TIME

On Iraq, Leaders Should Listen to Ghosts of Dead Soldiers

The leaders who will decide how American will handle instability in Iraq would do well to look around their own haunted city

Iraq is not my war. But I spent 14 months in Afghanistan, and am one of the only combat veterans known by my circle of DC friends. I receive many questions of what I think about ISIS steamrolling their way towards Baghdad.

The next time one of them raises the prospect of America involving itself in a third conflict in Iraq, I’m going to tell them about Dan Whitten.

Last week, I was headed to my air-conditioned office building in downtown Washington in the already scalding 9am heat. The humidity was so thick I practically waded through it.

Just before my sweat forced me into a foul mood, I spotted him in the crosswalk. I hadn’t seen Captain Daniel Whitten since we were in Afghanistan in 2008. He had been an officer in my company, but got called up to be an aide to one of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Generals. We weren’t close, but we were friendly. We shared a cigar together at Musa Qala. Just before the deployment, we ran into each other at a Fayetteville CarMax, each there with our wife, trying to sell the vehicles we wouldn’t need for the next fifteen months. We spent a couple hours talking baseball, and discussing a mutual friend from West Point who had washed out and now worked as an enlisted man in the same office I did.

The corners of my mouth lifted as I prepared to ask Cpt. Whitten—whom I could now just call “Dan”—what he was doing in a suit in DC, still wearing a pair of sporty Oakleys like he had back then.

Then I remembered it couldn’t be Dan Whitten. Because Dan Whitten is dead. He was killed by an IED when he came back to our battalion to take a company command for the next deployment. I passed shoulders with this man who looked like Dan and went on my way.

I’ve had a handful of these moments since 2008. I’ve seen Drak and Frazier and Cleaver at various times in different parts of the country. No matter the distance between me and my time in Afghanistan, their ghosts drag me back.

Washington, D.C., is more haunted than most places. When I first moved inside the Beltway to a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington that I shared with my daughter, my bus took me by Arlington National Cemetery every morning. If I strained, I could see section 60, where Charlie and Slip and Frazier rest.

And there are the monuments to Korea, Vietnam, and World War II. From in front of the Capitol building that was burnt by British troops in 1812, General Grant gazes at General Washington, and beyond him the Commander-in-Chief of the War of the Rebellion. Admiral Farragut looks over the square where my bus arrives each morning. The African-American Civil War veterans keep watch on the street where I drink. More heroes and remembrances and former installations dot the District than I know.

For all those ghosts that haunt This Town, the city that sends American men and women into harm’s way never seems to heed—forget remember—their warnings. We cast the specters in bronze and put their spirits on our lapels and car bumpers. We neglect to consider why they haunt us in the first place. These walls and figures and marble temples are placed for the deliberate purpose of remembering the awful brutality of war. How many tourists or even residents can point to Peace Circle on a map? Or can tell you what FDR says about war in his monument (he hates it)? Or know that the MLK, Jr., monument engraves opposition to war in stone?

Every day, those of us who live and work here walk by these ghosts without a second thought. We come home and turn on our televisions and watch other (usually) men who work in This Town argue over whether we’re leaving a war too fast, or if the third time would be a charm for Iraq. If we paused for a moment and listened to our ghosts, even those of the just wars, they would tell us that war is horrible, and that no matter how righteous the justification many will die needlessly. And yet, men and women who now wear the same uniform I did and took the same oath have pledged to go anywhere in the world in the name of their county, and are willing to die for it. They pledged, as Dan and Charlie and Drak and Slip and Frazier did, to do this without asking whether such a sacrifice would be worth it.

The least we can do, as a nation, is ask that question for them.

 

Richard Allen Smith is a former Army sergeant. He served five years on active duty, including a deployment to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division from February of 2007 to April of 2008. Smith is currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University.

