Authors: Mark L. Donald,Scott Mactavish
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I dedicate this book to my mom, who always seems to be able to make the hard right decisions. You are my inspiration in everything I do. I also dedicate this book to my wonderful wife and kids—you are the most precious to me. I would be lost without you. I love you all!
The people in this book are real. However, to avoid any inadvertent exposure of tactics, techniques, or procedures I purposely removed details or altered events utilizing open source information. I would like to add that this narration is solely derived from my memory. I purposely did this to avoid security concerns for teammates, colleagues, and friends. Furthermore, I condensed and occasionally avoided discussing specific periods of time, utilized pseudonyms, and interchanged repeating first names and similar nicknames in order to avoid confusing the reader as I covered nearly a quarter of a century of military service. For those who were with me, I apologize for the ambiguity and alterations. I hope it does not diminish the reader’s understanding of the friendship and mentoring you provided me. My intent was to deliver my story based on how I experienced it and in a manner that was both respectful and appreciative of what I have received during my lifetime. The views expressed in this book are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of special operations, military medicine, the Department of Defense, or veteran organizations mentioned within these pages. Thank you for understanding.
WHO I AM
In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.
Those who know me understand I never intended to write a book, but over the years of learning how to cope with combat stress, I realized how cathartic writing had become. What started as an adjunct to therapy became an incredible psychological release. However, as my notes turned into journals I discovered the writing was less about me and more about the individuals and events that shaped my life. I felt compelled to tell others dealing with similar demons what I had learned, but I shunned the idea of letting anyone read what I had written—not because of a lack of writing ability but more from a reluctance to expose personal aspects of my life that I have kept hidden from even my own wife. As you will find out, I am neither the all-American boy nor a conquering warrior. I am simply a man who held many titles over his military career; some I worked very hard to attain, while others were simply assignments. The most difficult and at times haunting label that I have had to contend with is “hero.”
I am not a hero, but I know many worthy of the title. I have had the distinct honor to serve among them for most of my career. I dedicated my life to preserving theirs. I trained with them for battle, bandaged them in combat, and listened to their revelations about life, everything from the birth of their first child to the burial of their closest friends. I am a man who worked hard to serve among the world’s most elite warriors. I am a sailor who to the detriment of his own family placed service for his country and teammates above all else. A medical officer who struggled to maintain an oath to preserve life through medicine while taking lives in the defense of his country. A veteran who still suffers from the mental scars of war but through the grace of God, the love of my wife, and the support of the families of the fallen learned how to deal with it before it destroyed me. I am a Navy SEAL who lived by a creed and did what was expected. I am a lot of things, but a hero is not one of them.
The awards I received represent the actions of a team, not the deeds of a single man. I know how each citation reads, and I am not trivializing what is written. The line between hero and fool is razor thin, and it was the actions of the team that allowed me the opportunity to do what was required. Had the others not provided cover, coordinated air support, or maneuvered on the enemy as I moved under fire I would be buried at Arlington right now, my legacy viewed much differently. Truth be told,
the team, are the reasons why I wear these medals, and I am honored to have received them on their behalf.
Until I wore the medals, I never understood their true significance. Our nation’s medals represent more than the actions of any team on a single day. They embody the principles upon which our government was founded and are a tangible depiction of our military’s core values: honor, courage, and commitment. The fact that the nation’s top three medals for valor require a multitude of evidence only demonstrates the reverence our country has for them. However, it is my personal belief that this same standard of inviolability has also prevented many of my brethren from receiving awards commensurate with their actions. These are the heroes of whom I speak: Americans who, when asked to face danger and adversity, continually answered the call, not for notoriety or distinction but solely out of their love for their country, family, and teammates. They are the quiet and often unknown professionals of special operations and the parents, wives, and children who support them. They are both whom I served and to whom I am forever indebted.
Out of respect of their privacy, to protect those who continue to carry the sword and for reasons of national security, many names, locations, dates, and circumstances have been changed or omitted. If you are reading this in an attempt to discover information about special operations, I recommend you look elsewhere. If you’re curious about the internal struggles of a combat medic, dedicated to saving lives but forced to take them, this book is for you.
GETTING UNDER WAY
I know well what I am fleeing from but not what I am in search of.
I grabbed my backpack and navigated through the boxes, clothes, and household items stored strategically throughout our home and bolted out the front door into the frigid dawn air of Albuquerque. Mom was waiting patiently in the car, listening to a local news station on the radio. I jumped in next to her, careful not to slip on the ice.
“Did you remember your report, Marky?”
“Yes, Mom,” I answered while rubbing the sleep from my eyes. It was five thirty in the morning; wrestling season was upon us, which meant early-morning practices. Like most teens my age, I would have preferred a warm bed until the last possible minute, but I was committed to the team and duty called. Mom was working three jobs per day back then and dropped me off on her way to the first.
As we drove in the dark, Mom passed the time by telling stories that morphed into life lessons, all with a common theme: Live for others, not for self. On that particular day, she shared a story about cleaning homes in rural Texas. She grew up in a poor but loving family, and everyone worked, including the kids. She started her first housecleaning job at age nine.
She wrapped up the anecdote just as we pulled into the diner parking lot, nearly wiping out a newspaper machine by the front entrance.
“Mom!” I gasped.
“What, mijo?” she asked, genuinely confused.
“You don’t need to park so close! One of these days you’re going to hit someone. I can walk the few extra steps to get inside.”
“No,” she quipped, “God will let them know I’m coming. Besides, I’m your mother and I can take you anywhere I want. Now, do you have enough money for your oatmeal?” She started digging in her purse.
“Yes, Mom, I have money for breakfast. I love you,” I said as I jumped out of the car.
“I love you, too,” she said in her motherly voice before tearing out of the parking lot, off to clean the home of a rich landowner. I smiled as she left, utterly amazed at her work ethic and love for family.
Vip’s Big Boy was a popular restaurant with a friendly staff that started each day well before dawn. I walked into the bright dining area and took a seat at the counter. It would be another hour before Coach opened the gym, so I made good use of my time by doing homework.
“Marky, how’s Mom?” Rosa asked from behind the counter as I plowed into an geometry book.
“She’s fine,” I responded while trying to focus on a particularly tricky geometric equation. Rosa always asked about Mom as she gathered up my breakfast. Everyone knew my mother, and it was impossible
to; she was extremely sociable and knew everyone that remotely touched our lives. Mom always had the ability to make people feel loved; she draws them to her like a magnet. Within minutes of meeting her she’d ask what she could do for you and, by the end of the conversation, offer a solution. If you were cold she’d put her jacket around you, even if you were a stranger. It didn’t matter that she would go without; she simply couldn’t allow others to suffer. She devoted her life to making other’s lives better, even at the sacrifice of her own. Rosa’s questions weren’t small talk; she and the others thought of her as their mom, too, and they looked after me like family.
The diner was like a second home during wrestling season. My family was dealing with serious financial hardships due to my father’s illness, and Mom worked three jobs in order to provide for my siblings and me. Mom’s first job started before dawn, an hour before wrestling practice, and the only way I could attend practice was to wait outside the school for an hour until it opened. She simply would not have that, so one Saturday morning she walked me into the diner and asked to speak with the owner. He, like everyone else, was immediately charmed by her humility and willingness to solve a family dilemma. He listened for a short time, then interrupted her by putting his arm around her 4' 11" frame and offered a solution. The arrangement was simple; he’d let me in the diner each morning and provide a meal for a nominal cost as the staff prepared the restaurant for business.