Reservist leads project to connect American public, veterans.

(Article by Donna Miles of American Forces Press Service, 6 JAN 2014. Source.)

WASHINGTON - The idea germinated shortly after Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bernardi returned from a 10-month deployment to Iraq.

A professor and chair of San Francisco State University’s cinema department, Bernardi found a distinct disconnect between the Special Forces soldiers whose operations he had spent much of his deployment documenting and the civilian community he had re-entered.

"I was honestly disturbed by the fact that people in the general population are not connected to these wars," he said. "You can watch the news, and you wouldn’t even know that we are in Afghanistan." The disconnect ran particularly deep in academia, where Bernardi said he found that many of his colleagues carried deep and often negative stereotypes about service members and veterans.

Bernardi’s concern was two-fold. A public detached from the men and women in uniform can’t fully understand or appreciate who they are, what they do and how their service shapes who they are. From a national standpoint, that insulation from the realities and ultimate cost of war might make people less averse to jumping into future conflicts, he said.

So leveraging his decades of experience in the film and documentary field and his position as director of San Francisco State’s Documentary Film Institute, Bernardi launched the Veteran Documentary Corps. He called on the industry’s most accomplished filmmakers and a pool of mostly volunteer labor for an ambitious, first-of-its-kind project to capture the veteran experience on film.

The concept, he explained, was to produce an online library of professional-quality short films about veterans, their time in the military and their experience returning to civilian life.

Bernardi recognized from the start that a few personal stories wouldn’t fully capture the breadth of the veterans’ experience. So he set out to tell it through documentaries of 100 veterans of every U.S. service dating back to World War II. Ultimately, he hopes to expand it to include veterans of other countries’ militaries as well — perhaps a Chinese veteran and a Russian veteran who served in the Chechnyan conflict.

"Part of my goal was to educate people about the profound diversity of veterans … and to help them understand the whole range of veterans’ experience" – the hopes and dreams, the pride, the horrors, the disappointments, the challenges of redeployment, Bernardi said.

So far, seven documentaries have been completed and are posted on the project website athttp://veterandocs.org. Several more are in production and are expected to be added soon. After that, Bernardi’s goal is to release one documentary each month, and, if the funding comes through as hoped, one every two weeks until all 100 are completed.

The stories, each averaging seven to 10 minutes, capture vastly distinctive combat experiences and how they affected the veterans.

"These are not just testimonials. They aren’t just patriotic. They are gritty. They communicate the diversity, and the impact of war and military service, both positive and negative," Bernardi said.

"When people press the button to watch one of these, they think they are going to see a news piece of a ‘rah-rah’ piece," he continued. "And what they see is something that is really real. It moves them."

Jack Lyon, a Marine Corps captain who served in Vietnam, talks in his documentary about the spiritual aspect of a “hideous” wartime experience, and the unshakeable bond that forms among comrades whose lives depend on each other.

"That unconditional love is what we search for for the rest of our life," he said, and what led him to cofound the Veterans Village of San Diego that serves wounded Marines. "I can’t not do this," Lyon said of the new calling, which he said has brought the Marine Corps and its motto, Semper Fidelis, or "Always Faithful," back into his life.

David Gan, an Army staff sergeant during World War II, still struggles to accept the loss of his fellow soldiers after he was medically evacuated to a hospital in France when rendered unconscious by an enemy round. A Chinese-American who enjoyed the bond among the troops that transcended their social and cultural differences, Gan recalled his desperation to return to his unit. “I feel so guilty,” to this day, he said, choking back the sobs of survivor’s guilt. Today, Gan said he lives through his seven children for what his fallen comrades will never experience. “In a way, I kind of lived for them for what they have missed,” he added.

Bobby Hollingsworth, an Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq with Army Criminal Investigation Command, shared in his documentary the numbness and emotional detachment he felt after returning home. He recalled the horror of investigating a soldier suicide, and the sleeplessness and torment that haunted him long after its conclusion.

