Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
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.
Today, we’ll hear from Specialist Nathan Dowds. Dowds served as an Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. He deployed to Afghanistan twice, in 2002 and in 2004, and once to Iraq in 2003.
Yeah, my name is Nathan Dowds. I served in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division. I left as an E4 and I was a 96 Romeo, which was a surveillance specialty. I don't know if the MOS still exists or not, but we were essentially set up to do the on ground surveillance of enemy movement. My wars of course, were a little bit different than we trained for in Europe and Vietnam. So a lot of what I did was human intelligence and interrogation support for the warrant officers leading those efforts.
Yeah, I think there were a few main ones as I look back on it and try to think what was going through in my mind. First is I grew up in Shelby, Ohio, which is a wonderful small town kind in the middle of farm country, Ohio, and we are the type of people that care about military service and feel honored to participate in it. So growing up in that era, I would say that's kind of a natural course for us. It's exciting. It's something your parents and your neighbors are proud of when you behave or when you participate in it. And so naturally when you join the Army, especially if you're an enlisted guy, you see, there's a lot of people from Texas and Pennsylvania and Ohio and upstate New York. We're the type of place that breed young patriotic boys that think it'll be fun to go to war and jump out of planes and do things like that.
I think the second is it's just a family history of service. As you mentioned, my father served during the Vietnam era at the tail end, he didn't go to Vietnam. He was in Germany during that. My grandpas were both in Korea. My great grandpa was a physician in the first World War. So on and so forth. The Dowds family has been blue collar people in rural Ohio fighting in our wars since the Spanish American War. So there's kind of that history there. And then the third part, let's be honest when we're talking about 17 year old boys making decisions, is it was exciting. I was an athlete. I was a rough, wild, funny young kid. The idea of being forced to sit in a chair for eight hours a day for another few years wasn't as compelling as jumping out of a plane in the middle of the night and getting big and strong.
So I'd say they're fairly typical. There are some kids who go in for different reasons, but the reasons I just explained to you in my experience, the kids from the rural middle of nowhere, Ohio have a lot in common there.
So like I said, my dad served and he was in the Big Red One, which is just straight leg infantry. And he told me when I joined, "Well, if you're going to join, my advice to you is try to put yourself near the best guys that you can, and try to find ways to get a degree of separation between you and the others as frequently as possible." And so the easy one, there was Airborne School. I could get a contract for that, right out of the gate, which was kind of a prerequisite for me. My dad and I went to the MEPS recruiting center and they did their magic and tried to force me to be a diesel mechanic in God knows where Oklahoma or something like that. And thankfully had a good dad that went with me. We both walked. We said, get out here. We're not even considering that we want a combat arms MOS with an Airborne contract, something other than infantry, or we're not doing it. And so they let me look through the catalog. There were only 11 combat arms MOSs at the time. And the surveillance one of course sounded cool to a teenage boy. So that's how we did it.
And then Ranger school was, after getting into the 82nd, was always high on my list to continue to try to push myself and get near more capable warriors. But I ended up arriving to the 82nd right as we were beginning to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. And so I never really had time for anything other than that.
I think I was right at the very end of basic training. Maybe I was in Airborne school. I think I was in basic training on September 11th. And we were out in the field on an exercise and one of the drill sergeants or cadre came and gathered us and told us all someone's flown planes into the world trade center and your experience in the military is about to change. And we all thought at that point in our mind, after having been abused for that long, we all thought they're screwing with us. They're going to wake us up in two hours and they're going to tell us that now you have to storm the building and it's going to be some type of training exercise. So one of the cadre had a Ford Ranger pickup truck that was left idling while he was talking to everyone. And so I low crawled kind of through this, maybe waist high Oklahoma weeds and snuck myself up to close enough to a truck where I could hear his radio and I heard it all confirmed. And so I'm actually the guy who went back to the rest of the platoon and said, "I snuck to his truck and heard it on the radio, it's real." Which my initial memory of it was, oh, all this training is now real. We all felt World War III was on the horizon at that time, if we can all remember what it felt like then. We thought there were some real consequences ahead. And I also remember the guys from New York were really freaked out about it. And so that more than thoughts of the terrorist attacked, I think a lot of my thoughts were focused on the guys I knew from New York and what they were going through and panicking to try to get to a telephone, to check in on their families.
