Blayne Smith – A Soldier, in Parts

Foreword by Blayne Smith
Written by Christine Fennessy

We encourage, even implore our members to make personal connections within their communities.  We ask that they share their stories.  We understand that this requires a certain degree of courage and willingness to be vulnerable.  Veterans do well with courage…often not so much with vulnerability.  Though it is sometimes hard, this is perhaps the most critical step in improving veteran reintegration, and ultimately building stronger American communities.  We must know each other to trust each other and, as my dad always told me, “trust is a must.”

As my good friend, JJ Pinter, and I embarked on our month-long challenge to work out with at least one new veteran each day, it occurred to me that many of you don’t really know me.  Sure, I’ve shared some pictures of my boys on Facebook.  You might have met me at an event, talked with me on the phone, or read something that I wrote, but you still don’t know me.  My story is one that needs to be shared.  It is important not because it is extraordinary, but because it is all too ordinary. 

Since I’m not good at talking about myself, I’ve decided to share this great piece by Christine Fennessy. She contacted me a while ago regarding a story she was writing about running, soldiers, and Post Traumatic Stress. She spent some time with me (and my family and friends) in 2012. The following comes from those conversations, and does a far better job than I possibly could of telling my story. Frankly, this forced me to be far more vulnerable than I would have liked.  However, I know too many veterans that look great on the outside and feel like hell on the inside, and if this gets even one of them back on track, it is well worth it to me.  Want to know why I care so much about the work we do?  Here you go:  

A Soldier, in Parts

Part I: Before

Blayne Smith returned home in 2004, after 10 months in Iraq, a bit like a puzzle piece that had been ripped, rather than pulled apart. He wasn’t quite the same guy, more irritable, and perhaps a little less patient. Typical behavior for a soldier who lived under constant threat of getting wounded or killed, and who knows that while he’s having coffee in Panera Bread, guys are downrange checking culverts for bombs. Iraq changed his life, but mostly for the good.

As a lieutenant in the First Cavalry Division, Smith led a scout platoon of 19 soldiers who patrolled 300 square miles of lawless terrain between Baghdad and Fallujah. They conducted over 200 combat missions, capturing insurgents on the Black List, uncovering weapons caches, and disrupting the bad guys enough to reduce rocket and mortar attacks in both cities. Despite the stress, the bombs that turned vehicles and humans into charcoal and rain, the weird God complex that accompanied decisions that change lives forever, Smith felt fulfilled. He loved leading soldiers. His team in Iraq had plenty of close calls and saw some terrible things, but everyone made it home. Smith loved his guys, loved his job, and that’s why he stayed in the Army.

That, and he’d been amazed by the SF guys.

In urban combat, Army Special Forces soldiers were fluid, confident, and decisive. They spoke Arabic. They had good intel – when they kicked in doors in the middle of the night, the target was usually inside. And they were smart, effective teachers. Smith figured if he could lead guys like that, he could contribute on a higher level; he could make a difference.

***

Before he left for Afghanistan in January 2009, Smith, then a Detachment Commander for the 3rd Special Forces Group, dreamt he got shot.

So before he left North Carolina, he made a spreadsheet of all the household bills, and assembled all the gear in his garage, showing Megan, his wife, what was his and what belonged to Fort Bragg. The pair had been friends since second grade, and they were married at 22. They had a two-year-old son, Dylan, and Megan was three months pregnant with their second boy. Smith tried to explain away all his preparations: It’ll make things easier for you while I’m gone. But Megan knew the reason. He did not tell her about his dream, but he didn’t have to. She knew where he was going.

Firebase Anaconda in southern Afghanistan sat in a remote river valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains about 90 kilometers from the nearest friendly outpost. The compound was tiny, about 200 square yards, with a half-dozen mud-brick buildings and tents surrounded by nine-foot-high mud walls. The area was hotly contested, and guys were getting hurt all the time. At least twice, Taliban fighters had descended from the mountains and tried to overwhelm the base. Whenever a convoy left its walls, an attack by the enemy was only a matter of time.

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Part II: Afghanistan

It was rainy and cold, Afghanistan-in-February-at-7,000-feet cold. Smith’s team had just concluded a meeting in a nearby village when they picked up the chatter: Do you want me to start? Do you want me to do work on the Americans? Seconds later, a bullet snapped near Smith, another cracked over his head. The ground began exploding upwards in muddy raindrops as bullets flew from the ridge above. Smith raced to the front seat of his Humvee to radio for air support. His driver, Bob, returned fire from behind his armored door while their tail gunner angled his M240 for a better shot. Both men were shouting at Smith, but Smith’s turret gunner was pounding the ridgeline, and the sound of the 50-caliber machine gun was deafening. Smith grabbed the gunner’s leg: You gotta stop for a minute. Then he reached over and grabbed Bob by the arm: Calm down. What are you trying to tell me?

