FEAR: Combat and Climbing

I spent fifteen months in the Al Dora district of Baghdad, Iraq in 2006 and 2007. For those who don’t know what was happening there at the time let me give you a quick overview. The infamous battle for Ramadi  happened in the middle of 2006, Sader city was a major hot spot, and the Sunni and Shiite extremest groups were fighting for leverage in Baghdad. When we arrived in October/ November of 2006 the sectarian violence was still increasing and the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) was advancing.

The first time I really truly felt fear on that deployment was about two months in on December 28, 2006. Three days prior, on Christmas day, Baker Co 2/12 had its first casualty. Sgt. Jae Sik Moon was killed in action by and Explosively Formed Projectile (EFP) and advanced from of an IED. Shattered at the loss of one of our own we did what many before and many after us have done, we continued mission; we stuffed our emotions deep into our pockets, and pulled our stone cold masks back down as to not let the enemy see what they had just done. The mission on the 28th was easy, drive to the Iraqi Police (IP) compound, run them through a PT session (if you haven’t witnessed the hilarity of that click HERE for an idea), give them some weapons training and plan for a joint patrol. Simple. Just like the last few weeks. This biggest thing that was different that day was we had to alter our route to the IP station due to the road being closed after the EFP killed Sgt. Moon.

We would continue as our normal route but then cut through the Mahalla (neighborhood) to reach the main route to the IP station. We turned into the checkpoint and started driving north on 60th st, one of the most dangerous streets in our area of operations. as we continued driving people started fleeing the area, bad sign, so we paused and planned out our next move. We decided to continue north on 60th st but to be extra vigilant for a possible attack. I don’t recall much of what happened but what I do remember is shear terror. I remember feeling the concussive force lift me from the webbing of my gunner seat, the feeling of my face hitting the back of the machine gun mounted in the turret. I remember pulling myself up off the floor of the HUMVEE, the ringing in the ear, the yelling at everyone in the truck to see if we were alright. It was a few tense moments regaining my surroundings and attempting to pull security before we were hooked up to another truck to be dragged north to the next checkpoint. We started going again, made two turns then all hell broke loose. A complex ambush, multiple people with AK-47’s and light machine guns. Thankfully a scout/sniper team eliminated the threat of a PKM and RPG in route to our position.

My Truck after an IED exploded under the engine.

The medic made his way to the truck I was in (I don’t remember if I was moved to another truck or not) and as soon as he closed the front passenger door the mirror shattered from a burst hitting it. That moment right there, that instance of seeing the medic make it into the truck narrowly avoiding being shot that’s when the fear finally hit me. The firefight didn’t last longer than ten minutes, honestly it was probably closer to five (time seems to slow down and the seconds last forever in situations like that) and then it was over.  I spent the next three days recovering before I went back to the US for my mid-tour “Rest and Relaxation” leave.

I was terrified to return to Iraq, I could not wrap my head around going back to a place where I was just targeted and barely avoided death. The first day back on patrol the truck I was in got hit. The timing was off and the explosion hit the right rear tire no big deal. Ssg Platt turned around and said “See Hunter not everyone is going to get you.” That helped with controlling the fear and I was able to suppress it for most of the rest of the deployment but it never went away, its always there pecking away.

View looking down at where the engine use to be.

I haven’t felt as afraid as I have that day but a few weeks ago it was close. I went with two friends to climb the New England classic alpine climb the Whitney-Gilman Ridge on Cannon Cliff. It was a beautiful day and the first few pitches were going great. It was a nice mental challenge dealing with route finding, loose rock, and climbing up to beautiful belay ledges. It wasn’t until the infamous “pipe pitch” that my old friend fear would creep up on me. Now I’ve been afraid climbing plenty of times before this but this, this felt like the fear I felt in Iraq some ten years ago. I made the first moves up and around to the little niche where the pipe is placed, stood up reaching a good hold and the moment I started looking for my feet It hit. I looked down past my feet and straight down about three hundred feet to the ground. I stood there in a panic, pumping myself up, “come on AJ you can do this. It’s only 5.7, don’t worry about the ground you’re not going to fall.” I go to make the move, fumble around and step back down. “FUCK!!!” I start pounding my fist into the rock upset at myself for letting the fear take over again. I gather myself and try again. I step up reaching a good hold, clip the pin then I look for my feet and again fear overwhelms me, I step back down and try to compose myself. After a few minutes of no progress I decided to “French Free” my way through that section for sake of time. I get to the next belay ledge, anchor myself into the cliff and let it out. I didn’t cry for long as we still had more climbing but in that moment I was crying not just for that pitch but for the times I couldn’t when I was deployed, I was allowing that fear to move through me. It was refreshing, like I had been needing that. We finished the climb without any issue, took some time at the top then began the decent back to the car to end the day.

Looking up the talus at the Whitney Gilman Ridge. Photo alexandraroberts.com

Since that climb I’m starting to understand how I handle fear more and leaning how to push through that fear. Pushing through the fear that arises in climbing has also allowed me to push through the fear that I have about reliving some of those combat experiences. How we compose ourselves on the climb, just like in combat, determines how easily we succumb to fear. TITS (Time in Terrain Safely), an old Army acronym I was reminded of recently shows how we hardened ourselves against that fear in combat. We trained in as real of conditions as possible before we deployed. Through the deployment, that constant exposure to the unknown, that made us resilient and made the day seem routine. Thus is the same with climbing, the more time I can spend in that terrain the more comfortable it will feel. The more I train the more confidence I will have in my body in those extreme climbs, and in training the body comes strengthening the mind. Pushing myself in a controlled environment, to optimize my performance and increase my resilience to fear.

The “Pipe” pitch with the floor of the black dike looming beneath. Photo alexandraroberts.com

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune


Thank you Jon (keyandkitestring.com) for making a fantastic edit of the experience.

Ryan (ailero.co) thank you for the continued support and making such a great product.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Great essay. I’m reminded of…
    F…False
    E…Evidence
    A…Appearing
    R…Real

  2. Awesome Buddy. Everyone has a story. I glad to hear yours. Next pitch is yours to Crushhh ! Peace & Love Man.

  3. Good to see the process of healing taking hold, it is no small task and will constantly require appropriate attention. Climbing is by far a beautiful choice in terms of the cooperation with gear and all psychology involved with the phases that fear can hit us

  4. I am absolutely overwhelmed Nephew at what I just read. I’m very proud of you

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