Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 6: Memorials and Healing

This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section. Click on the links below to read the previous posts.

This post, Part 6, describes the immediate after effects of combat deaths for individuals and the unit.

Part 1: Post 9-11 CasualtiesPart 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSDPart 3: Learning to Kill – Part 4: Preparing for DeathPart 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat – Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD – Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography

Care of Casualties, Contextualizing, Storytelling,
and Paying Respects at Memorial Services

Yet even in up-tempo combat operations, Marines endeavor to show respect to their dead. How they treat dead Marines, how they find meaning in their death, and the importance of  memorial services soon after casualties are incurred are all factors which can help Marines come to terms with the death of a fellow Marine and help integrate their feelings of grief and loss.

Care of Casualties

Part of the Marine code is to never leave another Marine behind on the field of battle, whether dead or wounded. Danny Craft recalls an incident in Sangin, Afghanistan which sums up this ethos. His unit had been in-country for only three weeks and had already been involved in over a hundred firefights. The Marines had suffered nine deaths and sixty casualties as a result of the extreme combat. During a patrol, Craft’s unit came under heavy Taliban attack. One of Craft’s best friends, Braggs, was killed by small arms fire. The squad remained pinned down under heavy fire for several hours until friendly aircraft could come and bomb the Taliban fighters. Craft recalls:

Soon after all the “fireworks” [bombs dropped on the Taliban] we cleared the area from which we received fire and the other platoons secured our route so we could get Braggs back home. I can remember putting his limp body on our pole-less litter and seeing him there made me realize how short my life could be. I will always remember carrying him back and how much respect we had for him after his death. Despite being in a firefight for hours and being physically and mentally exhausted, we never let his body touch the water in the five water canals we crossed. Not even when the water was up to our chests and the six of us carrying him were slipping in the mud, we made sure he didn’t touch the water.[1]

Treating a fallen Marine with respect and honor may help fellow Marines cope with the death and exert a measure of control over an out-of-control situation.

Contextualizing Death

Contextualization is also important. Nathan Smith learned that as an officer he had to take responsibility to create time to help his young Marines make sense of the death of a friend.[2] When one of his squads was hit by an IED and a Marine was killed, Smith had the surviving squad members evacuated to a rear area. That night he gave a talk about why the Marines were there in that particular village, the meaning and purpose of the Marine’s death, and the greater context of the operation. “We’ve eviscerated the insurgents in this town,” he said, “and we only suffered one KIA.” The Marines just stared at him, still in shock.[3] Smith recognized that while it was important for him to contextualize the Marine’s death, probably most healing would take place when the Marines processed the death together. “The Marines just stared at me. And they didn’t want to listen to the chaplain. They wanted to talk to each other. Most healing takes place when they are grilling steaks over a 55-gallon drum, talking and smoking. That’s organic and natural.”[4] Whether done by officers or fellow Marines, Marines need to contextualize the death of a friend in order to help find meaning in it.

Storytelling

Perhaps the most important aspect of integration related to combat death is to practice storytelling—for Marines to recall the life of the dead Marine and to express their thoughts and feelings.[5] It is important for Marines to share with somebody who will listen and affirm that their thoughts and feelings are normal. Lt. Col. Benjamin Busch remembers that there was no time for this during combat. After one of his Marines was shot by a sniper in southern Iraq, Busch tried to comfort the remaining Marines, but found that his speech was inadequate: “I could not think of what else to say to them, though I should have. Storytelling was what they needed most.”[6]

The power of story to heal trauma is well documented. Doctor Charles Hoge sees an important connection between storytelling and integration of combat trauma. By integrating the emotions with the memories, Marines can help reduce their risk of PTSD:

Why does narration help? There are no clear answers to this question, but there are a lot of things that are associated with narration that seem to be important; for instance, connecting emotions and feelings with events. When warriors wall off their emotions, it can negatively affect other things in their lives. An important component of narration is recognizing that you’re not alone in your experiences. Even if the person you’re sharing with has no experience with the military, they may have had other life experiences that can help them to relate to yours. Wartime experiences are some of the most profound that humans can endure. War evokes both what is most terrible and most divine about being human. War brings out the best and worst in us. Sharing stories and feelings that are painful is a very personal experience and can bring you close to the person you share them with. Narration helps you to live with your experiences and move forward with them as part of you…. We need feedback from others. We need to struggle to come up with the right words to express our feelings, and it’s very difficult or impossible to do this alone.[7]

In his blog, The Soldier’s Load, former Marine Captain Nathan Smith has written numerous posts describing situations he encountered in combat during two tours in Iraq. Many of the incidents involve traumatic events or decisions. While the blog is a cathartic way for Smith to process his own experiences in combat, frequently fellow Marines comment that Smith has described their own experiences in a helpful way. In response to one article on PTSD, a Marine named Michael said, “I have read this article at least once a day. It give[s] us all hope and inspiration [sic]. Keep up the good work boss.”[8] In regard to a different article, Marine Zachary Robbins writes, “Semper Fi….you put to words what this Devil Dog could only feel.”[9] Storytelling helps Marines make sense of previously inexplicable experiences, provides a sense of community, and thus helps them integrate their feelings.

Memorial Services

One thing that the Marine Corps does to help Marines in combat process the death of their friends is to hold memorial services shortly after Marines are killed.[10] Since the bodies of dead Marines are quickly removed from their units and returned to family members in the States, Marines have devised a simple but effective replacement for a casket. Combat units build small physical memorials using the dead Marine’s combat boots, upside-down rifle, dog tags, Kevlar helmet, and a large black and white photo of the Marine. Ideally, fellow Marines from the dead Marine’s unit should be involved in planning the memorial service, to give them a sense of control and kinesthetic catharsis, since Marines are action-oriented.[11]

neverforgotten

Memorial service at Camp Al Qa’im for the 9 Marines killed in action during Operation MATADOR. May 2005.

Nathan Smith recalls that after nine Marines in his unit were killed in western Iraq, the battalion held a memorial service at the base for all nine Marines. The battalion commander and chaplain each gave a speech, and then the entire battalion filed by the row of empty boots and helmets. Smith stopped in front of the photo of his dead Marine. “I got down on one knee in front of Larry’s memorial and cried,” he says. “It was very emotional for me. I felt a couple hands on my shoulders, but the other Marines just remained quiet and let me have my moment of grief.”[12] That evening, Smith pulled his platoon together and said a few words. “I told them that Larry was a warrior. He died in combat as a warrior should, and now he’s moved on.” The whole event was cathartic.

