AFTER ACTION is the account of a U.S. Marine’s tours of combat and his consequent PTSD. Author Dan Sheehan piloted an AH-1W Super Cobra in East Timor in 2000 and again during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2004, he was deployed to Iraq a second time, as part of special operations infantry.
The memoir provides an informative and exciting account of an attack helicopter pilot’s combat in the Iraq War. Sheehan recounts exhilarating flights destroying buildings and enemy artillery with TOW and Hellfire missiles. He and his fellow pilots are additionally armed with Gatling cannons and high-explosive and fléchette rockets. Despite their heavily armored aircrafts, their lives are threatened by anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
They have numerous technical failures—revealing how warfare equipment often malfunctions. Multiple times missiles fail to launch or target properly. Sheehan recounts electronics not working, cannons jamming, and radios and optical systems breaking.
Sheehan also writes of failures of the human body. He often is pushed to work while fatigued, relying on coffee, dipping tobacco, and finally stimulant pills to stay awake. At times they make flying mistakes almost ending in ruin.
Apart from the physical challenges, Sheehan writes revealingly of his mentality as a Marine Cobra pilot. Periods of calm cause disappointment, while combat becomes addictive. In one part: “Silently I sat, watching the man get cut in half and re-living the fascination and euphoria I’d felt. My pulse started to pound again with the recollection of the Iraqi soldier’s violent end. I felt strangely guilty at the rush it gave me—like I was watching porn.”
Yet Sheehan is not a single-minded killer. He also expresses an ongoing fear of hurting non-combatants or friendly troops. This becomes part of a growing mental unease, which strikes inexplicably at times. After duty ends, his bloodlust turns to intense guilt over killing, also questioning the moral justification of the war. Though determined to hide these feelings, he later reconciles them with his identity as a man and warrior.
AFTER ACTION is not for those sensitive to profanity or depictions of real bloodshed. However, it provides a remarkable window into the experiences of combat pilots and the mindset of soldiers.