An Afghan vet remembers: 'I'm toting around half a bullet and a scar for nothing'
Marine Cpl. Adam Lanier still carries half a bullet in his head from his time in Afghanistan.
In addition to that injury, which took place on July 4, 2010, he's undergone multiple surgeries to his spine and his elbow. He suffers from arthritis and cubital tunnel syndrome.
"There hasn’t really been a steady stretch where I haven’t been in pain for the last 11 years," Lanier said. "I’m in pain every single day."
The United States' recent withdrawal from Afghanistan — after a two-decades-long war that began in 2001 — aggravated his post-traumatic stress disorder. He experiences moments of paranoia, endures a stress response to unexpected loud noises and can sometimes have a quick temper. A doctor prescribed Vicodin for him, but he's sworn off most painkillers because he fears the possibility of growing dependent on them.
"I do a pretty good job of keeping it under wraps," Lanier said, "but every now and then that beast will rear its head and it’s not a good place for me to be."
Like many Afghan war veterans, the 32-year-old feels ambivalent about the events of the last few months. The withdrawal was inevitable, he said, but it was nonetheless difficult to watch after so much sacrifice.
"I'm toting around a half a bullet and a scar for nothing," he said, "because 20 years of work was undone in 10 days."
For the most part, the Springettsbury Township resident avoids the news — "it's [expletive] depressing," he confides — but eventually he couldn't ignore it anymore.
When he finally began following the news from Afghanistan again, the beast reared its ugly head.
It took more than an hour on the phone with a friend, another vet, to help pull him out of the spiral, Lanier said. That support network has been essential, not only since the Afghanistan withdrawal, but since he left Afghanistan in 2010.
How else does he deal with it?
Lanier said he tries to spend time alone doing thing like hunting or fishing. He'll also go to LEEK Hunting and Mountain Preserve in Potter County, which provides recreational trips for disabled veterans.
Over the door of the indoor area where veterans can shoot out onto the outdoor range, there's a sign: "Fire and Forget." Lanier will spend time with other veterans there.
"So we go in there, we start talking and shooting [expletive]," he said.
After some thought, he added: "Pun intended.”
In Afghanistan, Lanier was injured after providing support for a mortar team outside of Marjah. Heading back to the base, his team was ambushed by a couple of fighters with a belt-fed machine gun. His rifle took several bullets. He took only one.
"I didn’t feel anything," he remembered. "The only thing I felt was the rifle leave my shoulder when it got hit and I leaned forward to catch it."
Had he not leaned forward, Lanier believes, the bullet that struck him would've killed him: It would've hit him square in the neck.
When he hit the ground, Lanier blacked out. Initially, the rest of his team thought he was dead. It was only after he started swearing that the team knew he was alive, and after killing the people who had ambushed them, one of his teammates moved him and removed his Kevlar helmet.
"It reopened the wound and that’s when I really started bleeding heavy," he said. "They ended up having to put a pressure dressing around my head to stop as much bleeding as they could. But I ended up passing out from blood loss twice."
After being brought by a Blackhawk helicopter to Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, Lanier thought he was fine to walk out of the helicopter. He passed out at the door for a third time and woke up in the medical area's triage room.
When he was brought back to the United States after his injury, the sudden transition from soldier to civilian was jarring. Despite his injuries, he tried to re-enlist six different times.
"When you spend that amount of time with a certain group of guys and you go through something like that with them," he said, "you tend to want to stick with them."
Lanier, who enlisted in 2006, wanted to make a career out of it. He compared training to the work professional athletes put into their pursuits. And, most of all, he loved the people.
A large factor was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"9/11 was one of the worst days we've had in American history," Lanier said. He remembers sitting in history class in seventh grade as his class watched the events on television, not changing classrooms for the entire day.
After school, his mother picked him and his brother up and they went home.
"I don’t think anybody said a whole lot that night. It was kind of an eerie feeling," Lanier said. "Looking back I get it, but then, I didn’t understand a whole lot of it. But looking back I get it. What are you gonna say?"
There's not a day that goes by for anyone who was enlisted and saw combat as a result of 9/11 that the person doesn't think about it as a reason why, Lanier said.
Lately, that has extended to the U.S. withdrawal and its aftermath.
Creating a chokepoint with thousands of people trying to rush the U.S. military's position and expecting them to maintain that position without adequate combat training was setting them up for failure, Lanier believes.
"But to have the rug yanked out from under us before the job was done," he added, "it feels like a disservice not only to us, but to those families that lost loved ones in that terrorist attack."
Lanier said the withdrawal itself didn't invalidate his sacrifice but the whole process "felt like a slap in the face." Abandoning all the strides made for women, he said, is particularly troubling.
"We just handed the country back to that," he said, "and sent the country back 2,000 years in 10 days."
These days, he volunteers at LEEK and at Roots for Boots, an Adams County-based nonprofit that connects service members with various resources. He also drives a truck for a Harrisburg company.
"There's guys that need it worse than me," he said, "and it's only money. I make more of it every day."
In his last six months on active duty, Lanier met his wife Keely in Jacksonville, North Carolina, outside of Camp Lejeune while he was playing in a band named Modern Day Outlaws. After about a year in Georgia, they moved up to York, where they live with their two children, Regan and Wyatt.
After his injury, Lanier said it took him a while to find his footing. What keeps him going now are his wife and kids as well as his desire to give back to the veterans community.
During a recent hunting trip at LEEK Hunting and Mountain Preserve, Lanier was able to connect with and help disabled veterans. One gave him a hug at the end after the two of them had just met.
"Doing stuff like that and helping other vets out when I can gives me a pretty good purpose too," he said.
In general, Lanier said, he'd like to see more people step up to support veterans, whether that's through letting them talk or supporting programs like a military share that's essentially a food pantry for veterans.
"You never know who might need a hand," Lanier said. "Because a lot of guys are going through a hard time dealing with this and they did their time serving, maybe it’s time for some other people to step up and serve the guys that served."
At the preserve, there's a book in which veterans write their names and phone numbers. It's called the "22 A Day" book, referring to statistics that show roughly 22 veterans take their own lives each day.
"Our whole thing is if we can stop at least one of those, we’ve done something," Lanier said. "So we write our names and phone numbers down in there and if anybody ever needs to talk or call, it doesn’t matter if it’s 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, you answer the damn phone."
Matt Enright can be reached via email at email@example.com and via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.