"I kept everything inside," he said. Today, strengthened by therapy provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs and excited by his newfound love of screenwriting, Hollingsworth said, he feels like his life is on a positive trajectory. Part of human nature, he said, "is to survive and struggle and to endure and to come out on a better side at the end of it."

John Heroux joined the Air Force to be a fighter pilot, and was among the first to fly F-16 bombing runs over Iraq during the opening days of the Persian Gulf War. He recalled in his documentary his first combat mission, and how calm he felt within the safety of his cockpit as he applied the tactics he had trained to conduct.

More than 20 years later, Heroux said, his military experiences have “helped make me who I am.” As a commercial airline pilot, he said, he doesn’t get flustered when faced with poor weather conditions or occasional instrument failures. These situations “really [don’t] raise the stress level of the average military pilot, because they have been through so much more,” he said.

Julie Mendez, who joined the Army at 17, said her deployment to Iraq quickly transformed her from a young, naïve girl into an adult. “It was like somebody snapped their fingers and said ‘Grow up today, right now,’” she said. Returning home from the conflict, she described herself as a different person, quieter, more serious and battling intense depression about her wartime experience. Today, Mendez is healing herself as well as others by pouring herself into graphics design projects that promote dialog between veterans and the civilian community.

Casey Conklin was a platoon medic with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, and remembers questioning when he deployed to Iraq, “Can you do the one job you are expected to do?” Today, as a student at San Francisco State University, he is studying health education with the dream of applying it during disaster relief operations. Conklin said he sees that calling as being “part of a bigger picture, an overall mission that you know you will get done” – something he experienced with the Rangers in combat but has found it difficult to recreate in the civilian world. “In disaster relief, I feel that’s the closest thing I can do to being a Ranger without a rifle,” he said.

 Scott Castle served three combat tours in Iraq with the Marine Corps, and said nothing can fully prepare someone for what they encounter in war. ”Combat is hell,” he said. That hell followed Castle home in the form of insomnia, flashbacks, anger issues and social anxiety. Just as when he was in Iraq, Castle found respite at the gym, where he took up weightlifting and now dreams of one day going pro. To help get there, he said he’s applying the discipline and determination the Marine Corps instilled in him. “The Marines have changed me,” he said. “It definitely gave me a new sense of drive in life I didn’t have before. Leadership, accountability, a sense of purpose, discipline – and that translates definitely to the civilian world.”

The initial documentaries have been received positively through the website, social media outlets at and film festivals, Bernardi reported. Hoping for a broader audience, he is in discussions with several cable TV networks that are considering running the entire series once it is completed.

"We’d like people to walk away from watching these with a greater understanding and a greater respect and appreciation for veterans, without vilifying them and without painting them as wounded," Bernardi said.

In telling their stories, Bernardi wants to help to empower veterans. “We want veterans to see that they’re not alone.”

(Follow Donna Miles on Twitter: @MilesAFPS)

Contact Author

Related Sites:
Veteran Documentary Corps

SOLDIER STORIES: An officer and a gentleman, of the highest order.

[L] Sgt. Maj. Ronald L. Green congratulates Maj. Robb McDonald after the ceremony honoring McDonald for his actions while deployed to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.

[R] Maj. McDonald is congratulated by his wife Jennifer after the ceremony.

[Bottom] McDonald received the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest combat valor award, for his role in repelling an enemy attack inside Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. McDonald was serving as the executive officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, III Marine Aircraft Wing. According to the award citation, on Sept. 14, 2012, 15 insurgents infiltrated Camp Bastion and attacked the coalition forces stationed there. McDonald took charge after the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, was mortally wounded. He risked his life to lead Marines away from a building that could have become a death trap had the troops remained inside. He later shot and killed one attacker and directed two helicopter attacks that killed several other insurgents.

(Photos by Corporal Orrin Farmer, article by Corporal Scott Reel, 9 DEC 2013.)

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - Maj. Robb McDonald, air officer with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, received the Silver Star aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 9, for taking immediate action against the enemy while deployed to Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, pinned the nation’s third highest award on McDonald who in 2012, was the executive officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Forward.

