A photo of Juan (second from the right) with fellow soldiers during the Gulf War.

As we honor Veterans Day, it’s time to reflect on the stark realities of combat — a place where the “fog of war” isn’t just a metaphor, but a life-altering challenge. The fog of war is real and so are the horrors of war: I have experienced both first hand. I thought it was important to talk about one of my personal experiences and once again urge our leaders to fight for diplomacy as opposed to funding more wars.

When leaders decide to fund continued war efforts and send U.S. forces into harm’s way, I cannot help but feel a deep sense of anger and sadness. From thousands of miles away, it’s easy to talk in platitudes about fighting for democracy. Have we not learned from all the loss of life and sacrifices of our servicemembers?

In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, my platoon was in a hastily set up defensive position when we saw unknown dismounted troops approaching our position. We couldn’t tell if they were the enemy or friendlies. I radioed higher command to ask if friendly dismounted troops were conducting a patrol in our area of operations. The soldier I called was so stunned by all the gunfire he was experiencing at that moment that he was paralyzed on the floor of his vehicle and would not respond to my radio transmissions. Without information, we had to at least assume that it was possible the enemy was to our right flank.

As they approached, we could see them — but were fairly certain they could not yet see us. We had the advantage of being dug in and having the cover of our mechanized vehicles. A sergeant (a damned good non-commissioned officer) was suggesting that we needed to act first and “light them up” while we maintained the element of surprise. I reminded him that only after we had positively identified that they were the enemy were we allowed to initiate fire; these were the rules of engagement.

There are rules of engagement for good reason. The fog of war can challenge even those most disciplined of soldiers.

As they drew closer he became more panicked: “Sir, we need to fire at them before they fire at us.” I calmly and firmly reminded him that we held the tactical positioning advantage so if fighting broke out we’d quickly overwhelm them and again reminded him of our orders. He persisted.

I ordered one of my privates to yell “dae silahik” which was the little Arabic we knew that meant, “lay down your weapons.” To which the “enemy,” who could now see where we were retorted, “dae silahik!”

“Okay, so we can both speak a little Arabic,” I thought. I then asked him to say something to them in English. Before he could, a sergeant said, “Sir we have to fire and we need to fire now!”

I had no choice but to come over the top of him, and in my most forceful voice, “Sergeant, stand down! I’m the only one that will give the order to fire. Is that understood?” To which he responded, “Yes sir.”

I asked my private to again say something to the approaching force in English. To this day I crack up when I remember what he shouted, “Hey, are you *&($ing Americans!” The other side said, “Yes please don’t shoot!”.

The tension peaked, but so did our discipline. A humorous exchange in broken Arabic and a shout in English revealed they were fellow Americans.

Finally, the standoff ended and there were likely more than 30 American lives spared that day. I had a friend that was leading the dismounted platoon and to this day he still thanks me for saving his and his soldiers’ lives. He did report that he was going to conduct a dismounted patrol and it just never got back down to us through the communications channels breaking down…the fog of war.

I’m no hero, I had years of training that I’d amassed, strict guidelines that had been ingrained in me, a laser focus that one acquires when other lives are at stake and if we are honest, God was looking down on us that night. One Sergeant was so remorseful that he wanted me to accept his resignation the following morning when we had a moment of calm.

I told him that he was one of the best soldiers I’d served with, and that ultimately the chain of command stayed intact. Neither I nor our men would be better off with him leaving. We shook hands and carried on.

Here’s the thing, there are many situations and stories like this from the front lines.

This one ended well.

During my short time in combat, I witnessed some of the most horrific sights and smells that you’d never wish upon your worst enemy. Burnt bodies, mangled bodies, bloody bodies. Men captured were terrified that instead of processing them as POWs that they would be executed. These graphic sights and sounds are mostly not discussed with the American public and if they were — we’d rarely authorize force or the billions of dollars that we regularly lend to our allies to continue to wage wars.

Before we let another human being perish on the battlefield we must again become the country that trumpets diplomacy first and war only as the last resort.

As we honor our veterans, let’s also renew our commitment to being a nation that values diplomacy above all. I challenge our leaders to consider the grave implications of sending troops to battle, especially when their own loved ones could be on the front lines. Let’s ask ourselves: Would we be as quick to engage in warfare if our own loved ones were in the crossfire?

This Veterans Day, let’s choose to remember, reflect, and advocate for peace and diplomacy.