Sweat poured down my face as I heard the cracking of bullets over my head. My platoon was making its way back to our remote outpost in the middle of a Taliban-controlled district in Kandahar when machine-gun fire rang out from the east. My soldiers dove behind trees and compounds to take cover and return fire. I slid feverishly into a ditch and called up to headquarters, rolling my eyes at a day that just would not end. As I finished my radio transmission, I saw a little girl about 7 years old kneeling 10 yards down from me. She wore a red shawl over her head with her fingernails digging into her lips, crying frantically. With my left hand on my radio, I took my right hand out of my trigger well and held the girl’s shoulder gently. The fight ended, and I motioned for the girl to run home while she had soldiers out to protect her.
When I read about Staff Sergeant Robert Bales’ alleged massacre in Panjwai, just a few kilometers from that firefight, I thought about that little girl. I wonder how any grown man — an American soldier nonetheless — could stare down 11 children and even consider pulling a trigger. It pains me to think that perhaps even some of the children I helped in Kandahar would have been among the victims. My heart fills with hate toward this man, as do most Americans’.
(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)
But our generation of fighters is lucky enough to live in a society that is at least tolerant of our service members, if not passionately enthusiastic about us. Our military has had several soldiers engage in inhumane acts in combat over the past decade. But for the most part, our culture understands that these isolated incidents don’t represent the 99% of soldiers who are good-hearted people that have served honorably. And if we solely analyze this as an issue of character, then of course I wholeheartedly agree. But the problem is that this incident, and the ones that may occur in the future, are not simply issues of character, but of post-traumatic stress. And through this lens, I fear the “isolated incident” argument may leave several soldiers neglected.
Since I came home from Afghanistan, I’ve personally struggled through life-altering post-traumatic stress. I went through phases of nightmares, severe temper problems and antisocial behavior. I distanced myself from my parents and neglected my health. My outlook on life became cynical and toxic. I was an angry person to be around. And I did only one tour. More important, I’ve had plenty of time to realign my life, and I’m finally taking better care of myself. Had I stayed on the traditional Army career path, I would have been back on a plane to Afghanistan a few months ago, undoing months of progress and deepening the crevices in my emotional life.
Robert Bales was on his fourth tour in combat. I know the gravity of this commitment does not register with most people. It’s not simply a “one year on, one year off” arrangement. When you come home, some units get 30 days leave; some units in 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Bales’ unit) received only two weeks when they came home in 2010 according to a colleague who served in Iraq with them. When work starts again, NCOs like Bales show up to their American posts between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. Then come the battalion field exercises and brigade field exercises that each require weeks of training away from home. Then most units will spend a month at Fort Irwin, Calif., or Fort Polk, La., for a final pre-deployment exercise. That whole “one-year off” is not much of a break for any soldier or their families. With so much time away from home and focused on war, spouses leave, children suffer and mental health deteriorates.
Is it possible for a man or woman to endure a decade’s worth of deployment cycles and not commit such terrible crimes? Of course, and plenty have. But can we say the same of the hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming home over the next five years? Our service members are not machines. They are a cross-section of American society, a cross-section of humanity. The question is, what are we as American society going to do to care for our veterans’ mental health to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again? What will we do to channel the anger inside the hearts and souls of our veterans through healthy outlets, so their rage is not directed at civilians in theater, nor their friends and families back home?
If there is any good that can come from this horrible tragedy, I hope that it is a reinvigorated debate on the mental-health screening our soldiers undergo upon return. During my first week back from combat, I sat through a dozen PowerPoint lectures on substance abuse, aggressive driving and services on post. I’m confident most of my soldiers and I were playing with our new smart phones and texting our families during most of the briefings as our attention spans were still in combat mode. I took about eight different surveys asking me questions like, “Did you experience lethal fire in theater? Did you see fellow service members or local nationals injured or killed in combat?” On my fourth day back, I sat down for 15 minutes of actual counseling. It was the first time a real human being had asked me how I was feeling. And I said whatever I needed to get back to my unit. I had slipped through the cracks, as did many of my peers and soldiers.
Had my girlfriend and mother not stepped in, I’d still be in a dark place in my life. You cannot screen for mental health with surveys or PowerPoint briefs alone; you need a personal and local touch. This means getting trained mental-health specialists at the company or even platoon level, so a trusting relationship can grow between the counselor and the soldier over time. This also means empowering friends and family to encourage their service members into seeking help. It means fighting against the alpha-male currents of traditional combat and having junior officers and senior NCOs allow and encourage their soldiers to get the treatment they need.
But at the end of the day, there is only so much the military can do. There are already hundreds of thousands of veterans who are discharged, spread out across the country. Although these vets have no commanding officer to influence them, their families and communities can still make a change in their lives. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought with our institutions, but the fight for veteran welfare will be won at home.