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
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 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.

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."

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.

My father knew that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—he does, too. He was a World War II veteran, a Korean War veteran, and a Vietnam War veteran. He advised me to go out to Northport [Veterans Administration].

Having somebody who wanted to be there with me was [another] major factor. Since my divorce was finalized, I had started to be romantically linked with my best friend's wife's friend in e-mail. She was in Vietnam. I took a one-month vacation in Vietnam. I petitioned a K-1 visa, a fiancée visa, and I brought her to the United States in 2010. I needed somebody I could open my heart to. I had to find a counterpart.

The third thing that helped me was a service dog that I received free of charge from Canine Companions for Independence, through their Wounded Veterans Initiative program. Instead of always asking my wife, my mom, "Oh, I dropped my medication bottle, my keys, my socks—can you pick it up for me?" my service dog, Liz, can pick up items on command. Her compassion for me, her being next to me, has helped me emotionally.

•••

As part of Operation Proper Exit, a nonprofit

that works to treat PTSD by bringing wounded veterans back to the war zone, Captain Van Thach spent seven days in Afghanistan in February of 2013.

We flew business class from D.C. to Kuwait. We transitioned into our uniforms, and flew by military plane to Afghanistan. I was there for one week. I, along with eight other wounded veterans, traveled to several bases and attended town-hall meetings, with over 1,500 U.S. troops. We talked about how we were injured, how we have been treated, how we are persevering.

My psychological scars—nightmares, anxiety attacks, the hyper-vigilance—I wanted to face those fears. Worrying about that . . . that rocket flying into a base. Worrying about being shot at. We were traveling in convoys, we were traveling in the traffic of everyday life and at . . . at any time a suicide bomber could have came [sic] in a taxi or somebody could have came [sic] on a motorcycle with explosives or on a bike with explosives, and I had to keep my eyes open to face those fears. I had my cane, and I was walking through the base during the day and night to take on those fears.

Right now I'm taking 20 pills a day. I'd been on sleeping medication for over five years. After the fifth day, I did not have to take my sleeping pills. Since coming back to the United States, I did see my psychiatrist and I mentioned that to her, and she was very happy for me.

I cannot bend over. I have high anxieties. I have nightmares. The bomb blast contorted my spine. I have to use a cane to walk. If it's longer than two blocks, I use a walker. If the pain is tremendous, I use a wheelchair.

But our injuries don't define us. It was a tremendous experience going to the war zone with those eight other wounded veterans. We want to serve as an inspiration to our fellow Americans and an asset to our country. I feel very honored that I had the opportunity to serve, especially during war. Many men and women have paid the supreme sacrifice. I'm very fortunate that I still have my life. Living through history to serve our nation and protect our citizens has made me a more compassionate person. I plan [on] taking the New York State bar exam, to work for veterans pro bono.

I'm working on my short-term and long-term memory. I'm taking the proper medication, but nothing can be fixed overnight, or in a week, or in a year. A lot of injuries are lifelong, so I have to be realistic. I have to accept it. But I have to make my life as comfortable as I can.

•••

Jonathan Wei is the founder and director of The Telling Project (thetellingproject.org).

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2 comments
rewiredhogdog
rewiredhogdog

Wow, what an intense experience he's been through, and I wish him well in the recovery. I served as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, so this profile brings back a lot of memories.

brchdsn
brchdsn

We are very proud of you and Thank you for your service.  Welcome Home.

 
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