Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy: Counterintelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Part II
Duffy served in the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2004 and 2005, conducting counterintelligence and interrogation operations. In Iraq, Duffy suffered a traumatic brain injury from an IED.
Sgt. 1st Class Duffy is currently the CEO of Pathfinder, an organization dedicated to easing veterans’ transitions back into civilian life by connecting them with local community resources. Duffy also wrote an essay for Headstrong Project about her experiences.
Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Last episode, we heard from Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy and today we’re finishing that interview. Duffy conducted counterintelligence and interrogation operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's so crazy because when I think back to whenever somebody asked, "Is there a real difference between being a woman operating in that type of environment?" The craziest thing is that I was like, "Yeah, but it's not necessarily the Iraqis who treated me differently. A lot of times it was some of the more 'high speed units' from the U.S. that would look at me differently. I'm constantly having to prove myself over and over again that I'm not just some baby faced 23 year old. I wasn't even wearing rank, but especially like if my hair's at all short, I can look like I'm 12.
I was constantly feeling like I had to prove myself and it was worse with some of the black ops types, or like the SEALs, or Delta, or some elements of the special operations community because they had women in support roles but I started calling it 'little ladying' because they would basically be like "OK, little lady, aren't you cute? We don't think that's intelligence. We just think that you want to be special" while sitting there and their short little black silky shorts. Sounds like you guys just don't want to put pants on and go do something today. Like, let's go.
So I had been in Baghdad for about three months, and then I ended up getting moved up to a town called Balad, and I was assigned out of the logistical support area, Anaconda, which is a main supply hub and a large operating base.
One day we were on patrol. So I had done another mission about two weeks before and had been in a really bad car accident. It ended up not being enemy action, but multiple people were killed. Iraqis were killed in it. It destroyed our armored vehicle, and I had actually chipped a piece of bone on my foot and torn some ligaments, but we didn't know because there was no X-rays or imaging, so I just wrapped it up and kept on going with my mission.
Two weeks later, I'm on another patrol, and we had not been outside the base for very long. We got a call over the radio that said, "Hey, we have some weapons that were turned in. We're going to do a controlled detonation that explodes them on base. Call came over the radio. So, you know, don't be alarmed if you hear something, because you guys are still pretty close to the base. You might hear an explosion. It's OK."
Roughly five minutes later, not only did they do the controlled detonation on base, but an explosive that one of my sources had reported about a week before, maybe maybe two weeks before in terms of being there, went off on our convoy about twenty five meters from my vehicle. It was just timed wrong when whoever hit the trigger, there was too much of a delay. It missed directly hitting either the vehicle in front of us or my vehicle, but the shrapnel hit our vehicle.
The way that I had to sit in these vehicles because the body armor was so big on me that I was always kind of pitched forward a little bit whenever I was sitting in the seats because the plate would always right up on my back. So I always pitched forward a little bit. and this bomb goes off, and the blast wave made it through a small gap in the armor because it was all add on armor at the time. I was blown backwards in my seat pivoting on this plate. Even though I was wearing a helmet, I smashed the back of my helmet on a metal plate that's behind the seat.
I actually really don't remember much from that day, or from the days following, but I essentially had to fake it because if you are a woman in the military, especially doing tactical operations, you're already like, "I've got to keep up. I've got to keep up with everybody or they're going to look at me like I'm a burden." I was just constantly fighting that fight and I was like, "They can't know anything is wrong." I was bleeding out of my ears, but I was like "It's probably just a ruptured eardrum."
But I didn't know anybody's name. I was trying to read names off of the soldiers name tapes who I've been working with for six months. I all of a sudden didn't know who they were. And try reading a Samoan name off a name tape. You're looking at like 15 letters, and most of them are vowels.
Because my partner and my interpreter, who are both in the truck behind us, didn't wear identifying information when we were outside of the gate, I couldn't remember my partner's name, I couldn't remember my interpreter's name. I was trying to fake it. My balance was off. I was already starting to get like headaches and I never got headaches. I was like, "Something is really wrong."
I just thought, maybe it's just stress and something else. So I just tried to play it off for everyone who was around. The driver of our vehicle was like, "Hey, are you ok? Are you ok? You're acting kind of funny. Are you ok?"
I wasn't moving at first when the bomb went off, so he was pretty concerned because it's not like I didn't know what to do. I have to get out and pull security unless something is wrong. But I wasn't moving. Or at least that's what he told me later because I had no idea. I have no idea how long I was sitting there.
Then I have little flashes of memory, but I faked it enough that we ended up continuing the mission. That day we pulled up to my source’s house because I had to see somebody, and I was somebody who never wrote anything down. I had nearly a photographic memory. We pull up to the house and my partner walks up to the truck.
I was like, "Hey, are we setting up a checkpoint here? Like this? Seems like a weird place." and he was like, "Oh, no, this is the guy that you've been talking to for three months. You should probably talk to him."I was like, "Oh, any idea what his name is or what I'm supposed to talk to him about?" Again, I had a photographic memory, I never wrote anything down. He was like, "Ok, this is super weird."
