War Story: A Memoir

War Story: A Memoir

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Overview

Every soldier has a war story.
Steven Elliott’s opens with the death of American hero Pat Tillman by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan—when Army Ranger Elliott pulled the trigger, believing he and his fellow soldiers were firing on the enemy.

Tormented by remorse and PTSD in the aftermath of Tillman’s death, Elliott descended into the depths of guilt, alcoholism, and depression; lost his marriage and his faith; and struggled to stay alive. The war that began on foreign soil had followed him home.

A must-read for veterans and their loved ones, War Story is an explosive look at the chaos of war—and the battle for life in its aftermath. It confronts some of life’s biggest questions: Why do we choose to fight for a country or a cause? What happens when the cost of that fight overwhelms and destroys? Can we forgive and be forgiven? How do we find hope? At its core, War Story is a dramatic personal encounter with war and faith, love and tragedy, and ultimate renewal.

All of the author’s proceeds from the writing of this book will be donated to organizations serving the mental health needs of the active duty and veteran community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496429926
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 205,824
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Steven Elliott joined the military in 2003 and served as a member of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. In 2004, he deployed to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In the midst of an enemy ambush, he was one of four Rangers who mistook Pat Tillman's position for that of the enemy and fired there. Elliott served the remaining years of his enlistment and returned to civilian life in 2007. Today he is the president of Capstone Trust in Washington State, has served as a volunteer-veterans court mentor, and advocates for change in how the unseen wounds of war are recognized and treated.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

LEAVING HOME

Home is the nicest word there is. LAURA INGALLS WILDER

The day had been full. Relatives descended upon the home place situated on the plains of northwest Kansas, five and a half miles from the nearest town. The home place had been built by my great-grandfather Carl Luhman, and it was where one of his sons, Hugo, now lived in retirement along with my grandma Irene. Every Memorial Day weekend, Grandma and Grandpa hosted a family reunion at the home place. Relatives gathered while the kids eagerly engaged in water-gun fights of epic proportions. Only darkness could halt the activity.

At nine years old, I lay in one of the guest rooms upstairs waiting for sleep to come. I glanced at a portrait of Grandpa on the dresser, which was partially illuminated by a night-light sitting next to the frame. He was a handsome twenty-year-old with wavy black hair. He offered neither smile nor frown while wearing his army dress uniform, khaki tie neatly tucked into his khaki shirt. The picture itself was printed in a dreamy sepia hue, and it was as if a silver-screen war hero had descended from the altar of victory and become my grandpa. He was once Corporal Luhman, a gunner on a 155 Howitzer cannon, and he served on the Italian front in World War II for a full year and a half. He returned from the war and spent his life as a farmer, raising wheat and cattle. He was now my grandpa, the closest I would come to a father, and a man of endless vibrancy and joy whose wartime service provided no hint of burden that I could see.

I could hear frogs croaking through the open window. It began to rain gently as I fell asleep.

Memorial Day 1990 dawned fair and clear. Grandpa exchanged his farmer's overalls for black slacks, a black tie, a white short-sleeved button-down shirt, and an American Legion cap emblazoned with the organization's gold emblem. His service in World War II was both normal and extraordinary — normal in that he never embellished or avoided conversations about the war, which I as his grandson was endlessly curious about; extraordinary, because he was a living, breathing member of the Greatest Generation that had sailed to Europe and helped defeat the Axis powers. The more humbly he acknowledged his service, the more brightly his heroic halo seemed to shine.

Grandma had dutifully and joyfully fulfilled her role as part of the American Legion Auxiliary, women whose husbands had served and who themselves served the community. Today their service would come in the form of song and food.

The men of the local American Legion, Grandpa included, were part of a color guard that would visit each surrounding cemetery and provide a twenty-one-gun salute, firing blank rounds from bolt-action rifles. The ladies of the Auxiliary would accompany the color guard to these grave sites and sing patriotic hymns a cappella. Then, having sufficiently honored the dead, all would descend on the American Legion building in nearby Natoma for a hearty meal of beef and noodles, graciously and tirelessly served by the ladies.

We made our way to the Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery just a mile away. A steady wind stirred the smattering of weathered cedar trees. I stood quietly among the crowd of nearly fifty, glancing at the graves of my ancestors. Morning dew provided a bluish gray tint to the green carpet upon which we stood. The air was still cool but the sun signaled the heat that was to come as the hours wore on.