Months later, when the battalion returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the leadership held a much more elaborate memorial service which also involved family members and the entire battalion. But by that point the battalion had already experienced a large churn in personnel who had transferred to other units or who had left the military, and the service did not feel nearly as cathartic for Smith. “It was business as usual,” he said. “A mere formality. The real memorial service for the Marines happened back in Iraq with my brothers.”[13] However, the battalion also built a stone and bronze memorial to

Memorial for members of 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines who were killed in action during fighting in Iraq.

Memorial for members of 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines who were killed in action during fighting in Iraq.

fallen Marines, placed near the battalion headquarters at Camp Lejeune. This serves as a physical place for Marines to pay their respects to fallen comrades. In addition, a number of Marines are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.  Fellow Marines can go and visit their graves, not far from the Marine Corps War Memorial. Such institutional and societal honoring of dead Marines can prove healing for surviving Marines.[14]


[1] From The Soldier’s Load, August 30, 2012. https://thesoldiersload.com/2012/08/30/fallen-angel/

[2] A Critical Incident Debriefing or a “hot-wash” after-action discussion is now standard operating procedure for Marine officers. The Marine Corps has constructed a Leader’s Guide for officers to know how to react when a member of their unit has been killed. The guide reads, in part, “There is no simple way to deal with the death of a unit member. Leaders should enlist help from a variety of sources such as the Chaplain, Mental Health, Marine and Family Services, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team, and Casualty Assistance as needed. Unit members will look to leadership for answers as to why the unit member died. Survivors are especially sensitive to comments or suggestions that imply responsibility. It is important for leaders to avoid passing judgment, avoid providing simplistic explanations of the death or suicide, and avoid publicly placing blame. It is important to keep rumors from spreading by keeping people adequately informed while protecting privacy.” http://www.usmc-mccs.org/LeadersGuide/Deployments/CombatOpsStress/deathunitmember.htm Accessed 11/15/12.

[3] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[4] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[5] Karl Marlantes writes: “A large part of treating PTSD is simply getting the veteran to remember and talk about what happened to him. The more psychic structure or framing that is brought to the experience of combat, the easier it will be to cope with the experience afterward. It can help provide a bit of meaning in an often meaningless situation.” What it is Like to Go to War, p.17.

[6] Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (p. 250). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[7] Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Location 1581). Kindle Edition.

[10] Karl Marlantes says that ritual ceremonies and burials for both friend and foe can help warriors process death, un-jam their circuits, ask for forgiveness and blessing, and restore compassion and equilibrium. But it must be intentional, time must be carved out, and officers must lead. What it is Like to Go to War, pp.78-79.

[11] The Marine Corps currently recommends that Marines be allowed to participate in planning memorial services for dead comrades: “Hold a memorial service for unit members who are unable to attend the funeral. Offer unit members closest to the deceased key roles in planning and carrying out the memorial service.” http://www.usmc-mccs.org/LeadersGuide/Deployments/CombatOpsStress/deathunitmember.htm Accessed 11/15/12

[12] From an interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[13] Interview with the author, 11/16/12.

[14] Former Marine Captain Nathan Smith ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC in 2011. The course ends near Arlington National Cemetery and finishes at the Marine Corps War Memorial. Smith recalls, “I cried as I finished. Running past where some of my Marines are buried, and then seeing the Iwo Jima Memorial was very powerful for me.” From a conversation with the author, October 29, 2011.

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Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat

This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section. Click on the links below to read the previous four posts.

This post, Part 5, describes the physical, emotional, and psychological reactions of Marines to the violence of combat.

Part 1: Post 9-11 CasualtiesPart 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSDPart 3: Learning to Kill – Part 4: Preparing for Death – Part 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat – Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing – Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD – Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography

How Infantry Marines Experience Death during Combat Operations

As we have seen, Marine training emphasizes professional detachment and desensitization when it comes to combat death: whether the death of enemy combatants or of fellow Marines. The purpose of this training is to ensure that Marines remain combat effective in order to accomplish their mission, regardless of how chaotic or bloody the battle becomes.[1] Few would disagree with the importance of this objective. But the very nature of traumatic events is that they impact the psyches of those who experience them. Training may allow a Marine to function despite experiencing trauma, but it cannot erase the traumatic experience, nor can it erase the Marine’s fundamental humanity.[2] While Marines may continue to function in combat as professional warriors, nothing can prepare them for the death of a friend. And despite their training in desensitization, many Marines report experiencing normal feelings of shock, grief, anger, and feeling helpless or out of control when a friend dies in combat. Problematically, the tempo of combat operations rarely allows Marines to fully process or integrate such feelings. The result is a heightened susceptibility to PTSD.

Fear of One’s Own Death

While training may desensitize a Marine to the death of an enemy combatant, there is always the question of one’s own mortality. Living in a combat zone where other men are actively trying to kill you creates a climate of fear for some Marines. And while this fear may not be debilitating, it can contribute to susceptibility to PTSD.[3] Chris Lyon, a Marine turret gunner in Iraq, recalls his own sense of mortality:

A Humvee damaged in combat.

A Humvee damaged in combat.

As I stood in the relative cool of the stairwell of our rarely used company barracks on the old RAF base at Habbaniyah, staring at the cool blackened steel of the “Mark” [machine gun], I wondered how I would die. I remember now that it wasn’t a question in my mind of if, but when, and where, and how. I hoped it would be quick, but I did not want it to be instant; that was clear in my mind. I wanted time in my last seconds to gather my thoughts, my loved ones in my heart, and to gather my many sins into my soul and send them all forth together, with every ounce of remorse and hope and faith I had. I did not want to die unshriven, or barring that, unknowing. These dark thoughts were spurred by what had happened to Miller and Johnson [Marines who had been killed], to be sure, but also by rumors that had been circulating about the general bounties that the AQI (Al Qaeda Iraq) had placed on turret gunners. I can’t remember, now, what the overall casualty rate for turret gunners was in OIF and OEF, or even on our own deployment. Purely by our exposed positions we were the most vulnerable to attack, especially from sniper fire. There was hardly a gunner I knew or talked to in the battalion that had not been blown up repeatedly and had numerous close calls by the end of the deployment.[4] Other

Marines with 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines patrol past the location where two Marines were killed by an IED just days before. Over the course of 2 weeks, six Marines and soldiers were killed within 200 yards of the mosque in the background. East Bidimnah, Iraq 2006

Marines with 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines patrol past the location where two Marines were killed by an IED just days before. Over the course of 2 weeks, six Marines and soldiers were killed within 200 yards of the mosque in the background. East Bidimnah, Iraq 2006

Marines describe the “pucker factor” of leaving the wire of a forward operating base in a vehicle. “Pucker” refers to the tightening feeling a Marine gets in his anal sphincter as he considers the likelihood that he could be blown up by an IED beneath his vehicle. Almost half of the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are the result of IEDs.[5] The fear of never knowing if you will get blown up haunts almost every Marine who goes outside the wire. This fear continues for some Marines when they return to the States and see piles of trash beside the road, which in Iraq might signify a hidden IED.