“Murphy’s Law is alive and well wherever you go,” Toolan said. “That’s the great thing about being a United States Marine, is you adjust and overcome.” 

After the enemy fatally wounded McDonald’s commanding officer on the night of Sept. 14, 2012 aboard Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, he took control of Marines immediately. “There was a lot more going on than what was read in that citation,” McDonald said. “It was a collaborative effort of everybody that was out there, and I’m being awarded for that effort.”

While under attack, McDonald borrowed a rifle, engaged the enemy, and coordinated two helicopter strikes that ended the attack. “For those of you that aren’t aware of the fact that every Marine is a basic rifleman, those guys proved it in spades on that particular day,” Toolan said. 

After mentioning the men he fought alongside during the attack, McDonald addressed his wife and the battle she dealt with simultaneously. While fighting opposing forces, McDonald’s son was undergoing a major surgery as an infant. Jennifer McDonald, four months pregnant at the time, received news of the attack and had to pray for both her son and her husband. 

“After sixteen hours, and after everyone in the squadron called, I called and let her know I was alive,” McDonald said. “I just want to recognize my wife, because I love her, and I’m really proud of her for that.”

Two Marines were killed during the attack, but many Marines were saved due to the efforts of McDonald and the Marines he commanded.

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: Every scar a mark of beauty.
soldierporn:

All the respect.
victran:


to those who give it all every single day



[This is US Army Master Sergeant (RET) Dexter Durrante. He entered the Army in October 1989 and served on 3 major deployments. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for actions during an OEF deployment. While serving as a combat engineer First Sergeant with B Company, 27th Engineer Battalion, Dexter was injured on August 17, 2007 during a training exercise at Fort Bragg. He received a high volume of shrapnel to the face and body which rendered him completely blind and inflicted 2nd and 3rd degree burns. (Source.) 
There is a slideshow of this highly decorated soldier over here on the Christopher Wilson Photography website. Definitely worth seeing these images. Because this soldier has not lost his resilience nor his love for life. In fact, he’s taken up cycling.]
High-res

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: Every scar a mark of beauty.

soldierporn:

All the respect.

victran:

to those who give it all every single day

[This is US Army Master Sergeant (RET) Dexter Durrante. He entered the Army in October 1989 and served on 3 major deployments. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for actions during an OEF deployment. While serving as a combat engineer First Sergeant with B Company, 27th Engineer Battalion, Dexter was injured on August 17, 2007 during a training exercise at Fort Bragg. He received a high volume of shrapnel to the face and body which rendered him completely blind and inflicted 2nd and 3rd degree burns. (Source.

There is a slideshow of this highly decorated soldier over here on the Christopher Wilson Photography website. Definitely worth seeing these images. Because this soldier has not lost his resilience nor his love for life. In fact, he’s taken up cycling.]

SOLDIER STORIES: Dawn’s fire.

[1] Cpl. Eric Stump (center), a Uniontown, Pa., native and squad leader with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, reviews a map with his Marines prior to conducting interdiction operations near the Bari Gul Bazaar, Nad Ali District, Helmand province, Afghanistan. 

[2] Lance Cpl. Nathan Chandler, a Logan, Ohio, native and machine gunner with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, hunkers down behind a compound wall during a firefight with insurgents near the Bari Gul Bazaar. Chandler positioned himself to cover a group of Marines clearing a desert compound shortly after receiving fire from insurgents.

[3] Lance Cpl. Blake Richardson, a Charleston, S.C., native and rifleman with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, stands at the edge of a smoke field clearing during a firefight with insurgents near the Bari Gul Bazaar. Nearly 100 Marines and coalition allies engaged in a prolonged firefight with insurgents while patrolling the area to interdict Taliban movements and weapons caches and gather intelligence around the bazaar.

[4] Lance Cpl. Andrew Day, a Simpsonville, S.C., native and dog handler with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, sits with his dog, Cpl. Fiddler, after a firefight with insurgents near the Bari Gul Bazaar. Day and Fiddler helped protect a squad of Marines as they moved from compound to compound an in area known for improvised explosive devices.