As we waited with quiet reverence, one of the Auxiliary women, nearly seventy and wearing blue slacks, a white blouse, and a red, white, and blue vest, spoke into a microphone connected to a portable speaker.

My grandma stood behind her with ten of her compatriots, all similarly adorned in patriotic business casual attire. They looked like a living American flag.

I strained to hear over the wind as the woman in front solemnly read off names from a list of twenty veterans buried at the Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery, veterans of every war our country had fought since the Civil War. After each name, a young girl pulled a red paper poppy out of a basket and dropped it onto the ground. Each time, the persistent Kansas breeze pushed the poppy a few inches off target and ultimately to a stopping place in the thick, damp buffalo grass.

When all the names had been read, the Auxiliary ladies sang two verses of "God Bless America." A two-man color guard presented the American flag. Then seven men, Grandpa Luhman among them, marched into view. They were all dressed as Grandpa was. Each carried a bolt-action rifle. Most were World War II veterans, but one had served in Korea and one in Vietnam. The commander of this detail was dressed the same as the others save for the addition of a holstered .45- caliber pistol. He soon broke the silence.

"Detail, attention! Present arms!"

The rifles were now held forward.

"Ready, aim, fire!"

The seven rifles erupted as I flinched, shocked at how loud even blanks could be. Seven empty brass casings were flung to the ground as the bolts were pulled back and a new round was placed in the chamber of each rifle.

"Ready, aim, fire!"

I covered my ears this time. The report from the rifles was still deafening.

"Ready, aim, fire!"

The final volley echoed and rolled across the plains into ultimate silence.

The silence was broken by a lone trumpeter, standing behind us at the far edge of the cemetery. The somber tones of taps bathed the audience in a wave of emotion.

Once taps had concluded, the color guard marched away, and the kids, myself included, ran to the place they had just stood to gather the spent shell casings from the blank rounds.

I admired the cylinders of brass, proof of Grandpa's service, symbols of a glorious past and a bright and shining future.

The ceremony was part of a national celebration, but it had personal significance. My great-grandpa Carl Luhman, who had served in World War I, was buried there. His name had just been read, and one of the poppies resting on the grass was dropped in his honor. My great-uncle Vic Luhman, Grandpa's only brother and a Korean War vet, would be buried here as would Grandpa himself.

That night, as Grandpa unwound from a day of honoring the war dead at the local cemeteries, I peppered him with questions.

"Why did you join, Grandpa?"

He considered the question before responding. "Well, I suppose I would have been drafted, but I just didn't want to wait for that. I knew that I needed to serve. Hitler was taking over Europe, the Japanese had attacked us, you know? It was just something we had to do, fight them people, so I volunteered. I had flat feet, though, so they put me in the field artillery. Otherwise I probably would have been in the infantry."

"Did you ever have to shoot anybody?"

"No, we were a long way from the front lines," he said with almost a sense of boredom. "I only had to fire my carbine a few times. We fired a lot of shells, though. A lot of shells," he admitted.

"How big were they?"

"Oh, about ninety-five pounds."

"Wow! And you loaded them all by yourself?"

"Well, when I had to. Sometimes we didn't have enough men, so I'd have to load the gun and fire it myself. I was one of the bigger guys and was used to the work from being on the farm. Some of the guys got to calling me 'Horse' as kind of a nickname." He said this plainly with no hint of boasting.

"Did you ever get shot at?" I sensed I was getting somewhere.

"Oh, well, you know, not really. I mean, we did get strafed by German aircraft a few times earlier in the war, but they didn't have much. By the time we got past the Po Valley in the north, we could see all they had were carts to pull their supplies. They didn't even have trucks or tanks no more. The Italians had surrendered. By that time, the Germans were surrendering more and more, and a lot of them were just kids. There was always a Nazi, you know, one of the SS officers, with a unit, but the rest of 'em were just kids like us and a lot of 'em even younger. I couldn't believe it. They's just the people, you know?

If I lived over there, I might have been in the German army too. They was just the people. Hard to believe," he said slowly shaking his head.

I was close to something but would get no closer. He answered my childish questions politely with no desire to offer deception or glorification regarding the act of war in which he'd engaged.

