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An American Tragedy

Allow me to preface this article by stating that I am, by my own faith a pacifist ; but I am not so impractical or extreme to begrudge or otherwise show anything but the utmost respect and honor to those who choose to take up arms in defense of this country. In fact, I have spent nearly five months preparing to write this article. I am not sure that my words will do justice to what I saw, what I learned and what I will ultimately never forget. But, what follows is a story of war as told to me through the eyes of a young American soldier, father and husband who had had enough. This is not a story that glorifies combat, but attempts to show it for what it really is and to expose the potential long-lasting effect that is has on those who engage in it for any period of time.

Introduction

This past December, I attended a conference on defending capital murder cases. The conference is a prerequisite to an attorney's eligibility to be court-appointed to represent indigent defendants from whom the State desires the ultimate punishment. This was my first conference covering this subject matter and the complex interplay between state law, federal constitutional rights and habeas corpus relief.

I expected an intense three (3) day primer akin to that which I experienced in law school - a mix of theoretical concepts, practical application and best practices for ensuring that before a three panel judge or a jury determined to take the life of my client, I had done everything in my power to preserve his or her life, or at the very lease protect his or her rights and hold the state to its burden of proof - both as to the murderous act, itself, and the aggravating factors required to trigger the death penalty under Ohio law.

However, what I found was a deeper, more fundamental experience that dealt little with capital punishment and more with the very nature of man, himself. As part of the conference, we discussed the mitigating factors that a court or a jury may consider when determining whether to sentence someone to death. In the context of that discussion, a neuropsychologist from Cleveland spoke to us about the link between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (often termed "PTSD") and the violent tendencies of those who suffer from such a psychological condition.

The discussion began as highly technical presentation on the different functions of the brain and the lasting effects that our life experiences have on those functions. The presenter showed us brain scans with areas damaged by emotionally traumatic events, and explained how a combination of therapeutic medication and constant psychiatric treatment were necessary to properly treat the effects of the ultimately irreparable damage. Admittedly, it was well over my head, and, at that point, I thought to myself, "I am a lawyer. I am not a scientist or a doctor or neurosurgeon. What can I possibly take from this that I will be able to even comprehend?" My question was soon answered.

Our presenter specialized in assessing, analyzing and treating veterans returning home from the war in the Middle East. To illustrate his presentation, he had secured permission from a former client to (1) show a video that he had taken while serving his country in Afghanistan, and to (2) play a subsequent interview describing the video, itself, and his impressions and feelings as the tape rolled.

A Soldier’s Humanity

The young man who we all were about to watch and listen to was in his mid-twenties with a wife and young child at home in the states. At the time he decided to make the video in Afghanistan, he was on his second tour and beginning to question the wisdom of our involvement in the conflict that had been raging in that area for centuries. He chose to place a small video recording device in his helmet to record the realities and tragedies of war; and in doing so, he took a room full of more than 150 criminal defense lawyers - with our egos, discontent and cynicism - and for nearly an hour, we were brought as close as we could to a world that few knew, less understood and for which none were ready.

The first portion of the video opens up as the sun is setting and our narrator/ solider is discussing in vivid detail the first life he ever took in war, while he drives an armored car full of his fellow soldiers down a dirt road to a small village. The trip seems to take less than five minutes, but the moment the vehicle reaches the village, shots are fired all around them. Our narrator rolls out of the driver's seat into a ditch and begins opening fire in the direction from which the bullets seem to be coming.

Screams erupt; bullets clank off the metal and brick; they tear the ground apart all around our guide and seemingly from the video all around us. More screams in agony and pain resound as our room full of untrained eyes search for the enemy. These horrific sounds seem to encompass us all for what feels like hours as we sit, motionless, nearly breathless in solemn prayer for our young soldiers to be spared. And, finally, a soldier in our narrator's unit ascends to the top of the armored vehicle and man's a mounted .50 caliber cannon. For a moment there is silence, followed by the deafening sound of .50 caliber rounds being fired into a row of bushes just beyond the buildings that lay in front of our troops.

