The noise jolted Joshua Fosher back to the moment he thought might be his last.
The first lieutenant stood talking with a group of soldiers in a motor pool at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Across the lot, the crew of an armored vehicle began to deploy the massive collapsible bridge attached to its base. As the bridge unfolded upward and then eased toward the ground, the lift gear slipped. Tons of metal met concrete with the thud of a bomb detonating.
Most of the soldiers reacted by taking a step or two back. Some dropped into a crouch. Foster moved toward the sound in a furious trance, hands curled into fists.
“I felt this extreme strike of anger,” he said, recounting the scene from last spring. “It took me a couple seconds to remember where I was. I had to tell myself, ‘Breathe, breathe — let it go.’”
In his mind, he had returned to Afghanistan, to the dirt hill where a bomb blast revealed the invisible distance between life and death.
On the morning of June 10, 2013, Fosher led his Army platoon into a farming village in the eastern province of Ghazni, an area choked by the Taliban insurgency. Joining the patrol were his unit’s commander, Capt. Dusty Turner, and a platoon of Polish troops led by Sgt. Jan Kiepura.
A handful of soldiers walked into a crop field and started ascending a slope. Fosher reached the top as Turner entered the field 30 feet behind him. Kiepura was midway between them when his foot landed on a short plank of wood buried in the soil. His weight triggered a homemade bomb that blew apart the earth.
The explosion shoved Fosher onto his stomach. Straining to stand, he turned and stumbled toward Kiepura. A medic tried in vain to revive the Polish soldier while Fosher retrieved pieces of the dying man’s body.
Farther down the hill, the blast had slammed Turner on his back. He slapped his arms and legs, grateful to find none had been torn off. His head rang from a ruptured eardrum, and like Fosher, he suffered a mild traumatic brain injury.
The two American soldiers flew later that day to Bagram Air Field, one of the primary U.S. bases in Afghanistan, to recuperate at the base’s TBI clinic. For the next week, they slept long hours to ease their nausea, headaches and dizziness, and doctors worked with them to restore their motor skills and short-term memory.
A month after the explosion, a Stars and Stripes reporter met the pair at Forward Operating Base Ghazni, where they were stationed with the 40th Mobility Augmentation Company, 2nd Engineer Battalion. By then, Fosher and Turner had made a second trip to Bagram after their symptoms recurred, and on the advice of doctors, their commanders pulled them from the patrol rotation for the rest of the unit’s tour.
Both men had persuaded their superiors to allow them to stay in Afghanistan, and they talked with Stars and Stripes for a report about deployed troops coping with brain injuries and combat trauma. The death of Kiepura, a husband and father, had exposed them to war’s absence of order.
“For some reason, I’m alive and he’s not,” Turner said at the time. “For some reason, God allowed me to be here. I have no idea why.”
The questions shadowed the officers during the last three months of the 40th MAC’s deployment and after returning to White Sands. Jagged memories of confronting their own mortality pierced the cognitive haze that sometimes still clouded their thinking. Doubts about their recovery mixed with frustration as the healing process proved gradual and uneven.
Yet by last fall, as the lingering effects subsided, Fosher, 28, and Turner, 30, came to regard their experience in terms that might sound surprising, even irrational.
They believed struggling with mental trauma changed them for the better.
The hardship intensified their appreciation of life, deepened their bonds with loved ones. They had extracted meaning from the inexplicable, from a tragedy that neither would have chosen to endure but that evolved into a source of strength and motivation.
“You learn to savor the moment more because you don’t know what the next moment could bring,” Turner said in a recent interview. He is the married father of two young children, a mirror of Kiepura at the time of his death. “When you’re so close to losing the people who matter most to you, you want to notice the small moments that he won’t get a chance to.”
Growth through pain
The recovery of Fosher and Turner illuminates a concept that behavioral health researchers call post-traumatic growth. The idea counters the dominant perception of post-traumatic stress disorder as an irreparable condition that forever holds the mind hostage.
PTSD affects an estimated 20 percent of the 2.6 million troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and common symptoms include acute anxiety, flashbacks, insomnia and social isolation. Many combat veterans with the disorder also exhibit a constant state of heightened alertness that carries over from the war zone.
Rising awareness of combat trauma over the last decade has led the media, with ample reason, to examine the link between PTSD and violent behavior, substance abuse, depression and suicide. But the coverage has obscured reports from the National Institute of Mental Health and other public health organizations that show most people overcome the condition.
The study of post-traumatic growth builds on the theme of resiliency, offering evidence that survivors of a life-threatening event can resurface with a renewed sense of purpose.
Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, pioneered research into severe mental trauma as a potential catalyst for personal change. In a 1995 survey, they interviewed 600 trauma victims and found that the majority believed their lives had improved in a handful of areas over variable periods of time.