I went to the market
Where all the families shop
I pulled out my Ka-bar
And started to chop
Your left right left right left right kill
Your left right left right you know I will
“You can shoot her…” the First Sergeant tells me. “Technically.”
We’re standing on a rooftop watching black smoke pillars rise from a section of the city where two of my teammates are taking machine gun fire. Below, the small cluster of homes we’ve taken over is taking sporadic fire as well. He hands me his rifle with a high powered scope and says, “See for yourself.”
It’s the 6-year-old girl who gives me flowers.
We call her the Flower Girl. She hangs around our combat outpost because we give her candy and hugs. She gives us flowers in return. What everyone else at the outpost knew (except for me until that day) was that she also carried weapons for insurgents. Sometimes during the midst of a firefight, she would carry ammunition across the street to unknown assailants. According to the Rules of Engagement, we could shoot her. No one ever did. Not even when the First Sergeant morbidly reassured them on a rooftop in the middle of Iraq.
Other soldiers didn’t end up as lucky.
Sometimes they would find themselves paired off against a woman or teenager intent on killing them. So they pulled the trigger. One of sniper teams I worked with recounted an evening where he laid up a pile of people trying to plant an IED. It was a “turkey shoot” he told me laughing. But then he got quiet and said, “Eventually they sent out a woman and this dumb kid.” I didn’t need to ask what happened. His voice said it all.
I often wonder what would have happened if the Flower Girl pointed a rifle at me, but I’m afraid I already know. The thought didn’t matter anyway. There was enough baggage from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq that made coming home a place of uncertainty, anger, and confusion, not, as I had been led to believe, a warm celebration of safety.
“People only want to hear the Band of Brothers stories. The one with guts and gusto! Not the one where you jam a gun in an old woman’s face or shoot a kid.” I pause then add, “Look around the room for a second…”
Andy surveys the restaurant we’re in for a moment while I lean in with a sardonic half smile.
“How many people can even relate to what we’ve been through? What would they rather hear about? How Starbucks is giving away free lattes and puppies this week? Or how a soldier feels guilty because he pulled a trigger, lost a friend, or did morally questionable things in war? Hell, I want to hear about the latte giveaway…especially if it’s pumpkin spice.”
This eases the tension and he smiles.
Andy and I feel like we don’t fit in. We met a few years ago at the church where he works, and where I volunteer. Of the thousands of people that attend, we are a handful of veterans in the congregation. It’s often few and far between that I meet other veterans, and those that I do know or have met, typically end up running in the same circles.
Years ago Andy fought in the siege of Fallujah. Readjusting to normal life after deployment didn’t happen for us. Instead, we found ourselves overly angry, depressed, violent, and drinking a lot. We couldn’t talk to people about war or the cost of it because, well, how do you talk about morally reprehensible things that have left a bruise on your soul?
The guilt and moral tension many veterans feel are not necessarily being dubbed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) any longer, but Moral Injury. Moral Injury refers to the emotional shame and psychological damage incurred when a soldier has to do things that violate their sense of right and wrong. Shooting a woman or child. Killing another human. Watching a friend die. Black humor and laughing about situations that would normally disgust them.
Because so few in America have served, they can no longer relate to their peers, friends, and family for fear of being viewed as some type of monster, or lauded as a hero when they feel the things they did were morally ambiguous or wrong given the nature of the situations they were involved in.
WHY WE DON’T RELATE
We are currently engaged in one of the longest running wars in the history of the United States. We are entering our 15th year in Afghanistan, and Iraq still has troops stationed in certain outposts. In World War II, 11.5% of the nation served in four years. In Vietnam, 4.3% served in 12 years. Since 2001, only 0.45% of our population has served in the Global War on Terror. Yet, during WWII, 10 million men were drafted, and over 2 million men were conscripted during Vietnam. Despite the length of the Iraq and Afghan Wars, there has been no draft and the burden has been borne by less than a half percent of the population with repeated tours continually deteriorating the mental health of our troops.