05/04/2012 08:58 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

What Makes a Hero?

In November 2010, I was one of the nearly 3,000 soldiers in the Iowa Army National Guard who were deployed to Afghanistan. My job was to provide behavioral health services to these remarkable men and women. While I was deployed I kept a journal, which was my way of taking care of myself. The following is my entry from April 22, 2011.

I've just returned from a four-day mission to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Gamberi. They were hit by a suicide bomber this past Saturday, April 16, 2011. Two days after the bombing, Specialist [now Sergeant] Jon Ehrlich and I flew there from FOB Mehtar Lam, our home base in Afghanistan. Our mission was to conduct critical incident debriefings and provide individual counseling for the blast survivors and soldiers who were directly impacted by the event. The following is the story we got from talking to the soldiers who had been in the building and survived the blast, the soldiers who had run toward the blast, and the soldiers who had worked at the aid station treating the wounded in what was a "mass casualty event."

At about 7:50 a.m. during a regularly-scheduled meeting, an insurgent dressed in an Afghan National Army uniform walked into the conference room, said, "Allah Akbar," then triggered a suicide vest bomb. Twelve soldiers -- five American and seven Afghani -- were killed instantly, and approximately 40 other soldiers in the room were wounded. The survivors that SPC Ehrlich and I talked to told us the bomber did not hesitate before completing this cold, calculated, cowardly terrorist act. Despite the surprise of the act, at least three of our soldiers in the room recognized the threat and reacted.

They had noticed the bomber walk into the meeting and told us that being late for meetings was not unusual for Afghani soldiers, who often come in at different times to get papers signed or to have brief conversations with their leaders. What was unusual about the bomber was the fact that he didn't salute the officers when he came into the room and, oddly, that he wasn't wearing any socks.

When we discussed these observations after the bombing, the observers felt that, by not saluting, the bomber was perhaps being a bad soldier and not following usual protocol. His not wearing socks might have been an indicator that he had washed his feet in preparation for praying before martyring himself.

The last thing these survivors saw was the bomber's hand moving to pull the pin on the suicide vest. They only had enough time to shout, "Get down!"; there was no time to draw their weapons to shoot him, and no time to run. In the end, some of the American and Afghani soldiers in the room who tried to run out died, and some of those who got down, trying to take shelter, lived. Many of those who lived were critically wounded.

Once the survivors shook off the effects of the blast, they began helping the wounded. Several survivors were medics, members of the 101st Airborne from Fort Campbell, Ky. These medics' first instinct -- despite being wounded with cuts, bruises, and blown-out eardrums -- was to start treating the other wounded in the room. They recognized that the suicide bombing might have been the first stage of a complex attack. The wounded who were able to walk went outside (either on their own or with assistance), took their weapons, and set up security positions in order to protect the others.

U.S. soldiers from the Iowa Army National Guard who worked in a nearby building ran toward the explosion, made their way through the debris, stepped over bodies, and found the living. They assisted with providing first aid, helped move the wounded onto vehicles for transportation to the aid station, and helped secure the perimeter of the building. When the bomb exploded, they didn't know who had been wounded. And, like the soldiers in the meeting, they didn't know if this was the first part of a complex attack. All they knew was that there had been an explosion and there were people in trouble. They weren't ordered to do what they did -- they just did it.

At first, no one knew what the explosion was. Some thought it was a controlled detonation (a planned event wherein captured munitions are disposed of by blowing them up). Others thought it was IDF (indirect fire, which includes things like rockets, mortars, or artillery attacks). The medics, who were also members of the Iowa Army National Guard, initially thought that perhaps an Afghani barracks had been hit. Once the bodies and wounded started arriving at the aid station, however, it became clear that it was indeed a mass casualty event, just like we had all trained for at the Ft. Irwin, Calif., National Training Center. The medics did a remarkable job: All of the wounded they treated that terrible day lived to be evacuated to the next level of care. Sadly, one of the soldiers later died due to the severity of his wounds.

I admired the character of these three groups of soldiers. It was a humbling experience to meet them. Even though I came away convinced that they all did their jobs as well as they could, many of them thought that they could have done better. By the time we met with them, they had already started to think of ways to improve. They refused to accept the concept that their combined actions on April 22 were "heroic." Across the board, they were "just doing their jobs."

You have to ask yourself: When the bomb goes off, are you going to run toward it, or away? I hope that I would have the courage to run toward the bomb. I also hope to never be in the situation where I have to find out.

For more by CPT Dan Grinstead MSW ACSW LISW, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.