have courage. take heart. bear witness.

Bookmark and Share

Patrick Lowe interview transcript

The two me's

Patrick: I went in the United States military in 1982 and left in 1994. I visited almost every continent on the planet, except for Australia. I was involved as a scout sniper—I did counterterrorism work. Who I am now is made up of who I was, but that's an entirely different part of my life that I don't visit that often anymore. I have found that the me who I was was an extremely cruel, mean person. So, at this point, there's truly two me's. There's the me that has two children and a wife and is retired, and then there's the me that was a soldier. The farther I get away from it, I find that it's easier for me to deal with who I was, by being who I am now.

My children do not know who I was, and I'd prefer to keep it that way in a large extent. My boys are everything I wasn't. I was born probably a very angry person. And so the military was an extremely natural thing for me to go into. It allowed an environment where I was the same as everybody around me. Growing up, I was always the problem child—the one with anger issues and all those sorts of things. And the military gave me a home. I found a place where I was like a lot of other people, and would never have left if I hadn't gotten myself so injured that they no longer needed my service.

As a civilian, I have learned how to deal with my past in a way that keeps me, at least, fairly sane. Unfortunately that, at this point at least, involves a fair amount of medication provided by the VA—by the Veterans Administration. I have found, over the years, that people in my line of work are either dead or in rubber rooms. There are very few of us that have escaped incarceration of some sort. I've spent a total of about a year and a half in mental institutions over the last eight, ten years, twelve years—self-committed, because I was afraid of where I was going and what I could do.

I look at it as two me's. There's an entire skill set of living that isn't a part of my daily life. And the older I get, the more removed I can be from them. So instead of making unconscious decisions based upon old programming, with my wife's help I've been able to become more human, I feel.

I do stay pretty isolated from people, because I've found that, over the years, that most civilians and myself don't really think the same way. When people make decisions, there are ramifications. And I find that a lot of civilians have no understanding of what the ramifications of their decisions are. I think our current political system and the economy the way it is right now is a clear indication of people making decisions that they have either no training, or no desire, to understand what the consequences of their decisions are.

As a soldier, I've learned very quickly that my decisions can cost people their lives. And so I have spent a fair amount of mental energy mapping out what decisions I make, and the ramifications, so that I understand and am prepared for the eventualities that happen. Now I'm not perfect, but I've had a lot of years of figuring out how to do stuff.

My first greatest mistake I ever made in my life—1984, we were in Central America—it was in Honduras. And I had left four people in an ambush on a path through the jungle. And I had taken the rest of the patrol, and what we were going to do is, we were basically going to suck the Sandinistas into us, and run down the trail and let the ambush take care of them.

I didn't anticipate that the people I left behind were incapable of doing their jobs correctly. And when we came running, they thought we were the enemy, and so my own ambush team ambushed us. And I lost three men in a period of about ten seconds. I picked up two M60 bullets in my left leg, and things got kind of bad from there. And I still carry the names of those people in my wallet. In my years of military I killed . . . my actions led to the death of sixteen soldiers.

The only way I've come to live with this is to realize that none of them were truly me pulling the trigger. I sent them into the building that blew up. I told them to go to an outpost, and they got attacked, or they fell asleep. Anytime any death happens, there's an investigation of some sort, at some level. And in all those investigations, I was always cleared. In fact, there was never any doubt that I had made errors—to me they were errors. Those boys died because I was there.

My wife, through years of gentle understanding and sometimes hitting me over the head with a rock, has allowed me to understand that, while I was responsible because I was there, I had no ability of stopping those occurrences from happening. I think, in some ways, that's a cop-out, and as long as I am alive, I will carry those men with me.

How do I tell civilians that have had no experience either with the military or life-or-death issues what it's like to be a soldier?

I became a soldier because I believed that I had an ability to stand in front of you. Because you didn't have the ability of protecting yourself in this manner, I believed that I could. And I was very proud of that. I was very proud of the fact that I was that which was between you and the bad guy. And if I took the knocks and I got hurt or I died, that meant that you didn't. Because ultimately, you folks—you civilians—are what I always wanted to be.

The innocence that you folks carry, I'm amazed with. That you could get in your cars and believe that the biggest problems you were dealing with were the traffic around you or the bills that you needed to figure out or the possibility that someone in your family was sick or you'd lost a loved one. I wanted that normality, and I never got it. My father served in Viet Nam, and I used to sit at the end of the runway and count airplanes coming back.

There's a lot about me that I'm really glad that no one knows about. I can walk down the street, and you guys can pass me and you're not shielding your children from me. Because in some respects I am a monster. I have done things that we're not supposed to do. I have been taught every method of stopping a person that was available to the United States military when I was in. And every single one of those memories doesn't go away.

I'm ashamed of who I am sometimes. It's one of the reasons why my children have very little understanding who I was, who I was. And probably one of the reasons I have very few adult friends—because I never want you to say that I'm a monster.

One of my thoughts is, we believe in trust in the military. Usually, that means to our fellow soldier, but the more intelligent of us understand that trust extends to our government and to the people that are in charge of our government—you, the civilians—to never put us in a place that we shouldn't be.

