The Many Sacrifices of Captain Van Thach

Trained as a lawyer, he joined the infantry after 9/11 to "engage the enemy face to face." As told to Jonathan Wei

I went into the Army Reserves in 1994, my freshman year at St. John's University. First summer after freshman year, I [was] awarded a three-year Army ROTC scholarship. My initial commitment was four years active duty, and another four years, reserves. Six months prior to my graduation and my commission, I requested an educational delay to attend law school. The first law school I went to was in Lansing, Michigan, but I wanted to be at home to support my mother and especially my father, because he was older. I transferred to Touro Law Center in Central Islip.

I had a feeling of selfless service, but what changed me, very specifically, during my law school career, was September 11th. I was . . . I was at home studying for my classes, and I decided to take a break. I was watching the television when the first tower was hit. I continued to watch, and the second plane hit. As information came out that this was a terrorist attack, I decided that I was not going to pursue a legal career in the military. I wanted to make a higher sacrifice. Even though I had a very high [level of] education and a legal career, I decided that once I graduated law school, I was going to join the infantry in the U.S. Army—which are land-based soldiers, soldiers who are walking, using Humvee vehicles and other land-based vehicles—and engage the enemy face to face. I wanted to honor the innocent people, law enforcement, first responders, and the military personnel that perished.

My dad was infantry during . . . during Korea and Vietnam, and he knew the dangers, the despair of losing men, having to kill enemy combatants, seeing innocent civilians killed. He felt that I should be a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General's Corps. My mother, also. Like any parents, they wanted their child to be safe.

Van Thach and his service dog, Liz, on May 3, near his home in Bellerose Manor, Queens.
Caleb Ferguson
Van Thach and his service dog, Liz, on May 3, near his home in Bellerose Manor, Queens.
Van Thach with General David Petraeus in Baghdad, March 2008
Courtesy Captain James Van Thach
Van Thach with General David Petraeus in Baghdad, March 2008

I told them, "Don't worry. Just pray for me and I'll be fine."

I was selected to go to the Infantry Training Brigade. [It] takes incoming soldiers, puts them through Basic Training, Advanced Infantry Training, then sends them to their units. That's not what I wanted, but I was patient. After two years, I requested either Iraq or Afghanistan. In January of 2006, a request came down for military advisors. I volunteered. On March 1st, 2006, I was in Iraq as a military advisor to the Iraqi Army.

I served at Forward Operating Base Constitution in Baghdad, near Abu Ghraib. I didn't work at Abu Ghraib prison. Our team was made up of up to 12 advisors; you're living, sleeping, eating, and drinking with your Iraqi counterpart, your liaison officer who you're advising. I would advise on training on firing ranges, map-reading for the soldiers, urban warfare, raids, using vehicles, how to drive in convoys. We ensured that the Iraqi military was technically and tactically competent to provide security for their country for . . . for domestic enemies . . . and also foreign enemies.

We'd raid a building that was housing terrorists or weapons, or had hostages. My counterpart would command his troops and I would be following him. If there was an IED found, he would use his soldiers to cordon off the area, and [I would] coordinate with Explosive Ordnance Disposal. We also conducted humanitarian operations at schools or mosques, our medical officers and medics providing first aid for eye infections, ear infections, maybe dental care. We would drop off school supplies, desks, markers, pens. In the winter, it gets as cold as New York, so we would have winter-coat and blanket drop-offs.

My Iraqi counterpart and I would have dinner together. I would stay over, watching television, getting to know his family, telling him about my family. Some of the soldiers who served underneath the battalion I advised were killed, so I went to funerals, as well. I'm putting my life in his hands; he's putting his life in my hands.

In June 2006, I was in my Humvee. On a dirt road, my vehicle ran over an IED. The IED exploded and pushed our vehicle up in the air at least six feet, but we came down on all four wheels. Smoke was all around. [Long pause.] There was dirt all around. I immediately felt my driver—his arms, legs, and face. "Sergeant, you OK? You OK?" He said, "Everything's fine. Just shaken up." I then started feeling the legs of my gunner. He's OK. I'm scanning, looking around to see anybody running away. I turned around to my interpreter. "Are you OK? Are you OK?" "Yes, yes, I'm OK." I got on the radio, I went on high . . . I went on high headquarters. I told high headquarters what had happened. We were in pain, but being infantry soldiers, we went on with the mission. I was in an up-armored Humvee, so it could take a heavy hit.

When I talked to the medic I told him that I had a headache, a little bit of nausea. He gave me some aspirin, told me to get some rest. Eventually, the pain got too excruciating and I did go to an American base next door to the medic station. I suffered a mild traumatic brain injury.* I had a neck injury, and injury to my spine, to my back, to one of my C-spine areas. I got some physical therapy for my neck and my back and some medication for the pain. In 2006, traumatic brain injuries weren't widely known.

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