I’m going to step out of the writing blog for a moment. The recent story of an Army sergeant killing civilians in Afghanistan has been on my mind. I won’t lie to you, I’m bothered most by the reality that I’m not shocked. I’m saddened, but I’m certainly not “stunned” that this happened. When I watched the first news story, one of my initial thoughts was, “Wow. We so did not need this right now. They’re already stirred up from the burning of the Korans. This is just going to make the whole country crazy. One guy screwed it up for everyone.”
It’s not that I don’t care about the civilians who died, but they aren’t who I’ve been thinking about. Nor have I really been thinking much about the man who did this – at least as a person. I’ve been thinking about the people who are paying the price of their inaction by allowing this man to continue in his duties when he had so many previous incidents. I’m also thinking about the people coming behind who will now have to pay a steeper price by facing an even angrier civilian population.
According to the media, this man had a history of violence when he drank. Part of me wonders how someone who had a history like his (multiple violent incidents) could remain in service. But I guess I’m not surprised by that either. Having some experience in dealing with men who carry weapons for a living, one of my early thoughts was, “Don’t tell me that the people in that unit didn’t know he was a loose cannon.” I knew who all my loose cannons were. Everyone in the unit knew who they were. And I know for a fact that when we had a guy that was a helluva troop, we all did our best to keep him. But, when you wear the uniform and you carry a weapon, you are held to a higher standard. I like to believe that none of us would stand-by and let someone with such obvious issues continue to carry a weapon or deploy.
Did we make mistakes and try too hard to save one of our men without outside help sometimes? Yes we did. Did it result in tragedy? On more than one occasion it did. Did I carry the burden of responsibility? Yes. As a first sergeant, I have always felt that they were my kids and I failed them. I may not have been in the position to know what was happening on the night that someone stepped across the crazy line, but I was responsible for making sure that their supervisors were mature and responsible enough to bear the weight of the responsibility for the lives they touched. In units where people carry weapons for a living, the supervisor is the first one who sees the issues and has to deal with them.
Sadly, the military has created a culture of “us versus them” within our own ranks. There is a constant hounding of personnel to turn in their teammates if they believe there may be an “issue” with alcohol, drugs, rage, stress, or any one of the hundred things that troops deal with. The problem remains that there is a stigma attached to the help process. The stigma of seeking help after the fact has been reduced tremendously, but during the deployment, you won’t find as many taking advantage of the available aid or being turned in by their buddies.
Seeking help during the deployment comes with the emotional issue of “breaking the bond of brotherhood.” When people work as a unit, it becomes ingrained that you are part of something greater and all the old clichés do mean something. “We’re only as strong as the weakest link. We are brothers in arms and you fight for the man beside you. We leave no one behind. You go, I go. Suck it up and drive on. I got your back, brother.” It is drilled into our heads that we have to show up and do our part because our failure to do so could result in the death of our friends.
Now, ask that man that you’ve created this belief in to voluntarily admit his weakness and walk away from his team, whether it’s for a day, a week, or a month. Damn few will do it. Most think they have a handle on the darkness that’s taking over their lives, and all believe that they will be viewed and treated differently by the only people they care about. The idea that he may have “let down his teammates” is more painful than any of the ugly crap crawling around in his noodle. He will, in most instances, bury the problem as deeply as he can and go do his job. Until one day, he simply can’t.
Now, ask his friend to turn him in. Unless he actually fears for the life of his buddy – it won’t happen – and even then, he may not do it. He’ll become his brother’s keeper and try to help him through the problem if possible. He knows that turning in his buddy will possibly be the end of that friendship and no one ever wants to believe that things are as bad as they are. If you’ve served in the military, you’ve all sat up more than one night with a friend who has stepped over the crazy line. How many of us have stopped our drunken buddy from either driving or punching a wall? How many of us have had friends do the same for us? And how many have kept it from the boss? We have the mentality that this is taking care of our own. And in 90% of the cases it is.
But how many of us also stood up and did the right thing over the years and got our friends the help they needed? How many of us made the effort to tell someone that we love more than our blood family that they are drinking too much and need some professional help? How many of us would have tried to stop what happened long before it happened? I have NEVER met a friend, an NCO, a first sergeant, an officer, or a commander who did not believe that they could and would do the right thing, regardless of the cost.
In this instance, someone’s buddy and supervisor failed to do what needed to be done. And now, the price for that failure is going to be paid by the people who come behind. They’re going to be hammered on three fronts and it’s damned unfair. First, the military will be all over them about watching their buddies and turning them in at the first sign of trouble. Valuable “down time” will probably now be taken up with more useless damn awareness training of some type. “We know what the hell to look for, you damn idiot, but that doesn’t mean we’ll talk to your pogue ass about it.” Second will be the pressure from the home front and media. Nothing drives people (who are already stressed) crazy more then constantly being asked, “Are you all right?” But they’ll be asked more, and they’ll also be dealing with the scrutiny of a press that needs to be fed by someone’s personal drama or tragedy.
Perhaps what bothers me most is that, thanks to this incident, the already dangerous situation for our troops has just spiked exponentially. I have a friend getting ready to deploy and that soldier will be facing even greater risks in the field because someone in the position to prevent this, failed to do the right thing early in the process.
We’re all okay with the commercial that says, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk!” Well, guys, it’s time to be okay with, “Friends and supervisors don’t let their men who have well known and obvious issues deploy or carry a weapon.” It’s time to be okay with pissing your friend off and getting him the help he needs to save his life or someone else’s.
It’s time for all of us to man up and be our brother’s keeper in the right way. If your buddy is slipping over the damn line, whether it’s alcohol or anger management, quit thinking about your friendship and start thinking about saving a damn life. Because living with the knowledge that you stood by and did nothing is a hell of a lot worse.
Here endeth the rant.