Have you ever wondered about how heroes are made? Contrary to general belief, heroes are not born. There isn’t some gene that gets activated at one small portion of men. It’s the situation that acts as a breaking point and none of us can be 100% sure how we would react to such a tremendous pressure – over and over again.
A week ago, I had the privilege to talk with the real war hero. The man who singlehandedly extracted and saved 10 of his comrades under heavy fire from artillery and enemy snipers.
You just don’t know…
My collocutor is now approaching his 50s. He’s a tall, thin guy that wouldn’t strike you as someone who’s even capable of holding a weapon, let alone being an active member of an elite commando unit for 4 years and all that time being actively engaged in combat.
From 1991 to 1995, he and his brothers in arms haven’t been gone from the first lines for longer than 2 months altogether. They were living and breathing together, on the battlefield, behind enemy lines for the most of the time.
What it feels like to breach that invisible line for the first time and realize that you are deep behind enemy lines? That there are no friendlies anywhere within close reach? What was your first experience?
“To be honest, I wasn’t entirely aware of it the first few times. You are young and full of energy and enthusiasm. On top of that, I don’t get impressed that easily.
When you are 19 and still under the influence of the action movies, and then you equip yourself with all those gadgets Schwarzenegger loaded himself with before he went to save his daughter, you feel some sort of new energy.
It’s really hard to explain.
Add the fact that we didn’t have any kind of heavy training at that point. You can guess how naive and borderline stupid we all were. Some basic training just a year ago and that was it.
But when you step into the battlefield for the first time in your life and you hear the distant pounding of the artillery barrage and then, 3 seconds later the enemy returns the favor, you grow up in that same moment.
It’s like that the first shell that flies over your head acts like your father who just slapped you and told you to wake the fuck up. So you wake up and eat dirt until you reach at least some sort of a cover.
I remember being scared beyond comprehension at that moment.
But there was no time to enjoy the moment. Our orders were clear and we were led by a former French Foreign Legion sergeant. He was a member of their 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, Commando Parachute Group. A fearsome paratrooper, forged in many battles and engagements to that point. And he was relentless.
If I recall correctly, it took two hours to drag our asses through some stinky mud and reach a mile in depth behind their lines. I could actually see the flames from the barrels of their artillery since it was getting darker by the minute. By the time we reached our position, it was pitch dark outside. And cold. I remember the cold. It was unbearable.
Our job was simple. To locate their artillery and send coordinates. You see, back then, it was the only way. We didn’t even have the laser markers. Everything had to be done manually. Old fashion.
I still wasn’t aware of where I was at that moment. You just simply don’t think about it. As they love to say, you are already dead. That’s the secret. So don’t sweat about it. Yet, I had to control the shivering. My instincts were telling me to get the fuck out of there. The entire body wants to scream because the brain recognizes the danger of the situation and wants to move the body away. Once you learn to control that instinct, you can live on the battlefield.
So our command decided to do something unexpected. Our enemy was seriously underestimating our willingness and skills. It allowed us to move behind their lines with ease and wreak havoc.
At 06:00, on that cold November morning, we sent the coordinates. Their position was well disguised and heavily fortified. They had defense nests all over the perimeter. Somehow, I don’t really know how, we managed to slip right through two of those machine gun nests and disappear in a nearby forest.
At 06:15, the whole hell broke loose. Our artillery was brutally efficient. No one survived, at least not to my knowledge. All their equipment, weapons, batteries, everything got destroyed during a half an hour-long attack. The entire area was burnt to the ground.
That was my first day on the active battlefield and behind enemy lines. I remember it like it was this morning, even though years have passed.”
The birth of a war hero
If I remember correctly, a year after, you were in the trenches. It was a mess. No one knew where the enemies were and where the friendlies were. And then, they ordered an immediate retreat. It was the moment when your team realized that you have been cut off from the rest of your battalion. Is that about right?
“Yes. For four weeks, we were defending our lines. The only moments when you could get some rest were between 04:00 am and 05:30 am. For the rest of the time, the battlefield was active. And when I say active, I mean constant firing from every possible weapon, including aircraft.
Some guys died from nervous breakdowns without suffering any real mechanical injuries. We were all living in some weird zone where life and death don’t have defined boundaries. Death and destruction were all around us.
We lost half of our men in week one. By the end of week four, we were reduced to twenty percent. We were hungry and thirsty because supply lines were cut off. Our ammo was running dangerously low.
On top of everything, at some parts of the battlefield, you could literally throw – and receive – a grenade right in the trench because the distance between us and them was, in some places, less than 30 yards.
It was around 02:15 am. Monday. December 1992. Cold winter night. The firing from both sides was so intense that you could read a book. The sky was literally on fire.
I remember that we had spent the entire afternoon the day before, trying to eliminate a cunning and extremely skillful enemy sniper. The guy kept climbing trees and wasted one of ours every two hours. Rookies for the most part. Guys who couldn’t control their urges to peek or to get out and run back.
Until we spotted the rocket launcher fixed at the backpack of one of the guys who got shot by that same sniper. His body was some 20 yards from our trench. So someone had to go out there and get it.
You can guess what kind of task that was. But before we even said the last word, one guy volunteered. I had never seen him before because we were all mixed up due to the mess on the field.
The idea was a good old classic. Covering fire while he runs out, grabs the RL and returns. So we spread the word along the trenches. All weapons active.