There's a line of thought that says that if a dog that's been trained to be a guard attacks somebody wrongly—in other words, an innocent person—is it the dog's fault or the person that was in charge of the dog putting him there?

I am a soldier. My heart beats at 120 beats a minute, which is a march gait. When I get upset, it goes to 180, which is quick-time. I am hard-wired, at this point, to react in specific ways under certain stimulus.

I once read that there were two types of people in the world—those that run towards a fire and those that run away. I'm part of the group that runs towards them. I don't know how not to. There's no thought pattern involved. My brain or, I should say, my emotional system isn't in charge at that point.

Unfortunately, none of us ever thought that we would live to become civilians. I don't think any of us gave thought to the fact that once you learn a thing it never leaves you. I have as much skill now as I did when I was 21 years old. Might be a little rusty on hitting a target at a thousand meters, 'cause I haven't thrown a lot of rounds down range in a long time, but I know the mechanics of it and I can get pretty close.

My wife and I joke about the fact that I believe I only have one true ass-whuppin' left in me—one. And I'm saving it. You know, and that's one of the reasons why I avoid situations and people that could put me in compromising positions. I mean, you hear a car backfiring, I hear a gun being cocked or fired. I know, intimately, the radar that says when you walk in bar something's wrong here—the tensions are too high. I read them like you read the newspaper. And I stay away from all of them.

I try to be a very nice guy—who I am now. I don't want to become who I was. If I was given a choice between erasing my entire past prior to me leaving the military, or keeping the skills, I would choose erasing it, in a heartbeat. I would love to wake up one morning without fear. I would like to go to sleep one night in peace. I would like to walk the streets with confidence. That doesn't happen to me.

As I'd said, we are trained to react in specific ways to specific pressure. If my children forget, and sneak up behind me, in the safety of my home, and try to scare me, they get kicked in the chest. And if they don't fall back fast enough, I could hurt them.

1993, we were visiting my parents up in Spokane, Washington. My youngest child was an infant. Patrick, Jr, had ear problems. My wife and him went to sleep in my old bedroom, and I slept on the couch, in the home I was raised in. Well, during the night, he had had a breathing problem. And because I had been trained as a combat medic, my wife brought the child to me to make sure that everything was okay. She touched my shoulder. I don't remember where I was in my dream, but I remember screaming, kicking her and having her fall into the fireplace behind her, and I caught my child. And then I realized what I had just done.

I am, as far as I can tell, a danger to everyone around me, which is why I stay where I am, and one of the reasons why I work very hard to be who I am now and not who I was. Most days, I am fairly successful. It's been fourteen years since I got out of the military. And with every passing year, I find that I don't react as unconsciously as I once did. So there's hope, maybe at some point, that while I'll never be like you, I can be less like who I was. That's a hope, at least.

Danger and vigilance

Patrick: I think one of the, kind of, interesting things about civilians is that you folks truly don't understand how fragile we are as individuals. We understand, you know, intellectually, that we're not bulletproof, or something. The military teaches you a whole other level of frailty. Most people that stay in for any length of time end up with an extremely healthy bit of respect as far as for safety.

I have seen soldiers die in almost every way imaginable. There's the obvious ones of bullets and grenades and artillery rounds and that kind of stuff, which is kind of part and parcel for war. But I've seen more people die in training accidents, than I've ever seen die in war, personally.

Everything we do, we practice before we do it. I mean, to be truly proficient in your job in wartime means you have to train to the point where it becomes second nature. And to train means that you have to come as close as you possibly can to wartime conditions—sleep deprivation, the worst weather possible, different scenarios that put you under the same amount of stress, or as close to the amount of stress as you would in a wartime situation, so you can do your job. Unfortunately, that leaves an awful lot of time for soldiers to get killed or injured.

When I was staying in Europe, in 1985, we were at a demolition range. And I'd just gotten back from leave, so my platoon sergeant was punishing me—because I was happy and in one piece and having fun and, you know, just come back from leave. So he stuck me on gate guard. Now, that means that there's somebody that stands at the gate of the range, to make sure that nobody drives on it, so they don't get blown up.

And there was twenty-nine, thirty people from my platoon of thirty-four people that were standing in bleachers. And what they were doing is they were getting a class on a cratering charge. A cratering charge is basically a shaped explosive that you put on the ground to blow holes. We call them instant foxholes.

And the person that was giving the class was using a 25-pound live cratering charge. And the business end of this cratering charge was facing towards the bleachers, where all the people were sitting in the middle of the bleachers, so that they could study how to arm this weapon. The detonator was supposed to be a training detonator—a false detonator.

Well, the instructor armed the weapon, thinking it was a fake, and he said, "And it goes off like this." And he hit the detonator. No one's exactly sure how that got switched with a live one, but it did. And it killed twenty-six people, outright. It would be like mixing a cake and lifting the mixer slowly up out of the batter, and the batter went everywhere. And that was the people.