TIME

It’s Time For Businesses To Take a Real Stand Against Open-Carry

Gun control activists march across Brooklyn Bridge
Gun control activists march across Brooklyn Bridge Spencer Platt—Getty Images

As an Army vet, as someone on campus during a school shooting, and as a father, I think it's time to tell retailers we won't shop where there might be guns.

I came home from Afghanistan in the spring of 2008, left the Army a couple months later, and started college in Alabama a couple months after that. College was going to be a safe place where I could reintegrate, focus on learning and get a degree that would help me support my family. I wouldn’t have to carry fellow students in flag-draped coffins, or worry about rocket propelled grenades flying over my head as I slept, both things that had happened in the previous year.

That illusion was shattered on February 12, 2010. That day, Amy Bishop, who had previously been investigated in multiple violent crimes, sat calmly through half a biology faculty meeting before standing up and shooting six of her colleagues, killing three.

Bishop opened fire as I sat in a club meeting in a nearby building. She was probably forced out of the room by the survivors as I left the building for my truck. I drove by the scene of the crime just as campus was locked down behind me and dozens of patrol cars zoomed towards Shelby Hall where shell casings littered the floor of a conference room.

School was no longer a safe place. It certainly wasn’t as dangerous as Afghanistan, but it was still clear that the utopia of safety I had imagined was a fantasy.

I was a gun owner then. I had multiple pistols of various calibers. I even owned the same model that George Zimmerman used to kill Trayvon Martin. I loved going to a local indoor range on Fridays after class and decompressing until the palm of my hand was bruised.

But as my own daughter grew to school age and campus shootings like the one I experienced mounted, I could no longer justify keeping them. Unceremoniously, I boxed them up, took them to a gun show, and sold them to the first person who offered me half of what I paid for them.

“Open carry” activists have dealt with gun violence differently. Rather than feeling, as the great majority of Americans do, that something must be done to limit access to firearms, they’ve chosen this moment to tote weapons that have no practical purpose beyond killing into retailers across the country, daring the establishments to turn them away. When I encounter their stories, I think of the two gun deaths that have occurred across from and in the street in front of my daughter’s school, just this year.

Many of these retailers decline to take a stance either way, claiming that they do not wish to involve themselves in “contentious political issues.” As we approach Father’s Day this weekend, when many of our families will purchase cards or take us to dinner at such “neutral” establishments, the indignant voice in my head tells me the worth of that excuse has long expired.

There was a time in America when companies made the same excuse when pressed on gay rights. But some time between then and when Bud Light made a logo that advocated for marriage equality and Oreo created rainbow cream, that ceased to be acceptable. As a country, we decided that businesses that discriminated against the LGBTQ community didn’t deserve our dollars.

One retailer certain to have a special interest in Father’s Day sales figures is Hallmark, a company that, according to the National Gun Victims Action Council, bans weapons in its corporate headquarters, yet doesn’t have the same policy for its Gold Crown Stores. This stance has lead NGVAC and other groups to call for a boycott against Hallmark this Father’s Day. And I think that coalition is onto something—I’ve requested that my family consider this when making shopping and dining pans for Sunday.

But this issue goes farther than taking the common-sense step of not letting people carry rifles while shopping for greeting cards. By attempting to stay above the fray, businesses like Hallmark are choosing—or being forced to choose, really, by the gun-toters—the side of irresponsibility. And to be irresponsible themselves. When children are being shot almost once a week in their schools, these companies need to look to Bud Light for some guiding principles.

It’s time for these companies to get in the game of making sure our kids are safe. I’d be ecstatic if this Father’s Day, people and corporations started doing more to make sure I get to keep being a dad.

Richard Allen Smith is a former Army sergeant. He served five years on active duty, including a deployment to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division from February of 2007 to April of 2008. Smith is currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University.

TIME politics

Army Vet: Bowe Bergdahl’s Rescue Was the Right Message to Send to Soldiers

Bergdahl Being Treated At U.S. Military Hospital In Germany
In this undated image provided by the U.S. Army, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl poses in front of an American flag. U.S. Army/Getty Images

American troops should never have to question whether their opinions make them unworthy of rescue.