Marc had gotten shot in the face.

***

SF guys will say that they’re like brothers, but that’s just a word civilians can understand, and it’s the best the guys can do to explain something indescribable.

After nearly two years of training, Smith’s team of 12 was tight. During the week, they ran, rucked, and did CrossFit together. On weekends, they barbequed around the pool with their wives, kids, and girlfriends, and competed to see who had the best backflip. They spent weeks on missions living crammed like cordwood in the equivalent of a doublewide trailer.

Smith’s guys will tell you that he led from the front, that he never asked them to do something he wouldn’t do, and that he appealed to their desire to be the best. They’ll also tell you that because Smith was fast, strong, and a great shot, he set a bar everyone wanted to beat. They drove each other to be faster, stronger, and more accurate because they all wanted to be the number-one guy.

The ribbing was as relentless as the competition. They laughed hard at slow runners like their senior medic, Marc, who they said had one speed, didn’t matter if there was a soccer ball in front of him or a lion behind him.

They knew what made each other tick, and what ticked each other off. Their confidence in each other was absolute.

Their bond became impossible to explain.

***

Smith left the cover of his truck and sprinted the 150 meters towards Marc’s truck, his feet slipping on the mud as rounds plunged into the ground around him. When he reached the truck, he saw Marc lying on his back, perfectly still, and Linsey, their junior medic, working over him. Smith had expected to see Marc hunched over, holding a bleeding wound, expected to tell him to get his ass in the truck. But Marc wasn’t blinking, and there wasn’t much blood. His beard and scarf hid the entry point of the bullet, near his chin.

Oh my God. He’s dead.

Later that night, Smith cried in front of his team. He couldn’t help it. They all cried. Everyone loved Marc, a gregarious, hilarious guy, a avid Phillies and Eagles fan with a fiancé back home. Marc had tried for a while to hide the engagement because he knew the guys would give him shit about it.

***

Eight days later, Smith’s truck led a convoy of five vehicles going about 10 miles per hour along a narrow track cut into a terraced hillside. To their left, the ground sloped sharply to the river below.

Almost simultaneously, an enormous boom sounded behind Smith as a rocket-propelled grenade hurtled toward his truck and destroyed the rock wall on his right.

A panicked voice came over the radio: Truck three is destroyed. Truck three is completely destroyed!

Machine gun fire erupted from the river.

It was a coordinated attack. On the exposed ridge, they were sitting ducks.

***

The remote-detonated bomb flipped truck three over and blew its turret gunner nearly 30 feet into the air. Eric spun like a rag doll and landed hard, shattering his right leg and injuring his back. Linsey ran through small-arms fire to drag Eric away from the raging fireball as ammunition and explosives began cooking off in all directions.

Linsey found their team sergeant, Dave, on his hands and knees behind the burning wreck; from the passenger seat he’d been blown free of the vehicle, but got caught in the flash. His boots and flame-retardant uniform were mostly intact, but he was badly burned. Linsey bent down, and through the roar of ammunition asked if he could walk. Unable to talk, Dave nodded, and the 160-pound medic guided his 230-plus team sergeant through Taliban AK-47 and machine gun rounds to the truck and put an IV in his foot. Dave would die later that night.

The firefight was deafening. Trees exploded and huge chunks of earth erupted from the force of American 50-caliber machine guns and 40-millimeter grenade launchers. Guys who often wore their earplugs halfway out pushed them in to dampen the noise. Red tracers tracked the path of every third machine-gun round, and at a 1000 rounds a minute, created a surreal, striated pattern. The smell of gunpowder, diesel fumes, and iron filled the air.

The team’s Afghan interpreter, Eman, had also been thrown clear, but lay dead with barely a scrape on him. Tim, the Air Force combat controller who had been working with them, landed about 40 feet uphill of the truck. The force had blown his kit off, and the springs that fed ammunition up through the magazines in the pouches were sticking out—all 210 rounds had exploded. As air support provided cover, Smith collected the remains of Tim’s right leg and fingers, and placed them on the stretcher next to his body.

Smith found Jeremy, truck three’s driver, last. He’d been pinned inside the burning truck, and was nearly unrecognizable. While one of his teammates lifted the flaming mass with a pry bar, Smith, wearing a pair of asbestos mittens, carefully pulled the soldier free and the two men carried their friend to the truck in a tarp.

