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I’ve Known Some Soldiers

By Jeremy Flannery · October 21st, 2009 · Living Out Loud

I considered joining the U.S. National Guard as a teenager. Two military recruiters visited the Catholic elementary school I attended on the west side of Cincinnati.

School administrators herded us young boys into a room to listen to two men tell us we should consider enlisting. The images of national guardsmen stacking sandbags to battle against hurricanes and the words “Earn money for college” appealed to me. I thought I could serve my country while earning college tuition, especially since my parents wouldn’t be able to afford it.

But in high school, I learned the cold, harsh fact that national guardsmen are soldiers. Soldiers are trained to kill, and according to my Catholic education, killing is dead wrong.

For Catholic schools to instruct us to follow Jesus while granting admission to military recruiters made me wonder if these schools were content with being Americans first and Christians second.

After graduation, some of my friends prepared to join the Marines — statistically the most dangerous of all U.S. military professions.

Ryan hosted a farewell party the night before he was shipped to Louisville and then to Parris Island for the oath to commit to military service and basic training.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had just begun. I feared that my friend would die, lose a limb or two, or return home with severe posttraumatic stress disorder after facing bullets and bombs and witnessing other people die in an unjust war.

What I thought could be my last words to him were, “Ryan, if you change your mind at any time, wherever you are, I will come and get you.”

My younger brother shook me awake two days later at about 5 a.m. Ryan had changed his mind and needed a ride from Louisville.

We picked him up on a sidewalk in downtown Louisville and brought him back to Cincinnati.

A few years later he attended local anti-war rallies in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Another friend, Steve, almost completed basic training in 2005, but he left the Marine Corps. He’s a generous man but holds a short fuse when anyone is disrespectful toward his loved ones.

After a fellow recruit made a disrespectful joke about Steve’s girlfriend, his temper cracked and he attempted to crack the jokester’s skull with the butt of an assault rifle. He received a less-than-honorable discharge.

A few months later, I attended a farewell party for a soldier being shipped to Iraq. Mike was leaving for Germany the next morning for combat briefing, then to Iraq for combat. We wished him farewell as best we could.

As his guests starting leaving the party, each expressed their goodbyes with “Good luck,” “Be safe” and “We love you.”

Just before I left, I leaned over the kitchen counter and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t go.” He chuckled and said, “I’ve heard that a lot, but I made a commitment.”

Mike flew back to Texas six months later. During a patrol in Iraq, an improvised explosive device had knocked him unconscious and scalded nearly all his skin. A surgical specialist repaired the extreme burns across his body.

He returned to Cincinnati after his discharge to say he wanted to return to Iraq. He wanted to make sure the same damage wouldn’t happen to his fellow soldiers.

I bumped into Steve at a bar in early 2006. He delivered his usual jovial greeting: a rough kick in the shoe from behind.

The lighthearted conversation turned heavy when Steve told me about his brother Mitchell’s first tour of duty in Iraq. Steve said his brother struggled with suicidal thoughts after killing another person in combat.

I returned home one night from work in the spring of 2007 to find my father and sister talking to our family friends, Jake and his wife. Jake was an Iraq War veteran who was absent without leave. He avoided reporting back to his barracks to spend more time with his pregnant wife and because he disagreed with the war.

Jake was a sniper. He said his unit’s basic strategy in Iraq was to patrol the streets until someone attacked his convoy. He thought he was fighting people who simply wanted him to leave the country so they could fight each other over civil and religious divisions.

The military police eventually found Jake and warned that he must report for the final six months of his tour of duty in Iraq or face prison.

Jake reported back to Iraq. About four months later, he returned to the U.S. without one eye, and he nearly lost the other from an improvised explosive device that had struck his infantry-fighting vehicle.

The horror stories of combat veterans make me wonder how I would have returned to the U.S. if I joined the military during this decade.

Would I have returned with haunting images of human suffering? Would I have returned with pieces of me still on the battlefield or would I have returned at all?

I’m glad I never found out.

CONTACT JEREMY FLANNERY: letters@citybeat.com



10.27.2009 at 04:16 Reply
Mr. Flannery, I am happy you are at peace with your decision to not follow a career in military service. It takes a brave person to speak one's mind on these matters and reconcile one's personal, religious, and moral misgivings in so many honest words. I am honored to have served in your place, leaving my own family and innocence to step into the unknown that is combat. I too reconciled personal, religious, and moral misgivings while choosing to fulfill obligations I know as greater than my own personal well-being. With this understanding, I served honorably and without mental reservation. I chose to assume further responsibilities to ensure that those serving with me were well-equipped to continue our country's long-standing traditions of morality, compassion, and restraint while engaging in a fight "We, the People" chose to make. Political and ethical debate are encouraged as one of our inalienable rights. We have choices in our country's policies and we all play (albeit unequal) parts in steering toward our future. While serving under oath in the military, we soldiers volunteer to waive the right to our opinions for the greater good of serving the Constitution of our country. However, this silence while serving helps to foment critical thought and insight into one's own convictions. Perhaps that is why we soldiers seem so opinionated once we leave the service. Did I return with haunting images of human suffering? Did I leave pieces of me still on the battlefield? Yes. And I am the better for it. Because of all the brave soldiers and families I know, we continue to have a country to come home to, even if we return incomplete or worse. But the alternative, as far as my family, friends, and faith are concerned, is unthinkable. H. Becker


09.09.2011 at 08:56

To. H. Becker:

Thank you for your response, and I apologize for the long delay - I haven't looked at this since the publication date until tonight. I hope more combat veterans will tell us about their experiences with fighting for our country overseas. We need to know if soldiers are receiving what they need (on the battlefield, and even many years after they return), if the strategies they are ordered to execute are working, and anything else we civilians are ignorant of war (and I hope that will always be attained through second or third-person knowledge). I honestly can not state what I know what I would do if I were in a situation where I must kill another person or accept death. I'd like to think I would accept death, but I am a mortal creature who wants to live, just like everyone else. I do thank soldiers, like you H. Becker, for being willing to do what I know I never would. And I hope you will ask other combat veterans to talk about their experiences. We the People need to know the hows and whys of the wars we sent you to fight.