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A crisis of courage

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Christopher Gonzales, 436th Medical Support Squadron commander

Do you think you have what it takes to perform your job under the most stressful conditions imaginable? Would you be able to turn a wrench, take care of your patient or return fire and defend the base while being directly engaged by the enemy?

Most of us don’t really know until we are put into that situation.

Before transferring into the Air Force, I served in the Army as an armor officer in an armored cavalry squadron. As a part of the lead element in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I was a scout platoon leader in charge of 31 men and six Bradley Fighting Vehicles. During my wartime experience, I have seen men who were dynamic leaders in exercises wilt under the responsibilities of combat, and I have seen others step up to the challenge and excel when it mattered most. While we were staged in Kuwait prior to facing the enemy, I was able to witness both extremes of courage.

One evening, a shot rang out.

The defense force scrambled over to find one of my troops had a bullet wound in his lower leg. After searching the area for enemies, it was determined my Soldier had self-inflicted the wound and lied about the source of the injury – presumably to avoid the upcoming combat. He was evacuated home quickly, and I was later informed of his discharge. 

I am sure when he made that decision, he wasn’t thinking about his team, but his actions had an impact on the entire platoon. He was trained as part of a vehicle crew, and his absence decertified his vehicle. This put our ability to operate as a team at risk, making leadership accept the risk to continue to utilize that vehicle for the upcoming mission.  

Thankfully, I also had the opportunity to witness the opposite end of the courage spectrum a few weeks later. I was in the tent, going over maps and preparing for our upcoming assault, when I was interrupted by a frantic call from one of my troops. They yelled that there had been an accident during night drivers training and that I needed to come quickly.

I arrived at the aid tent to find one of the newest platoon members – pale, covered in blood and clutching his hand. The hatch of his vehicle, bearing the burden of the heavy night vision device he was training on, had slammed closed on his hand, severing the first joint of one of his fingers.

I still get choked up thinking about what he said to me at that moment:

“Please, sir, don’t go to war without me. I don’t want my team to go without me.”

Here was a young man who had just suffered what was probably the worst injury he had ever experienced, and his only thought was about not letting his team down. We crossed the border into Iraq two weeks later, and that soldier accompanied us as we headed to secure the bridges near Baghdad.

My time in Kuwait exposes the heart of what I believe sets apart the two ends of this courage spectrum. War is scary business, and as we train for whatever our next fight entails, we need to be prepared. The biggest differentiator between those who bravely persevered and those who struggled was faith in their team. Those Soldiers who had created that bond of loyalty and trust with their teammates made the tough calls – not for themselves, but for their buddies they fought beside to accomplish the mission.

So I will leave you with this:

What are you doing to prepare for your moment? Will your team have what it takes to persevere when courage is tested?