So then I went through Airborne School, and Airborne School they're trying to be hardcore and trying to make you hardcore the whole time. So the Black Hats at Airborne school were telling me your first jump outside Airborne School is probably going to be into combat. You better keep your head on straight and do all the pull ups we tell you to do and all that. And I was an 18 year old kid by then maybe. Yeah, I was 18 by then. So I believed it and it motivated me and helped me train accordingly. So we all thought that momentum was getting going, especially 18 year old enlisted grunts in an infantry division, we all thought that it was about to get real. And we were about to do all the things that we'd see in the Great Generation do before us. And so in a way, this is so silly to say as an adult, but in a way it was kind of exciting. I mean, it's hard to... Put yourself in the mind of an 18 year old that just signed up for the Marine Corps or the Army, and wants to fight. In a way it almost felt like an opportunity if I'm being completely honest with you. That's the difference between a man and a boy, a man has enough wisdom to laugh at that and think of how silly that was. But as a boy, I was ready to jump out of a plane and crush those responsible for September 11. I thought I was.
My first trip to Afghanistan. It was all military, we were still figuring out the logistics of getting men and supplies into that area. I'm sure SpecOps guys had been on the ground, clearing things out and chasing folks for a minute. But when we came in, we flew first was a C-17, and then it was a C-5 all the way to Germany, to Ramstein in Germany and then another C-5 or C-17 to Kandahar and Kandahar was nothing but a wreckage that we'd kicked everyone out of when we landed. So the flight was funny. Obviously there's not seating for men on those planes. And we had Humvees with us. We had equipment with us. So it's just guys laying on trucks, under trucks, it's cold in, Ken is a pilot, you know the experience of being up in the air in a military aircraft like that. So it was challenging, but we all did our best to sleep and play cards and do what soldiers do.
And when we landed, they opened the back. I think it was at C-5. They opened the back of it and we all walked off and it May, it was summer of 2002. So early 2002 and the heat of Kandahar and that airfield hit us. And we had our 80 pound rucks on and our armor and our helmets. And I had a 249 strap to the front of me. And my first thought, I'm ashamed to tell you, but I'll be honest, “I can't fight in this. I can barely take 10 steps in this heat. I'm going to collapse in a pile on this tarmac right now. There's no way in hell I'm going to be kicking indoors in this.”
And so we humped off the plane, we built some tents, kind of just out in the dust. It was like shin high dirt dust, the consistency of flower. It was unlike anything- It hadn't rained there for a long time. And so it had just been churned and churned and putting tents up in that was a pain and a trip. And it was getting in your nose. So you're blowing your nose and it's just pure mud. And you're as dirty as you can be. But we got some tents built and essentially the Army was kind enough to us that they gave us a week to just really lie around and drink water. So we had no air conditioning or anything like that. We were roasting, but that roasting was good for us in that our bodies begin to acclimate.
One thing I noticed in all three of my combat tours was humans are incredibly adaptable. The first time you go to war and you're not eating and you're staying up all night and you're doing violent things, you think, oh my God, I can't do this. I'm so dirty. I'm so tired. I'm so hungry. And then two weeks later, something switches in this caveman mind we have, and you're like, oh, this is who I am. I can handle this. This is what I do every day.
And the reciprocal is true when you come home, when home, your mind is still in warrior mode. And you're like, “Oh my God, this shower is incredible. I'm going to eat in a buffet for the next 15 days. And I'm going to chase women for the next year and a half of my life.” And then two weeks goes by your brain clicks. And you're like, this is who I am now. And you don't appreciate it as much, but that cycle repeats and repeats. So that's a long way to say I was weak and miserable for the first week or two weeks. I was in Afghanistan. And then my brain clicked and I was tough and I was ready to fight and I felt at home in the dirt.
