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A Crisis Of Compassion In The Chaos Of War

'Tom' served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army. By the time he returned home, he realized the experience of constantly challenging his notions of right and wrong had changed him, dramatically. (M. Scott Brauer for Public Insight Network)

‘Tom’ served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army. By the time he returned home, he realized the experience of constantly challenging his notions of right and wrong had changed him, dramatically. (M. Scott Brauer for Public Insight Network)

BOSTON — During his second deployment to Iraq with the U.S. Army, Tom* found himself losing his sense of compassion amid the chaos of war. As hard as he tried, he had trouble holding on to his moral compass. And then reality hit — in the form of a local Iraqi’s dog.

‘War Is Trauma’

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 said.

Tom had joined the Army just out of high school at age 18. 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 said. “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 said. “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.

Tom bought this sketch, which hangs by his front door, after returning home from his second deployment to Iraq. It depicts an American soldier and an Iraqi civilian woman. He says he's still coming to terms with his role in the war. (M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network)

Tom bought this sketch, which hangs by his front door, after returning home from his second deployment to Iraq. It depicts an American soldier and an Iraqi civilian woman. He says he’s still coming to terms with his role in the war. (M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network)

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 recalled. “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 said. “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,” Tom said.

“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 said. “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.

Editor’s note: The Army veteran in this story 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.

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  • Judy Gates

    I believe “moral injury” is something we all should be feeling whether we are soldiers fighting up close or citizens at home. And, like Tom, we all should find ways to help repair the damage in practical ways and to support conflict resolution at every level so that moral injury no longer exists. Impossible, you say? Keep trying.

    Also, read Tyler Boudreau’s Packing Inferno, the Unmaking of a Marine (author was first guest in this series). Buy it or ask your library to get it–I discovered none of the libraries in our local library consortium had purchased it though published in 2008 and highly recommended.

  • BostonDad

    We (as a government and to a lesser extent as a country) put mostly young volunteers in this unbelievably difficult position we would never want to get into ourselves, so now we have to help them AND the people they tried to help, while sometimes inflicting as much pain as the ‘bad guys’ in the process.

  • TomTobin

    I wish I knew this guy. I’d do my best to try and help him feel better. He sounds like a good man, and doesn’t deserve to be haunted by being in such awful circumstances, in the service of his country.

  • Rose

    This series is misguided and annoying. Where is the voice of the wounded Iraqi and Afghani? I do not want to hear first hand accounts of U.S. soldiers traipsing through a poor farmer’s onion field and murdering people on their own property in front of their families, and then you expect the listener to have compassion for the “moral injury” of the solider who momentarily put aside his/her conscience. I do not feel sorry for U.S. men and women who willingly go to battle and pull the triggers that murder people. We should be critically analyzing the culture of war in the U.S. which is the root cause, instead of morally injured soliders which is quite obviously one of many, many horrendous outcomes.

    • CComry

      Oh really? Is that what you think about people who serve in the military? That we’re all “murderers”? You are disgusting. You never served, yet you have the audacity to judge others who served, people who had the best of intentions and with the thought of doing the right thing in mind when they joined. Blame the politicians and the corporate interests who start these wars. But don’t ever, EVER BLAME THE BRAVE MEN AND WOMEN WHO DID WHAT YOU COULD NEVER DO! You would cower and beg for them to protect you, then you would criticize them for doing what they had to do.

      I have spent 12 years in the military, and I sneer at sniveling civilians like you, tucked away in your wishy washy little “progressive” enclaves, far from anything remotely “traumatic”. To the civilians who understand what the military does, and don’t spit upon their good names, I have nothing but gratitude. You? You earn nothing but my undying disdain and scorn.

      P.S. The other day I was getting gas while in uniform and a woman offered to pay for me. I politely declined, but was beyond grateful. You should take a lesson from people like her. That’s what it means to be a good person and a good American, both of which you are not.

      • Rose

        I served in a war before you were likely born. Sorry, dear, you wasted your life in the US military.

        • CComry

          Liar. If you served in a war before I was born, with a name like “Rose” (female), you obviously weren’t in combat. Go slather on some patchouli and save your lies for your loud mouthed “progressive” idiot friends.

  • kathleen wells

    Sounds like rose needs some compassion lessons instead of applying overly judgemental black and white simplistic thinking. It also sounds likecshe has the good fortune of never beig put in life and death situaton where your only choices are betwee. A horrific rock and a hard place. She should feel lucky.

  • Peter Cohee

    “I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”

    This from one who knew the horrors of war better than a great many: William Tecumseh Sherman. But neither would he and others of his experience ever allow us to forget that against the terrible sacrifices of the individual warrior we must weigh what war has earned us: liberty in the Revolution, the ending of slavery in the Civil War, the freeing of Europe from Nazi tyranny and of the South Pacific from Japanese domination, liberty and prosperity for the people of South Korea. Afghanistan and Iraq have been very confused campaigns, but we still hope for order and peace there.

    I thank, as we all do, this young man for his service and hope for his eventual recovery of peace.

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