COL Jim Gardon, Army, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom
When the war in Afghanistan started, Colonel Jim Gardon had one of the most important responsibilities in the land. He was tasked with re-building the University of Kabul's Medical Library, a building the Taliban had torched due to it's "anti-Islamic" medical books. He worked hand-in-hand with the most powerful woman in Afghanistan at the time, Dr. Siddiqui. Jim is one of the most intelligent men I've ever met, and incredibly caring. When you first meet him you can tell he was an upper-echelon guy. He has that commanding presence that almost makes you feel like you should salute every time you see him. Yet, when you sit down and talk with him you get a very different feeling. You can feel his pain when he talks about helping a country where the task was never fully accomplished. You can see the hurt that comes with knowing a lot of what he got done will be undone in the coming years. He's a man that truly cares about the men he commanded and the missions he was tasked with. His kindness is evident in every word he speaks, but you can tell he doesn't put up with BS. That's what made him a great commander. Jim Gardon is one of those men you could sit and listen to for hours, while he regales you with tales of a land that once had a chance at being something incredible. Afghanistan was once a beautiful country with a real chance at democracy. Several wars later, constantly battling factions, and economic turbulence left a shell of a formerly budding nation. Yet Jim's career in the Army didn't start with a guy that wanted a career in the Army. He'd served a short jail term for disorderly conduct and had another charge hanging over his head, when he was allowed to enter the Army as a substitute for more jail time. Like most of my veterans, Jim does NOT pull any punches and that's one of my favorite things about this interview. I'll let Jim tell you about his part.
Talk a little bit about that first deployment of Afghanistan and what your mission was. What was that time in Afghanistan like?
JG: Our mission within the coalition was the Public Health Team. We had the responsibility for assisting the Ministries of Health and Agriculture. By CENTCOM request, I was filling the required slot I held in my unit, 67H, Medical Service Corps/Medical Operations Officer, Deputy Director of the Team. My actual area of concentration is Army Nurse Corps, and with the acknowledgement of my CG (Commanding General), the acting doctor for the 200 personnel assigned to the HQ in Kabul, which later in its history would become Camp Eggers. My Director, Col/Dr./DDS Robert “Bob” Frame and I would work closely with Dr. Siddiqui, at the time, the most powerful woman in Afghanistan.
In 2002 getting around the city, even the country was easy, safer than most inner cities in America. It was like being a tourist almost. I guess we were basking in the glory (not earned, I assure you) of the Special Ops folks who, with the Northern Alliance, ran the Taliban out of Kabul/Afghanistan just weeks/months before we got there. That, and a five year drought ended just as American troops entered Kabul is a pretty powerful “message from Allah” our presence is a part of his divine order of things. We were able to go just about anywhere north of Jalalabad in rented Toyota Pajeros we got from Pakistan, as long as there were at least 3 armed, preferable 4 people going. Hell not only did we go to Bagram Airbase, various Ministry buildings and ISAF compounds, hospitals and the university but to rug merchants, antique shops, restaurants all sorts of business. You could have a suit custom made for $20 US.
Can you explain the complications of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Explain why the battle against terrorism is so complicated from your personal viewpoint.
JG: We did not "defend" what we "won" in Afghanistan in 2002. The Special Ops folks and Northern Alliance, along with a brutal air campaign beat the Taliban into submission and sent them into the mountains of Pakistan. We put in less than a Division of troops in all of 2003, 10,400, according to one Congressional Report. We left it to ISAF to "defend" Afghanistan. Even when the British were in command they didn’t have the guts, let alone the fabled (ended up that’s all it was, a fable) ‘stiff upper lip’ to do any amount of actual fighting to keep anything worthwhile. If it wasn’t actually in one of the major cities, they weren’t even there.
I was in Herat, a small city on the western frontier about 60 kilometers from Iran. There the local actually say they speak Persian. Anyway, in 2002 the local Warlord held sway, along with a Special Forces Alpha Detachment, whose mission was, along with protection of the US consulate in the city, was to protect my 6-man assistance team there. No ISAF, no other US forces, nada. It wasn’t until 2006 we finally had 20,400 when we could probably do something, but the air assets were tied up in Iraq, and the ‘surge’ was gearing up. Besides, nothing less than “total war” was required by then to dislodge the Taliban.
Iraq, a different story, President Bush’s greatest out and out blunder and the his disastrous folly of letting the State Department try to run a war and write rules of engagement, or at least have a say so in their development.
I was involved in the invasion plans as early as July 2002, from the strategic side of the house. I was against the invasion of Iraq from the start. That said, I did my very best, put in long hours, got very little sleep, took no time off and put my heart and soul into every staff meeting, project, plan, SOP and OPORD, FRAGO, Email, phone call and pot of coffee I made in the effort to make sure that not one more drop of blood was spilled then necessary in order to pull off the most egregious, arrogant excuse for national defense policy ever perpetrated on the American public, hopefully, ever. And what a cluster-fuck it was. It lives and breathes to this day. Spawn from it, ISIS, who attacked Paris last year, Belgium a few days ago, God knows where tomorrow. Thank you, George, thank you, Donald (Rumsfeld).