So at the time we're viewing this all through the eyes of the guy at the lowest end of the totem pole. So I'm sure there was some strategy or thought to it, but it felt like early on, we got three up armored Humvees or more. And we drove around Kandahar and we waited for people to mess with us. And we killed them when they messed with us. It was the honest truth. It didn't feel like… sure there were zones and there were routes we were supposed to patrol, but the Taliban was so deep underground already that it's not like we were making direct assaults. We were doing that periodically, but that was the exception. The rule was cruising, patrolling, waiting for someone to screw with us, waiting for us to see something weird and reacting to it. And at that time rules were a little loose. We hadn't been to a real long term occupying war since Vietnam. So I think the Army itself was probably figuring out, our commanders were figuring out how to do this the right way. So it was a little cowboy. We'd get up, we'd drive to the gate. The guards would let us out. We'd go out for as long as we felt we needed to go out and come back in when we felt we were finished or after we made contact.
I think it's a moment to grow up because my wars, Iraq included, were so... They could put you into a lull if you weren't careful, this wasn't the wars of our fathers and grandfathers, where there was a frontline and an enemy probing us constantly. There were days that could go by where you could just cruise around in 100 degree weather, sweating to death and not see anything but dirt, and that could lull you into a complacency. And so the first time a group of guys on motorcycles started tailing us. And we were in a somewhat mountainous area. We were up on a plateau where ingress and egress was a single route and shame on us for putting our vehicle up there. But as we put our convoy up there, we had three men on these motorcycles come up with us and sure enough, a couple Toyota trucks came up with them and essentially had us pinned there if they wanted.
So we rotated, we had maybe a 240 and a 249 on top of three trucks. This was a three vehicle combo. And we turned them on them really quick and realized our backs were against a cliff. If we were to bail or retreat, it was going to be on foot and it wasn't going to be in the vehicle. And so things got really tense. And my squad leader, who was just a tough old grizzled piece of leather, got out of his vehicle and walked up face to face with these guys. And we had an interpreter and had a really tense conversation with them while we kind of all sat with our thumbs on the triggers, ready to eat these guys up. And thankfully that time he came back and negotiated something or convinced the guys we didn't mean harm or convinced the guys we were going to kill them if they acted wrong. And we were able to get down from there. But that was kind of my first moment, which was a good baby step into combat to realize this is real. It might feel like it's monotonous and boring for six days out of the week. But on that seventh day, this is real and you better stay awake and you better pay attention to your surroundings.
Well, a lot of indirect fire came first. We had plenty of direct engagements, which I'll get into, but kind of what I want to set for your audience is this was a game of cat and mouse. And they had the upper hand in that they looked like the civilians, the civilians that we as Americans and good human beings don't want to harm and want to protect to the greatest extent possible. So we were hit with a lot of indirect fire, mortars almost immediately and rockets coming in. So you had to get used to that, which, how do you get used to that? You put your gear on, you grab your weapon, you get somewhere safe, essentially. Bullets flying.
On a lot of our convoys we have pop shots taken at us or indirect shots. Let me set this. And this was before the IED. I was in there early enough that the IED hadn't really caught on yet. So initially folks were taking rifle shots at us and we were chasing and returning fire. And so for me, how does that feel when you feel that first round come close or impact a vehicle? It just felt like pure adrenaline and focus on the job and focus on the training. So if you're in the gun, that's getting the gun on the guys and doing your best to get their heads down or to tear them apart. It's doing your best to communicate with those around you. So for me, it never really felt like, it shows you that the Army knows what they're doing.
It never really felt like panic, or I'm going to piss my pants because someone's trying to kill me. It felt like ‘I need to do my job.’ I need to communicate where the enemy is. I need to put fire on that enemy. If I'm driving one of the Humvees, I need to make sure that I'm putting my gunner in a position to get rounds on them or putting my vehicle in a place to escape the rounds. So many times, my first times having shots at me would be on patrols, men on top of buildings or men on top of dunes or terrain, taking long shots at us, us firing at them and coming back on them.
