By Raul Esparza
Amidst the hissing drone of random bullets, a thick laughter bubbled up in Sergeant Paz's throat. It spilled out, only to drown in an acidic, cacophony of war. The world around U.S. Army Sergeant Alexander Paz was far from funny, as far away as his family was in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Operation Strong Eagle III was a shift in U.S. strategy. In a pre-dawn, cold Afghan sky, dozens of Chinooks deployed the men of 2-327 Infantry Battalion (aka No Slack Battalion) onto the Taliban’s front door. It wasn’t long before the Taliban gathered themselves and furiously tried to eradicate the intruders. Sergeant Paz was one of the foot soldiers deployed in this operation. He fought the Taliban as they tried to recover their insidious valley in Barawarlow, Kalay, Afghanistan.
Challenges multiplied against the men of No Slack Battalion. Rain, hail, clouds and rough terrain all seemed to conspire with the Taliban. The clouds cut the battalion off from air support and it wasn’t long before they had several casualties and found themselves surrounded, taking fire from multiple positions. Worse yet, they couldn’t med-vac their fallen brothers. A pilot was shot as he tried to touch down long enough to evacuate a wounded soldier. His craft was rattled with gunfire and he had to make an emergency landing.
The brutal firefight lasted nine days, instead of the planned two. There were moments when ammunition was running dangerously low and, they had nowhere to go. Despite these difficulties, the men held their ground; slowly, inch by inch, they pushed forward. They infiltrated each dwelling, inventoried it, gathered intelligence and disrupted the Taliban’s infrastructure. In the end, the Taliban insurgents scurried off and abandoned their homes. However, the confrontation on the Taliban’s turf wrought a significant amount of casualties; six Americans were dead and at least that many wounded. Many of the men in No Slack Battalion were in their twenties, and days away from completing their tour and returning to their families.
I was watching Nightline on television when this deadly battle seized my attention. Embedded correspondents accompanied the battalion into war, sharing pieces of hell as it developed around them like a suffocating winter fog–a force-fed awakening. The Taliban’s voracity was palpable, levied against the tenacious resolve of our men. While the Taliban fought for territory, No Slack Battalion fought for their fallen brothers, they fought for each other. I was captivated with this courageous fight but as life’s daily obligations poured in on me, they eroded this bit of history from my mind. I’d forgotten about it until a childhood friend brought his nephew Alex to my doorstep. Alex is Sergeant Alexander Paz. Sergeant Alexander Paz made it home to Las Cruces, but not intact–he’s battling PTSD. I believe that’s why his uncle introduced him to me. I was imprisoned for 19 years; there’s nothing heroic or noble about that. I’m on the opposite end of the social spectrum; a reject from society, an ex-felon with PTSD. But, I know what it feels like to come home, and not fit in. I know what its like to be stuck inside your own head. Often we think of members of our military are stoic, fearless beings, trained to endure and persevere, but it’s not always like that. It was odd for me to see Alex embroiled with this physiological affliction.
Alex is a pensive 24 year-old with a quick smile and a warm heart. He struggles to share images of the chaos trapped in his head.
I see Alex nodding to himself, not knowing where to start or end; the smells, the innocent victims of war, a collection of haunting memories from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He mentions that his battalion led the Army in suicides after they returned to American soil. Failed relationships and substance abuse are often blamed but, he feels they are symptoms of the problem not the problem itself. They too, are long distance casualties of war.
Not long after I met Alex, he moved in to the apartment next door. Now we are neighbors. Sometimes he comes over and I can see that he’s trying to mask a desperate stare, with a smile. He’s avoiding sleep and its barrage of dreams; so we talk. It never takes long for him to spill first hand, heartbreaking accounts of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I listen intently and can’t help but feel his pain. We sit across each other at my kitchen table, calmly crying; two men from different worlds, reflecting on human behavior in extreme environments. It’s good to have someone that will listen, without passing judgment. He thanks me for listening to him, for helping him. The truth is that I benefit from our talks also and since I met him and heard him perform his poetry, he’s inspired me to pursue my dream of writing.
Truth, is another name Alex uses; an alter ego that passionately spits gritty rhymes in pace with the varied beat of his human heart. He’s quick to drop verses rife with philosophical observation and angry commentary from a soldier’s perspective. He talks about his fallen brothers and the void they left in their children's hearts. Alex riles against the loss of innocence; using verse to chisel away at society’s callousness. He is seeking answers for himself, his family, his fallen brothers… and for the lives of his band of brothers struggling with PTSD.
Alex once shared that toward the end of his second tour, it was common for him to laugh through the thick of war; I asked if he could tell me why he was laughing, “Was it a nervous reaction?” “No,” he nodded his head, shrugged his shoulders and tried to find words for spinning thoughts. “It’s hard to explain, unless you’re there. We had our 60mm mortar tubes completely vertical! We were firing shells directly over our own heads! We could hear the shrapnel from our own shells breaking branches several feet away.” That’s how close the Taliban was, slithering through their terrain. I press him for an answer and he looks me straight in the eyes while nodding and whispers, “I don’t know why I was laughing.”
My neighbor talks of the relationship he has with his band of brothers, a deep, tangible connection that’s hard for normal people to understand. He talks of men that died, referring to them on a first name basis. He knows he could have been on the receiving end of one of those bullets that took a life. He wonders about the survivors, their dilemmas, suicide attempts, failed relationships; of trying to fill a role that is now, ill fitting, at best.
If you or someone you know is a veteran suffering with PTSD, please call for more information:
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Readjustment Counseling Service
Las Cruces Vet Center
230 S. Water St., Las Cruces, NM 88001 • (575) 523-9826
Veterans Crisis Line
1-800-273-8255 (Press '1')
Free, confidential support for veterans in crisis, their families and friends.
RCS Combat Call Center
A confidential call center for combat veterans and their families.