Bush’s and Obama’s failure to obtain/force a status of forces agreement with (or ON Iraq, as I prefer) that caused us to withdraw combat forces from Iraq prematurely was like, well doing the same in a wet dream, resulting in, how shall we say, "unsatisfactory consequences."
So, again, we left too soon, bad guys crept back in and chaos ensued. ISIS was born and is rampant as unemployed and disenchanted Muslim youth and young men are given dreams and hopes of grand and glorious futures and afterlife with 72 virgins, but say, if they live, they stay in the battle oddly enough (or not, really) for the same reasons our combat vets stay in the line, for each other. Except they don’t have a deployment date out of country. They stay until hurt bad enough to become combat-ineffective, or die.
What was your most memorable moment in any deployment as far as feeling like you made a difference?
JG: The joy of watching my medical book donation project reaching the medical students at the University of Kabul. The Taliban had burned any book showing any exposed body part, especially female, in the medical school library. Makes teaching anatomy, and medical school in general difficult at best, especially since cadavers were especially a no-no to the Taliban, although readily available for the same reason; the Taliban!
The idea came to me one night while on the internet. I’d have university libraries and individuals in the U.S. (and abroad, as the project went international) comb their shelves for medical books and periodicals they could send via my APO to me and I would forward them to the University of Kabul (later Jalalabad as well) to restock their shelves. I expanded that to include a local nursing school as well. In the 5 month I was still in country and running the project personally I obtained over 15,000 publications, an estimated $250,000 dollars of medical equipment, uniforms, scrubs, blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, and other medical supplies from donors across the U.S. and the world.
We live in a great country that can rise to the occasion when it wants to.
**Susan B. Yox, Director, Editorial Content, Medscape Nurses; This woman was the Redbull to my book project, she gave it WINGS. She published my request in Medscape Online. It's the number one online resource then and now for expert competent medical research and advice on the internet. In exchange, all she asked for was for me to do 3-4 telephone/internet interviews with one of her nurse-contributors to the nursing side of Medscape for a view of nursing in a war zone. She’s my hero behind the scene in this. I just answered a lot of emails, gave them addresses, dodged the postal clerks in Bagram, bribed them frequently, moved literally tons of boxes and got the supply guys to get me a contract truck driver to move the boxes once, then twice, then week.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Click on the link below to see what Jim's effort entailed. Four articles with Colonel Gardon's name will be in the listings. http://goo.gl/Tt4eU1
Do you feel stigmatized or at all detached from society when you came back? Talk a little bit about what that's like.
JG: I STILL feel detached. I probably always will. I’m okay with it too. They (civilians) don’t know the price their military pays for the freedom to lay their heads down and sleep and not fear an attack from a foreign invader. That’s fine, we have already paid that tab, and some of our brothers and sisters paid the full price. They don’t ever dream about them, some of us can’t go a day without thinking about them. My Dad will be 93 in a few weeks. He still talks about the men he lost in the South Pacific 70+ years ago.
Can you talk about why you were medically retired and what that was like for you?
JG: I was medically retired as a result of PTSD and depression. I don’t remember much about those 3 years in the Warrior Transition Battalion to tell you the truth. How much was the multiple drug therapies they were trying, or the depression or the “brain fog” reportedly a symptom of TBI and PTSD. I don’t know. I just know that it’s crippling and leaves you feeling useless. I felt like I was in a tunnel and then suddenly the light at the end of the tunnel, well, it went out.
I think this is the point when too many of our returning veterans make that decision. Suicide becomes an option, a permanent solution to an intolerable however temporary situation. I was there, I know. It was embarrassing to talk about, even harder to write down, I wish this were anonymous, I really do. But I have to write this down so someone may see this and do the right thing. Get help! I got help and I am here today by the grace of God. I haven’t cried about this in a long time, because I haven’t thought about this, I chose not to think about this, for a long time. So I sit here, with tears in my eyes. They are only partly for myself, for what I might of done, but mostly for those that did complete their plan, those they left behind, and especially those that did today or will tomorrow, make that decision. Please ask for help.
What was the most frightening moment for you on any of your deployments?
JG: The first time into Afghanistan, 2002. I was on an unscheduled (earthquakes don’t have schedules) humanitarian mission in Baghlan Province, Nahrin District after a 6.0 Magnitude quake March 23, 2002. After a rather successful 4-day mission where we received 91 tons of various relief supplies (a story onto itself) all delivered by CH-47’s. One of the lifts was 300 duffle bags of cold weather gear. Now, this was to be distributed to the people of the area, but reality was probably going to the local warlord who would not grant us a meeting. However, the Mujahideen (Islamic guerrilla fighter), allegedly still part of our “Northern Alliance” were sniffing around and my ‘boss’ COL Robert Frame, had given them parkas found in some of the duffle bags. One of the Muj (Mujahideen) shows up to get a parka, and I oblige. Several minutes goes by, another, and then another. I’m about ready to climb into my sleeping bag when another shows up. I put my boots back on, stumble over to the duffle bag row. To top it off many have the short version of the parka, an Ike (Eisenhower) version. I finally took one of those to the Muj. In Pashtun (in that part of Afghanistan it at best was a second language if he knew it at all) I told him that was it, no more, and ‘tossed’ the jacket to him, about 10 feet away! He threw the jacket back at me, yelling something, probably in Tajik, Uzbek or Korean for all I know but my attention was drawn to his AK-47, which he was increasingly grabbing with his right hand and shaking, as we tossed the jacket back and forth several times. The tossing stopped instantly when he raised his AK to his shoulder and pointed right at my head. My response was instantaneous, and my 9MM was locked and cocked and aimed right at his (head.) So, there I was (as they say) about (now) 20 feet from instant death, one pissed off Muj, a kid really, but one who no doubt has seen a whole lot more of up close and personal death and war than an ER nurse and Desert Storm Vet has. Why he didn’t just pull the trigger I’ll never know.