(Photos and article by Corporal Paul Peterson, 4 DEC 2013.)

NAD ALI DISTRICT, Afghanistan - A threatening calm settled around 2nd Platoon as the whir of helicopter blades faded into the night. It was 5:15 a.m. with dusk nearing fast. 

We clicked on our night-vision goggles and stumbled our way through the darkness. Short, deliberate steps felt out the ground before us as the long file of Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, pushed north to the nearby bazaar. Most of the homes around the Bari Gul Bazaar were still quiet, the residents still asleep in their beds. We knew that would change quickly. The noise of the helicopters that dropped us in the open field was anything but subtle. If there were fighters in the area, they would find us soon.

Through the dim, green sparkle of my goggles, I spotted what seemed to be the silhouette of 2nd Lt. James Salka leading his team forward. He was one of the first Marines I met before the mission.  I committed his stern face and piercing green eyes to memory in case I needed to find him during the mission. It did me little good now in the darkness. In any event, the shadowy figure seemed to be in charge, so I tottered forward to snap off a few shots. 

It was Salka. A communications antenna rose off the back of the Marine next to him and cut into the deep blue glow of the morning sky. He gripped a radio handset and studied his map under a dim light. The photos didn’t turn out in the dark, so I fell in line with some Marines watching the perimeter.

I killed the power to my night vision and flipped the device atop my helmet. Most of the Marines had already done the same in the security positions around Salka. He gave his platoon a few moments to set up supporting positions with snipers and machine gunners, who could cover us as we moved through the open field.

Daylight broke the horizon. We pushed. 

CONTACT

Intelligence reports stated insurgents were using the bazaar as a front to move lethal aid in Nad Ali District, so we were conducting the interdiction operation alongside Afghan National Army Commandos to try and disrupt their activity. The area around the bazaar was a patchwork of dirt homes and barren, muddy fields. Cover was scarce at best. I could see a handful of shallow irrigation trenches, barely deep enough to cover a small child lying on his stomach. I wondered how much manure littered the fields … I could smell it.
It looked like a miserable place to get shot at. 

At daybreak, Bravo Company started to patrol from the landing zone to the bazaar. I fell in line with Sgt. Steven Pendleton’s assault squad as they shuffled into the damp field. Our boots slid across the mud with each step. A layer of heavy sludge began to weigh down my feet. That sick, sweet smell of manure lingered.

Lance Cpl. Nathan Chandler, a machine gunner, and three or four Marines under Salka moved in behind us. The crickets and roosters that echoed across the desert only minutes earlier were suddenly silent as we moved across the field. 

The sound of machine guns ripped the silence. Several insurgents began firing to our left, so the Marines in the front of the patrol crouched low and ran to a nearby house. Lance Cpl. Nathan Gulbronson was running in front of me with his M32 grenade launcher sticking out of his pack. He decided the house was too far away, so he juked, sagged to his knees, and let his body fall prone into the dirt. I slid into one of the shallow irrigation ditches.

I could no longer see Salka or the Marines. Chandler was still behind me, cheek nestled against his machinegun, screaming out for a smoke grenade. Rounds zipped and cracked over our heads. 

Chandler and Gulbronson shouted back and forth – Run or stay put? 

Their packs were heavy, gear cumbersome, and it was nearly 100 yards to the compound. There would be no moving without support.

A smoke grenade landed in the field and spit a green cloud between us and the shooters. Bravo Company’s snipers and machine gunners fired back at the insurgents. Fire over the field slackened. We ran.

FORWARD

An hour earlier, we were smoking our last cigarettes in the dark just off the flight line. It was a pleasant enough December morning for Afghanistan. Now my lungs burned as my legs pumped against the soft soil. My bootlace snapped and released tension around my right foot. I barely noticed.
Chandler and Gulbronson hunched under the weight of their packs. Gulbronson wrangled his grenade launcher and rifle with both hands in an awkward lurching motion. Chandler cradled his machine gun against his hip, left arm swinging his weight forward. His combat pack sagged with spare ammunition. It looked backbreaking.

