Can anything psychologically prepare young men and women for the demands and stresses of serving in a combat zone, sometimes for multiple tours of duty? It seems doubtful. The intensity and horror of wartime experiencesâ€”of repeated exposure to violence and death, and the threat of violence and deathâ€”are often more than the human psyche can bear. Yet those who serve in the military and at the pleasure of the generals and the politicians are somehow expected to psychologically soldier up, damn the costs and consequences. For the sad and cruel reality is that the troops, like the rifles they carry, are simply instruments of war. When they break down or outlive their utility, they areâ€”for all intents and purposesâ€”replaced and cast aside, shipped back from whence they came. While some may be restored in some measure, others never come close to regaining their previous condition. The damage has been done, and so this great nation becomes littered with the discarded (yet still dangerous) weapons of war. It should come as little surprise then when some of those weapons go off, as the New York Times reports:
Late one night in the summer of 2005, Matthew Sepi, a 20-year-old Iraq combat veteran, headed out to a 7-Eleven in the seedy Las Vegas neighborhood where he had settled after leaving the Army.
This particular 7-Eleven sits in the shadow of the Stratosphere casino-hotel in a section of town called the Naked City. By day, the area, littered with malt liquor cans, looks depressed but not menacing. By night, it becomes, in the words of a local homicide detective, â€œlike Falluja.â€?
Mr. Sepi did not like to venture outside too late. But, plagued by nightmares about an Iraqi civilian killed by his unit, he often needed alcohol to fall asleep. And so it was that night, when, seized by a gut feeling of lurking danger, he slid a trench coat over his slight frame â€” and tucked an assault rifle inside it.
â€œMatthew knew he shouldnâ€™t be taking his AK-47 to the 7-Eleven,â€? Detective Laura Andersen said, â€œbut he was scared to death in that neighborhood, he was military trained and, in his mind, he needed the weapon to protect himself.â€?
Head bowed, Mr. Sepi scurried down an alley, ignoring shouts about trespassing on gang turf. A battle-weary grenadier who was still legally under-age, he paid a stranger to buy him two tall cans of beer, his self-prescribed treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
As Mr. Sepi started home, two gang members, both large and both armed, stepped out of the darkness. Mr. Sepi said in an interview that he spied the butt of a gun, heard a boom, saw a flash and â€œjust snapped.â€?
In the end, one gang member lay dead, bleeding onto the pavement. The other was wounded. And Mr. Sepi fled, â€œbreaking contactâ€? with the enemy, as he later described it. With his rifle raised, he crept home, loaded 180 rounds of ammunition into his car and drove until police lights flashed behind him.
â€œWho did I take fire from?â€? he asked urgently. Wearing his Army camouflage pants, the diminutive young man said he had been ambushed and then instinctively â€œengaged the targets.â€? He shook. He also cried.
â€œI felt very bad for him,â€? Detective Andersen said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Sepi was booked, and a local newspaper soon reported: â€œIraq veteran arrested in killing.â€?
Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories. Lakewood, Wash.: â€œFamily Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.â€? Pierre, S.D.: â€œSoldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.â€? Colorado Springs: â€œIraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.â€?
Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.
The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment â€” along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems â€” appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction. [full text]