Distant Wars, Constant Ghosts

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* By Shannon P. Meehan New York Times *

SINCE the two recent NATO-led military strikes that accidentally killed dozens of Afghan civilians, I have been thinking a great deal about the psychic toll that killing takes on soldiers.

In 2007, I was an Army lieutenant leading a group on a house-clearing mission in Baquba, Iraq, when I called in an artillery strike on a house. The strike destroyed the house and killed everyone inside. I thought we had struck enemy fighters, but I was wrong. A father, mother and their children had been huddled inside.

The feelings of disbelief that initially filled me quickly transformed into feelings of rage and self-loathing. The following weeks, months and years would prove that my life was forever changed.

In fact, it’s been nearly three years, and I still cannot remove from my mind the image of that family gathered together in the final moments of their lives. I can’t shake it. It simply lingers.

I know that many soldiers struggle long after they leave the battlefield to cope with civilian deaths. It does not matter whether they were responsible for those deaths, whether it was a mistake of the command, of the weaponry, or even the fault of the enemy, who in parts of both Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to intentionally place or involve civilians, even children, in their operations. Just seeing the lifeless body of a little boy or girl is all it takes.

For many soldiers, what follows a killing is a struggle of the mind. We become aware that what we’ve seen has changed us. We can’t unlearn it, and we continue to think of those innocent children. It is not possible to forget.

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