My first real direct engagement in combat didn't come for a long time. And that came in the mountains near Pakistan, Shkin was the name of the outpost. And there was a company of us there, a company of paratroops, maybe two Green Beret teams. And then some wacky Intel guys doing signal collection would be my guess. We lived in essentially a walled compound that we'd taken from the enemy or someone close to the enemy. And it was cold. It was mountainous. It was snowy. And we didn't have any heat or anything. There was one diesel potbelly stove, but it was in a room I didn't live in. And so this was a hot area. They sent us there because it was a hot area. Insurgents were coming over from Pakistan and were making hits on us and disappearing. And so we went there to catch them and hopefully exterminate them. And the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan at this position had what we call the wadi, an ancient dry river bed. So think of, I don't know, maybe 20 foot deep it's wide enough to drive maybe a Humvee and a half through, but it's bone dry. So you're just kind of on flat land. And then all of a sudden, there's this deep, old dry river bed. And then it goes back up to flat land and you're in Pakistan. So it was a very natural border and there were access points to it. And it was a great place for the enemy because they could enter that wadi at some position, get close to our base, pop their little heads over the side, launch primarily rockets at us, and then kind of disappear back in the wadi didn't get away before we could get a line of sight to get on them.
And so one night, they fired rockets quite frequently. And one night we went out after them and we took our Humvees and we went down into that wadi. And so, I don't know, maybe 3, 4, 5 Humvees in a row, not quite wide enough to get side by side, maybe at points, it was, but really a linear format. And we saw some men walking down in there and the rules of engagement at the time were you had to see their weapons and they had to be an active threat for you to engage them. And so we saw men at one, two in the morning, whatever time it was down there and they were walking away from us. And so we called that in and started to pursue them. And they kind of jutted into a little cutout that we couldn't see where it got a little wider, maybe in one part. And they went in there and when our lead truck poked his nose around that corner to take a look at him, they had an RPK set up and just ate us up.
And so imagine this: You're in a walled area, 20 foot high walls, to your front there's a little cut out where some guys with an RPK and other small arms are set up, they're chewing up your front truck. You're just trying to get your guns at an angle on them. But the muzzle flash is so incredible from them and us that certainly your MPGs are useless, and just being in that entrap space, it's just like cameras flashing and the impact from those fifties, hitting hard against the walls of that wadi. It is just chaos. We're trying to identify them. We can see their muzzle flash. So we're going to put all the lead on their muzzle flash we possibly can. And eventually we just decided to break contact from that situation. And so we get out of the wadi, we get back to base and we start to figure out what's going on and how are we going to deal with this? The TC of the lead vehicle shot through the neck and we were providing first aid to him. Thank God we had an 18 Delta with us who did his thing and took command of that, which was a great experience for me to be able to see the heroics and professionalism and training at work of guys like that.
They had trouble getting birds into us because it was a very hot area. So we had to beg them and convince our lives were at risk for them to put a bird anywhere near us. And in this case they did, they brought a medevac in, they brought the Sergeant out who was wounded. He died on the bird, way out of there. Pretty tough when you're a group of 40 dudes living in a shack by yourselves on Christmas time on the mountain, that was mentally difficult. We were a tight group.
And also these enemies, aren't our equal, right? There's only one way they score wins and kills against us and it's crap like this. And it worked and we knew better than that. And so that adds a little bit to it, doesn't it? It's like the 90 pound guy who's never trained in his life, somehow finds a way to sucker punch you and knock you out is what it felt like. And it costs one of your friends' lives.
And so the next morning we went out to survey the area because we broke contact. We didn't know what happened. And so we're following blood trails and we're finding bodies however far they made it and we're collecting those bodies. And some of those blood trails go into Pakistan. And so many levels above my pay grade, a captain was the ranking officer at this outpost. We're trying to go in, there's a little village in Pakistan. It looks just like the little village in Afghanistan on the other side. And there are clear signs of wounded being taken into that village. And of course we want to go in there and eat those people. They just killed one of our guys and we know where they are, but we're not allowed to go into Pakistan and the decision is made.
