Editor’s note: The Army veteran in this story, which is part of our reporting on moral injury, has asked that we not identify him because of his current work with veterans. We’ve agreed to just call him “Tom”, which is not his real name.
‘Tom’ lives alone in a neighborhood just outside Boston, on the second floor of a modest house on a quiet, leafy street. He’s 27 years old, an Army veteran, and he radiates a vibe that is equal parts macho and sincere. His walls are covered with posters of cheerleaders and framed Sports Illustrated covers — Red Sox championships. His ears are cauliflowered from years spent wrestling and fighting mixed martial arts. By his bathroom mirror, he’s pinned a handwritten list of New Year’s resolutions. “Practice piano,” it says. “Get more sleep. Stop eating meat.”
And then there’s the print hanging by the front door, a small black-and-white sketch of an American soldier and an Iraqi woman, with the words “War is Trauma” rising between them like smoke.
Tom bought the picture when he got home from his second deployment, once he’d had the time to settle down and think about what he and his men had done while they were in Iraq. “I just found myself really having a hard time with being proud of it,” he says.
Tom had joined the Army at 18, just out of high school. It was 2004 and Americans were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tom had wanted to be of use. “I really believed in the service and I believed that we fought the good fight,” he says. “I didn’t think about whether that was right or wrong. I just said, ‘My country’s fighting a war; I’m going to go.’”
He deployed to Iraq the next year and was stationed south of Baghdad, in an area coalition forces were calling the Triangle of Death because of the brutal sectarian violence that happened there. His unit’s job was to train Iraqi police and military forces and fight insurgents.
Usually that fight went like this: Intelligence would come in about insurgents at a particular location. Tom and his men would jump in their Humvees and head in that direction. More often than not, though, their targets would melt away.
“We’d do this giant helicopter assault, trample their farm fields, kick down all their doors, break all their stuff, and we’d cause a lot of damage,” Tom says. “And all we would find were women and children. Multiply that by however many times and it’s enough to drive people nuts.”
The work was a daily grind of frustration and futility. And over it all hung the constant threat of attacks on his unit.
Tom says that as time went on, something inside him – call it his sense of compassion, his moral compass – began to break down. He tried not to take it out on the Iraqis, but it became harder and harder for him to see them as actual people, as human as the men who fought next to him every day.
One day, Tom says he waited outside a house while his squad leader beat the man inside almost to death. “And I turn[ed] to my buddy … and we both laughed about it,” he says now. “Because what’s the alternative? It was what it was.”
And then something happened that shook Tom. Oddly enough, it was because of a dog.
Tom’s unit was working with the Iraqi army to clear a village of insurgents. It was actually fairly bloodless, he says – no one was getting shot, no one was dying; it was all just burning buildings and general chaos. The soldiers came to the last house on the street, and the owner’s dog darted out at them and started howling. “I love dogs; I grew up with them,” Tom says. “But if a dog is a threat on a mission, you just shoot it. You take care of it, or whatever, but you don’t care.”
He went over to the dog and shot right next to it, to try to scare it off. But instead of bolting, the dog froze. “It started to shake so uncontrollably; I thought it was going to die of a heart attack,” says Tom.
“And I just remember out of left field, feeling like: This dog is barking because a bunch of soldiers went through his house and grabbed his owner and now they’re breaking things. All I can think about is, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Tom finished his military service in 2008. Five years later, he’s still coming to terms with what he did while he was in Iraq, and what he was part of. “I realize now I was just a kid,” he says now. “But I don’t let myself off that easy. You’re part of something that caused a lot of people a lot of suffering. What are you going to do to pay that back the rest of your life?”
Tom finds part of the answer to that question in helping others. He works with veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he’s donated food, clothes and time to local Iraqi refugees. It’s a start, he says, at repairing the damage fighting the war has done to his soul.