Our ungraceful race ended against a dirt wall 20 yards from Pendleton’s squad. They were still tracking down enemy shooters and preparing for an assault on another compound when we finally linked back up.

We walked through a small doorway—a shambled, metal sheet that served as an improvised gate which rattled each time a Marine passed through it. I heard voices coming from the courtyard of the compound. Our interpreter was speaking with the homeowner to see what he knew about the insurgents. 
The firefight had caused me to lose all sense of time. It felt like noon, but was only 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. In any case, the sun was still rising. I hoped the glare from the east was hitting the insurgents still firing into the field.

By this time, helicopters in the air reported insurgents were massing around our position. The area was almost empty of women and children, who had either fled or hunkered down 
inside their homes.

Pendleton gathered his squad to move to the next building. They loaded high-explosive rounds and fired their grenade launchers at a shooter before sprinting from the compound.
Pendleton and his Marines dashed into the open, which sparked a brief burst of machinegun fire that quickly dwindled. I bounded with the second team at a full sprint.

CASUALTY

Pendleton set his Marines to clear another compound. For the next 30 minutes, Marines sifted the area for any signs of insurgency. Marksmen posted at doorways and along walls to watch for insurgents as explosive ordnance technicians searched for lethal aid. 

To the south, Salka continued to patrol behind us in an effort to reinforce our squad. From the doorway, I watched as Salka and his Marines bounded across the open field. Machinegun fire echoed out as the Marines ran toward us with gear strapped to their shoulders. Enemy fire continued as they sprang forward in ten-meter dashes and dropped to the ground, using their body armor to absorb their impact with the soil. 

I saw Lance Cpl. Indy Johnson bounding forward when a round struck his helmet. He dropped to the ground, momentarily dazed but unharmed. He collected himself and resumed his movement toward cover.

MEDEVAC

Nearly an hour into the firefight, a call came across the radio that a Marine had been hit. I knelt inside a small, walled-off garden when a surge of gunfire rang out in the distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but Bravo Company was providing suppressive fire as a team of Marines ran into the open to grab the injured Marine. They dragged him back to cover and immediately began first aid. 

Salka relayed the injury of the Marine over the radio—gunshot wound to the abdomen. Salka requested a medical evacuation and a helicopter was inbound within minutes. 

Each squad of Marines held their positions and prepared to support the evacuation. The fields around the bazaar fell silent as the medevac moved in to pull out the wounded Marine. 
As the helicopter made its approach, the insurgents concentrated their fire in an attempt to shoot it down. 

Streams of bullets from AK47s and machine guns erupted from compounds around the area. 

Lance Cpl. Brian Schaefer was posted at the south end of the building held by Pendleton’s squad. The fire seemed to come from around the corner as Pendleton slid in alongside Schaefer in an attempt to pinpoint its location. The two Marines peered out, shoulder to shoulder.

The helicopter banked hard to avoid the incoming rounds and flew around the landing zone for a second pass as Pendleton and another Marine fired their grenade launchers to provide suppressive fire. 

On the second pass, the pilots decided to land.

A WAY OUT

By the time the helicopter landed, Pendleton had already rallied his team to continue forward.

He squeezed himself into a doorway to check if the path was clear for his men. Another Marine climbed atop an empty oil drum and peered over the wall. Nothing moved.

The squad shuffled out of the building, ran along the outside wall and stacked at the northernmost corner of the compound. With the casualty evacuated, we pushed north before enemy fighters could regroup.

One by one, the Marines stepped into the clearing and headed to a nearby compound, where they eventually linked up with the rest of the platoon. We still had nearly two miles to patrol before we reached our extraction point.

For the next three hours, we pushed further into the bazaar, and enemy fire became less organized. We stopped at the final compound before pushing our way out of town. 

Bravo Company paused long enough for the Marines to suck down some water and burn a cigarette. Riflemen collapsed against dirt walls for a few minutes rest.