* * *

Our family was Christian. All four of my grandparents attended the same small Lutheran church in nearby Natoma, Kansas. I was baptized as an infant in the Lutheran Church, but my mom, Cindy, soon left that denomination in favor of a more open and demonstrative version of her Christian faith. She and my dad, Mark, divorced shortly after I was born, and she would say it was during that time that she found the Lord and became a follower of Jesus. Prior to that, she had a sense of religion but no relationship with God.

At the age of four, while driving in the car with Mom, I made an announcement. "I want to follow Jesus," I told her, having done so with no pressure or suggestion.

"Well, why don't you tell him that?" she said simply, staring ahead as she drove, and I did.

Mom never remarried, and I had no other siblings. Grandma and Grandpa Luhman were always close by, offering all manner of support to their daughter, the youngest of three, who would raise me on her own.

Grandpa and I spent a lot of time together. I was his "helper" on projects big and small. I rode in the combine with him as he cut wheat, the smell of diesel and dirt marking the joy of the harvest he so dearly loved. I gardened with him. His favorite pastime was to simply watch things grow. He was a man of the land in the truest sense, but his life as a farmer stood on the youthful pedestal of his military service. Somehow that seemed the starting point, and as a very young child, I thought that's what I would do: to fight, to serve and be like Grandpa.

As childhood turned into adolescence, I harbored no thought or ambition toward military service. I greatly admired those who had served but couldn't see myself traveling down that road. My childish rehearsals of combat were nothing but a game that many boys played.

I was a good student, bookish and quiet, and as my high school years progressed, I found myself more interested in a career in law. Perhaps I had read one too many John Grisham novels, but the idea of fighting for those who otherwise couldn't fight for themselves, to be the good guy helping the underdog, seemed to speak to me. I didn't know exactly what shape that would take, but I knew that if I continued to be a good student, I could do well for myself and reach a place where I could help others in seeing the truth win out and justice prevail.

When I graduated from high school in 1999, I chose to attend Oral Roberts University (ORU), a small Christian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. ORU's mission is to educate the "whole person" — spirit, mind, and body — which resonated with me.

In the fall of 2001 I began my junior year at ORU. I was studying business and working as an intern with a financial planning firm. The practicality of a business degree and the flexibility that offered was appealing, though I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with it. That fall semester, I didn't have any morning classes on Tuesdays or Thursdays, so on that particular 11th day of September in 2001 I was fast asleep in my dorm well into the late morning.

A friend woke me up.

"Hey Steve," he said, "you might want to get up and see what's going on."

The message couldn't have been delivered with greater understatement.

I stumbled to a television and was horrified to see news footage of people leaping from burning windows to their deaths and two of the tallest buildings in America crumbling to the ground. It was beyond belief. Beyond comprehension. Despite the thirteen hundred miles between New York and Tulsa, the horror unleashed on 9/11 felt personal.

The images were searing. The implications were sobering. Everything changed that morning. Everything.

As the school year progressed, I began to reflect on conversations I'd had with Grandpa in which he suggested that "it wouldn't hurt to talk to a military recruiter" just to see what my options would be. He was never heavy-handed in these suggestions, but I had always dismissed them. Now, in the wake of 9/11, the question of military service persisted.

With the invasion of Afghanistan well underway, it soon became evident that the newly declared "War on Terror" would not be won quickly. We were now a nation at war, not simply a nation conducting a military strike in Afghanistan.

I completed my junior year at ORU and went home to Kansas for a break before heading back to campus for summer school. I had a few courses I wanted to knock out to make my senior year more manageable. I spent some of that time at the home place with Grandma and Grandpa. After an afternoon working in the garden, Grandpa and I sat on the front porch and talked as we often did.

"What made you want to join?" I asked as conversation meandered to the war.

"Well, I just felt like I had to, I guess. I felt like if I didn't, I'd always be sorry. The Japanese attacked us and Hitler declared war against us. I knew I had to serve."

"How long were you in?"

"Let's see, I's in training for about a year in California and Oregon, and then we shipped out for North Africa at the end of '43. We landed in Italy right after Anzio and was there until the armistice. I guess about two and a half years."

"Wow. Were you ever homesick?"

"Oh man, yeah. Gosh, I felt like I was a million miles away, you know? Didn't really know when we'd come home."

"What was that like? Coming home, I mean."

"It was somethin' else. After taking the ship back to Alabama and the train to Salina just an hour and a half away, the bus dropped me off at Alton about twelve miles north of here in the middle of the night. The folks didn't have a phone, and I didn't want to wait 'til morning, so I just walked."

