Sgt. Kaitschuck

Army Sgt. Joseph Kaitschuck sits on top of the Haditha Dam overlooking the Euphrates River in Iraq. A riot described in his story took place toward the back right of the photo. (Army Sgt. Joseph Kaitschuck/Submitted)

Joseph Kaitschuck came from a military family. Before he was born, one grandfather served in the Army; the other served as a Navy blimp pilot in the Lighter Than Air (LTA) program during WWII, in the days before drones and satellites existed. 

His father was an Army musician.

Kaitschuck considered military service from a young age. In fact, after a two-year, post-high-school religious mission in Japan, he considered studying to eventually become an Army chaplain. However, after talking to a local recruiter, he learned about psychological operations (PSYOP) and, in April 2001, he joined the Army as a reservist.

“My purpose in joining the Army was to pay my dues to the nation,” he said.

“I don’t take my freedoms for granted. I truly appreciate liberty and know that I earn it. Preserving our legacy of liberty in this nation is important to me. Now that I am sworn to defend the Constitution, I take that oath very seriously. If we are not free, then what are we? The nation is mine to protect. When fireworks ignite the air on the Fourth of July each year, the lights shine for me and all of my brothers and sisters; when the flag waves, it waves for us.

“I was deployed to Iraq in 2003, in Operation Iraqi Freedom 1, right after my basic and advanced training were completed. Many nights are etched permanently into my brain, but one night in particular stands out. 

“Our team leader, T.C., entered our room and yelled, ‘Hey, wake up! There’s trouble. It hasn’t started yet, but it will soon. I’m not sure what it’s all about. I’ll find out and be back in a few. Get dressed and make sure you’re ready. I heard there are about 400 of them looking for a fight.’ That meant I and my two team members would be in the thick of it.

“I remember this particular night, as most evenings we slept on our Humvee. That night was different, as we found outhouses by a dam and were inside with actual walls and a roof. We still didn’t have any power or plumbing, but there was a drain; this was luxury for us. My bedding and clothes were continuously soaked through with sweat, as it was so unbearably hot in Iraq.

“The temperature never mattered to T.C. He was always cool and collected, which made him a great team leader. Over time, we became good friends and depended on each other. He was well respected in the circles that held sway around there. We keep each other safe. I backed him up, and he watched out for me. Strong bonds of friendship are forged in difficult circumstances.”

Middle-of-the-night wakeup calls are not uncommon for soldiers. However, what follows is quite unique.

This three-person team awakens and prepares to fight, if they must; but ideally, they will prepare to use their training to help sway opinions and actions of the very groups and individuals who were among the 400 looking for a fight. They de-escalate, instead of increasing violence, where possible.

“Our team was called Voodoo Three. We were a team of three psychological operations (PSYOP) soldiers of the U.S. Army, a part of special operations with additional specialty training,” he said.

“There were 14 of us enlisted folks and one officer spread over the country between Baghdad and Syria, responsible for about one-third of Iraq.”

The Army describes PSYOP as specially trained soldiers who use “their intelligence, interpersonal skills, cultural sensitivity and language proficiency to help sway opinions and actions of foreign governments, groups and individuals.”  

Their missions are made to persuade and to motivate, to help find a mutually agreed upon decision that will “reinforce a favorable return to the U.S. objective,” according to the U.S. Army.

“That particular evening, a mob of 400 angry Iraqis were on their way to our doorstep,” he said.

“They were upset about the arrest of an Iraqi woman. It’s interesting when people project their own actions, perceptions, prejudices and hate onto others. The woman they were defending was accused of assisting her husband in making IED (improvised explosive device) vests. These vests are used by suicide bombers to indiscriminately kill soldiers and everyone else unfortunate enough to be caught in the blast. Anyone, even women and children, can use such a device and be killed by it. It is a disregard for life.

“Our goal was not to engage but to defuse the situation before more were killed. We got some engineer tape and made a clear line across the road. Our interpreter wrote, ‘Don’t cross this line or you will be killed,’ on a piece of wood and put it by the line.

“To back up the sign’s claims, we had two armored combat vehicles. One was a tracked multipurpose personnel carrier armed with missiles and an automatic 25 mm chain gun. In stark contrast, our team sat in our unarmored Humvee with a loudspeaker system, parked straight up the middle with only a piece of engineer tape between us and the mob. In this instance, our vehicle acts as the command center because it’s where the action is really happening, where the big decisions are being made. We were there to find calm, to diffuse the situation. 

“As the mob arrived, they approached the line but didn’t cross it. They shook their fists and yelled. They look at us, and we look at them. The tension was apparent. It was like a scene from an old Western movie with the outlaw and the sheriff squaring off and staring each other down.”

All the PSYOP situations are tense, but they also have a very clear goal: use unconventional techniques to benefit the soldiers’ missions. The soldiers are thoroughly trained on critical thinking and mental and physical toughness. PSYOP is specific to the Army and deploys with other military branches. The philosophical theories they learn are applicable in any situation, and the on-the-job training helps their success rates. 

Their jobs are inherently dangerous, and it is their influence with locals, building relationships and establishing human connections that often allows them to get back home safely.  

“Our experiences are different, how both sides got there are different, but human reactions to different situations are shared. That is what we use to build our relationships. We look for what we share,” Kaitschuck said.

He reflected upon his team members. 

“We are brothers, but not by blood; we are brothers of commitment who share a bond that most people can’t understand,” Kaitschuck said.

“We are soldiers, going through hell together. We are defenders of liberty, yet we are normal people. We are not superheroes; we have no special set of powers to make living easier or even more likely. I’ve heard to defend freedom a person must first be willing to give up freedom. We have given up so much already.

“I remember too many tense situations over there, but I learned a number of lessons. Our interpreters were often key to our ability to make a difference out there. They also taught me a great deal about humanity and our innate desire to be free. I remember early in my deployment, one of my interpreters told me, ‘I am hoping for liberation, but there are only two things that will get us there: God and the Americans.’

“As Americans, we have a legacy of freedom and a culture that is willing to fight for it. Other countries don’t always share that.  But, after hearing that man’s hunger for freedom, and meeting others who made enormous sacrifices to help us, I had hope.”

Diagnosed with PTSD and rated 50% disabled, Kaitschuck has realized his service and experiences are not a curse but a blessing. 

“If we don’t have resistance, there is no growth. For example, I am blessed to serve as an advocate for mental health.”

Kaitschuck is married with two children. He attributed much of his growth to his wife, a trained therapist, his friends, family and religious beliefs. 

He earned two master’s degrees and uses his education, Army experience and personal growth throughout his career. Now with USAA, he continues working to help people.  

Kaitschuck utilized the VA Hospital’s My Life, My Story program as a therapeutic tool toward healing. 

To read his story, visit