Fidelis Oketch was on just his seventh mission in Iraq when his war ended.
“The scariest (part) was knowing friends who died,” he said, “getting blown up by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) each day and taking fire fights.”
Though he had always wanted to be a military pilot, Oketch got his first chance to serve in the military after 9/11 when President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq and U.S. troops were sent out almost immediately.
In 2004, Oketch – 27 at the time – officially joined the United States Army. He wasn’t deployed to Iraq until 2006, during what became known as “the surge.”
The surge involved the deployment of 20,000 more soldiers into Iraq to provide security for Baghdad and Al Anbar.
“That’s when all hell broke loose,” he said. “That’s when reality kicked in, but it was too late for fear or mixed feelings. It was time to work, time to focus and stay vigilant.”
During the surge Oketch saw many of his comrades killed or suffer severe injuries. But he credits his positive outlook for helping him make it through those times.
“I was in the 82nd Airborne Division at the time,” he said. “I heard a lot about guys not making it or getting wounded on those deployments, but I couldn’t let fear lead me.”
On his seventh mission Oketch was a gunner on a truck and the truck was hit a number of times by IEDs. Oketch was hit by shrapnel on his face and hands.
Because of his intense injuries, Oketch received a Purple Heart military award in 2007; they are awarded to soldiers injured or killed in combat.
Oketch said after he returned from the war he had a hard time reintegrating into society and kept himself in isolation for six months. He did see a therapist for post-traumatic stress.
“I was dealing with combat memories, and nightmares, lack of sleep. I couldn’t trust anyone,” he said. “It felt more easy to be in Iraq than it was [to be] at home. It took me a long time before coming to terms with the reality.”
Oketch said he felt so scarred that even meeting President Bush at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, didn’t excite him.
“I had my own issues I was dealing [with], and injuries to recover from, but they wanted me to go for lunch because I was a Purple Heart recipient,” he said. “It’s not that I didn’t like him [Bush.] It was nothing personal. It was more so like, I wanted to be alone in my isolation. The only people I was comfortable around were my battle buddies, the guys I was in Iraq with. Being in public was out of the question then.”
Oketch said that Remembrance Day has a special meaning to him now.
“I am very aware of those who gave their lives for their countries,” he said. “It’s good to remember them.”