The Story of Command Sgt. Major Chris Fields
Published in The Leaf Chronicle, by Philip Gray
“Blown up 14 times” and tough enough to cry. The command sergeant major of the ‘No Slack’ Battalion featured in the war documentary, ‘The Hornets Nest,’ had to fight his way through his personal hornets nest of PTSD in order to help others.
A long way from the battlefield, retired Command Sgt. Major Chris Fields still fights a war on behalf of soldiers with PTSD with support of wife Debbie and his involvement with Operation Restored Warrior.
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. There’s a Facebook page out there called “You know the REAL Chris Fields IF” and it good-naturedly celebrates a legendarily tough real soldier with funny quips about his superhuman attributes.
The page was put up by a minister friend of fields who was trying to get in touch with him and knew when word got around that Fields would find Hom. Fields laughs about it now, but said he was ready to clean someone’s clock when he first heard about it.
And the page isn’t that much of a stretch of the truth. As a man who has been “blown up” 14 verified times and survived, Fields has earned his “tough guy” bona fides a few times over.
but while his toughness was unquestioned by everyone, after numerous deployments from the Horn of Africa to the sands of Iraq, it was very much in question in his own heart following his ast deployment to Iraq in 2008.
That’s when he and Operation Restored Warrior found each other, through the Grace of God as he tells it.
With his wife, Debbie, by his side in a comfortable home in Adams, as he simultaneously petted a kitten name “Cheeto” and a hound named “Tucker,” he told the tale of how his facade crumbled and his inner pain was revealed through the fact that a chaplain forgot his hat in Field’s office one day at Fort Campbell in early 2009.
‘Find a program’
“It started when we came home in November 2008 from Samarra, Iraq,” he began in a soft voice, “and within a month, we had four suicides, just like that: Bam, bam, bam.”
Fields – then-command sergeant major of the “No Slack” 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division – went to the unit’s young chaplain, Capt. Justin Roberts, and told him to find a program that works.
Roberts used connections he knew in Dallas and found Operation Restored Warrior (ORW) in Colorado, started by a former Air Force chief master sergeant, Paul Lavelle, as a way to help service members with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“So (Roberts) came in my office and started to tell me about it, and I said, ‘I don’t care; let’s get some of our people out there.'”
Fields himself was breaking down, trying not to show it. When Roberts walked out of the room, Fields was sure the chaplain had seen through his tough-guy, 10-feet-tall-and-bulletproof act.
Fields saw his role as being the rock for his enlisted soldiers, but he was far from a rock on the inside, agonizing over the soldiers lost in combat in their last deployment and those who were still dying, far from Iraq in the supposed safety of Fort Campbell.
“I was having some pretty dark, pretty heavy thoughts at the time,” Fields said. “I kind of broke down a little bit.”
By chance or by fate, Roberts had left his hat sitting on the couch in Fields’ office and he couldn’t go outside without it. In a hurry, he turned back to the office and opened the door without knocking. Fields had no time to put his hard face back on.
Roberts sat down quietly as Fields reeled it in. After a time, he told Fields, “Sergeant major, I think you should really think about going to this program.”
Fields recovered, and, angry at being seen in an emotional state, said, “Under no circumstances. I can handle this on my own.”
Setting the hook
Roberts went to the office of No Slack’s commander, then-Lt. Col. J.B. Vowell, who now commands the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, “Rakkasans,” in the 101st Airborne.
Vowell was smart enough to know he had to do something but also smart enough to know he couldn’t directly order a man like Fields into treatment.
So he went in to talk about the ORW program with Fields, saying, “Our chaplain said he’s found a pretty good program here, but I’m not sending anybody until I have someone assess it for me.”
Fields said, “And then he says, ‘I think somewhere in some regulation I read that it’s the duty description of the command sergeant major to advise the commander on all enlisted issues.’
“After he went through the spiel, I said, ‘Roger, sir, that’s me.’ And he said, ‘I’m not wasting the Army’s money, so you go assess it.’ So the hook was set, and he reeled me in. So I go with the installation chaplain, the chaplain’s assistant, the FSO (fire support officer) and another sergeant, and when we got to Colorado, as we’re on our way to the ranch where this program is at, they kind of laughed and looked at me and said, ‘You know this is a religious thing, don’t you?’
“Now I’m really upset because I am definitely not a religious guy. So we get there, and Paul Lavelle meets me, says he can tell by the gray hair that I must be Chris Fields, and I grip his hand hard, pull him in, look him in the eye and say, ‘I am, and I’m not religious.’
“He said, ‘Neither was Jesus, so let’s just see who shows up. Come inside.'”
Fields said that in the week that followed, he found his heart and a lot of other things he thought he had lost, especially his hope. That was fortunate, he said, because without it, he wouldn’t have survived the trial that was to come in Afghanistan, when the No Slack Battalion endured a deployment now made famous in a documentary film, “The Hornets Nest.”
In the film, Fields can be seen kneeling and in tears at a memorial service for six of his men killed near the end of the deployment, just days before they were supposed to rotate out.
By then, thanks to ORW, Fields was able to find a way through the pain, and when he retired, he became one of the leaders of the program, together with Lavelle, former Navy Seal Frank Fetzko and Marine Force Recon former officer John Guandolo.
