Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More to the story: Marines in conduct unbecoming

Recently a damning video of U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters shocked the world, drawing condemnation of American military forces. The alleged actions of these men were wrong. No one, military member or not, condones this behavior. No one is above criticism in our country, and the outrage people have expressed at this travesty has its place in a free society.
I do not defend what these soldiers did. But I believe I can understand it. They are at war. We, the American people, through our government and our military, have asked our troops to kill our enemies. Whether you agree or disagree with the war in Afghanistan, the fact remains that we ARE at war, and these young men and women are killing in our names.
To kill, to be locked in bloody conflict, to know that if you don’t kill the enemy he will most assuredly kill you, is part of the hell of war. We who are not on the battlefield have the luxury of the finer scruples of civilized society. We can turn away in distaste. We can change the TV channel, shut off the computer, go to the kitchen for a snack. Our troops can’t.
These soldiers, as wrong as they were to disrespect dead enemies’ bodies, reacted similarly to my friend who said she wanted to spit on the graves of Nazi concentration camp guards.
Let’s walk a few steps in the boots of these soldiers. I teach soldiers, former soldiers, and their dependents every day.
Here’s a story about the last day of a college class in a military town bruised by years of war. Maybe it will shed some light on what we have asked of our military men and women in these interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The last day of class. It’s also the last day of oral presentations of student research papers in this community college English class.
 I’ve been kidding this class the entire semester about being the best-ever class. Focused, mature, motivated. This class … they take my breath.
Here’s the last student to present her paper, Barbara.
Topic: Post traumatic stress disorder.
Barbara puts up a PowerPoint slide with a large “MA,” Mature Adults, warning on it. I’m a little uneasy.  We’re wondering when she will change slides on the projector, but she doesn’t. The MA stays.
She gives an overview of post-traumatic stress disorder. She talks in the third person about soldiers, and emphasizes they are mostly so young, 18-22 years old. Barbara, a non-traditional student with teenagers at home, also a former Marine, is about 40.
As I take notes and fill out my assessment sheet for Barbara’s presentation grade, I see that she is struggling a bit with her emotions.
She says the VA was not prepared for the returning vets. How they allot only three psych therapy sessions per soldier, yet give out mood-altering drugs so freely. How that is not an adequate response to returning soldiers.
Finishing up her presentation, she says she is going to show us some photos of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Her photos flash in relentless succession. Blood, mutilation, guys trying to drag buddies out of the small-arms fire in dusty streets. Guys blown-up in ditches. A man who has lost his face, who nonetheless survived and stands in dress blues with his bride on their wedding day.
“This is a picture of true love,” Barbara says. Her posture is erect, but her voice is starting to tremble.
She is in trouble. We can all see that.
Her last photo is of a chaplain handing an American flag to a little boy.
“That boy is Tyler,” she sighs. “I may get emotional.”
“Some things are worth getting emotional about. It’s okay,” I say, from my seat in the middle of the room among the students.
Barbara stops. I let ten long seconds go by, to give her a chance to continue if she wants to.
She stands in front of the class, her head bowed, tears streaming. How is she still standing?
I go up and hug her. She hugs back, hard.
“Is he someone you know?” I whisper.
From somewhere, she finds the resolve to continue. She tells the class the story of Tyler, and also of herself.
When I was in Iraq,” she says, “we processed the bodies of soldiers for transport back home. Usually the Iraqis removed any ID from the bodies. There were no dog tags, no nothing. But this one man still had a picture of a little boy, his son, Tyler, in his pocket. I never forgot that little boy’s face.
“I happened to come across this picture of Tyler on the internet when I was doing my research for this presentation.”
She starts crying again, but continues.
“This happened in 2004, and I wonder every day how this little boy is doing without his father.”
Standing beside Barbara, her immense bravery astonishes me. But then again, I see a lot of bravery on our campus.
Barbara has been my student for two semesters. I thought I knew a few details about her, but I didn’t know that she had processed bodies of American soldiers.
She sent the dead bodies home. That was her job.
Barbara is sobbing. “May I take over?” I ask.
“Yes,” she whispers. She sits down at her desk in the front row.
What am I going to say? Shit!
I look out at the splintered faces of the best-ever class. Words start coming out of my mouth.
 “As an instructor, PTSD is something I see my students dealing with every day. You can’t tell by looking at someone if they are dealing with it. There aren’t any visible signs. We all know that.”
They nod.
“But then there are the wives, the husbands, the kids, the friends of those with PTSD who are also dealing with the fallout.”  
Even the teachers, I think, but don’t say out loud. I can’t truly know what many of my students have been through, what they are still going through. Ten years of war show everywhere on our campus.
I look around at the class, the best-ever class. Some of the women dab their eyes with tissues; several of them have served in Iraq. One young woman, a Navy corpsman, worked in a field hospital in Fallujah. She remembers a day when her boots filled up with blood from the wounded. She was so busy tending the injured that she didn’t notice the blood soaked socks and boots until her shift ended.
The young men have red rimmed eyes; they are broken. I know they, their dads or moms, their brothers, their friends have been deployed. I know my voice is coming out choked, distorted. Too damn bad; apparently I’ve got more to say.
“What can we do?” I ask.
“We can try to treat each other gently around here, as much as we can. We can be kind to one another, even in small ways.
“We’ve all seen the consequences of war don’t end when soldiers leave the battlefield. We know what’s going on because we live here in this military town. If you travel over semester break, you can tell people in other parts of the country what’s going on. They don’t know.
“You can tell them.”
Just like I’m telling you, now.