Shock of Combat Death

Most Marines describe the first friendly death they see in combat as a huge—and sometimes debilitating—shock.[6] When Nathan Smith served as the lieutenant of a Marine infantry platoon in Iraq, one of his foot patrols was hit by an IED. A Marine was blown apart. Smith helped the corpsman triage the casualty, then directed his attention to an aimless group of Marines standing nearby. He writes on his blog: “This is the squad that was hit by the IED and they are in shock. The squad leader stares vacantly over my right shoulder at the corpsmen bending over his bleeding friend. I have to grab his biceps and physically turn him to face me before a flicker of recognition crosses his stricken face.”[7] Lt. Col. Benjamin Busch recalls a similar incident: “The unflinching corpsman, Doc Negron, was covered with blood and looked drained as if it had been his own. The others were wide-eyed, exhausted, and silent with shock. They were huddled in a group staring at the entrance to the trauma tent, a large inflated portable triage facility. I could hear screaming and ran inside. My Marine had been sitting on the edge of his vehicle hatch when it was struck by an RPG….”[8] Officers themselves are not immune from shock upon seeing a friendly casualty. Smith recalls the first time he saw one of his

Marines from 3rd Battalion 6th Marines clear Ubaydi during Operation Steel Curtain in October and November of 2006. This was the location of the casualty described in this section.

Marines from 3rd Battalion 6th Marines clear Ubaydi during Operation Steel Curtain in October and November of 2005. This was the location of the casualty described in this section.

men who had been killed. His platoon was involved in clearing operations along the Euphrates River in western Iraq, 2005. Insurgents ambushed the unit from the town of Ubaydi. Despite his desensitizing at a local ER during IOC, Smith was unprepared for what he saw. “Some snipers attached to my platoon dragged one of our guys out of a building. He’d been shot a dozen times at close range by three insurgents with a machine gun and AK-47s. It was the most horrible thing I had ever seen – his face looked like a Halloween mask. This wasn’t supposed to happen in real life. I was incapacitated and couldn’t give any orders for what seemed like a long time, but was probably only a few seconds. Fortunately other Marines were making decisions.[9] An occasional exception to this feeling of shock is when a Marine is killed because of his own “stupidity” or when a unit continues to make the same mistake over and over. While Marines never like to see another Marine killed, there is sometimes a feeling that a Marine gets what is coming to him if he refuses to follow standard operating procedures.[10]

Helpless/Out of Control Feelings

While shock is a normal reaction to experiencing the death of a friend in combat, Marines sometimes may feel helpless or out of control as a result of the circumstances.[11] Marines who feel this way are particularly susceptible to PTSD. Dr. Hoge notes, “There are some unique situations in which warriors will acknowledge feeling helpless, and it appears that these can contribute to them developing serious PTSD symptoms on return from combat. These are situations in which warriors are unable to respond militarily, either because the enemy is elusive or because they’re constrained by the rules of engagement (ROE).”[12] Unfortunately, much of the combat in Iraq—and sometimes in Afghanistan—falls into this category. For example, the nature of the insurgency in Iraq involves hit-and-run attacks where the enemy combatants blend into the civilian population or use IEDs to inflict casualties remotely. Marines find this type of warfare maddening.[13] When a Marine unit suffers a casualty, the Marines naturally want to exact vengeance and eliminate the threat. With IEDs in particular, Marines rarely obtain this cathartic release of emotion.[14] Instead, they are left feeling helpless, victimized, and frustrated. Nathan Smith recalls that in his entire first tour in Iraq he only fired his weapon at enemy combatants once. And that was just at muzzle flashes.[15] When his dead Marine was pulled out of the building in Ubaydi, Smith recalls feeling out of control. “I felt exhausted and overwhelmed,” he says. “I instantly got a migraine which lasted for the rest of the day. I wanted to be in control—as a Marine officer you are trained to always be in control—but a dead Marine is about as out of control as you can get. Things got so bad so fast.”[16] Benjamin Busch remembers feeling helpless after one of his Marines was shot by a sniper in Iraq: “I went outside as the helicopter was being called in, and the platoon had condensed into a silent pack nearby. They seemed full of something unsettled and beyond words. I knew the feeling. They were, again, incapable of exacting revenge, unsure if they should blame the mission, the leadership, or the city…. I went over to talk to them, but they were sullen with fury and fatigue.”[17] Later, when he himself was blown up by an IED, Busch longed for revenge: “I wanted at that moment to locate the triggerman and kill him, but there was no one standing nearby waiting to confess to fighting us. Nothing but Iraq falling away in every direction, surrounding us.”[18] Given that nearly half of all casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are from IEDs—and considering the tightened Rules of Engagement for Marines—feelings of helplessness are now a major contributing factor to the rate of PTSD in returning veterans.[19] This may be especially true for concussed Marines with traumatic brain injury or for officers who second-guess decisions they made which resulted in friendly casualties—whether a different route would have been safe, or a different plan of attack might have resulted in fewer casualties.[20] “What if” questions are a Marine officer’s secret Purgatory.[21]You can act professionally even while your soul is dying,” says former Captain Smith.[22]

Lack of Time to Grieve or Integrate Feelings as a Result of Operational Tempo

While feelings of fear, shock and helplessness are normal reactions to combat or the traumatic death of a friend, Marines have little time to process such weighty emotions during combat operations.[23] The normal deployment for infantry Marines is currently seven months. During those seven months, infantry units may experience an intense operational tempo. Compounding an intense schedule of combat operations is the need to guard bases, protect convoys, and respond to unexpected threats. The very intensity of combat operations can make warriors susceptible to PTSD when they encounter a traumatic event—exhaustion is a multiplier of environmental stress.[24] Such up-tempo schedules also mean that Marines cannot take time to grieve and integrate their feelings during combat operations: they are too busy “sucking it up” and pushing through to execute the mission, just as they were trained to do. Units are often undermanned and overworked. Marines patrol out in the “ville” then return to base and man machine guns