EXTRACTION

As we left the bazaar, insurgents once again attempted to pin us down in an open field. Helicopters flying overhead provided cover fire for the Marines, killing one insurgent fighter, as the Marines took shelter in a building. 

By the end of it, I was pretty exhausted. We had been running, crawling, walking and running again in full gear for more than twelve hours. We had patrolled nearly four miles of the district and zigzagged in and around the bazaar for who knows how many more. We spent almost four hours under constant fire from the enemy. The energy I got from the bag of gummy bears I ate for lunch was gone.

Evening loomed as Bravo Company streamed out of the village and converged on the extraction point to wait.

Dusk settled over us as we finally slipped back onto our helicopters under the cover of darkness. I was thankful for the thrum of the CH-53. The beast of a helicopter jetted superheated air over my shoulders as I boarded and searched for a seat in the dark. I trusted its raw power and the three .50 caliber machineguns bristling along the fuselage. 

Salka climbed on the helicopter with the last group. He was clearly proud of his men. I spoke with him afterword. Even in the chaos of the fight, he said they made his job easy. He led, and they all knew what had to happen when things got rough.
Before the patrol, he told me to just do my thing and follow the Marine in front of me. I broke one camera lens, damaged another. My boots reeked like a zoo. But I didn’t have to fire a 
single round. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s the details that get lost or shuffled about. I sat down to speak with some of the Marines after the mission, including Lance Cpl. Indy Johnson, who took the round to his helmet, in an effort to stay as true to memory as I can. 
Everyone made it out that day, and 2nd. Lt. James Salka firmly believes the swift action of his men saved the wounded Marine’s life. The battalion confirmed its suspicions of insurgency in the area by finding evidence of weapons caches. Even more telling was the organized resistance they stirred up around the bazaar. As for the wounded Marine, he is expected to recover.

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: Remember to be thankful for the little things.
U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen Ogden provides security for potential threats at an Afghan border police checkpoint near Forward Operating Base Torkham in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, Nov. 18, 2013. Ogden, a team leader, is assigned to 10th Mountain Division’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team.


[Like warm beds, hot showers, a roof over your head and paved roads free from the probabilities of IEDs. We’re still over there this holiday season. Lest you engage the privilege to disregard your ethical and moral responsibility to the warriors of our democratic republic. Sure they volunteered to take up arms in your defense. And you’re the sheep who sent the sheepdogs loose on the wolf’s trail. You have an obligation to them. Never forget. -R] 
High-res

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: Remember to be thankful for the little things.

U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen Ogden provides security for potential threats at an Afghan border police checkpoint near Forward Operating Base Torkham in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, Nov. 18, 2013. Ogden, a team leader, is assigned to 10th Mountain Division’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team.
[Like warm beds, hot showers, a roof over your head and paved roads free from the probabilities of IEDs. We’re still over there this holiday season. Lest you engage the privilege to disregard your ethical and moral responsibility to the warriors of our democratic republic. Sure they volunteered to take up arms in your defense. And you’re the sheep who sent the sheepdogs loose on the wolf’s trail. You have an obligation to them. Never forget. -R] 

"Veterans need to share the moral burden of war."

(Opinion editorial by Sebastian Junger, originally published in the Washington Post, 24 MAY 2013.)

Sebastian Junger is an author and documentarian whose works include the book “War” and the film “Restrepo,” which tell the story of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

Recently I was a guest on a national television show, and the host expressed some indignation when I said that soldiers in Afghanistan don’t much discuss the war they’re fighting. The soldiers are mostly in their teens, I pointed out. Why would we expect them to evaluate U.S. foreign policy?

The host had made the classic error of thinking that war belongs to the soldiers who fight it. That is a standard of accountability not applied to, say, oil-rig workers or police. The environment is collapsing and anti-crime measures can be deeply flawed, but we don’t expect people in those fields to discuss national policy on their lunch breaks.