The rotors on the Blackhawk helicopter that recovered Sgt. Bowe Bergahl had barely stopped spinning before a cadre of armchair commandos began accusing everyone from the President, to Bergdahl’s father Bob, to Bergdahl himself of being in cahoots with the Taliban. There were the compassionate patriots at Fox & Friends who told the elder Bergdahl to “find a razor”and accused him of looking “like the Taliban,” just weeks after they carried the banner of the bearded cast of Duck Dynasty. There was Oliver North, who accused the administration of financing terrorism. Yes, the same Oliver North who financed terrorism. Let’s not forget John McCain, who was for freeing Sgt. Bergdahl before he was against it. Not to mention the host of conservatives—who never served yet have suddenly claim expertise in the field of battlefield honor—feigning outrage.

My favorite, though, is Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who claims he would have raised “holy hell” about the exchange had he been warned. I, for one, am certainly glad he wasn’t notified in that case. I wouldn’t want any influence over this decision in the hands of the same man who accused a veteran who left three limbs in Vietnam of lacking courage while comparing him to Osama Bin Laden.

I’ve spoken to many of my fellow veterans, as well as many of the men who deployed with me to Afghanistan in 2007 who still wear the uniform. Their responses to the release of five Taliban detainees in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl vary. Many are angry about his alleged desertion, and are upset that six American lives may have been lost searching for him in the months after he allegedly walked off a fire base in eastern Afghanistan, a story for which there are legitimate doubts and questions. None that I spoke to believe Bergdahl belonged in captivity for the last five years, or that he didn’t deserve to come home and face an American military court for his possible offenses. Bergdahl is an American soldier; regardless of what circumstances led to his capture, he deserved to be returned. That anyone would express otherwise is appalling.

Many of Sgt. Bergdahl’s detractors point to his last email to his parents, published in a 2012 Rolling Stone piece, to justify their feigned outrage. In the message, Sgt. Begdahl expressed doubts about U.S. involvement in the conflict, as well concerns about the conduct of his unit. That same piece notes that an investigation found Bergdahl’s unit to be undisciplined and poorly led. This line of argument is what concerns me most.

In 2007, I was a noncommissioned officer in the 82nd Airborne Division. I held a support position in an infantry unit involved in some of the heaviest fighting at that period of the war (though I went on only a handful of missions and spent most of the time working in our task force’s tactical operation center). It is imperative that U.S. service members understand that their country will use every resource and make every effort to rescue those in enemy captivity. It is what gives them the morale to keep going for five years, the amount of time spent as prisoners of war by both Sgt. Bergdahl and Sen. McCain. It’s what encourages them to not reveal information they might have when questioned by their captors. This sentiment was important enough that President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Executive Order that created the U.S. Military Code of Conduct.

If Bergdahl’s conduct and opinions entitle him to be forgotten in captivity by his country, what sort of message does that send to soldiers like the soldier I was in 2007? Should I have assumed that I was not entitled to rescue because I opposed America’s wars? Did I belong with the Taliban because I once stopped soldiers from taking photos of detainees in violation of the Geneva Convention (one of whom later gained national attention for similar conduct)?

The important distinction is that Sgt. Bergdahl allegedly walked away from his post, whereas I never considered such an action, believing that, regardless of the value of the war, I needed to be there to support my brothers however I could. But that isn’t a very stark line. Would Fox & Friends and Sen. Chambliss assume those intentions had I been abducted while pulling a late night guard shift near the concertina wire at Musa Qala?

These are the questions I ask myself as I hear “leaders,”most of whom never served (North and McCain being notable exceptions), split hairs over what kind of troop deserves rescue, and whether five detainees who may have been important a decade and a half ago were worth the life of an American whose value to the Taliban was rapidly declining with his reported ill health and the upcoming American withdrawal. I no longer wear a uniform, but this sort of doubt is severely dangerous for those who do. American troops should never have to question whether their opinions make them unworthy of rescue.