Lt Smith's "rack" on a highway overpass in Iraq in October 2006 - the 611 Bridge. Marines cleaned themselves as best they could with baby wipes; weapons, however, were maintained meticulously. Insurgents targeted the bridge nearly every day

Lt Smith’s “rack” on a highway overpass in Iraq in October 2006 – the 611 Bridge. Marines cleaned themselves as best they could with baby wipes; weapons, however, were maintained meticulously. Insurgents targeted the bridge nearly every day

on guard towers or go out on night patrols. “We would send guys back to the base just to get a shower and hot food. Sometimes I didn’t shower for 30 days,” Nathan Smith recalls.[25] With such a rigorous combat schedule, grief takes a back seat. Smith remembers two incidents where there was no time to grieve the loss of a Marine during combat operations. After his Marine was pulled dead out of the building in Ubaydi, Smith had no chance to gather his unit together: all of the Marines in the dead Marine’s fire team had been wounded in the ambush and needed to be medevaced. “We were still in contact with the enemy at that point,” Smith recalls, “and then we had a five day clearing operation north of the river. We just kept pushing on. I remember asking the squad leader how he was handling it, but otherwise we just kept moving. There were nine guys killed on that seven day operation.[26] In the incident on his second tour when one of Smith’s foot patrols was hit with an IED, the affected squad was not functional. “They just wanted to kill people,” Smith says. “No one except me had seen a dead body before. I put them on a 7-ton truck and sent them back to the company command post. We continued the operation with the two remaining squads. For the remaining time in country we wouldn’t let the squad leader of the dead Marine out on patrols without myself or my platoon sergeant with him. He was ‘off.’ He blamed himself for the death and just wanted to shoot something.[27] In Sangin Province, Afghanistan, Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, suffered over 200 casualties in just a couple of months in 2010. Lance Cpl. Derek Goins, who lost two of his best friends when they were murdered by an Afghan soldier within a U.S. base, says that the only way to cope was to forget about the losses and

A wounded Marine is evacuated from a firefight in Afghanistan.

A wounded Marine is evacuated from a firefight in Afghanistan.

continue to carry out orders: “It’s a day-by-day thing and you don’t know if you’re going to be the guy to get hit the next day, so you just keep on pushing.”[28] 20-year-old Lance Cpl. James Fischer agreed. His platoon lost a Marine on their first patrol. After seeing many friends killed and wounded, Fischer said that he no longer felt emotion even when confronting gruesome scenes. “Afterward, you just don’t get that shock anymore…. You’ll have to deal with it at some point, but right now the most important thing is keeping everyone around you alive.”[29] In an up-tempo combat environment, emotional integration of the loss of a friend may not occur. This can result in feelings of numbness as Marines shove their feelings deep inside in order to continue with combat operations.[30] This can make Marines more susceptible to PTSD when they return from combat.[31]  Ideally, Marines should take time to process the death of a friend with fellow Marines.[32] Talking about the death allows Marines to process their grief with fellow warriors who understand their experience and who will provide support to them.


[1] “Even with all of the training, preparation, and conditioning, combat is a shock to the novice. It is surreal – at first – and the screaming violence takes an immediate physical, mental, and emotional toll. But good Marines revert to the training that was performed over and over and over and over so that it has become as natural as moving an arm or taking a breath. The mind finds comfort in performing the routine and the Marine Corps has ensured that the routine is good enough to win.” Nathan Smith, The Soldier’s Load, https://thesoldiersload.com/2012/01/16/explaining-the-inexplicable/
[2] “During combat, warriors report ‘locking down’ their emotions, falling back on their training, or feeling anger.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 505-506). Kindle Edition.
[3] “Warriors who face life-threatening events as part of their job learn how to control fear, how to respond using their training (not helplessly), and how to control feelings of horror. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to function under fire. Controlling fear does not mean that a warrior doesn’t feel fear, but that they learn how to operate in the presence of it, and how to use fear as an alert signal that helps them and their buddies stay alive.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 507-509). Kindle Edition.
[4] From The Soldier’s Load blog, https://thesoldiersload.com/guest-columns/
[6] “Some events are so catastrophic that there isn’t anything that compares, especially losing a close buddy.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 464-465). Kindle Edition.
[8] Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (p. 247). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[9] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[10] From a conversation with Nathan Smith, 10/28/12.
[11] An anonymous veteran from the Iraq war writes, “Helplessness was the worst part I think… Every time I look back at my operations… I feel helplessness was the worst part. Seeing innocent people tortured, killed, decapitated… the children… OMFG… seeing kids dead and picking them out of the drains, that was the worst stuff for me personally. Having a weapon with ROE [Rules of Engagement], then watching something occur and knowing that if we engaged them we would be the one’s [sic] going to jail… it sucked.” From http://www.mycombatptsd.com/threads/helplessness-was-the-worst-part-i-think.16/ Accessed 11/16/12.
[12] Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 514-516). Kindle Edition.
[13] During Nathan Smith’s second tour in Iraq, his unit lost a Marine killed every two weeks. “There were more of us killed than the enemy on that tour,” he says. “We never saw a dead insurgent. We just kept getting blown up by IEDs and we had to take it. There was no enemy to take revenge on. We felt completely helpless.” From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[14] “’Watching IEDs go off, locking and loading but not firing due to the ROE, left me feeling helpless.’ -Junior Enlisted Soldier, Iraq. ‘All we do is roll on missions and hope we don’t get blown up, and then when we get hit there is nothing we can do but watch my dead friends get pulled out in pieces.’ –Senior NCO, Iraq ‘The most stressful part of my job is going out every day and waiting to get blown up. When/if someone gets hit, ROE prohibits us from doing what should be done. Everyone here is “innocent.” Yeah, right. If someone dug up the road in front of YOUR house and buried a bomb there, YOU would know about it.’ -Senior NCO, Iraq.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 519-521). Kindle Edition.
[15] Part of this was because he was an officer, and there was usually a screen of Marines in front of him. His job was to lead and direct, not to fire his own weapon. From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[16] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[17] Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (p. 258). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[18] Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (pp. 273). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[19] “In several assessments of warriors deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, nearly half reported being in threatening situations where they were unable to respond due to ROE. There is evidence that this may play a role in developing mental health problems after coming home.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 523-524). Kindle Edition.
[20] “Being knocked out in combat, even for only a few seconds (a concussion/mTBI), is strongly associated with PTSD; in one study we conducted, over 40 percent of soldiers who lost consciousness as a result of a blast experienced serious symptoms of PTSD when they came home. But this is likely due to the context-the fact that the blast that knocked them out also injured or killed their buddies-and that when they were knocked out they were helpless to respond.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 554-557). Kindle Edition.
[21] “Unit members who are likely to be most at risk to develop serious PTSD symptoms are those with the closest personal connection or friendship to the injured individual, those who felt directly responsible in some way for the health and welfare of the injured individual, or those who felt most helpless to intervene in preventing the tragedy.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 548-550). Kindle Edition.
[22] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[23] “The higher the frequency or intensity of combat-and particularly, the more personal the trauma is-the higher the likelihood of developing PTSD. Combat is a great equalizer.” Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Locations 546-547). Kindle Edition.
[24] Though Dr. Hoge says that “Rates of PTSD don’t go much higher than 30 percent in units that have seen the highest levels of direct combat,” as already mentioned, concussed Marines have a 40% rate of PTSD. Charles W. Hoge M.D.. Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI (Kindle Location 539). Kindle Edition.
[25] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[26] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[27] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.
[28] Sebastian Abbot, “Marines in deadly Afghan valley face combat stress,” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110306/ap_on_re_as/as_afghanistan_combat_stress, accessed 11/12/12.
[29] Sebastian Abbot, “Marines in deadly Afghan valley face combat stress,” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110306/ap_on_re_as/as_afghanistan_combat_stress, accessed 11/12/12.
[30] Natasha Young, a Marine who worked with an ordnance disposal team in Iraq, realized that it is normal to go numb in combat. David Wood of the Huffington Post tells her story: “Amid the carnage, Natasha went numb. It was her job to gather the dead Marines’ personal effects, make sure letters got written home to the families and that nothing got sent home with blood on it ‘because of the biohazard.’ What was that like for her? Tears welled in her eyes as she felt again the shock and grief that she had stuffed deep inside five years ago. ‘At the time … I just … functioned,’ she says. ‘I’d make a pot of coffee because I knew we’d be up for two or three days.’ Such enormous stress is the heart of war trauma — including PTSD and TBI — that causes physiological or neuro-chemical changes in the functioning of the brain, according to Rigg, the TBI director at Fort Gordon. Many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress — nervousness, insomnia, anxiety in crowds, jumping at a sudden loud noise — are primitive, involuntary instincts necessary to survival in a combat zone. ‘I don’t use the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” because I don’t consider it a disorder,’ Rigg says. ‘I mean, you’re in a situation where people are trying to kill you!’” “Iraq, Afghanistan War Veterans Struggle With Combat Trauma” Posted 7/04/2012 by David Wood From http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/04/iraq-afghanistan-war-veterans-combat-trauma_n_1645701.html
[31] Associated Press reporter Sebastian Abbot writes of Marines in the deadliest part of Afghanistan: “Many of the Marines in Sangin say they are coping by blocking out the horrors they have seen. Psychiatrists say that behavior is normal during combat, but it could trigger post-traumatic stress disorder when the Marines go home next month.” From “Marines in deadly Afghan valley face combat stress,” http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110306/ap_on_re_as/as_afghanistan_combat_stress, accessed 11/12/12.
[32] Karl Marlantes writes, “Integrating the feelings of sadness, rage, or all of the above with the action should be standard operating procedure for all soldiers who have killed face-to-face. It requires no sophisticated psychological training. Just form groups under a fellow squad or platoon member who has had a few days of group leadership training and encourage people to talk.” What it is Like to Go to War, p.32.
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Response to “The Veterans’ Jobless Crisis that Isn’t”

