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November 26, 2021 12 mins

Elliott Woods discusses the making of Third Squad with Scott Tong on WBUR’s Here & Now.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hey, everyone, this is Elliott Woods, host of Third Squad.
I hope you had a great Thanksgiving on behalf of
the team. I want to thank you for coming on
this journey so far. I know it's been an intense ride,
and I'm truly honored to have you listening. It's hard
to believe, but we've already traveled more than five thousand miles,
crossed thirteen states, and visited with five of the Third

Squad survivors. And we've still got thousands of miles and
six more episodes to go. If you appreciate what you've
heard so far, please consider supporting our work with a
financial contribution. To find out how, visit the donate page
at third squad dot com. That's th h I R
D s q U A D dot com. We'd also

love to hear your feedback and your stories from the
Forever War, so shoot us an email at mail at
third squad dot com or leave us a voicemail at
four zero six seven six three eight to one four.
And if you got a minute, please rate and review
Third squa ODD on your preferred podcast app. It will
help other people find the show. We're off this week,

but we'll be back next Thursday with episode seven. In
the meantime, we got an interview to share with you
that I recorded recently with w b U R Boston's
Here and now. Thanks again until next time, keep pushing
as the calendar goes. America's longest war ended in August
with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but for the men and

women who fought there, you can imagine the memories and
the demons remain with them. A new podcast, Third Squad,
tells the story of first Battalion, fifth Marines sent to
Afghanistan's Hellman Province in Tleven. This was the bloodiest stage
of the war, the so called surge. Twelve men deployed,
eleven returned alive. Now, before going on, we should note

that this conversation deals with descriptions of war and violence
that may not be suitable for all listeners. The host
of Third Squad is a journalist and veteran himself, Elliott Woods.
And Elliott joined this welcome to hear it now, thanks
for having me. You embedded with Third Squad back in
Tleven and you know from the audio they were, frankly
a bunch of kids for some just at a high

school and then a decade later, you go on this
trip to reconnect with them. What's the origin story this project? Yeah,
so the origin story is, like you said, I went
on this EMBED with this group of Marines and Sangin
District and Helman Province back in two thousand eleven. I
came home from that embed just completely exhausted. And then,

as the story of the podcast tells, one of the
young men who I interviewed and photographed got killed shortly
after I left, and so I just figured, I don't
know if I can do this anymore. The risks that
I was taking didn't seem justifiable to me anymore, and
I was just worn out. But I always felt bad
about turning my back on that mission. I always felt
like I abandoned something. So ten years later I decided

to go find these guys who made such a deep
impression on me and see what had become of their
lives and what they made of the war after all
those years. So that's what I did. Now. You mentioned
the one member of the squad who died in Afghanistan,
Michael Dutcher was killed by an I E ed and
his death hits his colleagues very hard. Here's Marine Manuel
Mendoza describing what happened. I'm looking at Dutcher, He's running

in front of me, and then the whole world turns
brown and then black. The next thing I know when
I got my hand on his on his flak, and
I'm pulling him out of this crater and he's just
covered in dust. This leg is destroyed. It's got a

hole on his pelvis, tinn hole. Now a decade later,
Mendoza tells you he's haunted by guilt about Dutcher's death.
He blames himself. He considers at one point taking his
own life, and these are things he's never talked about.
He describes relive in that moment, feeling everything all at once,

the fear, the apprehension, the exhaustion, and then doubt or
you start wondering which you couldn't done different that what if?
And you start thinking where you live? Why am I alive?

So Elliott, I guess what did you tell him to
get him to talk about this? Well, there's a part
in that episode where Mendoza gets to a point where
he says he doesn't really want to tell these particular
stories because he worries that it would be disrespectful to
the families of the dead, and disrespectful to his dead friends. Yeah,

And I told him before the interview. I told all
these guys before the interview, you have the wheel, and
I'm going to point out some places that I want
to go, but you decide how close we go or
if we go there at all, And if you want
to stop and take a break at any time, or
if you just want to shut it down, we'll do that.
So that happened in this interview, and we shut the

recorder down. And I told Mendoza about why, basically why
I became a journalist and why I was out there
talking to them. I told him the story of two
guys from my unit who were killed by a suicide
bomber on December two thousand four. And I told him
about how I went to Afghanistan in the first place
because I thought that Americans needed to hear these stories

and and we weren't paying enough attention back home, and
the silence I thought was dangerous. And I told him
about how the first story that I ever wrote as
a journalist was about the parents of those two guys
from my unit who were killed, and how I know
what it's like to worry about disrespecting the dead or
making making these kinds of horrific incidents profane. And eventually