Richard Allen Smith is a former Army sergeant. He served five years on active duty, including a deployment to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division from February of 2007 to April of 2008. Smith is currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University.

TIME Mental Illness

Don’t Blame PTSD for the Fort Hood Shooting

The disorder's link to violence is the first thing we look to when vets are involved in mass shootings, but research in the area is inconsistent and weak

Shortly after America learned of another shooting Wednesday evening at Fort Hood, news outlets flashed alerts about the shooter’s deployment history and mental health. Among the first facts confirmed and reported about Spec. Ivan Lopez were his four-month deployment to Iraq in 2011, and that he was being diagnosed for post-traumatic stress disorder—though, importantly, had not yet been diagnosed. As post-9/11 conflicts wind down and veterans seek to reintegrate into civilian society, reports of violence perpetrated by veterans increasingly focus on whether a former service member has seen conflict and whether he suffers from mental illness as a result.

A 2008 RAND study estimated that 18.5% of combat veterans return with symptoms of PTSD. Most of them, though, with time and support, go on to lead stable, productive lives. For veterans enrolled in treatment programs, the likelihood of successful reintegration is even stronger. But for a slim minority, problems arise.

I am a veteran, having served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne from February 2007 to April 2008. I’ve also been diagnosed with PTSD related to my time in service. (Many vets, myself included, favor the removal of “disorder” from PTSD, our symptoms being a natural human response to what we have experienced.) When mass shootings occur, much too commonly lately, my veteran friends and I always have the same initial reactions. First, a sincere hope that everyone is okay. But immediately after that we think, “Please don’t let it be a veteran.” When Kate Hoit, a 29 year-old Iraq war veteran and graduate student living in Washington, D.C., first heard of the shooting, she thought, “Here we go again with another round of onslaughts on veterans and those with PTSD.” But a strong link between violent crime and PTSD has not been firmly established.

A 2012 study found that 9% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans surveyed reported arrests since returning from service. But even with this incidence of arrest, most offenses were associated with nonviolent behavior. It’s also notable that the veterans studied, as well as post-9/11 veterans in general, come from demographics associated with higher rates of criminal behavior (young, male, history of family violence, etc.) that are not related to service. That study concluded that veterans suffering from PTSD are at increased risk for criminal arrests, but those arrests are more strongly linked to substance abuse than a predilection towards violence.

The rush to erroneously blame PTSD for violent veterans has been noted. But available research and increased awareness hasn’t stopped the speculation.

In January of 2012, Iraq war veteran Benjamin Barnes killed a park ranger in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State and was later found dead in an icy creek. The media was quick to report on his wartime service and speculate that his time there was partially responsible for his crime. Further investigation revealed that Barnes had suffered from mental illness prior to enlisting, and his time in Iraq consisted of service with a headquarters element and no record of direct combat. When Maj. Nadal Hassan opened fire at Fort Hood in 2009, the early reaction was much the same, until it was revealed that the soldier had never seen combat.

Then again, when Aaron Alexis opened fire with a shotgun at Washington, D.C.’s Navy yard, the immediate question was whether he suffered from PTSD from his time in the Navy. CNN’s Peter Bergen even wrote: “It’s a deadly combination: men who have military backgrounds — together with personal grievances, political agendas or mental problems — and who also have easy access to weapons and are trained to use them.” We again later learned that Alexis never saw combat, worked as an aviation electrician’s mate, and was never trained to use a shotgun. Lopez, it should also be noted, never saw combat either.

None of this is to say that there isn’t reason to be concerned for the mental health of veterans. Lopez was reportedly suffering from anxiety and depression and undergoing treatment for mental illness. As the RAND study shows, my community is certainly at an increased risk for mental illness. Every day, 22 Americans who served in uniform take their own lives. Veterans with PTSD are more prone to alcoholism. Drug abuse is also more common in our community. While errant reports portray veterans as volatile community risks, my comrades are far more likely to hurt ourselves than anyone else.

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