As a Marine combat veteran and the Chief Operating Officer for Hire Heroes USA, a national nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs, I scratched my head after reading a recent Time magazine article titled “The Veterans’ Jobless Crisis that Isn’t.”

The author, former Army Airborne officer Brandon Friedman, categorically dismisses the idea of a national veterans’ unemployment “crisis.” To support his claim, Friedman cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to emphasize the long-term advantage that veterans have historically enjoyed in the labor force. In the short term, however, Friedman expects the transition to be “rough” and describes his own 11-month struggle to find a job after leaving the military as a decorated and college-degreed officer, a struggle he relates to the high unemployment rate amongst young, combat arms veterans.

Confusingly, Friedman offers a faintly patronizing conclusion: veteran unemployment is a problem – but not a crisis – because we should expect many young veterans who served in the war to lack qualifications that make them employable. He notes, however, that training and education can help mitigate this skill-gap over time. It is all part of the “sacrifice” for members of the all-volunteer military.

I disagree with Friedman’s premise on three counts: I disagree that a veteran unemployment rate less than the national average means that there is no crisis (call it a “major problem” if semantics is a concern); that many veterans who exit the service should expect to rank behind their civilian peers professionally, resulting in lost economic opportunity; and that we should allocate scarce resources to find jobs for the “most qualified” veterans ( i.e. those who performed jobs like logistics and administration), while we relegate infantry, artillery, and other combat veterans to a long process of training and education to make them eventually employable.

I am not alone in my opinion that the unemployment rate for recent veterans should equal zero for those who want and are able to work. While Friedman shrugs his shoulders at the “expected” high unemployment rate of recent – particularly, young and combat arms – veterans by chalking it up to lack of marketable qualities and experience, my first hand observation as an infantry officer and now as a nonprofit executive is that the professional experience, leadership, and maturity of the average 18-24-year old veteran is at least comparable to that of his or her nonveteran peer.

The long-term veteran unemployment rate – which as Friedman points out has historically been a few percentage points lower than the national average – validates the exceptional quality of American veterans. The veteran population is not “average” – a study done in 2009 showed that less than 25% of Americans of service age meet the basic standards for enlistment – so when employers hire veterans, they tend to retain them. The major problem is not in the long-term veteran unemployment numbers, but in the near-term dislocation and underutilization of an excellent pool of smart, capable labor.

The lost economic opportunity cited by Friedman as a matter of course for recently separated veterans who “have to accept that they’re behind their civilian peers professionally” is not a law of economics, but rather a confluence of unnecessary barriers to civilian employment that arbitrarily exclude many otherwise highly-qualified veterans.

As an example, many job notifications require candidates to possess a bachelor’s degree, though in practice the job responsibilities could be performed more than adequately by an individual with critical thinking skills, maturity, and a gift for assimilating new information. Vestigial degree requirements on job descriptions are so common that economists call them “the sheepskin effect,” where an employer uses the degree as a proxy for intangibles such as dependability and character.

Does anyone truly believe that a non-degreed veteran who led up to 12 Marines in combat lacks dependability or character? This is just one example of the unintended – and avoidable – barriers to civilian employment for many of Friedman’s self-sacrificing veterans.