Soldiers, though, are a special case. Perhaps war is so obscene that even the people who supported it don’t want to hear the details or acknowledge their role. Soldiers face myriad challenges when they return home, but one of the most destructive is the sense that their country doesn’t quite realize that it — and not just the soldiers — went to war. The country approved, financed and justified war — and sent the soldiers to fight it. This is important because it returns the moral burden of war to its rightful place: with the entire nation. If a soldier inadvertently kills a civilian in Baghdad, we all helped kill that civilian. If a soldier loses his arm in Afghanistan, we all lost something.

The growing cultural gap between American society and our military is dangerous and unhealthy. The sense that war belongs exclusively to the soldiers and generals may be one of the most destructive expressions of this gap. Both sides are to blame. I know many soldiers who don’t want to be called heroes — a grotesquely misused word — or told that they did their duty; some don’t want to be thanked. Soldiers know all too well how much killing — mostly of civilians — goes on in war. Congratulations make them feel that people back home have no idea what happens when a human body encounters the machinery of war.

I am no pacifist. I’m glad the police in my home town of New York carry guns, and every war I have ever covered as a journalist has been ended by armed Western intervention. I approved of all of it, including our entry into Afghanistan. (In 2001, U.S. forces effectively ended a civil war that had killed as many as 400,000 Afghans during the previous decade and forced the exodus of millions more. The situation there today is the lowest level of civilian suffering in Afghanistan in 30 years.) But the obscenity of war is not diminished when that conflict is righteous or necessary or noble. And when soldiers come home spiritually polluted by the killing that they committed, or even just witnessed, many hope that their country will share the moral responsibility of such a grave event.

Their country doesn’t. Liberals often say that it’s not their problem because they opposed the war. Conservatives tend to call soldiers “heroes” and pat them on the back. Neither response is honest or helpful. Neither addresses the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting our veterans. Rates of suicide, alcoholism, fatal car accidents and incarceration are far higher for veterans than for most of the civilian population. One study predicted that in the next decade 400,000 to 500,000 veterans will have criminal cases in the courts. Our collective avoidance of this problem is unjust and hypocritical. It is also going to be very costly.

Civilians tend to do things that make them, not the veterans, feel better. Yellow ribbons and parades do little to help with the emotional aftermath of combat. War has been part of human culture for tens of thousands of years, and most tribal societies were engaged in some form of warfare when encountered by Western explorers. It might be productive to study how some societies reintegrated their young fighters after the intimate carnage of Stone Age combat. It is striking, in fact, how rarely combat trauma is mentioned in ethnographic studies of cultures.

Typically, warriors were welcomed home by their entire community and underwent rituals to spiritually cleanse them of the effect of killing. Otherwise, they were considered too polluted to be around women and children. Often there was a celebration in which the fighters described the battle in great, bloody detail. Every man knew he was fighting for his community, and every person in the community knew that their lives depended on these young men. These gatherings must have been enormously cathartic for both the fighters and the people they were defending. A question like the one recently posed to me wouldn’t begin to make sense in a culture such as the Yanomami of Brazil and Venezuela or the Comanche.

Our enormously complex society can’t just start performing tribal rituals designed to diminish combat trauma, but there may be things we can do. The therapeutic power of storytelling, for example, could give combat veterans an emotional outlet and allow civilians to demonstrate their personal involvement. On Memorial Day or Veterans Day, in addition to traditional parades, communities could make their city or town hall available for vets to tell their stories. Each could get, say, 10 minutes to tell his or her experience at war.

Attendance could not be mandatory, but on that day “I support the troops” would mean spending hours listening to our vets. We would hear a lot of anger and pain. We would also hear a lot of pride. Some of what would be said would make you uncomfortable, whether you are liberal or conservative, military or nonmilitary, young or old. But there is no point in having a conversation about war that is not completely honest.

Let them speak. They deserve it. In addition to getting our veterans back, we might get our nation back as well.

[H/T Operation Zeus for bringing this article to my attention. -R]

majorleagueinfidel:

"One platoon, one valley, one year"

Images taken by photojournalist Tim Hetherington and author Sebastian Junger on their multiple trips to the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan.

173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, Battle Company, 2nd Platoon, Spartan Platoon.

(via itsramez)