“Together,” said Fields, “we reestablish and restore them by taking them through a ‘30,000-foot’ overview of their lives, all the way down into their inner being and then back out again, and we do it through five days of disconnecting them from ‘the matrix’ up there on the mountain. We take away the cell phones and unplug them from the Internet.
“Nobody gets five days like that anymore in this society, but that’s what they need. And then we teach them you’re not the sum of your experiences, but rather how you deal with those experiences. We show them how to fight for the beauty of life, which for most is their families. We help them gain a totally new outlook on their lives and how to deal with their emotions when the anger comes up and they’re on the edge of a rash decision.”
Leading by example
Fields believes it’s especially important for high-ranking active-duty personnel and veterans with standing like himself to open up to the troops and to the veterans who have felt shame for what they perceive as weakness.
“I’ve had quite a few of my No Slack troops come through the ORW program,” he said, “along with Navy SEALs, Special Forces guys, Ranger Regiment guys, some of whom are still on active duty.
“The strength I gave my battalion was opening up to them out on the PT field, telling them I had PTSD and that I was seeking help.
“And they need to know, if you’re seeking help through whatever program, you’re not going to lose your right to vote, your gun rights or your security clearance – unless you act like a knucklehead.”
Fields stressed the point, “PTSD does NOT give you the right to act like an ass.”
‘Everybody was hit with something’
Fields calls PTSD a “moral wound,” with especially devastating effects for service members who grew up in safe, “normal” circumstances that leave them wide open for anguish when they experience things wholly outside of their previously safe existence.
It isn’t just the horrors visited by human beings on other human beings in a culture where atrocities are commonplace, he said, but also the sights of war that no picture can convey to ready a soldier for the reality of combat.
Fields described the aftermath of a particularly horrific incident in Iraq with the 101st Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team in November 2006, when an improvised explosive device took out a vehicle in front of him with five people in it, killing Lt. Col. Paul J. Finken, Lt. Col Eric J. Kruger and Staff Sgt. Joseph A. Gage.
“When I got to the vehicle,” said Fields, “Lt. Col. Finken wasn’t much, Lt. Col. Kruger was unrecognizable, and Staff Sgt. Gage was cut in half. The Iraqi interpreter was also in bad shape (he survived), but the driver was fine – physically. But he is forevermore morally wounded by that.
“And I had to brief the mortuary affairs guys that this was probably something they had never seen before. Every one of them needed help after that.
“I tell this story not because it’s unlike anybody else’s story, but because nearly everybody over there has been hit with something, and though time by itself doesn’t heal all wounds, it takes time to identify the wound, reconcile it, and figure where to go from there. And it helps to do it with people who have context for what you’re talking about, because most civilians don’t, and you can’t fault them for that.”
Not ‘Mr. Rogers’
Fields is adamant that a strictly medical approach is insufficient in dealing with the kinds of wounds that don’t leave outward scars, such as PTSD and severe depression.
“It’s not an infection,” he said, “and it’s not a virus. It’s a wound to the heart and the soul, And just as you can’t shoot your way to victory, you can’t medicate yourself to mental wellness.”
“What gets a lot of people on the ropes is they put their hopes in fallible mankind, their significant other, or a government entity like the VA,” said Fields. “Those things can’t validate you. Not even my wife can validate me, because if I give her that authority, I also give her the authority to take it away, and that’s even worse.”
Fields, who still rejects what he calls “religiosity,” believes that, ultimately, validation can only come from within and through a connection to a higher power. But he also understands through his own experience that many people aren’t ready for that.
For many soldiers, it starts with the image of a meek, weak, accepting Christ that goes against their grain as warriors and makes them wonder what help can possibly come from that quarter.
“A lot of us grew up with the idea of Jesus as Mr. Rogers,” Fields said, “But he wasn’t. He was more like William Wallace (Scottish patriot portrayed in the movie, ‘Braveheart’). Think about the time and place Jesus grew up. And he wasn’t a carpenter. There were no trees in that area. He was a builder, working with rock. That table he turned over in the Temple wasn’t a piece of plywood; it was heavy slate.
“Turning over tables, with a whip fashioned out of rawhide in his hand – that’s not Mr. Rogers.”
‘You don’t know’
Fields was ready to turn over a few tables himself when he came back stateside after a deployment and had to see a neurologist for his constant headaches.
Without the slightest apology or nod to political correctness, he related having to go see a Pakistani doctor, which to him was akin to sending a Vietnam veteran to a Vietnamese doctor right after returning from the war. But, he said, he tried to maintain an open mind, right up until the doctor told him, “I know exactly how you feel.”
“And that’s when I stood up,” said Fields, “ready to fight, and I told him flat-out, ‘You don’t know I feel. There’s no way. That (diploma) on the wall doesn’t entitle you to say that.’
“That’s why at ORW, when we take people up on the mountain, we don’t say that. We just tell them how we deal with what we feel from our experience, which gives us a safe common ground.”
“And it works. We’ve had 500 people up there in six years, and I feel very safe in saying every one of them came away with something. Not every one of them is fine, happy-ever-after. That’s not realistic. I can’t say that. But I can say every one of them leaves with the tools to make their lives better.”