Training and education do comprise part of the solution, but not necessarily in the manner or duration suggested by Friedman. Friedman expects training and education to help overcome the lack of qualities and skills that make a recent veteran unemployable.

The transition from military service to civilian employment does not need to be "rough"; a little training goes a long way.

The transition from military service to civilian employment does not need to be “rough”; a little training goes a long way.

However, at Hire Heroes USA we conduct two-day workshops to help transitioning service members recognize their existing value. After completing our workshop, they realize that they already have the qualities and skills that make them highly desirable to civilian employers. The impact is immediate: service members who go through a simple resume-writing and job-search workshop obtain work four times more often upon separation than do their untrained peers. While a formal college degree offers advantages and may be financially within reach for veterans with GI Bill benefits, many veterans exit the service with family and financial commitments – this means that their next step will likely be a full-time job, not full-time education.

I am pleased that Friedman calls for less rhetoric and a more targeted approach to reducing unemployment in those veteran segments most likely to face unemployment. This is, in fact, what Hire Heroes USA and many other nonprofits and government agencies have been doing for years.

But when we minimize the problem of veteran unemployment by treating the most vulnerable veterans as if they are the most expendable, we dishonor the men and women who have worn the cloth of this Nation and who are bound to its citizens by an unbreakable social contract in perpetuity. To dismiss their struggle to reintegrate into that society as an expected – and therefore unavoidable – inconvenience diminishes their service. It also will undoubtedly prejudice future generations from volunteering for their own service in the military.

That, indeed, would be a crisis.

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Combat Loss and PTSD – Part 4: Preparing for Death

This is a paper about how infantrymen in the United States Marine Corps handle combat deaths. It was researched and written by Stephen Smith, Th.M., in partial fulfillment for a seminary course on Death and Dying. While Steve has never experienced the dark side of man, his twin brother – me – has. Together, we offer this paper in eight parts. Footnotes follow at the end of each section. Part 1 dealt with the physical and psychological casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ending with the question of whether there is a causal link between combat and PTSD. Part 2 demonstrated a clear link between combat experiences and PTSD, particularly because of the Potentially Traumatic Events witnessed by infantrymen, and asked the question about how Infantry Marines prepare to handle death. Part 3 explored some of the techniques, both formal and informal, used to teach Marines to overcome the social taboo of killing another human being.

This post, Part 4, describes some of the methods used by the Marine Corps to help desensitize Marines to the deaths of their fellow Marines, in order to allow them to continue on with the mission.

Part 1: Post 9-11 Casualties

Part 2: The Link Between Combat and PTSD

Part 3: Learning to Kill

Part 4: Preparing for Death

Part 5: When the Metal Hits the Meat

Part 6: Memorials and Unit Healing

Part 7: When the War Continues – PTSD

Part 8: Conclusion and Bibliography

Desensitization to Incurred Death: Exposure to Trauma

Training Marines to become desensitized to the death of an enemy combatant is one thing; training them to function despite the death of a friend is quite another. And while the Marine Corps seems to have done an effective job at the former task, the latter is much more difficult. Marines spend months and years together training in small units, sharing miserable conditions in the field, enduring the petty slights and grievances of life in a military machine, drinking together after hours, and, ultimately, depending on each other to stay alive. Marines are more than just friends; they are brothers (or, in the case of some officers, father figures).

To understand how the Marine Corps attempts to desensitize its men to the death of a fellow friend/brother/father, we need look no further than Camp Pendleton, California.

Marines evacuate a "casualty" in an urban mock up.

Marines evacuate a “casualty” in an urban mock up.

Here, the Marine Corps has instituted a new level of realistic training in the last few years, complete with sound and smoke machines, simulated IEDs, machines which pump out the smell of rotting trash or decomposing bodies, and simulated casualties gushing fake blood. By desensitizing Marines to the sights and sounds of battle, the Marine Corps hopes to increase their effectiveness and decrease their risk of PTSD.[1] This new training is called “resiliency” training, and psychologists hope that it will inoculate Marines to PTSD.

The same is true of Marine officer training. Officer training is a sharp funnel, starting at Officer Candidate School (OCS), narrowing to The Basic School (TBS), and then for those few (10-15%) who are assigned to infantry billets, the Infantry Officer Course (IOC). The goal of OCS is not to train men but rather to weed out men the Corps judges mentally or physically weak.[2] The Basic School, as its name suggests, teaches Marine officers basic leadership and military skills and helps sort out which military occupational specialty (MOS) an officer is suited for. For those who elect (and earn) an infantry (03) MOS, the Marine finishing school is the Infantry Officer Course (IOC). IOC is renowned for its difficulty, challenging both the mental and physical aptitude of young lieutenants and pushing them to the maximum of stress. Since these officers will lead Marine infantrymen in combat, they are given special preparations to handle the shock of seeing combat casualties.

One of the preparations is to expose IOC candidates to the concept of death. Fick remembers sitting in a lecture called “Killology,” taught by a local psychiatrist nicknamed “Dr. Death.”[3] The man had a military background and stated that his nickname was unfortunate, because his job was to help the officers bring their men back alive. Part of that task was maintaining the psychological integrity of Marines in combat. Officers could do this, the doctor stated, by making sure that Marines got adequate sleep; had confidence in their team; practiced open communication; practiced emergency medical training; and did after-action critiques to address the shock of combat and killing. “Trust me, gentlemen,” the doctor said, “it will be a shock.”[4]

To allay the shock of seeing combat trauma, Fick and his other IOC lieutenants were shown a gruesome slideshow of men killed or wounded during Vietnam combat. Lt. Colonel Busch also recalled being shown the same grim slideshow, but he believes it was designed to intimidate weak men and leave only those with strong mental and intestinal fortitude:

One day they showed us slides of lieutenants killed in Vietnam. They were taken by coroners for records of some kind, and the images were macabre. Just dead men laid on a white cloth somewhere. The pictures were flashed as a slide show given near the week when candidates were allowed to quit. The images were meant to scare us, and they should have. An instructor paced as the dead appeared on the screen behind him. “This is the consequence of your job,” he began. “These Marine lieutenants were all leading their platoons, and this was their reward. You should expect no better. There’s a bullet waiting for every one of you . .  . and it’s up to the one shooting it to miss, because you can’t dodge it when it comes. You’ll be in front. First to go and last to know.” An image came up of a man who had been hit in the face with an RPG, a softball-sized hole clean through the middle of his inflated head, his cartoon features ballooned to each side of it. “His last words were, ‘Follow me,’ and those will be yours, candidates.” The mangled bodies continued to appear, one with a young peaceful face that showed no trauma. He looked to be asleep and unharmed. Below his shoulders, there was no body.[5]

Then, to further desensitize them to blood and gore, young officers at IOC are sent in pairs to a local hospital ER to observe the carnage that comes through the doors at night. The

Second Lieutenants at the Infantry Officer Course are required to observe hospital emergency rooms like this one, in order to gain some desensitization against physical trauma.