You could not have orchestrated a more deadly situation if you had sat down and figured it out. So here I am, one of three people not injured, having to figure out how I was going to contact Range Control and possibly try to save whoever I could's lives. And that was one of those more hellish moments in my life, because it took us about forty minutes before Range Control came out with medics and investigation people. And that was pretty hectic for me, very nerve-wracking, because I was going, "Oh, my God, what happens if I come across somebody who's injured bad enough that I don't know what to do for them?"

And that's kind of one of those instances that made me become a better soldier. It was because I never wanted to be in the situation that I didn't know what to do.

Jackie: Did that experience shake your confidence in commanding officers—that such a terrible mistake could happen?

Patrick: Mistakes . . . I've learned that mistakes happen. Towards the end of my career, there was a big push, from the Officer Corps, that every mistake had somebody responsible. If something happened, somebody was responsible—whether they didn't train somebody well enough, whether the person was too tired, whether he was laze—somebody was responsible. I've come to learn that things can happen.

I think it's a big problem in the military right now that we have an awful lot of soldiers that are in noncombat roles. The problem is, is that these people are being put into environments that they were, again, not trained, both actually and mentally to be in. I mean, when I'm shot at, there's a level of fear, but there's an awful lot of calculations that are going on. I know how close the bullets are getting—'cause I'm used to that. That's what either I was trained to do or I've been . . . I know what it sounds like. If you're not trained for that, you can react in ways that are dangerous to yourself.

My greatest fear was to write a letter home to a soldier's parents or loved ones that said, "You son died, not because he did something stupid (his ass was up at the wrong time), not an act of God (that he was underneath the shell when it landed), your son died because I didn't train him correctly. Your son died because I didn't do my job."

I always taught my men to understand that the equipment that we use was designed to kill and it didn't matter who it killed. It could kill the bad guy, or it could kill you. And the moment your attention wanders, the moment that you are some place other than the moment, it will kill you or seriously injure you, sure as rain.

This was proven very true to us one afternoon we were at Grafenwoehr. Now, we go out with these tanks and we train in the mud. So the vehicles get extremely dirty. Well then, we're required to clean them back up to put them back in the motor pool. So you spend a lot of time on a wash rack, cleaning vehicles, okay?

We're required to use ground guides when we move a vehicle in built-up areas. So, in other words, if we're not out in the training area—you're in a parking lot or in a wash rack—you've got a ground guide, somebody that's on the ground that is responsible for making sure that you're not going to hit anybody. 'Cause vehicles are pretty large. Seventy tons of material takes space.

One of the other things we're required is to have a back ground guide when we're backing up. Whichever way the vehicle is moving, the person on the ground—you're required to follow their instructions.

An APC—armored personnel carrier—was leaving the wash rack. Well, there's a line of tanks behind him. And so the guy started to have him back up so he could turn out. Because of whatever circumstance, they didn't have a back ground guide, so there was nobody behind the vehicle to transfer the orders.

So the one guy goes back, and he's using the hose to wash off the track as it's moving. And the guy's driving. Now there's no ground guide. And the [M]113 [APC] had its ramp up off the ground. And the ramp caught the man at about the bellybutton and pushed him into the 69-ton tank behind him and crushed everything across his middle.

They knew that if they moved the vehicle, the man would die. And so they flew the man's wife up to Grafenwöhr, so that they could say goodbye to each other before he moved the vehicle. And the man died. Cleaning a wash rack—training area. Going back to the barracks. Going to leave in a couple of days, go to see his wife and his children. That one mistake cost him his life. That has shaped an awful lot of my life, those types of incidents.

In Fort Hood, Texas. One of the requirements before you go to a live fire range is to have to go through a number of exercises before that—dry fire exercises. Well, the weather was really bad and so they weren't able to train, and the company commander was getting backed up against the wall. So he had a couple of crews that needed to be trained, but he didn't have any drivers that were available. So they took an inexperienced person and put him in the driver's seat of this Bradley fighting vehicle.

The Bradley's a very unique piece of military equipment. When it turns a corner, it has a turbo blower that kicks in—sounds like a banshee wail. Anyways, the kid turned a corner and didn't understand that the turbo blower kicks in when you turn more than twenty degrees, and he sped up too fast and went into a ditch at thirty miles an hour. Flipped it over upside down, killing three people. Wednesday afternoon. Graduate of West Point—Second Lieutenant—been in the Army less than six months. His first training exercise. His first live fire. Dead. Because people got lazy.

I can think just off the top of my head—twenty-five, thirty, forty, forty-five, fifty—fifty men killed in different . . . in any circumstance you want. You know, they talk about, right now, KBR having a problem with the electrical stuff and soliders being electrocuted in Iraq, in showers. It's hard for a civilian to conceive. To us, it's part and parcel. Everything around us is deadly. Everything around us is designed to kill me.

I don't get into a car today without understanding that I drive a 2,000-pound vehicle that, at any given moment—if I fall asleep, if my mind wanders, if I listen to the radio, if I answer the telephone, if I'm talking to my children—I could kill somebody. It tends to make us very focused individuals.