Author of the best seller Outlaw Platoon, Parnell shares the horrific event that he experienced on his first day of combat and discusses the need for more support for vets returning home.
Former U.S. Army Ranger Sean Parnell
Tavis: Sean Parnell is a former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger and captain whose mountain division unit was known as the Outlaw platoon during their time on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
During his service, Sean received a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. The gripping new account of his time during war and the exploits of his unit is called “Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan,” now a “New York Times” best seller.
Captain Parnell, good to have you on.
Capt. Sean Parnell: Hey, thanks for having me. Thanks.
Tavis: It’s downhill from here, huh?
Parnell: Yeah. (Laughter) Right.
Tavis: Yeah, first book, “New York Times” best seller.
Parnell: I’m so surprised and blessed, I can’t believe it.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. There is so much to talk about because there is so much in this text. Before I go inside the book, let me start by asking – and actually, I’ll start with this from the book. You seem to be very grateful – my word, not yours, but very grateful by the fact that your platoon never killed a single civilian. You did, in fact, kill 350 others, roughly, but never killed a civilian.
I want to juxtapose that, of course, against the news of late, of this military serviceman who apparently lost it and went on a rampage, killing, what, 16 Afghanistanis and children.
Tavis: Having endured what you went through, do you see how that could happen? What would lead one to, for lack of a better word; we don’t know all the details, snap? My word, not yours.
Parnell: Yeah, I can definitely see how it would happen. It doesn’t excuse the horrific nature of it but fighting a counterinsurgency is really difficult and can be very frustrating. You don’t know who your enemy is.
But we did pride ourselves on never hurting or killing a civilian in our time there. Every mission that we did was a humanitarian mission. We really cared and tried desperately show the Afghan people that we cared about them.
We brought blankets for the kids, food, water, medicine, on every single patrol, so it wasn’t just about finding the enemy, but it was about taking care of the people there. So it’s hard for me to see, like, what’s happening.
Tavis: I wonder whether or not you or even your friends are at all surprised that that kind of snapping doesn’t happen more often.
Parnell: Yeah, I think it is surprising that it doesn’t happen more often on one hand, but on another hand I think we do have the best army in the world and the best leaders to ensure that things like this don’t happen. This was an isolated incident. It’s one person out of 100,000 people in Afghanistan, but it’s just so unfortunate and sad.
Tavis: Did you feel like the military, and I’m not asking you to bag on anybody, I’m just asking your honest opinion here, did you feel like the military did a good enough job in giving you the outlets, the training, whatever it might be, to avoid feeling something that might push you in a direction you really didn’t want to go?
Parnell: Well, I think for us, we trained for combat together, collectively, as a unit. We trained to kill as a collective whole and we fought as a collective whole. The problem I think for a lot of veterans is when they come home, everybody goes separate directions.
So I’m not sure that the military is where they need to be with regards to us, meaning soldiers, returning home, and I think we could do better. I really think we could do a lot better in helping our soldiers reintegrate into society.
But as far as combat is concerned, and training as a brotherhood, I think we’re where we need to be.
Tavis: Right. You mentioned a moment ago how you in your platoon, the Outlaw platoon, wanted the Afghanistani people to know that you did respect them, that you cared for them, that you weren’t there to harm them, et cetera, et cetera.
I’m trying to juxtapose that with what happened to you on your very first day in Afghanistan, when an Afghan baby girl, toddler – not a toddler but a young child, dies in your arms.
Parnell: Yeah, that’s combat. It’s like –
Tavis: This is your first day, though.
Parnell: This is my first day in combat. We flew into a landing zone that was immediately under fire. The rockets overshot our bird and landed amongst a group of playing kids in a playground just west of our forward operating base and immediately killed and wounded several children.
