The Futility and Waste of Regret - A Right Turn in Combat and a Life Lesson

Normally blogs stick to the subjects of their sites or advertise their particular solutions in their area, but this actually has nothing to do with the Gentlemen’s Defense at all.  It’s about an important life lesson I learned 16 years ago that I’ve been reminded of recently, so I thought I’d share it.

16 years ago I was an Engineer Company Commander during the invasion in 2003.  For those not familiar, a combat engineer company at that time had both thin-skin HMMWVs (canvas doors) and M113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) for movement.  

For context here, we quickly learned the thin canvas doors were just in the way.  They offered no protection from anything, blocked you from quickly raising your weapon when you had to, and prevented quick exits during raids.  Most everyone who travelled in these models opted at the time to completely remove them.  Armor companies on the other hand had armored HMMWVs.  Unlike our canvas vehicles, theirs had armor protecting the cabin and thick ballistic glass that was strong enough to stop or deflect small arms and shrapnel. 

So one afternoon early on our Battalion commander called a Command and Staff meeting.  My company and one other one, an armor company, were the only ones who held smaller towns off the larger bases in Baqubah, so we both had to travel to get there.  As my 3 vehicle movement turned out of our town and started heading east that afternoon, I noticed the armor company commander’s 3-vehicle movement fell in behind us.  They had started off from their base earlier and were nearing as we pulled out.  Command in Baghdad had only just recently ordered that you weren’t allowed to move anywhere in country with less than 3 vehicles, and so when travelling with 3, inevitably the commander/leader always traveled in the middle vehicle.  It wasn’t hard for the bad guys to figure this out obviously.

As you approached Baqubah from the east, you arrived at a traffic circle short of the city and had two choices to get to the other side.  You could either turn right and head straight through the city or left and take the longer northern bypass road around the city.  Both carried risks.  The city route carried the probability of being a trapped stationary target in traffic jams as you made your way through, and being within arms’ reach of crowds.  In a completely open HMMWV, that tended to raise the hair on the back of your neck a bit.  On the other hand the northern bypass was called “RPG Alley” for a reason.  RPG Alley was a barren long stretch of road that was a favorite RPG shooting gallery for the bad guys.  Even with all that, 99% of the time you’d opt to gun it through RPG Alley where your speed, the open fields of fire,  and the bad guy’s notoriously horrible aim were on your side.  The notion of a new kind of threat emerging elsewhere in the country… wiring and burying artillery rounds, or IEDs, hadn’t really made its way much into our area just yet.

For some reason that day as we approached the traffic circle which split the routes, I radioed the lead vehicle we were going to head right… we were going through the city. Up until then, we’d always chosen RPG Alley to get to BN.  The city route would take more time, but at that time of day there were likely other patrols in the city, I could conduct some observation along the way, be there to reinforce anyone who needed it, and I just felt it was time to mix things up either way.  It was as simple as that.

We made the trip through the city and arrived safely at BN without incident.  As we pulled inside the base and made the turn toward BN headquarters, we could see a lone blackened, mauled uparmor vehicle about 50 meters ahead.  As we pulled closer, I made out the bumper number, and knew it was the armor company commander’s vehicle that had been travelling behind us just a half hour ago. 

He’d turned left at the circle opting to gun it through RPG alley after we’d turned right.  His vehicle, being second in his 3-vehilce movement (where they knew leadership travelled), had been targeted by an IED.  The bad guy’s timing on this one had been spot on.  From the shrapnel damage it looked like they’d blown up the buried artillery shells right next to his vehicle.  His door area had caught the majority of the damage.  He and his guys were shaken up pretty good, the gunner probably had a concussion, but they were alive.

I just stood there looking at it, fixated on that messed up door and ballistic window that had protected that commander.

