Editor’s note: This is the first essay in a three-part series by John Sims about succumbing to years of trauma, and learning to how to heal on his own, and with his family. Read his second essay.
Not far from the gate of Camp Julian in Kabul, Afghanistan, a young man sat in a filthy car, praying. For three days he had been trolling Kabul, waiting for the right time. He had been recruited by the Haqqani network as a suicide bomber against Coalition Forces. As the lead vehicle in our convoy approached, and with only 100 meters to the safety of the Camp Julian gate, he detonated the explosives, vaporizing himself and sending fragments of steel, plastic, human flesh and bone flying. In an instant, all six passengers onboard our lead vehicle were killed: four senior officers who had arrived in country hours before, and the NCO and Soldier escorts who were scheduled to return home in weeks. Also killed were 12 Afghans, mainly women and children, who had the misfortune of passing on a bus just as the blast occurred. Eighteen killed on 18 May, 2010. This attack in the initial hours of arrival marked a bad start to a hard deployment.
John Sims in a briefing. Courtesy of John Sims
It was the spring of 2010 as the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters prepared for a 12-month deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Monday, May 16th, 2010 would be my wife, Theresa, and my 25th wedding anniversary. Like countless anniversaries before, I wouldn’t be home. Theresa saw me off that morning as I left Fort Drum with the 10th Mountain Division Commanding General and a small group of senior officers for a short Pre-Deployment Site Survey (PDSS) visit to our future area of operation in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Since we would be there only for a week, I gave little thought that something might go wrong.
We arrived in Kabul Airfield in the early morning of May 18th, as the sun was beginning to rise. We dropped our gear, wolfed down breakfast, and prepared to convoy across town for training at Camp Julian. Dazed from poor sleep after traveling through half the world’s time zones and brightness from Kabul’s rising sun, we grabbed our gear and moved to the convoy staging area.
John Sims and his wife, Theresa, and their children on moving day. Courtesy of John Sims
Across from us, six clean, black up-armored SUVs that sparkled in the sun sat ready to transport us through the dusty city of Kabul. We huddled for a quick safety brief. The NCOs and Soldiers assigned to drive were within weeks of heading home from their largely uneventful, year-long deployment. They told us, “It’s an easy trip we’ve done many times. Trust us that nothing will happen.” Some of us shared uneasy glances—what would we do if something did go wrong—but we were too new here to question their experience.
As the briefing ended, I headed towards the closest SUV, the first in the lineup. Ahead of me, several colleagues were already getting in. Not wanting to crowd the group, I moved to the second vehicle. Was there a force in play that caused me to change course? I carried that question for years.
As we left base and drove through Kabul, I was struck how the town bustled like a normal city. Women shopped in the markets, men talked or sipped tea in small groups, life seemed pretty peaceful and didn’t fit the image I had of Afghanistan at war. I considered taking off my Kevlar helmet and loosening my flak vest to get comfortable, but I didn’t want to draw criticism from my colleagues or a reprimand from the NCO.
Aftermath of the suicide bombing in Kabul on May 18, 2010. Courtesy of John Sims.
It’s hard to describe the sensation of 1,500 pounds of explosives detonating close by. First came a flash of light far brighter than anything I had ever seen. I don’t remember a ‘boom,’ but there must have been one: All six SUVs were in a flash scorched beyond recognition, with broken windows, flat tires, and leaking fluids. Debris rained down. As if in slow motion, a car engine with the attached transmission emerged from a cloud of dust, somersaulting toward our vehicle, landing just short of our windshield. Had that flying mass of steel travelled another six feet, it would have been catastrophic for our driver.
Stunned and in disbelief, I sat not wanting to accept what I knew to be true; we had sustained a suicide attack. A bloodied colleague approached and asked for a by-name account of vehicle occupants, and I realized that members of our convoy must have been killed. We had no record of who had boarded each vehicle. As we began identifying those who had been killed, I realized that all of them were in the lead vehicle I’d almost boarded.
My training to suppress emotions but still function in a crisis situation kicked in, and I joined the recovery of our comrades and helped secure the site. I performed as a soldier as I had been trained to do: with logic, but no emotion. But over the coming days, that suppressed shock took root, but I pushed it to the bottom of my emotional rucksack.
I began to think I might not survive the coming year. Before I had deployed, a friend had joked with me, “Don’t worry, John, colonels don’t bleed.” I took solace in his words. Over time, the weight of the May 18th attack and others would join 30 years of traumatic events from Desert Storm, Kosovo, the Pentagon on 9/11, and other deployments. Eventually the weight of these struggles became too much to bear, and I realized I had to make a change. But what?
This is the first essay in John Sim’s three-part series. Read his second essay here.