So much for easing into what combat is like. I ran down to the gate, I was trying to help in any way that I could. I saw this argument unfolding between the soldiers and the interpreter on our side and the parents on the Afghan side of the gate, and they were yelling and screaming about oh, treat the boys first, treat the boys first, and there were several girls in the back that were bleeding out and dying.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around the difference, culturally. So eventually, what came to pass is we overruled their argument and grabbed several kids and just started running, and I just looked down and happened to see a little girl, that I was holding a little girl, and she was screaming in pain.
I started to feel wetness on the side of my hip, and I looked down and I realized that her leg was missing below the knee and with every step that I took to the aid station, her screams got weaker and weaker until she died.
It’s something that I have to live with every day of my life, and in that instance, a part of me died, too, on my first day there. I think it’s that part of me that had known an insulated existence for my whole life. It just burned away in an instant.
Tavis: You referenced a moment ago an interpreter. You go on and tell the story that that interpreter ended up being killed, and you actually came upon him one day.
Parnell: Yeah. We don’t talk here in the States enough about the sacrifice that interpreters make to help us. Oftentimes, they are ostracized by their own tribes and communities for helping the Americans. They can never completely be trusted by local Afghans, and they’re never fully trusted by us, either.
So they’re a prisoner of this cultural divide, and this interpreter, Abdul was his name, was one of those people, and he ended up being assassinated for helping us. I found his body on the side of a road.
Tavis: I want to jump ahead now to another story in the book, speaking of interpreters, where – and I’ll let you tell the story – but there’s an interpreter who ends up – an Afghan interpreter who ends up being a mole, and because of his activity, one of the guys in your group, your platoon, ends up getting killed.
Tavis: You come across him, of course, in the book, and basically say to him, “I could just kill you. I could just kill you.” I raise that story because I’m fascinated by – and I guess I’m not surprised by it, but it was fascinating to read, and it’s so well written.
Parnell: Thank you.
Tavis: But I’m fascinated by how you alternated in your own spirit, in your own soul, about your own humanity in relation to other people. At some points in the book you are concerned about your own brethren and whether or not they’ve lost their humanity; in other points of the book you want to off somebody, you want to kill somebody, out of your own pain and anguish and frustration.
You admit in the book that this combat experience took a little bit of your humanity with you, took some of your humanity almost every day.
Tavis: So I’m trying to figure out – that’s a long way to get to a simple point, which is you can tell the story about the interpreter and your friend getting killed, but I want you to talk about your own back-and-forth struggle with your own humanity.
Parnell: Yeah, that’s it. You hit the nail on the head. That’s what I dealt with, and I think every soldier that was in Bermel with me dealt with too. How do you maintain your humanity in an environment that is hostile and inherently inhumane?
It is something that every soldier deals with in their own way when they’re in combat, and with every single engagement, more and more of your humanity burns away and dies. It’ll be forever out there in the Hindu Kush mountains for the rest of my days, and that’s it.
Just part of trying to survive in combat is asking yourself, “Can Sean the human coexist with Sean the combat leader or warrior?” I’m still trying to reconcile that to this day.
Tavis: What’s your process for reconciling that?
Parnell: I do a lot of reflection and for me, I’ve got two kids, Ethan and Emma, and an amazing wife that I think saved me from a lot of difficulty when I got home. I was in a really dark place when I got home, but for me, I know that those aspects of myself will never be back. They’re gone forever.
But when I look in the eyes of my children, I see those same aspects in them, that innocence that still exists in them, and that’s how I unify the whole. I see aspects of myself that I lost forever in them, and I reconcile that every day, just by looking in their eyes.
Tavis: We hear a lot, and I’ve interviewed a number of folks on this program and my radio show as well about PTSD. So soldiers come back home and this trauma kicks in and they end up having flashbacks to when they were in Iraq or when they were in Afghanistan, in your case.
But you tell stories in the book about flashbacks you had while you were there.
Tavis: You were flashbacking to here. I’ll let you tell the story.