The IED had done tremendous damage to the side and was strong enough to have shattered all the thick ballistic glass.  Some of the shrapnel had come in large chucks that had gouged deep into his door.  It drew a morbid, but clear map for me of what would have occurred to my vehicle had I chosen to turn left.  The deepest gouge was below and in front of the door handle.  I could tell from where it hit, it would have slammed flat into the right side of my torso, in-between the front and back plates of my vest, and would have most certainly torn me in half.  Some other large gouges were lower and forward.  Those would have likely torn through the lower half of my body and right leg.  In short, the damage meant that I would have literally been shredded in our completely open HMMWV, likely my driver along with me, and more than likely the gunner wouldn’t have survived it either.

By this time we'd already become well used to the mortar, RPG, and other attacks on our the building we occupied in our town, but this was different. I couldn’t get over the complete randomness of it all. This wasn’t like some critical decision under fire, it was just a dumb, simple left/right driving decision.   If I had decided to turn left like I’d always done in the past, my 3-vehicle movement would been first through the Alley, and my vehicle would have been the target.  I and my guys would have died 20 minutes ago… should have died 20 minutes ago, except I decided to turn right.

The experience stuck in my head.  How many other close calls was I not even aware of?  How many times had I chosen to dive or move, and in doing so avoided a bullet?  Or for that matter, how many times had I decided not to move, and in doing so avoided one that would have caught me?   Later on that month I was standing outside my vehicle having a smoke while waiting to move out.  Something caught my eye, I bent down and noticed there was a damn bullet hole in the side of my HMMWV just in front where my feet were.  When the hell did that happen? 

You’re always aware that ‘big’ decisions carried consequences.  For instance the ones that you made under fire.  I now realized that all the seemly small ones might carry the same degree of consequence.   In the end it was impossible to know, and soon it became clear it was worthless to fear or be paranoid about any decision.  In the end, you make the absolute best decision you can, and life’s going to roll you your consequence.  Sometimes you’re going to get a 7, and sometimes you’re going to get snake eyes.  And even then, maybe it wasn’t really snake eyes.  Maybe it saved you from something worse.

After I redeployed I realized further it really wasn’t just about combat, that traffic circle, that bullet hole, or the others I might have missed.  The reality was it was equally true of any and every decision that you make in your life. 

Even while simply growing up.  How many decisions both good and bad along the way actually prevented bad things from happening?  Even during seemly benign periods in my life.  What if I hadn’t blown college after high school?  Should I regret that?  I certainly wouldn’t have enlisted in ’88 like I did.  What if I hadn’t been such a dumbass in high school, paid more attention, and gotten better grades?  You could “What if” this about anything and everything.

We tend to see those roads not chosen as greener pastures for some reason.   “If only I’d [fill in the blank]”, or “If only I’d hadn’t [fill in the blank]”, things might have been better.  The reality is no one has any idea what those untraveled roads would have led to.  Might some of them have been greener?  Sure.  But also maybe not.  You, today, are the accumulation of all your experiences both good and bad.  Would you even be the same person had you chosen differently at any time along the way?   Would you even be alive?

I decided spending any time at all looking back and regretting any part of my particular path was truly a waste.  Regret doesn’t feel good.  Regret colors life.  It gets in the way.  The fact is I have today, and all those horizons and possibilities in front of me.   Letting the whole damn thing go was almost a degree of freedom in many ways.  I don’t bother with regret for the past - I’m free of it.  I’m ok with all the decisions I’ve made, including the ones that led to failures and the periods of sadness or loss.  The  fact that I’m alive right now to even consider these things should be evidence enough that it was all, for me in the end, the right path.

Tonight I’m sitting in my kitchen, the house is safely tucked away and sleeping, the dogs are stretched out on the couch, and I’m writing this blog article while sipping a great cup of coffee.  This, above all, tells me I have no need to regret a single decision whether it led to victory or failure, pain or happiness.  In short, I’m alive, and so I don’t regret.

Arriving at that realization and being here tonight to even write about it was made possible because 16 years ago at some innocuous traffic circle, and for some unfathomable reason, I made the seemingly inconsequential decision to turn right instead of left.