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

In October, we received notice that my one-year deployment would end in March of 2007. Headquarters sent down a request to see if anybody wanted to do six-month extensions. I put in a request to stay an additional year. I was initially going to be an advisor again.

In February 2007, one month shy of completing my first year, we came under attack by Katyusha rockets, 12-foot-long rockets. I was walking with my Iraqi counterpart. I heard a whistle. You always hear a lot of explosions and gunfire, so a whistle didn't faze me. Then I heard a big boom and I was unconscious. One of them landed [long pause] 20 meters from me. I took the brunt of the blast, my body was blown to the ground. I was medevaced out, I didn't know what was going on. I woke up in the hospital in Baghdad City, in the Green Zone . . . I was at the combat hospital. I was given morphine for the pain. I was in a hospital bed. I was in tremendous pain. The next day I was flown to Balad air base in northern Iraq, stabilized, and then I was . . . told that I would be transferred to Landstuhl, Germany.

In Balad, there were American soldiers missing arms, missing legs, unconscious. They didn't know what was going on. I felt . . . looked in the mirror and saw I had everything. I felt it [would be] a dishonor to be on the same plane as them. I requested from the medical staff not to go to Landstuhl. They said the only way that you can be released is if we get clearance from a medical officer, so they scheduled me to see a psychologist, to talk about my mental stability, and talk about my background and what I was doing in Iraq. I was hurt, but I wanted to continue the mission. A psychologist wrote a recommendation after the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation that I was impaired and could endanger myself or others in combat, but that it would be possible to stay in Iraq on a modified duty. I headed back to Baghdad. My commanding officer was astounded when I came back. He said, "You should have gone to Landstuhl." I said, "Sir, I can still do my job."

Van Thach being welcomed in Kandahar City, Afghanistan, in February 2013
Courtesy Captain James Van Thach
Van Thach being welcomed in Kandahar City, Afghanistan, in February 2013

I was hyper-vigilant about what was going on around me. Every single noise, I'd be jumping, looking around me to make sure it wasn't another attack. I was having problems sleeping, having nightmares of those two attacks. I was also having neck pain, back pain, mild headaches, blurred vision. I knew if I complained I could be sent back to the States. So I kept it under wraps. I took some painkillers to mitigate the pain, and I drived [sic] on with the mission.

They assigned me to headquarters at Iraq Assistance Group as the S4 Supplies and Services Officer in Charge. And because of my contract-law background, I was tasked to coordinate and build a base in eastern Iraq called Combat Outpost Shocker. Where the Iraqi border patrol was facing Iran, it wasn't defended properly and couldn't stop the smuggling of weapons and Iranian Revolutionary Guard agents. I was able to write up a statement of work, and coordinate with engineers. I brought in several Iraqi contractors, and awarded one the contract. The base that I built was a premier base. It had dining facilities, housing units for the soldiers, offices, a helicopter landing pad, generators, a motor pool.

I coordinated everything from Baghdad. But at the end, when the base was built, I requested from my commander if I could go out to the base by helicopter and visit it. He said it was OK, as long as I traveled with somebody. So I traveled with our chaplain.

The base was one of the great accomplishments of my stay in Iraq.

In April of 2008, it was time to return to Fort Benning, Georgia. The first week, I was having a lot of nightmares [about the attacks in] June 2006, February 2007. I was in tremendous pain. When you're in a [military] convoy, civilian vehicles are not allowed next to you, so I was very hyper­-vigilant, especially when I went off the base, dealing with vehicles next to me. With the migraine headaches I had problems seeing. Finally, after a month and a half, I went into the hospital. I stayed for two months. I wasn't able to do my infantry job anymore. My doctor decided that I should be medical-boarded out of the military. I was officially retired in March 2009. It was a crushing experience.

My wife at the time did not agree with my commitment to the Army. It was too long, and too much pressure on her. We decided to get divorced. That was very troubling. I was very dependent on my mother and my father to assist me. I was a 33-year-old man, but now I had to use a cane. I had difficulty putting on my socks because of my neck and back, difficulty sleeping, had to be driven to the hospital for my medical treatments.

I lost my sense of independence. So it was very . . . it was very, very . . . I lost my sense of manhood and I became very depressed. Some days I wouldn't take my medication, I would leave the house with my walker or cane and just go on the subways, sitting on empty cars, reminiscing on what my life had become. I contemplated suicide, maybe jumping in a subway station, in front of a subway train. Living on the train, not returning home. A few days became a few weeks. I wanted to jump in front of a train. I decided to go to the Manhattan VA Hospital. It was the holiday season in 2009. I ended up in the hospital again in June of 2010 for a month, again for the holiday season 2010—because of the depression on the holidays, thinking of the men I lost in the war, that weren't there with their families, but I was here.

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