Parnell: Well, I wrote the book and I tried to give the reader a sense of what was going through my mind in some of the most trying times in my life, and my mind would drive in these extraordinary, horrific combat situations to home, and that was how, I think, looking back, that’s how I anchored myself to reality.
That’s how I maintained my sanity, by anchoring myself to what’s ordinary. Like going to a baseball game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or thinking about my young cousin opening Christmas presents, or imagining would this decision eventually lead to me getting killed and an Army contact team showing up at my parents’ house, and how would they react? That’s how I anchored myself.
So the whole book is sort of laced with what’s happening now, in the moment, in combat, and what I was thinking that led me to make decisions in specific instances, because I think that that introspection helps Americans understand what their warriors go through for them, and that’s – for me, I think that there’s a social component to post-traumatic stress.
I think that warriors join up to serve their country, to protect society. That’s probably the main reason why anybody joins the military. When they come home, that mentality is the same. When they’re sitting around a table with their buddies drinking beer and I tell them about a little girl dying in my arms, it’s kind of a buzzkill, and the atmosphere kind of dies down.
What happens in that instance, when a soldier experiences that, he locks the war away inside of him because he’s afraid that his experience will somehow do damage to others.
So in the interests of protecting everybody else around him, the warrior locks the war away inside him forever, and it’s corrosive. It tends to eat them from the inside-out, and I think that is the social component of post-traumatic stress that can be mitigated by American society bearing witness to a warrior’s struggle, and I think the way that that happens is by people just saying, “I can never understand what you went through, but just help me. Teach me what it was like. I can listen.”
I think that’s where we need to be. That’s where we need to get to in this country.
Tavis: I like your suggestion that we as Americans can help by bearing witness. Tell me more about what you mean by that. When you say bear witness on the part of the American people, that means us doing what?
Parnell: I think that just means just being willing to hear about the negative side of combat, the difficult side of combat.
Tavis: We don’t want to hear that, Sean.
Parnell: I know.
Tavis: We don’t want to hear that. We don’t want – this is a Bush administration decision. I don’t mean to be political, but those are the fact. We don’t want to see bodies coming to Dover Air Force Base. They shut the media out. We don’t want to deal with – war is hell, we all know that, but we live in a time now where nobody wants to see that.
We can watch every other gory thing on television. Nobody wants to hear or wrestle with this reality. So I hear your point about bearing witness. We don’t want to do that, though. Why do you think that is the case?
Parnell: Well, I think Americans like their insulated existence. The book isn’t political.
Parnell: I think that one of President Bush’s biggest mistakes when these wars started was to say that the American military has this. This will not affect your life at all. Our military has this for you.
In that instance he gave the American people not necessarily an excuse, but a reason to say –
Parnell: Permission to say well, this is –
Tavis: Yeah, to check out.
Parnell: – this isn’t my fight. So what we have now – and I don’t think that was intentional on his part, but I think what we have now is a society where the American military is at war and the American populace is not. So in order to heal that rift, I think it starts with American society just asking what it was like. I think we need to stow moralistic value judgments and just listen, and yes, you can never understand, and that’s okay. Just listen.
I think that’s where it starts. That’s where we have to get to. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of combat veterans here in the United States that are suffering, and these wars are going to end. We, as a society, have to be ready to receive these people back here at home. We just have to.
Tavis: You tell the story in the book of the numbers of people either lost or wounded in your own platoon, including yourself, which we’ll talk about in a second. So the number’s about 80 percent.
Tavis: About 80 percent of your Outlaw platoon either died or was wounded. How does that make you feel as the leader of the platoon? Did you wrestle with – that seems like a high number. Maybe I don’t know the numbers as compared to other platoons, but you situate that for me.
Parnell: Well, we lost a man, and that’s something that – one man, and that’s something that I will have to deal with for the rest of my life. It was a soldier that I loved and cared about dearly. I loved and cared about all of my men, and I think that I existed to serve them.
