Drew Pham, 27, is a former Army captain who deployed to Afghanistan’s Maidan Wardak province from 2010 to 2011. He lives in New York City.
Everything in Afghanistan has a different sense of proportion. It’s as if you are living in a different world. The Taliban would attack us, and part of what I did was fight insurgents. One time, I killed a man—an insurgent who was setting up an ambush against us. I shot him with my M4 carbine as he was reaching for a Russian hand grenade.
At first I was elated. I felt flushed, excited. After I killed him, I had to stay on the radio and coordinate with the air weapons team that was above us and talk to the logistics convoy, but most of the time it was just me and him. The desert has a moon dust quality. His eyes were coated in dust, and I tried to blink them for him because for some reason I thought all of the dust in his eyes must be very uncomfortable. I went through the man’s things. He had a little pair of folding scissors, a red cap stuffed in his pocket, some tissues, chewing tobacco.
Back at the base, the intel officer went through the man’s phone, pulled me into his office and said, “Yeah! This was a good kill! This guy was a f***ing cell leader.” He showed me pictures of the man alive. And it was just bizarre. It was strange to see this guy sitting serenely, just waiting, drinking tea. I keep telling people this story as if saying it somehow reduces the effect of what happened. But I feel a lot of guilt still.
When I got back to Fort Polk, Louisiana, my combat memories kept popping up, no matter where I was or what I was doing—at my desk at work, on a run, in my car, touching my wife. Can you imagine what it feels like to see the man you killed when you try to be with the person that you love?
Then in February 2014, after I had moved to New York because my wife was admitted to social work school, I went to the ER because I was having recurring fevers. I thought they’d just give me an antibiotic, but I got diagnosed with leukemia. I just thought, When is this going to end? I went to Afghanistan, I had to deal with combat stress back home, and I just felt like I wasn’t catching a break.
There are a lot of parallels between this illness and being scared in the way that we were overseas. Cancers—you don’t see them until they hit you, and that’s how an IED more or less operates. In both cases, psychologically, you’re constantly in fear.
I’ve been in remission since June 2014, but to be honest, I think my wife Molly is the only thing that really keeps me going. When I got diagnosed, she made like 50 little origami stars for me to unravel, and she wrote a note on each one of them, so every day, I opened one up and it would say something like, “One of these days, you’ll be able to walk into a bar knowing you’re the biggest bad a** in the room.”
It’s those things that help me believe that if the Taliban can’t kill me, cancer’s not going to kill me.
—as told to Olivia B. Waxman