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From The Brutal Battlefields Of Iraq To Airsoft
Article and photos by Javier Franco
Little kids with BB guns, running around the neighborhood playing G.I. Joe. That’s probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the word airsoft. Now, some of you might know a little bit about airsoft, and have heard about how it is a good alternative for weapons training. People’s understanding of airsoft usually falls into one of those two ideas. The reality is far more interesting and vast.
Airsoft has become its own subculture of the gun world, populated with all kinds of people, from all walks of life. Just like the real gun world, you have your civilians, law enforcement, veterans, and you even have your moms. These enthusiasts love their guns and enjoy their days at the range. But that paper target is only so interesting and obviously not very engaging. In comes the sport/hobby of airsoft.
In airsoft, the average gun enthusiast can take those range skills and a realistic-feeling replica into simulated combat. For a day or even longer, you can fight alongside other players in close intense battle. The great thing is that no one dies, and if you are hit, you just get back into battle. There could not be a better way to practically apply those valuable shooting skills and keep up old military or law enforcement tactics. But beyond the skills, aspect is a camaraderie that is achieved in the heat of simulated battle. These games and battles are happening every weekend all over this country. From the local fields to major national venues, players gather every weekend to play. You have small 30-player games and you have big thousand player operations. Some people play for a few hours, and some play for several days at events. Airsoft is a culture and one on a very rapid rise. But before I can take you through that door, I need to tell you how one grunt found his way to a sport that has become a big part of who he is. Before I knew airsoft, I was just a grunt and this is my story.
IT STARTED WITH ANOTHER DAY of training coming to a close and another day preparing for war. With the invasion of Iraq in progress for more than a year, we knew we would eventually be taking our turn in combat. For the infantry and a few other select MOSs (military occupation specialties), we do not get to do our job until we actually go to war. And, for many grunts, the military career was training in preparation for a war we did not know was coming. Before 9/11, none of us could perceive how the world was going to change. So, here I was, at the end of another training day, waiting for our turn.
I was excited for the opportunity to finally go to the big show, war. Then, without warning, our battalion commander came to our unit’s barracks for an informal meeting to share the news that we had been anxiously awaiting. We were told that we would be preparing to deploy as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While most cheered, some remained quiet at the news that we, as infantryman, would get to do the job that we had been training for our entire careers. Like most, I cheered and was filled with excitement at having the opportunity to get into the fight and do my part to make a difference. I was an infantryman on my way to war!
It was mid-2005 now, and my unit had arrived in Iraq at the beginning of the well-known hot Iraqi summer. For the next six months, we conducted standard counter-insurgency operations in our AO (area of operations) in pursuit of an elusive enemy that hid in plain sight amongst the local population. Sometimes the only sign we had that an enemy was out there was when the IEDs hit us, or dead locals were found who the enemy thought had been cooperating with us. This was how things went on for months; a cat and mouse game. We would raid suspected insurgent homes and arrest those we could find. They would IED us, and then the hunt would be on to find those who did it. We got lucky many times and not so lucky others, but that was combat.
After six months of a high mission tempo, we managed to bring relative control to our AO, and for the next six months of our deployment, we escorted supply convoys from Western Iraq. The unit we replaced was losing too many guys, and they needed a combat unit to take over a tough job. So we got to spend the next six months in a shooting gallery for insurgent IEDs and ambushes. Not a choice mission for a ground-pounding grunt. Hundreds of escorts and IEDs later, we had not lost any soldiers, but I cannot say the same about the drivers we escorted.
After a year of finding, fighting, and killing the enemy, it was time to go home. I did not know it yet, but everything they say about how you are changed by war was going to prove to be true. Upon returning home, it did not seem that tough initially, because my mind was still in Iraq and I was still a soldier in uniform. Now we fast forward a few years later and I was out of the Army. I had done a few odds and ends jobs and now seem to have fallen into what I guess you would call a career. But even though things were not necessarily going bad, PTSD had a grip on me. I was irritable, frustrated, and found it difficult to relate to people. There was not a day that passed where I did not think about combat. Even with all the horror war brings, I still missed combat and the new life just did not seem right for me. It is a tough thing feeling like you don’t belong in the “normal” world anymore and it was getting to me. The absence of combat was hurting me psychologically, and making it difficult to move on in my new life after war.
IN AN ATTEMPT TO GET A GRIP on my feelings and emotions, I went to talk to counselors about my issues. I had some bad counselors who seemed more interested in telling me how I was going to hell rather than helping me. Then, there were some good counselors who were able to help me understand what I was going through and help me release a little pent up frustration. However, even with the positive help I was getting, it just was not enough. It did not feel like I was getting better, I was just managing my PTSD.
Finally, after years of fighting PTSD, I heard about airsoft. To this day, I am unsure about how I heard about the sport, but I vividly remember my feeling of joy and excitement when I was playing paintball and saw the guys on the field with such a realistic look, playing with realistic-looking airsoft guns. I do know that as many things tend to start, the game started with a hello. In airsoft, I would find a kind of therapy for my PTSD that I would not have known or believed. It was in airsoft, amongst veteran military and non-veteran players, that I would find what I had been missing now for years. I now had the chance to put on a uniform again and march into simulated battle. Airsoft offered me a chance to do it all over again; go to war without going to war. I did not have to leave my normal life created after the Army, and I did not have to feel bad about trying to live a normal life. The conflict created within me by PTSD did not have to dominate my life like it had before airsoft. Everything I missed about the Army – close bonds, team work, and the thrill of battle, was now possible.
So here I am now, a few more years later, playing airsoft with my wife’s approval. While airsoft is not the final definitive answer to PTSD, thus far it is the best help I have found. I am now a member of a team again, I get to wear a uniform again, and I am using the skills from my Army training to win games. If only for a weekend, I am wearing my gear and carrying my airsoft M4. In those tense moments of simulated combat, I find myself able to release the frustration that is pent up inside of me. I no longer have to feel like all this energy saved for combat has to be used in my everyday life. In airsoft, I have found what I thought I could never have again, and I have discovered other veterans looking for the same thing. We are all looking for a synergistic experience that allows us to use our skills of war without being in the military, while relieving our frustration from not being in a constant battle.
PTSD does not have to be a problem without an answer, and, in fact, I find Airsoft provides me with a method to deal with my disorder that cannot be addressed through therapy sessions. Admittedly, it is not easy talking about PTSD, and a hesitation to truly open up hinders the effectiveness of therapy. Airsoft is not talking out my problems, but playing them out through strategic military-like maneuvers.
This weekend, I will put on the team uniform, my vest, and check my airsoft M4. Once more into battle I will go, with my new brothers of airsoft. Once more I will move, advancing toward my objectives. Once more I will fight to keep them safe. And once more I will win, if only temporarily, against PTSD, through an airsoft exercise that engages me both emotionally and physically, and next week, I get to do it all over again. When talking it out just was not enough, I used airsoft to play it out. I don’t pretend to have the cure or final answer to PTSD; I am just a veteran that found one more way to deal with a tough issue.
Editor’s note: Javier Franco is a veteran and gun enthusiast who participates in the sport of airsoft. He served as an infantryman in the 29th Infantry Division from 2003-2009. His airsoft media Facebook page, “One Grunt’s Opinion,” can be found at facebook.com/onegruntsopinion.
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