Our guide stands up out of the ditch in time for his camera to capture the horror as the enemy is literally cut in half before him and his fellow soldiers' eyes. Cheers erupt from our young brothers and sister, and sons and daughter in uniform at the site of the enemy lay to waist, almost unrecognizable as human beings. But as they cheer, the narrator whispers - seemingly, just for us; just for all of you - "do you see? Do you see what we become? In war, we are taught to cheer the death of other human beings and relish the terror that we bring upon them and their families on their soil in the name of duty, democracy and country..."

As he utters the last few words of his prophetic soliloquy, shots begin to rain down all around him and his fellow troops yet again. He orders their retreat to the vehicle. Three are wounded as they turn their backs to get into the armored car. And, as bullets clank off the metal sides of the vehicle and our wounded troops call out for help, our guide begins to speed back toward the safety of their base camp.

At this point, the video related to combat ceased and the scene cut to an interview of our guide - no longer in uniform, sitting on what I suppose is his front porch - where he tells us the story of the base to which he was returning that evening. It happened to be located in an indigenous, small village of farmers and their families. Evidently, his regiment had been camped there for some time and the natives had become quite accustomed to having them around. In fact, our troops would help the farmers in their fields and such, and in return the woman would cook them dinners and bring them treats on a regular basis.

This moment of peaceful reflection, unfortunately, was short lived. The video cut back to the combat footage. Our guide is speeding as fast as he can down a dirt road while the sound of bullets still ring off the vehicle at an alarming rate. In moments, we see the outline of the base camp, distinguishable by the American flag flown high above the village and camp. His wounded are still screaming for help and those charged with tending to their care are shouting orders to try and provide them with some degree of emergency medical care. As he approached the village still moving at a high rate of speed, the bullets begin to slow in frequency but still ping off the vehicle with some regularity.

Then, as darkness is descending over the sun, and our guide begins to pull into the camp still at a relatively high rate of speed, he looks back behind him. In that moment, a scream is heard and a loud crash and thump brings his attention back to the front of the vehicle. He looks to his left to see a villager staring at him in horror. The young man seated beside begins to cry and screams, "My God, you hit her!" Our soldier pulls over to the side of the road. He quickly steps out of the vehicle, turns and looks some fifteen behind him and sees the remains of a young woman, her body torn apart by the collision. Another fifty away, a soldier picks up the tray and scattered food she was carrying from her home to the base camp.

Our guide falls to his knees in the ditch, crying, screaming, vomiting, and begging the remains of this woman for forgiveness. He stays there weeping for what was maybe ten (10) minutes of the video, but for what felt like hours. Then, without warning, the faint sounds of bells and Arabic prayers coming from what could only be the local mosque are heard. A small group of villagers come to the street where the innocent woman's remains lay scattered. A few gathered them together and put them in a small wooden box; and the remaining villagers came over to our guide and helped him to stand up. They dusted off his uniform and cleaned the tears, dirt and filth from his face.

For several moments, he wept on their shoulders, begging for forgiveness. They held him like a brother and a son, gripping him tightly and weeping with him. And as the villagers came out of their homes to follow this innocent woman's remains to the mosque at the center of the village, our soldier followed with them. And as he was led down the street, he looked to his left and there was the face of an elderly woman who had taken him by the hand smiling kindly at him with love and compassion and forgiveness. The remaining few minutes of the video, show our young American soldier walking into the mosque, sitting down and praying over his tears.

The video seemed to stop abruptly as we were brought back from this hell on Earth to our comfortable chairs, catered desserts, unlimited soda options and air conditioned room in the downtown Columbus, Westin Hotel. No one spoke. In fact, no one had spoken or even left the room for more than an hour. Those who were not wiping tears from their eyes were staring at the ground, lost in the horror and tragedy to which they had borne witness.

