LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. --
Sitting across from U.S. Army Maj. Jonathan Holm, it is easy to paint him as the typical Soldier. The close-cropped hair, clean-shaven face and perfectly arranged uniform all add to the fierce look of determination that comes from years of military service.
It's what lies behind his eyes that reveal a deep and pensive reverence for life.
His reverence comes from an often-ignored emotion which was cultivated throughout his four deployments - survivor's guilt.
"I have a family, wife and kids," he said. "But, some guys who didn't make it back had all that too."
Survivor's guilt, while not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder, can be just as difficult to endure, depending on its severity. The guilt occurs when a person has been involved in a life-threatening event and lived to tell about it. Instead of asking "why me," an individual is often left with the question: "why not me?"
The feeling was especially prevalent in Holocaust survivors, who were left battling questions of why they survived when their friends, neighbors and family members did not. According to research done on the subject at the University of Santa Barbara, the more a Holocaust survivor felt powerless to affect their situation, the stronger the survivor guilt feeling was within them. On the battlefield today, there are times when the best laid plans go horribly wrong, and a service member pays the ultimate price.
While Holm has never lost a Soldier under his command, he has seen his share of fallen comrades and memorial services, especially during his last deployment to Afghanistan with the 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division out of Ft. Carson, Colo. As a company commander, and eventual brigade plans officer, Holm and his Soldiers spent time searching for high-ranking Taliban targets who coordinated or conducted attacks on U.S. service members and Afghan people.
"It felt like we were getting justice for the U.S. Soldiers and Afghans killed in an attack," he said. "These guys had killed Americans and innocent Afghans whose families weren't different from my family or U.S. families. Realizing that gave me greater empathy toward the situation."
Holm paused and shifted in his chair slightly. The memory he was trying to formulate into words seemed uncomfortable - but a necessary one for him to share.
"Most Afghans are just trying to live their lives as best they can in an environment of scarcity," he said. "Getting their family from one day to the next is a constant struggle. From a distance it's easy for people to ask why they can't just get rid of the Taliban. Some try. But, some can't."
He paused again.
"I tried to put myself in the shoes of some Afghan shopkeeper; just trying to take care of his kids, go home at the end of the day and play soccer with them," he said. "That showed me the war doesn't just impact America and Americans, it has a very real and daily impact on the lives of the Afghan people."
Holm said this perspective made his mission more real and significant to him. He wasn't just fighting the Taliban as some faceless organization. He was fighting someone who planted a bomb and killed a shopkeeper who just wanted to get home to see his children play soccer.
"It was a great feeling when we took one of those guys off the battlefield," he said, proudly. "We weren't thinking in terms of fighting the Taliban as a whole. The Taliban is composed of people, we were fighting them."
However, even though Holm and his Soldiers made significant progress in the war against the Taliban, there were moments he wondered how much of an impact he truly made.
"Sometimes when you're back home you think about things and reflect on the missions you went on," he said. "It's easy to question the value of your service. 'What was the point? What did I accomplish? Could we have done better?'"
He stops, his eyes again displaying the fierceness of a Soldier who has seen war and understands what is truly important throughout a dangerous deployment.
"I brought everyone home," he said, definitively. "That is the most important accomplishment."
While Holm and his Soldiers were fortunate to return unharmed, others were not so lucky. For a time, Holm said he would remember the memorial services and feel like Matt Damon's character at the end of "Saving Private Ryan," when he is an old man who turns to his wife while standing at the cemetery.
"Tell me I've led a good life," Damon said, as James Ryan. "Tell me I'm a good man."
Holm said he felt as though he needed to earn his life, in order to do right by the memory of those who had fallen in battle. It was his wife who was finally able to put things in perspective for him.
"She told me it wasn't that I had to earn my life," Holm said. "She said I had to honor it."
From that moment on, Holm said he began devoting part of his life to honoring the men and women who didn't make it home; those who gave everything for their country and its people. He has transformed his survivor's guilt into a something more positive, helping service members who are experiencing similar emotions, whenever he can.
"I have been given this amazing gift of being alive," he said, smiling. "I need to honor it. I need to honor them."
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