Needless to say that we lit up the scene. And we were successful too. However, just a couple of seconds later, we received a deadly answer from the enemy sniper.
An hour later, we heard him firing from the west. Usually, he would take a shot or two and change position. This time, he remained on the same spot for longer than usual. I guess he felt secure so he rolled the dice.
After his third shot, one of my guys stood up, aimed the RL and fired a rocket in yet another tree. Let’s just say that the treetop, along with the enemy sniper, simply vanished after the explosion.
It was a small victory, but it meant more than you can imagine. It felt like we just liberated Paris. Hard to imagine how just one simple target can mean so much to so many in those conditions.
But I guess it was just the question of when before my unit feels what many have felt thus far. One single mortar shell, most likely 120mm panzer, brought death and disaster to over 20 guys.
You see, we had made a sort of rendezvous point. A bit deeper and wider chamber that was connecting two trenches. There, we felt safe. Hard to believe, right? [Loud laughter that stopped suddenly… you could see the sadness on his face]
By that time, and we weren’t even aware of that, we were all already cut off from the rest and completely surrounded by the enemy troops.
We heard it coming, but there was nowhere to hide. The pressure from the explosion simply knocked me out.
I woke up, covered in blood and dirt, just to see dead bodies all around me.
Couldn’t hear. Just unbearable buzzing. Then I saw one of my old friends, who joined me right at the beginning of the war. He was moving. Then another one.
I slowly got up. There were 4 of us in the same unit, who came from the same town and all four of us went to the same class in high school. I was the only one who wasn’t even scratched. At least that was how I felt in that moment.
Outside, above our heads, it was like Earth is exploding in sequences. The sky was red. You could smell death and gunpowder and hear screams.
I didn’t think. I just picked up my pal, got him out of the trench and carried him some 200 yards to the south, from where we originally came. I knew that there were a couple of houses with at least some cover.
Bullets were flying all around me and mortar batteries didn’t spare grenades. Somehow, I managed to reach the first house, got inside and drop him on the floor. Then I remembered that I saw another one moving inside the trench.
I went back. Found him. Picked him up. And carried him to the house.
When I dropped him down, he said that there are more survivors.
Again, I went back. In total, I took 12 turns and saved 10 men. Two of them died while I was carrying them. One took the sniper bullet right in the back of his head when we were half way back. At least I think that happened because I felt the hit in my back and when I dropped him inside the house, his head was literally blown apart.
Only then had I realized that I was running with the piece of metal stuck in my left leg. Can you believe it? [he laughs again]”
How did you get out? You were surrounded?
“We waited for around an hour or two. Call it a miracle or whatever you want, but before the dawn, the entire battlefield was empty. No movements. Nothing. Only us, in that demolished house.
We managed to contact our battalion. Two trucks came an hour later and got us out of that shithole.”
What do you think made you extract all 12 of them? It doesn’t sound like something anyone would do.
“No, it doesn’t. Truth to be said, I saw the guys crying for their mommas even though they weren’t hit. I saw guys leaving their wounded buddies behind and running away from the field. I even witnessed one medic who dropped everything and went for cover while two others were helping wounded men under heavy fire.
People are different. I’m not someone who sticks out from the crowd. I never was something of a sportsman either. Never initiated some sort of the childish revolution, rebellion or discontent. I never defied authority. Never done anything that could be considered daring or heroic.
Yet, when that shit happened and I woke up and looked around, I didn’t think for a second what to do. I believe that many would simply flee the scene, saving their own lives. It’s instinct, nothing more.”
Did that experience change you in some way?
“Yes. My own mother couldn’t recognize me when I came back to rest for a while couple of days later. And it didn’t have anything to do with my appearance. My mind was different.
Can’t really explain it but from that moment on, I never backed down from anything. Whatever it was, I was in. Because, as I later realized, there’s only one thing that’s absolute and that’s death. Everything else is relative. So if it’s not something that could somehow put your life on the line, why fearing it?
Today, I run a successful company and employ 240 people, unlike many of my comrades who retired and suffered the inevitable consequences of being inactive. They are popping pills and drinking heavily just to get their minds off of all the dreadful things we witnessed during those four years.
When I read the newspapers or blogs, I find the so-called “everyday challenges,” that are heavily discussed all over the internet. Find that puny, to tell you the truth.
I’ve seen and experienced the worst you can imagine. Everything else is lemonade and vanilla. Not a challenge. Just a stair you need to step on and off to the next, that’s all. For the most part, you don’t even need any particular courage to do something or face something from the list of those “everyday challenges.”
Just accept the fact that the worst thing that can happen to you is death. Everything else in between is better than that. So why not give it a shot, if you know what I mean.”
We spoke for a couple of hours, discussing all sorts of things. But one thing got stuck in my mind: I’m already dead. So why the fuck not. After all, if he was able to make 12 return trips under heavy fire while carrying men on his back, why wouldn’t I make it in almost anything, right?
Because, is there anything worse than what he went through?
No, there isn’t. It’s just that we all tend to get scared too goddamn easy, while in reality, there’s nothing to be scared of.
Everything we see around us and everything we are facing with is just another stair to step on or a door to open, same as all those before. We won’s step on a landmine. We won’t end up blasted by a mortar shell. It’s vanilla. Not the real challenge.
Take the jump! Be a kid once again. A fearless boy who doesn’t hesitate or back down when he’s challenged to climb the top of the tree.
And that’s the big secret. Because, once upon a time, we were all fearless heroes.