I think a good leader does that. He serves, at least in the military, and I think maybe in all aspects, I think a good leader serves the men, not the other way around.
So I live with the decisions that I made that led to my soldiers getting wounded every day, something that is with me every single day, and I think that’s – that anybody that’s been in combat or had to make a decision in combat and has had men wounded or killed lives with that burden, bears that burden for the rest of their life, and I think this comes with the territory.
This is interesting, Tavis. I don’t think that the military does enough to communicate that point with young leaders in training.
Tavis: You were how young when you were leading this platoon?
Tavis: You’re 24, leading a platoon.
Parnell: Yeah. I was 24.
Tavis: Right out of college.
Parnell: Yeah, literally I was playing video games with my buddies in college the year before. (Laughter)
Tavis: Was that good preparation, the video games you were playing? (Laughter)
Parnell: Just killing pixilated bad guys (unintelligible).
Tavis: Exactly, yeah.
Parnell: Oh, yeah, it’s just like – so I went from that to being in charge of 40 men, their families and their lives. How do you – so a lot of officers, they’ll go to West Point because they like the idea of service to their country, or they go to ROTC because it helps them pay for school.
But I don’t think the Army does a good enough job that says, hey, look, these? When you look in the eyes of your men or the people that you’re serving as a leader, they are relying you and their families are relying on you to bring them out alive, bring them out of a horrible situation alive, all the while understanding that they might not come out alive.
So there’s that whole dynamic, and it’s just something that I don’t think that we do enough in the military to communicate the gravity of the situation to our young leaders.
Tavis: The book is not political, and to my read – I don’t know that I saw this in here, so I want to ask you about it, because again, it’s not a political book. But when you’re in Afghanistan, do you have time for this or does this happen when you retire and come back home, but at what point do you start processing the politics of the war that you’re engaged in?
Because again, when you’re on the battlefield you’re there to protect and to serve the American people. I get all that, and the commander-in-chief says, “Here’s the plan and you guys follow it,” and I’m glad you’re there. My father was in the Air Force for 37 years, so I have great respect for the military.
So you do what you’re told to do and you do what you’re supposed to do, but when do you take time, if ever, to process what you were told to do? Does that happen while you’re there, does it happen when you come home, or do you never process it?
Parnell: Oh, it happens the entire time you’re there. We’re embedded in a situation in Afghanistan and Iraq where technology brings the politics to us there in the field, so we know what’s happening. Sometimes it’s frustrating and it makes guys angry, but when combat really started heating up, like you said, it becomes about the man next to you.
Really, when that first bullet snaps by your head, politics goes out the window and it’s just about coming out alive. But I think it’s an ongoing process. I think it’s something that soldiers deal with and talk to one another and cope with each other throughout a combat deployment, but I think when you come home is really, like when you said you come home, that’s when you really start processing, like, what did we do over there, what did we accomplish over there?
So for example, we fought and bled for land in Helmand province in the south, my battalion did, and we lost men fighting for this small section of territory in Musa Qala, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Right after we left, that land was ceded back to the Taliban, so it’s like, what did we bleed and die for that land for?
So that’s the kind of stuff that you’re thinking about as a warrior back in the States trying to reconcile what was happening on the ground with the political situation. It is frustrating, and it’s something that every soldier, airman, Marine deals with.
Tavis: As a warrior, have your views about war changed?
Parnell: Yeah. I think – I hate war, and I never want to go back. I made sure it was manifestly apparent in the book that I was scared, and I think a lot of warriors, one of two things happen.
A lot of warriors come out of war and they crave to go back, they have to go back, they have to get – nothing compares to the adrenaline rush of combat. Then there are guys like me, who think, well, my nine lives are up and I don’t even like taking the bus because it might wreck and it’s risk.
That’s me. So it’s something that – like war literally, that war crosses my mind every day, and what we’re charging the sons and daughters with every day crosses my mind, and the horrific things that they’re seeing and enduring over there, literally, Tavis, it’s on my mind every day. I don’t know how to get rid of it, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to get rid of it.