And so now everyone's all angry and wants to be vigilantes and go in there and snag these guys. But we don't, we're good disciplined soldiers and we didn't do it. The bodies we collected, it was snowy out so we were fortunate that we didn't have a spoilage problem. It preserved them nicely. We essentially arranged them just outside of the wall of our compound and covered them in ponchos to try to be as respectful as we could. And we sent a local down who spoke English into the village and into the Pakistan village to let the families of these people know that they could come and collect the bodies of their dead. Maybe one or two did, but the Green Beret teams pretty quickly snatched those people up. And so no one came for those bodies. So those bodies were there when I left.
But before I left, this was a big deal. One of our guys died. It was really traumatic. It was an area that had the eyes and ears of the command I would imagine. General flew in and a chaplain flew in to talk to all the guys and the general got all rah-rah with us. And essentially a lot of us felt reasonably that this death and this pain was a result of the rules of engagement being unfairly biased towards the enemy. There are men near our base at two in the morning in a very precarious position. And we have no right to engage them until they lead us into an ambush and engage us first. You can see how we might think that. Well, the General comes out and gives us a great speech about how rules of engagement be damned. If anything like this ever happens again, you do what you need to do to protect your men. And they can come talk to me, if they have a problem with it. Well, that's great for morale, but that General turned that place at the wild west after that.
So that was right around Christmas into January. And I got orders for a different duty after that. I forget where I went after that, but I got orders and I was really happy to get the orders because just anecdotes, humorous anecdotes there. It was very cold. There was a lot of snow on the ground. I had two sets of combat fatigues to my name. One night I was up on the wall pulling guard duty and this potbelly stove of the SF guys had had a chimney that came up to kind of where I was pulling guard. So I would straddle that chimney and kind of fluff my jacket up. So it would fill it full of heat, which was actually the exhaust of whatever they were burning.But one night I got so tired I caught my ass on fire and I burned the ass out of a pair of my pants. And so now I haven't showered in 60, 70 days. We don't have running water. It's too cold to shower. You don't want to shower. You might wash your face. And I only have one pair of pants to my name. So I'm like, I'm ready. 18 year old me wants to fight, trust me, but I also don't want to freeze and be filthy and just kind of miserable in that way.
So to be honest with you, I was glad when that Chinook landed and my five man team was able to hop ourselves on the back of it and go wherever we went. Wherever we went wasn't cold. So I was happy with that. And I think we went back to a base for a week or two. So we were able to binge, I remember taking a shower. We might have gone to Bagram on route to wherever we were going. I remember taking a shower and because none of us had showered for months, the shower dried us all out really bad. We all had big fluffy, dry, puffy hairdos. And that was a huge joke, we all looked like clowns. After our body stopped making whatever oils it makes and for whatever three, four days we were at Bagram we just did nothing but eat food and sleep. And it was good. That's life, isn't it? That's combat or not. It's funny how much you value and enjoy and appreciate things after deprivation. That's just kind of the human state is. And then two weeks later you think it's not good enough and you want more. It is just part of being who we are.
I had a great relationship with my first Sergeant. I wasn't the best soldier in the world, but I was a good soldier. I did my job well. I'm a weird guy and a free thinker. So I never fit perfectly in with the square headed nature that you need to in the infantry. I was always a little odd. And my first Sergeant loved that. And my first Sergeant would hand deliver our mails. So we'd be out in the middle of nowhere for months, we don't get any mail. We don't have anything. A helicopter might drop some MREs. My first Sergeant to his credit, an amazing man, a Ranger, would sneak his way onto whatever bird he could to come see us. And he'd bring us all mail and food and he'd stay with us for a week. And we would have fun together.
I think it was his chance to take care of his men, but it was also his chance to get away from it all and to live in a mud hut with three funny guys, four funny guys for a while. And so he took care of us. He was hard and he demanded a lot of us, but he found ways to make sure I had three days to eat and three days to shower before not eating and not showering.
I think what sticks with me are two things. First is some leadership must be innate because when I was in Iraq, we got hit pretty hard, ambushed, middle of the night, guys shooting at us. No one died, but it got scary for a little bit. And one of the platoon sergeants, so Sergeant First Class, cowered in the back of a truck and didn't fight and he was a tough rah-rah. He looked like a fighter and I don't know, I'm sure he got some shit for that. But in my mind, what stuck with me was there were guys that you would think were weak or that generally weren't really good soldiers, but when it came down to it, they would be focused like a laser and operating their machine gun like a Navy seal. And I would think about that after we'd come into contact is kind of the paradox of leadership by longevity versus leadership by just genetics or the way you're wired or the way you're built. And so to a certain extent, I've always carried that with me, going forward in my life that a person is who they are.