A Father Turns His Back on His Son

Our presenter rose to speak, and he told us of yet another tragedy involving this same young man. Upon the conclusion of his contract for service, he was brought back to the United States where he remained at a base in Maryland with most of the members of his regiment. They would spend their nights drinking heavily, and their days in the gym working out or at the range shooting. They experimented with prescription medications, and occasionally smoked marijuana. Until one by one each was sent home to their families until all that was left of our guide's regiment was the guide, himself.

It only took a couple of weeks before Military Police arrested him for public intoxication and several other alcohol and drug-related offenses. He was formally charged and set to answer for his crimes before a military tribunal. The prosecution sought not only to have this young man dishonorably discharged from service, but also to cut off his benefits, including retirement and health insurance. Ultimately, an attorney was appointed to represent him.

Luckily, the young man provided his lawyer with a copy of the video that we had just endured. The lawyer immediately called this neuropsychologist (our presenter) from Cleveland who flew out to Maryland, interviewed this young man, watched the video, watched the video with him present; and ultimately concluded that our guide's substance abuse issues were directly related to the military's failure to adequately diagnose and treat this soldier's severe depression, Bi-Polar Disorder and PTSD - all related injuries of combat.

However, despite his report chastising the military's failure to help this young man, the prosecution held firm that it wanted him found guilty of all charges, dishonorably discharged from service and benefits cut accordingly. Our presenter urged the matter to trial and played the very video that we had just seen to the judge. He testified to his findings, analysis, diagnosis and suggested course of treatment, and warned that the prosecutor's proposed punishment - especially cutting his health insurance benefits - was tantamount a death sentence as this young man faced constant suicidal tendencies as a result of his depression, Bi-Polar and PTSD.

In the end, the Court ruled in favor of our soldier and ordered, not only that he be honorably discharged from service but that the United States government cover the complete costs of his treatment, including those services not covered or not completely covered by the provided health insurance.

Call Me Critical, but They Deserve Better

I know this is a terribly long article for which I apologize to my reader. But for months, I have struggled with what I saw on that video. This was no movie. There were no actors involved or film and light crews. The people were real, their bullets and guns were real, and those who lost their lives are truly lost to their families. I have thought of my friends and family who have gone off to serve this country. I have thought of the generations past and present who have stepped onto foreign soil willing to give what Lincoln called their "last great measure of devotion."

And yet, when these young men and women return home to us, we thank them for their service. We buy them a beer. We hug them. We shake their hands thankfully, with pride. Yet, we cannot comprehend the stress or the horrors or the terrible choices that many of them have had to make. And, in the end, we fail to treat the wounds we do not see but which cut the deepest and take the longest to heal.

Our military teaches our young people several great attributes: discipline, focus, respect for authority, self-respect, team building, and the list goes on; but, they also teach our young people to take life in the heat of battle. To do that which is necessary to survive and to complete the mission with which they have been charged. But what do they teach them when it is time to come home? Do they expect our young men and women to simply turn off their training like a switch? Do they expect that once their feet touch American soil that the stress, burden and oftentimes nightmares will simply vanish? Are the mental health assessments that our military receive upon their return home objective and individual to the soldier's experience? Do we follow-up with continual treatment? Do we help them find jobs? Or do we simply thank them for their service, give them check, a salute and send them on their way?

I am not sure that I need to answer any of the foregoing questions. We as a country are answering them every day. I am reminded of former-clients that I have represented - veterans- addicted to drugs or drowning themselves in alcohol for no other reason than to forget. In some instances, I remember long discussions with some of these men, which in the end led us to the demons that sent them running to needles and bottles. In fact, a friend, who came back from Iraq, could not even close his eyes without first having to sit for hours in the dark to prepare him just to sleep. And of course, on a national level we are all privy to the alarming rate at which our veterans are homeless, addicted, institutionalized, and/ or are taking their own lives.

I am convinced that if we do not begin to recognize the great toll - physically and emotionally -that war is taking upon our younger generations, we will lose those young people to the dark fog of war whose patriotism runs deepest and whose belief in service to their country is paramount to themselves. If we do not do something differently at every level of government, from local to federal, to provide care and love and compassion to these lost soldiers, are we even deserving then of their sacrifice in the first place?

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