Tavis: Speaking of your mind, and I don’t mean to make light of this, it’s just a good segue, speaking of your mind, you came home in part because – not in part; precisely because you had a brain injury.
Tavis: Now looking at you and listening to you and reading you, I couldn’t tell you had a brain injury, but tell me more about it.
Parnell: Yeah, I had six closed head injuries over the course of 485 days, the time that I was deployed. I had three in one engagement within the course of an hour, where I had a spontaneous cerebral spinal fluid leak, where I had clear fluid leaking out of my nose and my ears.
I deal with those neurocognitive deficits every single day. Some days are better than others. Some days I can’t even get out of bed because the migraine headaches are so bad that I can’t even lift my head up off the pillow. I’ll get vertigo and blurred vision. Again, some days are better than others.
I deal with a sort of lingering post-concussive syndrome. For the past six years I’ve been dealing with it. So it’s interesting when I talked to a neuropsychologist who said the same thing – “I would have never thought that you had these deficits unless I gave you this battery of tests that tests for them.”
So I can communicate myself effectively, but I still have memory issues that I deal with that I – thank God for the iPhone, plug all that stuff in and record myself, and all that other – GPS. (Laughter) Thank God for the GPS.
Sometimes I’ll drive to the grocery store and on a bad day I’ll forget in the middle from leaving my house to the grocery store where I was going. I call my wife and I say, “What was I doing? Where was I going?” So I still deal with them every day.
Tavis: This can’t make studying for your Ph.D. easy.
Parnell: No. (Laughter) No.
Tavis: The iPhone can’t help you with that. (Laughter)
Tavis: How’s that coming along?
Parnell: It’s coming. I just got my master’s from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Tavis: Great school, yeah.
Parnell: Yeah. I love it there. I love the program and I love – when I came back I thought – I was medically retired from the Army. The Army is, like, one of those things, like, if you can’t serve us and serve the mission, then get out of the way of the train because the train’s rolling by.
That’s the Army, that’s how it is, so I was medically retired, and I wanted to make sure that I was still doing my best to serve American society and serve soldiers specifically, and I thought for me, the best way to do that would be to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, because the second wave of these wars are coming, and there’s going to be soldiers, our soldiers, coming home, and I want to be right there on the front for them, just like I was on the front fighting against our enemy, ready to help them.
That was why I got into it, and it’s slow going. I’ve still got four more years left, with a third of the pay of the medical student, so it’s – yeah.
Tavis: My exit question here – what does all of this mean for you as a father and as a husband? I ask that because the pictures that we all love are seeing you guys come back home – guys and gals, men and women, come back home and get reunited safely with their families.
So what does all this mean for you now, this experience, as a husband and a father, and how you approach that?
Parnell: Well, there’s a line from “We Were Soldiers,” (unintelligible) but I really like, and it’s, “Hopefully being a good at one makes me better at the others,” about the question of being a soldier and a father.
I have a lot of faults, and I still suffer a lot. I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and I think it’s important for a leader, leaders in the Army to communicate that, because we lead by example. So for me to admit that I’m suffering, it makes it okay for young privates out there to say, “Okay, I’m suffering too.”
So I suffer and I struggle, but one thing that I know that I’m good at is I love my wife and my kids and I will live for them, and that’s how I get by.
Tavis: Not a bad way to close a conversation about something like war. The book is called “Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan,” already on “The New York Times'” best-seller list, and I promise you that I could not do justice to this book in a 25, 30-minute conversation, so you might want to or have to get this one to really appreciate the stories that I couldn’t bring to life in this conversation. My apologies to you.
Sean, good to have you on the program.
Parnell: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: Thanks for your service. Thanks for your service.
Parnell: It was an honor to serve.
Tavis: Honor to have you here, too. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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