Editor’s note: This is the third post in our series on veterans, reintegration and mental health.
“Writing saved my life,” says former Marine Cpl. Mike Liguori.
When Liguori, 29, returned home to San Carlos, Calif., in 2006, after two tours in Iraq, he felt numb and disconnected. He fell into a deep depression. He hated being alone yet felt intense loneliness when surrounded by people.
Eventually, he turned to the VA’s mental health services and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
His therapist gave him an assignment: Think back to the first traumatic event of the war and write about it.
Transporting himself to that moment was wrenching, Liguori says. His writing was filled with pain and self-loathing.
Then the therapist told him to do it again. And again. He continued to write and rewrite the same thing for weeks, for a month. Over time, the story began to change. The facts remained the same, but how he wrote it, the details he included and the details he left out, began to shift. He began to forgive himself.
“I had felt responsible,” he says. “But I wasn’t responsible. I wasn’t the one in charge.”
Liguori has continued to write. In August 2012 he published a book of short stories called “The Sandbox: Stories of Human Spirit and War.” The book features a version of that first story he wrote in therapy. It is retold here with excerpts from Liguori’s later writing.
In 2004, Liguori arrived in Iraq as a member of a motor transport team. He spent much of his time driving around Anbar province, resupplying bases. These missions, he says, were both incredibly dangerous and mind-numbingly boring.
I still haven’t seen combat. I still haven’t seen what I had imagined it to be, rounds coming at you with hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches against the enemy. A couple months out here, I have nothing to tell my friends and family back home. I thought war was going to be constant battle. I thought it was going to be days filled with grenades and firefights. I just have been driving miles and miles without a single firefight to show for it.
This wasn’t the experience Liguori signed up for. He had enlisted in the Marines right out of high school, inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Liguori says his personal mission had been to protect the United States from future attacks. In other words: He wanted to kill terrorists.
It is a little discouraging that I haven’t had a chance to kill. All those hours I spent cleaning weapons seem pointless. I keep getting this itch to shoot anything while I’m out on the roads. I just want to kill something. I want to tell my friends I killed out here, that it was one less terrorist they had to worry about.
The opportunity arrived late one night while he was returning to base after a supply run.
A shadow behind a cement barrier slowly slipped out between the chain link fence and concrete barrier. I couldn’t make out his face but the shadow looked like a child, maybe eight to ten years old. He held something in his hand as he pointed at one of the trucks in front of me. With the whip of his arm, he rolled something under one of the trucks. The gunner on the second truck, a guy named Dakota, peered through the opening in his gun turret to watch the item’s path. It rolled fast underneath his truck. As Dakota attempted to look closer over his turret, the item exploded as shards of metal went in all directions.
Another explosion quickly followed with more force. I didn’t realize how real this all felt until the second explosion. At first, it felt like a training exercise. All the preparation for a moment like this, all the times I mentally went through thinking about how I would shoot my weapon, how I would empty multiple ammo cartridges, shooting and killing the enemy, had not have prepared me for how scared I felt. My ass cheeks clenched as I pulled the trigger of my rifle as fast as my finger could, shooting in the direction of the blast. I slammed the gas pedal of the truck as the engine roared at my feet. I whipped the truck hard into a left turn while red tracer rounds lit up the night sky.
Dakota whipped his .50 cal machine gun towards the small boy. The boy made eye contact with Dakota’s barrel. His eyes lit up as if he had seen a ghost as his head swiveled quick to his right, looking for an escape route. The boy pumped his arms in furious motion as his feet followed. For the next few seconds, it seemed the interaction between Dakota and the small boy was in slow motion. The boy ran for his life as Dakota aimed in on him, Dakota’s eyes and war face behind the power of the machine gun.
I wanted this kid dead. The combat-hungry part of me wanted him to be the first casualty of our unit. I wanted him to be made an example to the villagers of [al-Qaim] that our unit was not to be fucked with anymore. No more throwing rocks at us, no more cursing in Arabic or we will kill you. But I felt something else during my want for blood. The human side of me, the little that was left, thought that if Dakota kills this kid, blood will always be on his hands. I would’ve watched a young boy die in front of me. I would have had the image of his death etched in my mind. I would have to live with that.
In the end, the boy escaped, but Liguori still thinks about what might have been.
“I have three younger brothers who were around the same age as that kid,” he says. “I would’ve had blood on my hands if that kid had died. It’s like, I killed the enemy, but the enemy was a 9-year-old boy.”
You can find more of Liguori’s writing at his blog, The Spirituality of War.
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