Part III: After

Smith left the Army in January 2010, and moved his family to Tampa where his days soon fell into a rhythm. He would help Megan get the boys off to school, put on his blue-striped shirt and red tie, pull out of the driveway of his 3,000-square-foot home in the gated community where no one cut their own grass, and drive his Toyota Camry past the old people playing golf. He would get about two miles down the road before the tape in his head began to play: You did everything you could. There wasn’t more you could have done. Well, maybe. It was raining. We should have cancelled that day. What would a day have meant?

Then the reel of grief and guilt and shame would skip: Maybe I just need to quit my job and join the National Guard. Work for the CIA or the FBI. Maybe if I worked in defense or intel, that will make everything better.

And skip again: Why do I keep having this conversation? Why can’t I be happy with what I have? What kind of idiot am I that I can’t be happy with this life?

Over and over and over, it played.

***

As a medical sales guy, Smith made good money now, but all it brought was shame. He’d look around at all the nice stuff in their nice home and fantasize about giving it all away and raising his family on $800 a month.

He couldn’t enjoy his life and he couldn’t be happy about being out of the Army. He’d planned all along—before any of that awful stuff in Afghanistan happened—to leave the Army when he did. But instead of being happy about finally being home for good with Megan and the boys, he felt like a failure. Like his last act of a good 12-year Army career was to get part of his team blown up. And whether it was true or not, it felt like he had run away. Failed, then quit. And now he had a job with no purpose, no obligation to the greater good, and he just wasn’t prepared for what stuff like that would do to a guy like him.

At home, he spent long hours in his office, often unable to close his laptop, open the door, and hang out with his family. If one of the kids barged in, Smith turned on Megan: Can’t you see I’m trying to make a living here? He couldn’t tolerate the daily hassles—packing lunches, planning dinners. It was hard to see the importance of things like that, when you’ve spent so long trying to keep people safe. When you’ve watched your friends die.

New to Tampa, he didn’t bother making friends. It didn’t seem worth the effort. When people found out who he’d been, they said things that made him cringe: You’re Special Forces? You must be such a tough guy.

Megan had never seen someone so unhappy. Her husband had siphoned off everything that had once brought him joy. The tires on his mountain bike went flat. The soles of his golf and soccer shoes rotted. His guitar sat silent and out of tune. She tried to help—took stuff with the kids and the house off his plate, fixed up his mountain bike for Father’s Day, bought him a golf membership. He rode the bike once and used the membership twice.

She kept waiting for the person she knew to come back. In all the years she’d known him, Smith had never once raised his voice. But his reactions were unfamiliar, unpredictable now. His anger flared and his tone had changed—it was impatient, frustrated, exasperated. No matter what she and the boys did, it felt wrong. She was finally starting up her own career, but instead of support, Smith lobbed criticism of her employer, her hours, her pay. When five-year-old Dylan—a socially awkward, precocious kid who taught his mom to play chess when he was three—talked back, it sent Smith into a rage. He never raised a hand to the boy, but he let him have it. If the kid messed around at the dinner table, Smith would whack the table with the flat of his hand hard enough to make the silverware jump.

His anger and frustration and impatience scared him. God, Blayne, come on buddy. You have to be more composed than this. What the hell is wrong with you? He’d always been composed. Especially downrange. When he got on the radio, guys called it his Barry White voice. The scene around him could be a total shitshow, and when he got on the radio, his voice was dead calm. In Afghanistan, his tone made it hard for the intel officers in Kandahar to know the gravity of a situation sometimes. But now, he was losing his cool all the time. And he didn’t know how to pull himself together.

The truth was, he did resent his family a little. Maybe he could make amends for what happened if he could serve again. And so he turned sacrifice into service and quit everything in his life that had once brought him joy.

***

Sometimes he thought it was crazy, driving for a half-hour to meet Mike Erwin at 5:30 a.m., running with him for an hour then driving 30 minutes back home again. But when Erwin came to Tampa the summer after Smith separated from the Army and asked if he wanted to train for a marathon and raise money for wounded vets, Smith jumped at the chance. For the vets? Of course.

So over the hottest summer on record, when the dew point was so high they had to turn their windshield wipers on in the morning, Smith and Erwin trained together. Four times a week, they met in the dark on Bayshore Boulevard, the 4.5-mile stretch of sidewalk that hugs Hillsborough Bay in South Tampa. They talked about leadership, accountability, family. And they talked shop. Erwin had been part of Smith’s unit, a task force intelligence officer in Kandahar. He’d heard Smith’s calls come in over the radio, and those two days haunted him, too. You did the best you could.

