Sunday, May 15, 2011

"How can God forgive us if we can't forgive ourselves?"

I've been thinking about forgiveness a lot lately, mostly because I've come across two stories lately that speak to the difficulty of combat veterans accepting forgiveness for their actions and finding peace after their experiences in war. Both of these stories happen to be relayed by men with very very Irish names, Patrick and Shannon. Although it's also called Catholic guilt, and I'm not Catholic, given my own guilt issues I think there really might be something to the whole phenomenon of Irish Guilt. I won't get into Patrick's story now, maybe in another post. For now I'll talk about Shannon.

I spent this weekend at a conference for a national security fellowship that I'm part of. This weekend marked a year since I've been part of this fellowship. Also a year since I've been continually humbled by how amazing and accomplished some people are. Some of the moments in my life when I've felt the smallest has been at events related to this fellowship. Mainly just because on one side of me is a White House speechwriter, on the other side is an Iraq war veteran who created an organization dedicated to helping Iraqi refugees, and we're all listening to CIA director Leon Panetta talk about being a first generation Italian immigrant. It's humbling stuff.

One of the sessions was run by my good friend Karen, a former C-17 pilot and a general ginger-haired firecracker, and our mutual friend Richard...a totally awesome guy who is a fashion designer and geospatial intelligence officer, who is interested in making art about surveillance (like I said, he's awesome). We broke out into small groups, were assigned roles like Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, head of the Red Cross, Director of the CIA, and talked through the implications of drone use in Yemen. As a group, we basically concluded that drones are fine for surveilling, but things get complicated fast when you use them for strike capabilities (duh). I got to be the Secretary of Defense and had fun with that.

Toward the end, we got our groups back together and discussed what we came up with. Opinions were wide ranging on the legality and necessity of using drones for both surveilling and striking terrorists (which is one thing I really love about this fellowship--the ability to bring diversity together under the umbrella of ideology).

One guy piped up toward the end. I had noticed him because he looked kind of Army-ish, and when I looked closer I saw he had a metal bracelet on his wrist, the kind that's etched with a name and a date.Then I noticed that he had a tiny cochlear implant behind one of his ears, and I immediately knew he probably had a TBI. So when he spoke up, I paid close attention. Even if I hadn't already been paying attention to him, what he was about to say would have still hit me like a ton of bricks.

He started talking about the danger of the sanitization of war, which is one of my primary concerns with drone use. But then he said you can check all the boxes in person, and still be wrong. Just damn wrong. He stuttered a few times, and then explained that he had been a platoon leader in Iraq and came across a house they believed to be booby trapped. Rather then send his men to clear it and potentially lose them, he decided to call in a mortar strike. Boom. Obliterated.

Inside, an innocent family had been huddled. Boom. Obliterated.

He said he lived with it every day of his life. It haunted him. But that we needed to be careful about sanitizing war and not being able to see the consequences, even if it is easier that way.

I didn't know Shannon's story prior to this weekend. As far as I could tell, he spit it out with such emotion that it was the first time he was telling anyone about his ghosts. He is carrying his guilt, depression, and anger so bravely. I just want him to find his peace by speaking about his experiences.

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