SANDPOINT — Most people hope they never have the kind of experiences Sgt. John Fitzgerald has had — and he’s had more than he cares to remember.
Over three deployments, Fitzgerald has served in both the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, enduring some of the most hostile and dangerous battles of the 21st century. As a member of one of the Army’s elite light infantry units, he spent years overseas living in awful conditions and engaged in hundreds of combat operations.
“People will never understand the level of stress we went through,” he said. “There’s no way they can know what it’s like to be thousands of miles away from home watching your buddy die.”
Altogether, Fitzgerald spent four years across three deployments overseas. In August 2003, Fitzgerald joined his unit for Operation Shock and Awe in Baghdad for 15 months.
The second deployment, which lasted 18 months, was also to Iraq.
His final 16-month deployment sent him to Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, made famous by the 2010 documentary film “Restrepo.”
“That was a real hellhole,” Fitzgerald said of his final deployment.
In relating his experience with others, Fitzgerald said it’s difficult to make people comprehend the harshness of the conditions during those conflicts and how each individual condition added up to be greater than the sum of its parts.
For one thing, the constant presence of danger was always a source of stress.
“You never knew every time you went to bed whether you were going to wake up again,” he said.
Given that fact and the basic nature of military operations, sleep deprivation was another huge problem. Fitzgerald estimates that at one point, he went more than a week with almost no sleep. When he and his fellow soldiers could grab sleep, it was often outside in self-made ditches. Showers were another irregularity. Fitzgerald said at one point, he went without one for more than six months.
“I stunk like mayonnaise and raw eggs at that point,” he said. “If I were to walk into a room smelling like that now, everyone would know it right away.”
The environment itself presented difficulties, particularly in the extremities of temperature. Over his deployments, the unit endured both sweltering heat — 142 degrees at one point in Iraq, Fitzgerald sad — and chilling cold.
Then there were the deaths in the unit — and that’s something a person doesn’t easily shake off, Fitzgerald said. He still remembers Oct. 13, 2006, when his friend Josh was killed by an improvised explosive device.
“The lower right half of his body was gone,” he said. “I just sat there holding him and told him he was going to be OK.”
While moments like care packages from the states or visits from entertainers helped lighten the burden from time to time, Fitzgerald said it wasn’t long before reality sank back in.
“When you’re doing something like that for that long, it becomes a part of you,” he said.
Fitzgerald talks about all his experiences in a very matter-of-fact tone. From his perspective, he was asked to do a job for his country, and he performed that job to the best of his ability.
As is always the case in wartime, however, the country asks for some major sacrifices from its soldiers. Fitzgerald still suffers from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including altered sleep habits and nightmares. That’s why it’s annoying for him, now that he has returned home, to find people who simply don’t care. Even worse are people like the members of Westboro Baptist Church, who actively protest and harass grieving military families.
This Veterans Day, Fitzgerald hopes that residents will take the time to remember the sacrifice so many have made for both the friends and the strangers back home.
“I’d like to see people think about what soldiers actually go through and realize that what you have is because of what guys like us go through,” he said.
Fitzgerald probably summed it up best himself with some verses he penned in contemplation of his experiences.
“When the conflict is over and all is well, be thankful that we chose to go through hell,” he wrote.