They ran until the sun came up, until they could wring streams of water from their shirts. They stretched and drank Gatorade in the parking lot and talked about bottling that post-hard run feeling. They were soaked and spent and felt amazing.

Erwin left in August and Smith kept running. He allowed himself this one thing because it wasn’t about him. It was about the vets. He was committed to the cause and so he ran, and on long runs that were so humid his sweat turned his shoes to squeegees, he often left his music at home and just thought about stuff. For two, three hours, he wondered: Why do I feel so bad? Am I doing a bad job as a dad? What am I supposed to be doing with my life?

After he ran, he felt better.

That fall, he met up with Army buddies he hadn’t seen in nearly a year, and together they ran the Twin Cities Marathon with Team Red, White & Blue. Smith finished in 3:50, went home, and kept running. He’d been lurching around for so long looking for something that made him feel better, running to help out wounded guys felt like something he could anchor himself to.

It was during his next marathon when the light bulb finally went off. He and Erwin were talking about all the guys they knew. Guys who got out of the service who wanted back in, guys who felt lost on the outside, unhappy and directionless, guys who were joining Team RWB not because they wanted to help other vets, but because they needed to help. To belong to something. To reach for something. To give back.

Damn it. That’s me.

***

When things were at their darkest, after Megan had told him they were through, Smith started writing down three good things that happened to him every day. Without fail, most of his entries came from what he saw on his runs along Bayshore. He’d write about dolphins rolling in the bay, pelicans dive-bombing for fish, the way the Tampa skyline looked so pretty at sunrise. Back then, after he promised Megan he would do anything to make things right, after he started seeing a counselor at the Veterans Administration, after he moved out, he ran all the time. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, and his gut burned. He felt like he was living someone else’s life, and he just needed to run the horror of it out of him.

After they separated, his nights suddenly yawned with emptiness, and so one Tuesday he forced himself to go to a run club hosted by a local Irish pub. He had to make some friends. So he showed up, ran a 5-K, and started talking to a few guys. They told him about another club on Thursdays. Pretty soon, he was a regular at both and scheduling the rest of his life around those two runs. He didn’t need other runners to push him—he needed their friendship. Running made it easier to talk.

Part IV: And now, the beginning

At 7 a.m. the gun goes off signaling the start of the 50th running of the JFK 50. Smith and his buddy Ian look at each other and laugh; they’re still half a block from the starting line. They break into a slow jog and join the roughly 1,000 runners heading up North Main Street in Boonsboro, Maryland. It’s the Saturday before Thanksgiving and the temperature is just above freezing, frost has turned the grass to silver. The pack heads up the hill toward the rising sun and the silhouette of South Mountain where the runners will complete the first 13 miles along the Appalachian Trail.

For Smith, much has come to pass: it’s been nearly three years since he left the Army; 10 months since Megan’s words convinced him to get help; four months since he became Team Red, White & Blue’s first employee; and three months since his divorce.

It has not been easy. But a counselor helped him forgive himself and running helped him wade back into life. He knows now that he did what he thought was right in Afghanistan, and his shame has subsided. He is a leader again, helping guide and mentor veterans, easing their transition home and creating programs that keep them active and challenged and turn soldiers into athletes. It tempers the last of the grief and the guilt. And so now, finally, there is room for joy. For patience and laughter and fun with his boys.

Running did not fix him. But at a time when his grief and guilt and shame penetrated everything, it gave him refuge. When he struggled for meaning, it gave him purpose. When he lost who he was, it gave him an identity. When he was alone, it gave him friends.

Running helped Blayne Smith heal.

***

It’s nearly 4:30 and the sun is setting, casting an orange hue on the trees lining the finish chute of the JFK 50. Smith emerges from the crowd, changed and showered. All around him, runners are hobbling, supported by friends or family, their legs stiff, faces caked in salt. Smith walks easily, as if he just got off the bus. He finished in eight hours 58 minutes.

He puts his bag down near a West Point cadet who is passed out in the grass, and pauses to watch the scene in front of him. A crowd of spectators lines the barricades of the finish chute. As the announcer calls each runner’s name, city, and number of JFK finishes, they roar. The Black Eyed Peas pour from the speakers. A Team RWB member enters the chute, carrying the American flag. The runner holds the staff high, and the fabric ripples in the wind and catches hints of the afternoon light. In a few quick steps, Smith is leaning over the barricades, cupping his mouth with both hands, encouraging the exhausted runner.

Doing what he does best.