Second Lieutenants at the Infantry Officer Course are required to observe hospital emergency rooms like this one, in order to gain some desensitization against physical trauma.

officers see victims of stabbings, beatings, and shootings.[6] And as the doctor had predicted to Nathaniel Fick, many officers do find the broken bodies shocking. But not all. Former Marine Captain Nathan Smith remembers that the hospital ER was relatively quiet (and thus unhelpful for its purpose) the night he attended. “Plus,” he says, “those weren’t my guys lying on the gurneys. They were strangers. It’s an entirely different experience when you see one of your men who has been killed or wounded in combat. Nothing prepares you for that.” [7]


[1] Former infantryman Brian Mockenhaupt describes such training at the Marine Corps Base in Camp Pendleton: “This village—complete with plastic fruits and vegetables in the market stalls, scent machines that can pump out the stench of singed hair and rotting trash, and bomb victims gushing fake blood—represents one of the most noticeable shifts in military training over the past decade. By running mock scenarios that introduce mental and physiological strain, trainers can help troops adjust faster and perform better in the real situation, and make them less likely to be overwhelmed by chaotic or ambiguous events. This is inoculation, same as a flu shot: a dose of stress now can stave off more-severe effects later.” A State of Military Mind From http://www.psmag.com/health/a-state-military-mind-42839/ June 18, 2012. Accessed 11/15/12.

[2] “We were not being trained, we were merely being thinned out. The instructors probably had a feeling of diminished returns on their time. But they played their role, and we never knew how much of it was an act. He stood and did an impersonation of the instructor in Full Metal Jacket. ‘What makes the grass green?!’ At the top of our lungs, and with true elation we screamed, ‘Blood, blood, blood!’” – Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (pp. 235-236). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid., p.50.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Busch, Benjamin (2012-03-20). Dust to Dust: A Memoir (p. 234). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid., pp.51-52.

[7] From a personal interview with the author, 11/16/12.

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Gun Control: Necessary to the Security of a Free State

For the past few weeks after the awful Sandy Hook school massacre I have observed with concern and some anger the actions and arguments of gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts. Concern, because a legitimate issue that should rightly and reasonably be discussed immediately devolved into a polarizing slugfest of the ignorant and the irrational; and anger, because the Truth has been trampled on by irresponsible persons of influence and authority on both sides of the debate.

A State Police SWAT team seen after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT.

A State Police SWAT team seen after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT.

This blog is nonpartisan and I have studiously avoided wading into political commentary or hot button issues that do not obviously pertain to the military or its veterans. In the case of this most recent gun control debate, I have seen enough angry social media posts by veterans convinced that their government is going to infringe upon their Second Amendment rights, that I feel this topic is worth addressing from the perspective of a veteran.

For me, the extremes of this issue were brought home – quite literally – when I visited family in Maine for the holidays. On the day before Christmas the Portland police department was flooded with 65 frantic calls about a man carrying an “assault rifle” in residential neighborhoods and along a popular jogging trail. When the police investigated, they found a young Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who had slung his loaded, Bushmaster rifle on his shoulder while running errands. Because it is legal in Maine to openly carry a loaded weapon, the police refrained from stopping the young man, although they did continue to observe him until he went home.

Even gun rights leaders were disturbed by the actions of this young veteran, coming as they did 10 days after the Sandy Hook shooting. Jeff Weinstein, President of the Maine Gun Owners Association, summarized many peoples’ opinions when he said, “While I fundamentally support the right to openly carry firearms, that right is accompanied with the responsibility to employ sensible behavior during the exercise of the open-carry right. Alarming people unnecessarily is not the intended purpose of open carry.”  The young veteran, in subsequent interviews, was unapologetic about his actions and vowed to openly carry his rifle again.

I remember as a Marine platoon commander in 2010 dealing with similar brazen and inelegant behavior by young Marines who had decided that the good people of Seattle needed to gain an appreciation for their right to openly carry weapons. Strapping on personally-owned pistols (their military-issued weapons were secured in a locked armory on base) the Marines strolled about town, reveling in the consternation and discomfort that the sight of four muscular, well armed men evoked from a decidedly liberal public. Eventually they were questioned by police and word got back to me about the incident.

Needless to say, my conversation with these Marines after the fact was along the lines of just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD. What was the reason behind your action? The Marines abashedly admitted using poor judgment and agreed that their Second Amendment right was most appropriately exercised through concealed carry permits, which allowed them the capability they desired without needlessly alarming private citizens and law enforcement officers. With power comes a need for responsibility.

Responsible power should similarly be exercised by those on the opposite side of the gun control debate. A few days after Christmas I opened the Portland Press Herald – the most widely circulated paper in the state – and leisurely thumbed my way through World and National news items before coming to an op ed about gun control on the last page.

In the opinion piece Greg Kesich, the editorial page editor, mockingly attacked as “full out crazy” those who defend the right to own military-style weapons. His facts were often anecdotal, his reasoning facile, and his tendency was to prop up straw arguments for the

Semi-automatic weapons like these can be purchased by nearly anyone with a credit card and clear background check.

Semi-automatic weapons like these can be purchased by nearly anyone with a credit card and clear background check.

pleasure of sarcastically knocking them down. The piece did little in the way of furthering responsible debate about a controversial issue. Unfortunately, as editorial page editor, Mr. Kesich has considerable influence on many thousands of Maine citizens. The sarcastic column probably allowed him a satisfying release of emotion, but it cost him credibility as editor because it was an irresponsible abuse of his influential position.

Unlike Mr. Kesich, there are many in America who cannot rely on the comfortable magnanimity of their neighbors, ultra-low crime rates, or the proximity of well-trained police to protect them from the intentions of evil men. For those people, gun ownership is a matter of considerable gravity and gun control is a highly emotional topic. Even so, the recent rash of mass killings perpetrated by crazed young men armed with semi-automatic weapons is a matter of real concern that begs the larger question of appropriate gun control in a country that loves its unfettered access to weapons.