Still, today, I’m not sure why I didn’t pull my trigger. I had a round in the chamber, off safe, finger on the trigger, hammer back. I raised my non-shooting hand, index finger pointing upward, and lowered the end of my 9MM a bit, still only pointing it to about his mid-chest, than back to his head. I repeated this slowly three times, and then with my left hand palm up and shoulders hunched in a “so what?” sort of gesture cocked my head, repeated the movements. Then I took the biggest chance of my life, THE scariest moment of my life. I said a quick prayer/confession to my Savior, and holstered my 9MM. I stared at the Muj, he stared right back, probably thinking he was looking at the craziest man he’d ever met, or wondering if ALL Americans were this crazy. He picked up the jacket and walked off calling me something. I, on the other hand, heard my ‘boss’ Bob chuckling and saying, “Smooth, real smooth!”
What was the hardest thing about being away from home?
JG: It’s the feeling that you’re losing touch with what’s going on back home, that life is going on without you, though you’re an important ‘cog’ in that machine, it’s learning how to get along without you and your place is becoming less and less important every day you’re gone and it will be harder to fit back into the right place when you get home.
What’s the hardest part about the actual deployment?
JG: For me, it was leaving my position in country. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to go home with all my heart and soul. But I also poured that same heart and soul into my assignments, into every waking hour. In Afghanistan, It was helping the people. I worked with them, saw them every day. I talked with them, ate with them, laugh and cried with them. I still think about them and lament that we, as a nation have failed to secure freedom from oppression for them and that the children I knew are now probably drawn into choosing sides to fight on in the war that seems to have no end.
Now on the other side of that, what’s it like coming home? What’s the hardest part of that?
JG: Civilians. They don’t know how to act around you. No, really, they’re not sure what to say or what’s appropriate to ask, so they don’t ask anything. And I don’t know how to distill all the emotions into something I can explain in 100 words or less. To another Veteran, even a non-combat Vet, yes. Because at least with even 3-4 years of military life-experience under their belt they can understand some of the environment, the background noise that the war plays in, you know what I mean?
If there was one thing you could change about how you are perceived, what would that be?
JG: I’m not angry or dangerous, just patriotic as all get out. Another thought: (Meaning everyone) You and I have every right to our own opinions and rights under the law and Constitution. What separates the Veteran and civilian is the Veteran has put their life on the line to defend your right to your opinions and rights. What would you do to defend a veteran?
Talk a little bit about the superhero mantra that civilians attach to soldiers. Is there any truth to that or what do you think about it?
JG: That’s a Hollywood/TV/Rambo/video game thing. For those living in a fantasy world, well, they need a life, and they need to visit a VA hospital, especially a rehab hospital or long-term care facility.
If you could tell a civilian one thing in order to help how you are perceived or “handled,” what would that be?
JG: Please remember I love this country warts and all. You can take most of the government and line it up against the wall and…. You get the idea. Do not disrespect the symbols of our nation nor tolerate anyone who does and we’ll get along just fine. Especially the flag. I have been to way too many military funerals and seen too many urns, transfer cases and caskets covered with our flag to ever see someone step on or burn one in front of me.
Talk a little bit about what it means to you to be a soldier.
JG: I was given the opportunity and honor to defend this great nation from its perceived threats to national security and interests. To represent the people of our country and show the world that America, though bruised, will not be beaten, and will respond with overwhelming force and power. Being a soldier in the U.S. Army is to be a member of the greatest military ever assembled and seen in recorded history. That’s a pretty good one line entry on a resume.
This was my first time interviewing an officer for the project, so it was awesome getting to interview someone who accomplished so much on his deployments. I have a whole new respect for men in such high leadership. I already greatly respected the officer position but even more so now. I could see the heaviness in Jim's heart when he talked about releasing convoys and knowing there was a good chance he was sending a young man to his death (in many cases this was a reality Colonel Gardon lived with). I can't imagine what that's like. I can tell you for a fact I was more worried about the guys around me while I was deployed then myself. So I can see how the weight of that would forever affect your life. I think almost anyone that deployed to a combat zone would tell you they were more concerned about their buddies, than themselves. I'd like to thank Jim Gardon for his service to this nation, and his willingness to open up for the project. He truly is an incredible example of what leadership should look like.