he said, okay, let's do it. Let's talk. As you
can hear with Mendoza, it led to him opening a
locked place inside of him off and letting out some
things that had really been torturing him. Well, Elliott, we
also hear this in your podcast with John Bolinger, another
member of this squad ten years ago. John Bollinger, the

kid in Afghanistan, professes himself as this out and not killer.
Let's listen, firefights are fun. I enjoy firefights. He had
drop bombs on people and kill badman. That's that's what
we're here for. And then he comes home to his
wife and his young son and he's mentally wounded. He's
suffering from PTSD and p and his wife tell you

they realize he's not okay. I don't think it was
really until you know, second week being back m hmm.
Woke up in the middle of the night getting choked.
So John Bolinger seeks professional help. And suddenly John and
his wife are shamed at Camp Pendleton where they lived there,

shunned by the people around them. You're a veteran yourself,
what do you take at this system, this mental health system.
So the Marine Corps is an incredibly rigid culture that
values bravery, courage, and physical strength and determination above all else,
and so anybody who's seen as weak in any way

is a risk. And I think there's been progress over
the years, UM, But I think at the time that
that Bollinger was coming home from sang In, that deeply
entrenched culture that saw any kind of admission of mental
weakness as a liability was still very very much alive.
And so he goes to seek help from a Navy

therapist counselor, and immediately he's made aware in the unit
that he's basically not welcome anymore. And so that was
was a terrible time in his life, UM. And fortunately
for him, and this really speaks to his perseverance, he
didn't give up on it. He kept going, He kept
seeking help through the military, even though they didn't make

it easy for him. And then when he got out
of the Marine Corps, he kept seeking help everywhere. He
moved after that from the v A and he's still
in therapy a decade later and has made tremendous progress
in his therapeutic journey. Well, there's this striking moment in
John's story. He's back in the States and he sees
this twelve year old kid in a memory from Afghanistan.

Just hits him. There's this kid who was it's kind
have been much older, and we're in a we're in
a gunfight, and I saw him and I didn't want
to take the shot, but he was shooting, yeah, and

a K I had to take the shot. I didn't
want to take the shot, but I had to take
the shot. That's the one. I that's the one. MH.
You know, Elliott. As I listened to this, I feel
like a voyor. I mean, this is so raw. And

so the question for you is what is the point
of of bringing us, the listeners so close to these men.
I don't think anybody who hasn't been to war witnessed
these horrifying events up close, or in some cases perpetrated them,
which is what John Bollinger is talking about. I don't
think there's any way for somebody who hasn't been there

to really know what it's all about. But I think
we all have a duty to try our hardest to
understand what it is that we're asking of people when
we ask them to go kill and die on behalf
of the country. And of those two things, the killing
and the dying, I think the killing is the thing
that we're most embarrassed to talk about, we're most ashamed of.
And so what that act does to the people who

committed to some of them, not all of them, but
to a good number of them, is incredibly transformative and powerful,
and it can be a form of trauma or to
use another phrase, moral injury that affects people's lives forever.
So my goal with this entire project is to bring

people into the room to really sit with the the
consequences of these wars that have been so far from
most people's consciousness, to basically ask them to reckon with
the human costs and consequences to the people that we
asked to do this on our behalf. And I think
John Bollinger and Manny Mendoza and these other guys were

incredibly brave to open up and talk about their private pain.
And as far as reckoning for you, you set out
in this project to ask what was this all for?
And where do we go from here? How do you
and how do these men answer those questions? Well, everybody

has a slightly different answer, but on the level of
the front line troop answer to the question what was
it all for? Is we did it for each other.
We were fighting for each other, to keep each other
alive and to support each other. Not all of them
have an answer to the bigger question of what was
it all for? Why did we spend twenty years in Afghanistan?
Why people die there and tens of thousands of other

people get wounded. Most of them don't have an answer
to that question, And to be honest with you, I
don't have a great answer to that question either. But
I also think it's my job as a journalist and
it's our job as civilians and citizens to demand answers
to that bigger question. Why was all of this sacrifice necessary?

Why was all of this damage done? And so that's
a question that I'll continue asking and seeking to answer
throughout the rest of the series and probably for the
rest of my life. Well it is a powerful listen.
Elliott Woods is a veteran and multimedia journalist and the
host of the podcast Third Squad. You can find it,
as they say, wherever you find your pod guests Elliott,

thank you,
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