"You walked the last twelve miles?" I asked, smiling.

"Well, I'd walk a bit and run a bit. I's wearin' a suit and had a suitcase. I didn't mind too much. The folks sure got a shock when I knocked on the door," he said as he savored the taste of that memory — the memory of his final walk to the porch where we now sat.

I returned to ORU unsettled. I soon knew that between me and whatever else life had in store was military service. I couldn't shake that sense, that drawing. Part of me was angry. We had been attacked on our soil in a magnitude that had not been seen since Pearl Harbor. This was my generation's call to arms. I too felt that I would regret looking back and not having served during this time. I didn't think poorly of anyone else who chose not to serve; I just knew I would regret it myself, as if I had chickened out somehow. I couldn't shake it. I couldn't shake this challenge that I knew I couldn't refuse. But most of all, and this I can only somewhat understand in hindsight, I loved Grandpa. In loving someone, there can be a desire to share a common experience and love them more. He never asked me to serve, never pushed or prodded. But he was a man, and I wanted to be like him. Part of that, I came to know, would mean choosing to serve.

As summer school started and my decision to join became more and more real, I did what I was good at: I researched and read books. I went to bookstores and pored over every book on the military I could find. I was especially attracted to those works dealing with the world of special operations, particularly the Rangers and Green Berets.

I then contacted my dad's cousin Bob, a retired full-bird colonel who had spent his career as a member of Special Forces (the Green Berets) and was now living in California. He was a Vietnam vet. I was trying to understand the distinctions of the various communities and where I might best find my place. He provided clarity, particularly as it related to distinctions between Rangers and Special Forces, the former being much more of a shock infantry unit and the latter focusing more on training and force multiplication, though also possessing a combat function. One thing was clear to me: I wanted to fight. Like Grandpa, I wanted to serve in combat, seeing what I was made of and fulfilling my own self-imposed rite of passage in the process. A desk job was out of the question. Our country was at war, and I sensed a duty to participate and serve in my generation's fight.

For the next few weeks the wheels were constantly spinning, and I found myself pulling up to the nearest army recruiting station situated in one of Tulsa's many strip malls. There I met Sergeant Jackson.

Sergeant Jackson looked and sounded exactly the part of an army recruiter. Stocky with blond hair cut neatly into a high and tight and with green eyes to match the uniform, he wore his mint green class B dress shirt tucked neatly into his perfectly creased dark green slacks. His voice betrayed the life of a smoker, and it was after a long draw on a Marlboro that he greeted me as he stood outside the door of the office.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "War story"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Steven Elliott.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Foreword xi

Prologue 1

1 Leaving Home 5

2 On My Way 21

3 Kill or Capture 41

4 War 67

5 Ambush 89

6 Burdens 107

7 Truth and Consequences 125

8 Brook 137

9 The Storm 145

10 Broken 159

11 Freefall 177

12 Lock Me Up 197

13 Hello, Good-Bye 213

14 Stop 231

15 That Which Was Not Deserved 247

16 Telling the Story 257

17 Healing 271

18 The End 287

Postscript 291

Photo Gallery 294

Acknowledgments 298

Discussion Questions 301

Notes 303

The Elliott Fund 305

About the Author 306

What People are Saying About This

Charles R. Figley

Steven Elliott’s War Story includes the final day of combat for Pat Tillman. Steve discovered how hard it is to ask for help in bearing the fog and the wounds war. This book is about courage, facing the past, and winning the future. It is an inspiration to all of us who bore the battle.

Jay W. Hood

Steven Elliott was a determined warrior who volunteered to serve his country out of a sense of duty—a sacred obligation he felt was his as an American citizen. This book, War Story, recalls a tragic event in one of the world’s best-trained and most capable combat units, an American Ranger battalion. More important, Steve courageously shares the deeply personal effects of posttraumatic stress from this combat action that nearly destroyed him and his family. This is an absolute must read for every professional soldier. War Story should make leaders reexamine how the unseen wounds of war are addressed within the Department of Defense!

Mark C. Russell

Army Ranger Sergeant Steven Elliott has written one of the most compelling and moving personal narratives on war-stress injury, moral pain, and the long, twisted road to recovery that I have ever read! War Story is a must read for active-duty personnel, veterans, family members, friends of veterans, clergyman, healthcare professionals, and mental health clinicians alike.

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