the Arkansas brigade — that quickly changed. Fast forward from that day, many a fire-fight, night time raid and more mortar rounds than any of us can remember. We were bonded in ways none of us will ever forget.

I was with the brigade for twelve months. I did damn near every operation with them. I engaged with every unit so as to tell the soldier’s story.

In all of that, one man stood out for me – Andy de Kunffy. Andy was a major who was too damn smart to fit the regular staff officer positions so they put him in charge of the emerging information operations field. Andy and I shared a lot during those twelve months and we spent many nights playing spades or just shooting the breeze outside the hootch.

One night midway through my tour, Andy called me into his room.

“Ben, you’ve earned this.” he said as he placed an old, heavy coin into my hand.

“Thanks, sir.” I replied somewhat excitedly but also a little dumbfounded.

We have a tradition of challenge coins in the military. They’re usually highly ornate, shiny affairs bearing the unit insignia. This was not that. This coin was old, in my mind, very old – a little worn down, chipped, dull, no paint just the embossed patch of the brigade and the words “Courage” on the back.

“Pat gave this to me back when I was a young lieutenant and he was the brigade safety officer,” Andy said.

I looked at him quizzically … “Pat?”

“Chief Warrant Officer Kordsmeier,” Andy said solemnly, “I think you should have it now.”

The weight of Andy’s words and deed hit me and I fell back into the chair behind me.

“Thank you, sir,” I said, nearly speaking the words under my breath.

Through the next six months, our work continued in the same intensity.  

In the end, the Bowie Brigade bestowed upon me the bronze star.

Whilst the distinction of Bronze Star was far beyond my expectations, Andy giving me Pat’s coin is the acknowledgement I cherish the most. The one for which my scars of battle match the weight.

We talk a lot about the invisible wounds of war, of PTSD, TBI and other very real issues facing Veterans when they come home. But sometimes what’s left is more of a scar than an active wound.

Pat Kordsmeier’s fate that day and my time with the rest of his brigade are memories I’ll never let go of, though more often than not, I don’t talk about that time in my life nor the scars that remain.

When any of us Veterans do want to talk, we need someone to hear us. Not to judge, not to question, just hear us. That can be a difficult task, especially if you are not prepared for what you’re walking into.

These experiences have come to make me appreciate what PsychArmor does – provides the educational tools to make this task a little bit easier. Courses such as “Trauma Informed Interaction with a Veteran” or Communications Skills with Veterans” give those Americans without a military background the resources they need to have a deeper connection with the Veteran in their world. Especially at those moments when that Veteran needs it the most.

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