  1. We, most of us, don't know. You're right. But I think I too may understand it.

    I'm going to share this.

    1. Having just marked the fortieth anniversary of the day I was inducted into the army, I can appreciate your words and your reaction to Barbara's presentation. The decade-long war that was futile from the outset, having seen how history singles out this nation for unresolvable conflicts, rages on, while I, personally, prepare to host a gathering for a televised sporting event.
      Your words require that the reader pause, long enough to acknowledge that there are brothers and sisters who are sacrificing much, so that the rest of us can watch televised sporting events on TV. Thank you.

    2. Jane, Thank you. I'm not a violent person, but if I were in battle, how would I react? I'm not sure I would always be a credit to polite society. So appreciate your comment and the sharing.

  2. Mark, I was so hoping you would have a chance to read this. Your comments mean more than you know, and I was thinking of you among our brothers and sisters who served in the military as I wrote. Thank you for your service to the country, and for stopping by to comment.

  3. This is a powerful post, Melanie and I really appreciate it. My dad was a corpsman in the South Pacific in WW2. He was 19 (NINETEEN , for god's sake) when he first went in. He did all the boot camp stuff and then was put on a ship bound for unknown places. He was away from his family for TWO YEARS and in the service for at least three years. It was a fluke of some kind that he became a corpsman - not his choice - and it was a horrible job. He saw terrible things and more than once had to put the pieces of someone ho had become his friend into a body bag to be sent back stateside. He seldom talked about his war years and even more seldom talked about the tragedies he saw. I know that the images haunted him for the rest of his life. They affected him in so many ways and, by extension, there was an impact on his wife and children. He was a deeply compassionate man who had to live for 50 more years with the knowledge and terror of war. Thank you again for making the tragedy here so real. Powerful.

    1. Isn't it amazing what our fathers did? My dad was 19 as well when he joined the Marines. As he was being shipped out to the Pacific, his beloved mother died. He was sent home for the funeral, then sent to the battle of Iwo Jima where the death toll between both sides was in the tens of thousands.

      The corpsmen have my greatest respect, but how traumatic for a teenager to be ministering to dying Marines, his friends.

      The impacts of battle definitely continue down through the generations of a family. Thank you greatly for the comment.

  4. This is such a powerful and necessary post. My father served in Vietnam and I believe lived and, for the most part functioned well, with unacknowledged, untreated PTSD for decades after. It wasn't until recently, when he was his county's liaison for the VA and started fielding the stories of young soldiers from Iraq and Afghaninstan that he started getting in touch with his own buried emotions. We often think (if we think about it at all) that the toll of war is measured in fatalities or merely physical injuries, but it is not. It very much is not. And these broken men and women (and their families) need and deserve support on a magnitude much greater than they're ever likely to get from our government or, sadly, from our nation as a whole.