The Pain Deep Inside
Bob Herbert, New York Times, August 8, 2005
Specialist Craig Peter Olander Jr. has the look of a mischievous kid, except that his eyes sometimes telegraph that they’ve seen too much. And there’s a weariness that tends to slip into his voice that seems unusual for someone just 21 years old. Killing can do that to a person.
Specialist Olander was a teenager from Waynesburg, Ohio, population 1,000, when he joined the Army in 2003. “It was very appealing,” he said. “The benefits. College. And it was something I’d always wanted to do since I was a small boy – be in the Army.”
He had mixed feelings about going to Iraq, but he wasn’t particularly upset. He didn’t dwell on the possibility of getting killed or wounded. And he gave no thought at all to the spiritual or psychological toll that combat can take. “I was very confident in my training and I was very religious,” he said. “I’d always read Bible stories as a child and I believed the Lord would look over me and his will would be done.”
He went to Iraq in early 2004 and quickly learned that nothing – not his military training, not the Bible, nothing – had adequately prepared him for the experience. By the time he returned several months later, he said, the trauma he had encountered in Iraq had reached deep inside him. There was both fear and the hint of a plea in his voice as he told me, with surprising candor, that he believed the things he’d had to do in Iraq might jeopardize the salvation of his soul.
“Our base was Camp Victory in Baghdad,” he said. “We did raids, convoys, security, patrols – numerous, numerous things.”
The first time he was wounded was in the spring. He suffered a severe concussion and a sprained back when insurgents attacked his convoy with an antitank weapon. The headaches that ensued were all but unbearable. He was wounded again the following August.
“I was driving the Humvee that day,” he said. “The usual driver wasn’t sure of the area, so we switched. He was a new fellow and he was up on the gun.”
When insurgents attacked the unit with rocket-propelled grenades, Specialist Olander tried to maneuver the Humvee to safety. As he was turning, an explosion sent the vehicle into a roll.
“I stayed conscious,” he said. “As soon as the vehicle stopped rolling, I hopped out and I heard my sergeant hollering on the radio that we were hit. So I knew he was O.K. So I immediately went to the gunner, who was pinned under the Humvee. He was still alive at that point but he lost consciousness very quickly because the weight had stopped him from being able to breathe.
“We jacked the vehicle up. And right around that time, I’d say, once we got the vehicle off of him, unfortunately, he passed away.”
Specialist Olander said he reached for a machine gun as the insurgents continued to fire with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. “We engaged numerous individuals and killed them,” he said.
When I asked if he knew how many insurgents he personally had killed, he said, “Three, for sure.”
Specialist Olander sustained a number of injuries, including another concussion. “And my face was messed up pretty good,” he said. But his major problems then and now, as he readily acknowledges, “are emotional and psychological.”
He is filled with guilt. Several of his friends have been killed, and he thinks he could have done something to save the gunner who died. “I felt it may have been my fault that it happened,” he said. “Maybe I could have handled the situation differently.”
He is also filled with turbulent emotions related to the insurgents that he killed. “I had no hesitation about pulling the trigger,” he said. “But the aftermath is what hurt. Before I joined the military, I valued life very much, so taking it was hard. It’s confusing trying to figure it out, you know, because sometimes I feel rage toward them.
“But then it becomes a very religious thing, because I wonder, you know, since I’ve taken these lives, if I’m going to be accepted into heaven. You know, have I done the right thing?”
Specialist Olander is being treated for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. He expects to head back to Waynesburg in a few weeks, where he’ll stay for a while in a trailer that sits in a campground “out in the middle of nowhere.”