And sometimes leadership is thrust on people and sometimes people kind of rise to the challenge. I've seen multiple leadership styles. My first Sergeant was the best example of leadership I ever saw because he was hard. He would do it with you and he would show you that he was well versed in being miserable and being in pain. And that gave you a sense of loyalty to him, and a sense of trust in him that it went from a guy yelling at me, telling me what to do, to a guy I admire and want to be asking me to follow him.
And so that's always stuck with me is any situation where I need to be a leader, or if I were trying to design the perfect leader for any environment, you need someone who is the best and can walk the walks, particularly in something like combat, because it's really easy to tell people how hard you are and what a great shot you are and tell stories about war until you're at war with that guy. And you see him lying in a puddle of his piss at the back of the Humvee, right? There's reality. The professional world is different. We very rarely get face to face with reality. That's one of the beautiful things about going to combat is that there's a lot of bad things, but you will never experience something more real. There is never a more accurate measurement of who a man is compared to who he says he is, than in that moment when it's pure chaos and everyone's scared. And I'm grateful for that. I can say that, because I made it out healthy and relatively sane, but it's one of the good experiences. One of the silver linings to combat that I take with me.
All of us in my generation have friends that either stayed in or went on to be contractors and spent a decade in the Middle East, kind of doing this or that like me came home and became lawyers. And every day of their lives thought, I'm glad I'm not hungry. I'm glad someone's not trying to kill me, but I sure wish I was playing for higher stakes than I'm playing for right now. It is addictive. It's a thrill unlike anything you'll ever experience.
There are some really dark, sad parts of it, but there are also when in life will you ever be all in on every single hand you play? You just won't do it. And it is addictive and it is thrilling. You can tell the way I'm getting excited about thinking about it now, but it's no way to live. What are you going to do? You going to do that for 20 years? You're not going to make it out alive. And if you do, you're going to have some serious mental and physical issues.
The most gutting moments for me were dead kids and civilians. I mean, the truth of this is I served with exceptionally disciplined men. Our military is full of incredible human beings and we tried to do the right thing on the large- or by and large we did. But if you're on patrol, there's a group of five people and one of them fires something at you the inevitable collateral damage is that those guns that an 18 year old has might get turned on one of the four people that wasn't the one shooting and that's real. And that's really common and you have to deal with the aftermath of that. I think a lot of guys, when I was in, put blinders on and were like, ‘yeah,’ convinced themselves that we actually got the bad guys or the enemies, but there were a lot of us, myself included, who always recognized that wasn't the case.
Or put yourself in their shoes. I'm an 18 year old from the middle of nowhere who signed a contract to go fight because I wanted to, and my country needed me and ideals and all of that. What if I were an 18 year old Afghanistan, what decision would I have made there? Would I have fought for my religion against these people who are occupying my country? It was never black and white for me. There were times when it was black and white, where it was very gratifying to see people die. But the vast majority of time, it's gray. That's one thing combat taught me. And that's one thing that has stuck with me my whole life. And if I have scars from it, it's this. The world is gray and we were trying to do our best and our best wasn't good enough because we wounded innocent people and we terrified innocent people and we scarred them for life and in doing so, we carry those own scars with us.
When soldiers would die, it was tough because you knew them and you loved them to an extent, but they were men and they were soldiers. And we were all to a certain extent, prepared to die for what we were doing. It hurts me for those who didn't raise their hand, who didn't volunteer to play the game, to get caught up in the game. And it still does bother me. And I will take anti-war stances on most things going forward in my life, unless we're really pushed to have no choice, that's why. Movies, the stories a lot of veterans tell are exciting and folks want to hear them and I don't blame that. I grew up on all those movies. It's probably half the reason I joined the Army if I'm being honest with you, but the reality is war is hell. It truly is.
