Oregon Army National Guardsmen return home after a year-long deployment to Iraq. (Photo: Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Hartman / The National Guard)
From Warrior to Warrior:
Now that you have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan and the killing and dying has ended, I wish I could tell you that your hell is over, that time will heal all wounds, even those of the mind and the spirit. I would like to give you hope that the nightmares and the memories of the horror will eventually fade and your life will be as it was before. But to do so, I believe, would be to continue the lie that has victimized you and so many others. You see, as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, I have seen the futility, the waste and the insanity of war, and, as a veteran, have experienced the difficulties of transition, of living life in its aftermath. After much soul searching and years of self-chastisement, I have accepted, albeit hesitantly and uneasily, responsibility and culpability for my actions and, at long last, have eventually managed, somewhat, to forgive myself. Or at least to live with what I had done and what I became. So, while others may offer you a façade of honor and glory, or "comfort" you (and themselves) with illusions of war's grandeur, I will offer you nothing but the truth, what I see as the reality of war and of coming home, a reality attested to by tens of thousands of psychological, emotional and moral casualties and by a long and disgraceful history of American neglect and maltreatment of its returning warriors.(1)
The truth is that no one who has truly experienced war escapes its ravages unscathed. No one is ever made whole again. Like it or not, that is our reality, yours and mine. As a "grateful" nation "welcomes" you home and "thanks you" for your service, they will begrudge you your "benefits" and deny you the care you require to treat the physical, psychological, emotional and moral injuries inevitable in war. And war's deleterious effects are not yours alone. Family and friends won't understand why you have changed, but will try desperately to help you "get over it," to "put the war behind you," and to "go on with your life," as though being affected by war is a conscious decision we make. But when it becomes apparent that the effect and impact of war is deep seated and complex and beyond their capability to remedy, they will grow discouraged by their helplessness, frustrated by the lack of assistance forthcoming from a government bound by contract "to care for him/her who shall have borne the battle," and dismayed by the indifference and lack of concern from a nation that mouths meaningless rhetoric of gratitude, concern and support. All that remains is to mourn the loss of innocence of the child they sent to war. Truly, war's devastation is far reaching.
But how does one "get over" such horror? Wars come and go, eventually becoming the stuff for historians to record and politicians to reinterpret. America will quickly forget, if they noticed at all, the death and destruction prosecuted in their name, and go on with their consumer-driven lives as though the horror and atrocities never occurred. For you, however, the war will never end, and though years may pass, you will remember it as though it were yesterday, the feelings, the sights, the sounds and the smells.
You will forever hear the screams of the wounded reverberate through your mind and relive endlessly the final tragic moments of a young life cut short by war as you lovingly held and comforted a dying comrade in your arms. You will remember the frustration and futility, the ambiguity of purpose and conflict of principles. You will remember that in unnecessary and immoral wars of aggression and occupation, there was no coherent strategy, no method to the madness, only killing and being killed. You will remember the confusion and that, in the struggle to survive the next improvised explosive device or suicide bomber, everyday living became a netherworld of horror and insanity in which life lost all meaning. As an inevitable consequence of war's dehumanization and desensitization to death and destruction, judgments of right and wrong - morality - oftentimes became irrelevant, and brutality and atrocity a primal response to an overwhelming threat of annihilation. You will remember how life amid the violence, death, horror, trauma, anxiety and fatigue of war eroded our moral being, undid character and reduced decent men and women to savages capable of incredible cruelty that would never have been possible before being sacrificed to war. And for this we must suffer.
I would like to tell you that America, the nation you love and chose to serve, appreciates your sacrifices and honors your service. But in reality, those who oppose the war and occupation believe you are at best misguided, at worst, a murderer. For the rest, their gratitude and appreciation is all pretense, a charade choreographed by war criminals to further mislead an uninformed and apathetic citizenry of sheep in order to encourage their continued indifference and/or support for their agenda of killing and destruction. For most, members of the military are cannon fonder, an expendable commodity to be exploited when political leaders and corporate magnates believe it profitable and in their interest. Henry Kissinger made this quite clear, "Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy." In addition, when you are no longer useful and have served their purpose, they will abandon you to face the demons of war alone, no longer a "hero," but a nuisance, a burden on the economy and a reminder of a war America would rather forget.
As you attempt to achieve some normalcy in your life, you will realize that though you have returned home, the struggle for survival continues in earnest. And sometimes, when things seem most bleak, you may look back upon your time in Iraq and Afghanistan and see death as benevolent and those who died in battle more fortunate than we who are condemned to live as penance for the sacrilege of war. As evidenced by the fact that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans committing suicide exceed the number of those killed in combat, sometimes, when no help is available and living with the consequences of war become unbearable and seemingly nothing can make it go away, in your depression and despair, you may think that death is the only solution.
Though war can never be forgotten nor put behind you, I have learned that by achieving an understanding of its nature and reality, by facing up to and working through personal issues regarding one's actions in the war zone and by rejecting the lies of the myth makers, propagandists and war opportunists who portray wars for power, wealth and empire as a struggle for freedom, god and country, you can come to terms with your experience and find a place for it in your being. If our sacrifices and those of our brothers and sisters whose lives were devastated or cut short by war, are to have any meaning at all, we must again come forward, shoulder to shoulder, raise our voices in unison and bear witness to the truth about war. We who know war for what it truly is have a unique perspective and profound responsibility to continue the struggle, this time not against some contrived evil of the war criminals' devise, but for right and justice in opposition to war itself and in behalf of peace. We must warn those political and corporate leaders who wage war easily and have hijacked our nation and ignore our Constitution and International Law that we reject their mythology and their rhetoric of false patriotism and will not unquestioningly and blindly support unjust, unnecessary and immoral wars. It has been my experience that working to effect real and positive change for the betterment of humankind, provides an opportunity for "atonement," an avenue to healing, a means for rehabilitation and for coming home at last.
My generation's time is nearing an end and, so, we bequeathed to you the onerous responsibility of becoming the gadfly that must awaken America from its lethargic and apathetic slumber. I challenge you, therefore, to turn your pain and suffering to righteous indignation and outrage, to take up the gauntlet and become a warrior for peace.
Dedicated to Pfc. Joseph "Doc" Dwyer, killed by post-traumatic stress disorder and the neglect and indifference of the nation he selflessly served.
1. Richard Severo and Lewis Milford, "The Wages of War, When America's Soldiers Came Home - From Valley Forge to Vietnam," Simon and Schuster, New York, 1989.