He reported it to my supervisors when we got back. It was that out of character. They were like, "Ok, maybe it is stress, like maybe something like that." I thought for years that they had sent me to psych the very next day because they were like, you're acting super weird, but it turns out that they couldn't get me in there for like two or three days.
Years later, I asked my supervisor, "Hey, what happened in those two days?" She was like, "Yeah, you still went out on missions. There was like gunfire next to you guys. You had to write another report. You had to do all kinds of crazy stuff." And I have no memory of any of it.
Then we got home and I was so concerned about my leg and my ankle that was never healing from what we thought was a sprain. I was just ignoring the fact that I was having migraines every day for hours. I was losing my vision. My speech was slurred or I couldn't find words. I had no balance. I had been a gymnast growing up, and all of a sudden I couldn't walk in a straight line. It was just a mess. But I was like, "No, because they keep telling me that I'm going crazy. They'll take my clearance. So I'm just going to get the physical stuff taken care of. I'll try to get my leg taken care of."
I tried to get myself around it for like two and a half years. Finally a doctor, by that point, I'd moved to Germany, was like, "Hey, they're studying this thing now called 'blast wave traumatic brain injuries' and you have every single symptom. You should probably talk to somebody who's in neurology."
They did an MRI and they figured out that that day in Iraq, two and a half years before, had a hemorrhage and there was a large mass of coagulated blood and like all kinds of fun, spinal fluids and whatever else, just chillin in the middle of my brain and in wrapped around my carotid artery and affecting my vision and all of these things.
I was honestly so relieved that there was a reason for everything and that I wasn't going crazy, that I was like, "Oh, you guys want to do brain surgery now? Cool. Let's friggin’ do it."
Spent about four months at Walter Reed. Went through all these other physical therapies and so forth. And the entire time, I was just so relieved and happy that they had finally figured out what was wrong, and not just sent me to psych saying that I was just losing my mind and that's why I was seeing shadows out of the corner of my eye. It was actually because there was so much pressure on my ocular nerve that it was blocking my peripheral vision on the right and my left eye was starting to go lazy. There was just all of these things. I was like, "Finally, I have a reason. I know what's going on."
Ultimately, I still stayed in for another four years after that because I loved what I did. I loved the tangible nature of it. The ability to contribute. I went into a special mission type of unit for military intelligence. I was doing all sorts of cool guy stuff. I volunteered to deploy again, and one of the doctors said "Wait a minute, we were supposed to put you out of the military like 4 years ago after that whole brain surgery thing. What are you still doing here?" And I was like 'No, no, no, I want a career. I'm just going to back on out of the room real slow and pretend like we didn't have this conversation.' But apparently they don't work that way, and I ended up getting medically retired. I would say shortly, but, you know, it's the medical evaluation board process. Nothing happened shortly. So it took about another year and a half to two years for me to do that.
At least my unit let me keep doing certain operations during that time. I was able to still contribute. The problem is that also because of that brain injury, I still had no balance and I still had this leg injury that would never heal. They didn't make the connection for a very long time, but essentially, I had also had nerve damage. So when I had torn ligaments and broken that piece of bone, it just never it never healed properly. I was constantly getting problems with that leg. I was re-tearing stuff because I couldn't feel half my foot. Then the other half was searing pain when I would put my foot down. So I was always restraining or re-tearing or doing something to that leg.
So, 14 years after the accident, plus the bomb blast, I had finally had enough, and ended up having that leg amputated. It was better than every year, sometimes twice a year being put back in one of those boots, and in a mobilizer, because I had completely torn another ligament in my right ankle. But I don't like to focus on that.
I've started a company since then. I have gone back to my engineering roots. My entire mission now with Pathfinder Labs is to connect service members and veterans and families to local resources so they don't have to go through the same things that I did. So they can find the support that they need, so they can find medical advocates or whatever else, because there is absolutely no reason for someone to have to struggle to find that support when it's so readily out there and available.
I still need to make that tangible difference, and I still want to make some change, and be able to help other people and basically the same thing that I was doing in the military. The more I can do that makes somebody go home at the end of the day, or go to sleep feeling like they've accomplished something, the better I feel in that I've been able to tangibly contribute to someone's well-being. That's, even for perfect strangers, just a really good feeling; to know that I'm making a difference somewhere to someone. No matter how many legs I've got, I don't really care.
When the neurologist figured out that I had had this apoplexy, the brain hemorrhage, she was like "Ok, based on onset of symptoms, yes, you sought medical care. It was not the correct type of medical care, but nobody was looking at traumatic brain injuries at the time. So, ok, you knew something was wrong. It had resulted from this blast. Got it." So from even before I had the brain surgery, she was like, "This is directly tied to that explosion, and you should be getting a Purple Heart from this."