Clearly, there is a reasonable middle ground for responsible gun ownership somewhere between the extremes of irrational gun enthusiasts and intolerant gun control activists; one might wish, in fact, that such a middle ground could be found in the greatest governing document in the history of the world. Happily, the US Constitution does indeed speak to the issue of gun ownership by American citizens.

Amendment II of the Constitution of the United States (ratified on December 15, 1791):

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

It is not within my capability (I am no expert on Constitutional law) to fully enumerate the historical context and possible interpretations of this Amendment. With that caveat, there are a number of important points contained in this legislation, the consideration of which should inform a healthy national debate on gun control.

First, even in colonial times the Militia was not a random collection of anyone with a gun. The militia was loosely organized at a local level, minimally trained, and generally led by

Colonial militia - populary known as "Minute Men" - fire on British soldiers during their retreat from Concord.

Colonial militia – populary known as “Minute Men” – fire on British soldiers during their retreat from Concord.

amateur officers who were civilian men of influence rather than military professionals. Nevertheless, the militia formed a body of men who were modernly armed and at least nominally trained and organized for service in time of invasion or civil unrest. Any comparison between colonial militia and today’s National Guard, Reserves, or private citizens does not account for the gigantic changes in American governance and culture over the intervening 220 years. The Militia, in a word, is obsolete.

Second, whatever the Amendment confers as a right is “necessary to the security of a free State.” The framers of the Constitution could have omitted the modifier “free” but they did not. Why? It is helpful to consider the historical context of this document: the American colonies had just (eight years before) won a long, brutal war for liberation from the imperial troops and mercenaries of a British monarch. As such, the memory of tyranny by a powerful head of state was fresh in the minds of the Constitutional committee members, whose loyalty lay first with their respective States, not with the infant Nation. It is unlikely that the security envisioned by the framers was meant solely in relation to frontier attacks by Indians or foreign powers. No, the state representatives wanted to ensure that the means to dissuade or defeat National tyranny were available to the People.

Third, the means to keep the State free from tyranny is provided by “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” that right which “shall not be infringed.”  Sounds pretty ideal for gun enthusiasts, doesn’t it? In the current debate on gun control I have seen that phrase – shall not be infringed – used pretty profligately by those who decry regulation against certain types of fire arms or sources of ammunition. From the text, I do not believe the right to bear arms was ever intended as a wholesale license for private citizens to own and operate whatever weapons they could make or acquire. If that was the intent of the Amendment, why qualify the right with the phrase “A well regulated Militia”? The legislation could have read, “Being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This leads to my last point.

Fourth, even though Militia is obsolete, the concept of responsible gun ownership implied by the modifier “well regulated” is not. The Founding Fathers, who firmly believed in the enlightened concept of individual liberty, also had a nagging distrust of base human nature – hence the establishment of a representational government rather than a pure democracy. To secure the rights of many they were willing to curtail the liberty of a few. It is in error to suggest – as some gun rights activists have – that the possession of fire arms should not be controlled because the government cannot “infringe” upon the right to bear arms. For months Congress rigorously debated every word in the draft Constitution; there is a reason “well regulated” made it into the final version of the Amendment, and at such a point as to influence the interpretation of the conferred right to bear arms.

Part of the Constitution’s brilliance is that it was intentionally written as a general guiding document, the actual application of which would be wrought in practice through the interaction of the three branches of government – a government that is duly elected or empowered by its citizens and which therefore can introduce (legislative), implement (executive), or interpret (judicial) law to fit the national mood, changing technology, and cultural trends that never could have been envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In practice, We the People have decided not to allow the civilian procurement of grenade launchers, anti-aircraft weapons, and tanks. As the Second Amendment permits, we now have the opportunity to consider civilian possession of semi-automatic weapons, to evaluate whether possession of such weapons should be unfettered, or whether common sense and the common good require greater regulation for weapons with a greater potential for harm.

So what does this all mean for the current debate about gun control? First, I think it means that we need to establish as a society what weapons should be available to what types of people, with a careful consideration for the mental health, criminal background, age, and experience or training of the potential buyer. Admittedly, some of the recent mass shootings were perpetrated by men who legally possessed weapons, others by men who illegally possessed weapons. Clearly, regulating who can legally procure what type of weapon will not eliminate the possibility of future mass shootings. But the ease with which an M4A1 Carbine can be purchased (as I did recently) by any civilian with a credit card and clear background check, hardly fits the intent of a “well regulated” right to bear arms.  

Second, I am in favor of limiting semi-automatic weapons- as the weapons with the greatest potential for effecting extraordinary harm in the hands of an irresponsible person – to those who through a mandatory licensing and training process show themselves to be most responsible. Military veterans, of course, have already been thoroughly trained with such weapons and therefore could be licensed without additional civilian training. For nonveterans, mandatory training of a few hours could encompass the safe handling, effective operation, and proper maintenance of the weapon, resulting in a safer, more enjoyable experience for the new gun owner.

Two examples of mandatory state training and licensing are familiar to many of us. Most states require a hunter education course to be completed by citizens prior to issuing a hunting license; millions of hunters complete those courses every year and the country is a safer place for it. The operation of motor vehicles always requires a training and licensing process because vehicles have such potential for harm and do, in fact, contribute to tens of thousands of fatalities every year. The idea of not regulating motor vehicles on our public roads and highways would be ridiculous – the common good and public safety require it. Similarly, the possession of semi-automatic weapons by private citizens should be regulated for the public safety.

Appropriate regulation, established through public discourse and the power of the vote, is the proper next step in the current gun control debate. To enable legislation that is influenced by facts and information, rather than fear and ignorance, gun owners have every interest to stop frightening their neighbors and fellow citizens with rash comments and strident threats, and instead educate them on the facts of responsible gun ownership and how to prevent the misuse of legal weapons while working aggressively to reduce the supply of illegal weapons. Gun bans will happen if the loudest voices in this debate are also the least rational.

The ease with which I bought as a civilian the same weapon that I carried in Iraq was astonishing.

The ease with which I bought as a civilian the same weapon that I carried in Iraq was astonishing.

I myself own a Colt M4A1 Carbine. The weapon is exactly the same type that I carried during my tours in Iraq. It is a weapon designed for fighting and I am glad to have it. It is highly probable that my carbine will remain safely locked in its case for the rest of my life, never used except for occasional target practice and to instruct others on handling procedures. I hope so. But if bad things happen, if the government is unable to guarantee my security or the security of my loved ones, I am confident that in a very real way I will be able to provide security for myself and help ensure the security of a free State. That is responsible gun ownership.

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