The first time that your adrenaline leaves your body after a fire fight. And you go to clean up the bad guys and you realize that there are few or no bad guys amongst the bodies laying in the sand or the house. You have to reconcile that some people have to reconcile. Some people have amazing defenses mechanisms where the thought never crosses their mind. God bless those people. They're perfect for the job, but people like me, you immediately have to reconcile. Am I the good guy? Is there a God? If there is a God, what does he think about what we just did? We had good intentions, but the outcome was unequivocally wrong and probably evil. So what does that mean? What does that mean for who I am and when I come home and my parents are like, our son is a paratrooper and everyone's proud of him, it's...
There you go. We could talk about this for three hours and get really deep down that hole. But I hope I've conveyed that even if your intentions are pure and Uncle Sam's intentions are pure at large, war is never pure and is always evil by necessity. And you need to find a way to reconcile that. And I don't know how I reconciled it. I think maybe it just zoomed me out and gave me a more macro view of the world, which is the world is full of pain and suffering and has been since the beginning of time. And for me to expect my brief moment in this world to be different than every other moment is kind of naive. And so you lose that naivete and you lose that innocence that maybe you could hold if you grew up in small town, Christian Ohio, and never really had to come face to face with things this serious. And so it's a loss of innocence and it can turn a lot of people bitter and it could turn a lot of people into drunks and addicts if they don't find a way to deal with it.
I'm lucky I had good parents who were really smart, who kind of equipped me with the ability to think through things like this and had a dad who lived a tough life and was able to give me advice on how he dealt with as a, his time in the military was tough, but as a firefighter in the rust belt, very tough part of Ohio, his daily life was responding to drug overdoses and dealing with the children of these people who are in no space to raise children. And he carried a lot of scars and he developed defense mechanisms for his scars and he kind of coached me and helped me develop my own in a weird way. I don't think I realized it at the time, how similar being a police or firefighter is to combat in that, for example, my dad told me once, if someone hangs himself, who do you think is the guy that goes and finds them and reacts to that? That's the police and fire. And that's a very similar probably type of callous you need to build up to be able to do that work. Mine was very intense in a very short period. His was less intense over a very long period, but I'm grateful that he was able to help me think through it and how he did it was, it's kind of a badge of honor. This is who we are, that we are from a tough part of Ohio where bad things happen. And we are kind of blessed to be in a situation where we're not subject to that. It's like our badge of honor is to be the ones that bear that and to take it and to become hard. And that's who we are as men where I'm from. And it kind of worked for me to be honest. It's probably not the way a therapist would've taken me through it, but become hard as iron and take pride in the fact that you're one who's been in the dirt and who made it through and is still functioning. It's kind of where I sit today.
I'll just share that the brotherhood and the bonds you can build with the men you fight with, are we talked about the magnitude of being in combat and feeling alive, kind of a similar vein is the love you can build for another human being in those circumstances. And to be truthful, I don't talk to a lot of the guys I served with that were my close team, that we went to three wars together with one of them. One of them just shot himself. And so we kind of had to get together over that and deal with that. But the thing is, we have this really special bond where we don't talk to each other because we're different men now. And we're glad we're different men now. And kind of talking to each other can get you back into that frame of mind you were, and it's probably best we all moved on from that, but the way we feel about each other, having to get together over a recent tragedy, it really struck me that we could just step right back in and be right back where we were and the love and compassion that we still have for each other to this day despite we only talk once a decade is still there and something I'll never forget.
I love my wife. I love my son. I have good friends that I love deeply, but it's different than these guys. I went to combat with. I sat in the foxhole eight hours a day for months on end, just listening to them babble about their family back home and their hobbies and the two girlfriends they had before they joined the Army. All that nonsense. It just forms an incredible, beautiful bond that I think your listeners should know and appreciate it. It's bad on the whole, going to combat is probably bad for a person, but there are some wonderful things that come out of it. And just your ability to form the deepest bonds I've ever formed in my life with strangers is one of them.
That was Specialist Nathan Dowds.
Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at email@example.com. We’re always looking to improve the show.
For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.
And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.