War’s reality hits home

Jesse Tinsley photo

Spokane District Court Judge Vance Peterson, seen here Thursday, recently returned from Afghanistan.

November 11, 2012 - Updated: 6:13 a.m.

It was only a couple of months earlier, in June 2011, that Spokane County District Court Judge Vance Peterson helped convince his son-in-law to choose an Army mission flying Black Hawk helicopters over Egypt, rather than Afghanistan.

Peterson’s argument: You’re young. You have children. Don’t put your family, your mother and me through the stress of having you in Afghanistan for a year.

But when Peterson himself got a telephone call in August 2011 asking him to serve with the Washington Army National Guard in the Balkh Province of Afghanistan, he said yes. He knew if he didn’t go, someone else would have to take his place. His training as a Green Beret and his legal background as a judge and an attorney made him uniquely qualified for the mission. And, at age 58, he saw it as one last chance to serve his country.

This Veterans Day, Peterson is back in the States, with nearly a half-dozen war-related ailments to tend and plenty of danger-laced stories to tell. He left on Oct. 31, 2011, and arrived home in Spokane in September, 20 pounds lighter. He’s grown a gray beard. He gazes through eyes the color of a glacial lake, and he breaks into a warm, wry smile often.

A lieutenant colonel, Peterson served near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif as an operations adviser with two roles. One drew on his Special Forces training; he advised the Afghan Uniform Police on improving the communication between their intelligence and operations sides and developing more-effective short- and long-range responses to threats.

In the other role, he advised Afghan police, who operate as paramilitary units, on how to transform into conventional law enforcement by using practices such as obtaining search warrants and making arrests. “I think they understand: You can’t just kick in doors and shoot people,” Peterson said.

This work was done against a backdrop of violence and suspicion. “Green on blue” insider attacks have become the Taliban’s best weapon, Peterson said. He carried a rifle and a pistol most of the time, and he developed a constant vigilance that still wakes him every night after only five or six hours of sleep.

He knew suicide vests, covered in ball bearings and sometimes coated with an anti-coagulant like strychnine, were his enemies’ most lethal weapons. In an explosion, the metal scatters and anyone hit bleeds out.

Swedish troops in the area called the Balkh River “Willy Wonka’s Chocolate River of Death.”

“If you stood five feet away from it, you’d catch something that would probably kill you,” Peterson chuckles ruefully.

On Sept. 16, Peterson arrived back in Spokane. That night he ate dinner at the Maxwell House Tavern: chicken-fried steak and a Budweiser, the best meal he’d eaten in a year.

Peterson soon found Americans’ lack of interest in Afghanistan heartbreaking. He discovered more news coverage of reality TV shows than he did of the war he’d just been helping to fight.

Nonetheless, Peterson believes it may be easier for an older soldier to readjust to civilian life than it is for a younger one. “We see things through bifocals and perhaps a little different perception,” he said.

In his 20s, Peterson saw only the ridge directly in front of him. Today, at 59, his gaze takes in the mountain range beyond.

Like the president, Peterson is convinced it’s time to end the war in Afghanistan. He’s willing to define a win there as reducing the likelihood that any terrorist group will ever use that country as a launching pad for destruction like 9/11 again.

He advocates reducing the military’s emphasis on conventional troops, but increasing its reliance on special forces such as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers. These highly trained specialists act as “force multipliers,” he said, more equipped to fight in the unconventional conflicts that the U.S. faces today.

Peterson plans to spend the next month in a round of medical appointments to treat his neck, his knee and his hip, strained from carrying more than 50 pounds of body armor, weapons and equipment every day. His hearing has been impaired, and his physician has ordered a sleep study to counter his insomnia.

He plans to return to the bench in December, hearing civil cases and heading Spokane’s Veterans Court.

There he finds young men and women who had never been in trouble with the law suddenly appearing with multiple misdemeanors. The common denominator: serving three and four tours of duty. (A Swedish canine unit sends its dogs home from Afghanistan after four IED attacks; no such rule applies to humans, Peterson said.)

This Veterans Day, if we can shake ourselves loose from reality television long enough to share our gratitude, Judge Vance Peterson and his clear, steady gaze would be an excellent place to start.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is jamietobiasneely@comcast.net.


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