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Crisp, sharp, harrowing --- and heroic
on August 24, 2009
This non-fiction account of Sgt. Jeremiah Workman, an Ohioan Marine veteran of the Iraq war and the Dec. 23, 2004 battle in Fallujah, is one of the most impressive and yet harrowing accounts of war I've ever read. With able assistance from John R. Bruning, Workman brings to life the terror and heroic responses of U.S. Marines in current-day battle and honors through retelling many dramatic historic events and traditions of past generations, who died fighting some of America's most brutal enemies.
Meanwhile, Workman weaves in his encounters with personal demons born in Fallujah. For his heroism in that grisly battle against Jihadists, Workman received the Navy Cross for heroism --- "the highest award for bravery" the U.S. gives to servicemen, and second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was awarded to only 18 men since 9/11, most of them posthumously.
Like all survivors of trauma that killed family or friends, however, Workman felt unworthy. He felt that in reality, his deceased best friends, fallen in Fallujah --- Montana cut-up Raleigh Smith, Hoosier Lance Cpl. Eric Hillenburg and fellow Mustang-lover James Phillips --- had earned the medal given to him. So had the other surviving Marines --- Bronx-born Phillip Levine (who lost family on 9/11), Cpl. Steve Snell, Lance Cpl. Jason Flannery, Sgt, Sam Gardiola, Smith's best friend Jerrad Hebert, and Sergeant Jarrett Kraft (a non-commissioned officer whose WWII and FBI veteran grandfather blessed the returning Workman in Navajo "for protecting my grandson"), and others.
As heroic as were Workman's battlefield efforts, all the more so are his descriptions of the causes, effects and difficulties of recovering from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). This diagnosis, officially accepted by the medical community only in 1980, affects hundreds of thousands of veterans of foreign wars, from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. It also effects hundreds of thousands of rape victims, and undoubtedly millions of abandoned children worldwide, whether they've been adopted or not.
Repeated exposure to extreme trauma or stress, like battle (or abuse), causes repeated adrenaline rushes --- literally infusing victims with drugs, albeit naturally and internally induced. "In Iraq," Workman writes, "we lived on the edge. Our bodies grew accustomed to the daily adrenaline infusion combat gave us. I became a junkie...." Upon his return home, Workman "went into withdrawal."
Incredibly, Workman constructs his story in such a way that readers experience his battlefield traumas alongside he and his Marine brothers. We know as little going into the thick of battle in the high-end Fallujah mansion of a former Ba'athist official as Workman and his fellow Marines. We know only that the men are "mopping up" --- searching for arms caches and Mujahadeen cells, when suddenly he and at least 10 other U.S. Marines are caught in a fierce firefight whose origin and perpetrators they cannot discern. Deadly AK-47 firing thickens in the approach to the grand home, and intensive "kill zones" surround the fence and inside that, cover portions of its thick, surreal suburban lawn. Firepower sprays the entrance --- as well as the marble foyer and cement and marble stairwell leading to the second floor, where two or three, maybe more, U.S. Marines are suddenly trapped.
Only as he nears the present day does Workman finally reveal the sum total of the events --- with summaries from the perspectives of several surviving Marines who approached the house from different angles. Thus, readers can see, hear, and feel the flying bullets, bits of shrapnel and pieces of concrete and marble breaking off the stairs. Thus we can almost smell the black smoke, and feel ourselves scorched by home-made incendiary bombs in fierce 110 degree heat that alone can consume a man's breath. Workman killed more than 24 jihadists during the fight in which he also he lost three men. But he thought for a very long time that he had killed no one, and the fight had been for naught. That thinking also induced a sense of shame and guilt that he had survived and his friends had not.
Shadow of the Sword brings to life the horrors of war --- and the psychological horrors of post traumatic stress disorder, however it was caused. This is a book that readers will never forget, whether they are also veterans, PTSD victims of another sort, family of PTSD victims, or simply Americans with pride for their country, and thanks for the young men and women of the U.S. Armed forces.
--- Alyssa A. Lappen