That would have been in the spring of 2008, two and a half years after the bomb had gone off in the fall of 2005. But, the way that a retroactive Purple Heart works is that it is supposed to go back up through your original chain of command, who would have issued it in the first place. It's a congressional medal, but it's pretty straightforward as to what the requirements are. According to the doctors, they filed it initially through my command.
My current command supported it, the ones in Germany, but when they went back to my original command, my original command said "Oh, no. No way. We left that deployment with no casualties. It's part of our storyline for having gone out with an entire brigade and not having any casualties- not having any reported casualties. So that part looked bad to them, especially because it was a woman and there's not a whole lot of women who are injured in combat, especially in the days where women are not in technical combat roles. Although combat support roles tend to have exposure, like mine did.
So it was a fight. They rejected it just out of hand. I actually remember one of my supervisors at the time contacting me to tell me that it had been rejected. I think I was still at Walter Reed when this happened. I was still recovering from brain surgery, and he was like, "So I don't know who’s cereal you pissed in this morning, but they just rejected your Purple Heart. They said that this is not related." They just tried to dismiss it out of hand. My unit, that same unit tried to resubmit. It got rejected again. When I had assessed into the special mission type of unit, they were finally able to get that old command. They were like, "Oh, no, this will not stand."
Interestingly enough, most of my command structure at that time was women all the way up through one of the colonels, and they were finally able to push the Purple Heart through. By the time they awarded it, it was almost exactly seven years after the incident. I'm standing there at the Purple Heart ceremony, and I forget if it was one of the lieutenant colonels or one of the colonels, but another woman is reading the citation. She's like "On four October- wait 2005?! it's 2012! This was seven years ago?"
I’m specialist Duffy, at this point, I'm a sergeant first class. I was senior enlisted by now, standing next to her. I was just looking at her like "Yeah, it's been a... process." And she was like, “Oh”. She was fairly new. She had not been there for the fight that had ensued prior. So standing up there in front of the entire unit, you could see the anger on her face.
I did get awarded the Purple Heart. I have a tendency to refer to it as the enemy marksmanship badge because they had better shooting that day than I did, but it's definitely something of note. Especially because so few women have been awarded the Purple Heart for anything, and then for an injury like a severe traumatic brain injury.
What's also interesting is that now as an amputee, everybody automatically assumes "Oh, it's because you lost your leg in the war." And I was like, "Well... I mean, I lost my leg because of the war 14 years later. But no, actually, it's because I still get migraines because there's still a piece of nastiness wrapped around my carotid artery. And every time the pressure drops, there's nowhere for the air to expand to my cavernous sinus. So I get a migraine. So that's fun. And I still have no balance and I still have partial vision. It's been great. It's been a real hoot." But the difference of having a physical manifestation of an injury and an invisible injury like a severe traumatic brain injury or something along those lines is night and day. Nobody ever asks any more at the VA if I'm here for somebody else. Every time I set off the alarm, I'm like, "Uh, that's because the leg is titanium and steel."
So it was interesting, I ended up getting medically boarded for that brain injury. I had been medically boarded a couple of years prior for the leg, just because it wouldn't heal and it kept getting worse and I kept re-tearing it. But I had opted to stay in, and when they caught up to me for the brain injury and they were telling me I would no longer be deployableI could not go to either officer candidate school or an officer school, and I was already in E-7 and I was no longer deployable. I probably wouldn't get promoted because promotions on the enlisted side in the higher ranks were very, very competitive, and I was like, "Well, I've still got half my career left. I guess I'm just going to have to take the retirement because I'm not going to move up. I'm not going to do anything else."
I ended up getting medically retired and then moving back into the New York area, and into New York, and trying to find my way from there; getting involved with nonprofits and organizations and trying to find my place, and trying to figure out how to contribute. Trying to cross the street or step off the curb without tearing another part of my ligament because it's a walking city, which is great for my physical therapy because if I want to go anywhere, I'm walking. So my physical therapist is thrilled when I'm like "Oh, I walked up to Central Park.”
But yeah, I always say the army is the gift that keeps on giving even 14 years later. Now I have five feet (Well, technically six, because I still have my real one) instead of two. It's just that three are made of composite metals. Or no, the fiber made of composite metals.
Yeah, and still in various types of therapy, still getting support through the VA. Still very heavily connected to the veteran and service and military communities both in New York and elsewhere.
You know, it's funny that now I have more what I call lady vet friends than I ever had female friends in the military. You're always just trying to prove yourself, and you don't want to lean on another woman when you've got the type of pressure that she's already under, to exceed every standard. So I've got my friends, I've got support. It took a lot to find it, and it was a hard struggle. But I've got it, and I'm grateful for it, and I'm always happy to give that back to them when they need it to.
KH: That was Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy.
Next time on Warriors in Their Own Words, we have a very special episode, just in time for Father’s Day. I interviewed my dad, Col. Kent Harbaugh, about his service as a Phantom pilot in Vietnam, and later, as commander of a nuclear missile wing.
Make sure you’re following the podcast to see this interview in your feed as soon as it’s out.
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Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.