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Combat Multipliers

ISSUE:  Fall 2008
Abu Ghraib Mural
John Moore / Getty Images

I first noticed it while depositing my weapon at the rear of the chapel at Abu Ghraib Prison. A six-by-ten-foot painting. Jesus stands center canvas, dressed in the characteristic ankle-length white robes of a Hebrew sage, his body and garments fading to a ghostly, near-transparent lower body. His palms are upraised, connected to thick outstretched arms angling toward a powerful chest and neck. Surrounding Jesus is a motley of soldiers in combat poses, weapons raised, escorted by a host of blue-skinned sinewy angels with gold, glowing swords. One soldier holds an M16 precisely at the height of the Savior’s extended left hand, making it appear that Jesus himself is wielding the rifle pistol-style.

As the Mass began, I turned to the rear wall. Yet again my weapon was alone. Every other soldier carried his to the altar to receive the Eucharist. I looked back to the painting. Then I stood, walked to the front, and bowed to the consecrated Body and Blood, silently wishing someone would reprimand me for refusing to be armed during Communion.

I arrived at Abu Ghraib Prison in June 2004, nine weeks after completing my training as a US Army interrogator and Arabic linguist. Six weeks after the 60 Minutes story of detainee abuse and the retaliatory beheading of Nicholas Berg. Two weeks after my acceptance to seminary.

From the time of my enlistment at age seventeen to my short-lived tenure as a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point, to my equally short-lived ROTC career, to my reentry into active duty following 9/11, I had always been an idealist battling unpleasant realities. I was a child of home-schooling and Bible quizzing. I’d never been able to yell the chants of the bayonet assault course (What’s the spirit of the bayonet? Kill! Kill! Kill without mercy, Drill Sergeant!), nor look at the statue of General Patton on Academy grounds and see anything other than heartless vanity. But I was military stock. My grandfather fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. My dad had been an army captain. In high school I’d been president of the Young Republicans. I was not supposed to be the kid who gets upset by violence, ambition, and proto-imperialism. I was the patriotic, Evangelical Christian, high-school valedictorian. I was supposed to ascend the ranks of the military, then the ranks of Washington.

But I was derailed. Then, 9/11 changed everything.

I was an undergraduate in the Individual Ready Reserve when the towers fell. I probably could have ridden out the remainder of my time just like George W. Bush in the Air National Guard, but I’d made a commitment. I’d see it to its end. Three and a half thousand people had just died.

But in the months prior to my reentry into the ranks of the enlisted, I studied philosophy at Oxford University with a bunch of guys about to pursue advanced studies in theology under the tutelage of pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School. Just when I’d come to a place of resolve about fulfilling my commitments, I had to go and meet a bunch of fellow Evangelicals (all graduates of Wheaton College outside of Chicago) who were beginning to wonder whether the teachings of Jesus could square with military service.

I had graduated with honors from both the US Army Interrogator School and the Defense Language Institute, but after watching Shock and Awe on the morning news with my Arabic instructor (who still had family in Baghdad), I, too, began to wonder. I came up with a compromise—the chaplaincy. If I could serve the remainder of my time as a spiritual guide to soldiers and, most importantly, could become a noncombatant (just like Saint Peter whom Jesus told to lay down his sword), then maybe I could find some answers to my questions.

But Iraq would have to come first.

When word got around of my acceptance to seminary, my platoon mates started calling me “Priest.” Given the cloud of moral dysfunction hovering over my unit and our mission at Abu Ghraib, an identity of moral clarity was welcome—even if it was a false identity. But I was no priest. I was a US Army interrogator at the center of the biggest military scandal since My Lai, at the single most attacked stationary position in all of Iraq. If ever I had wanted an opportunity to see if I could live by principles precisely when they were not convenient, I had come to the right place.

The echoes of machine guns ricocheted through my shower trailer—first one, then two, then an entire wall of automatic fire. I had just splashed water on my face to rinse shaving cream from my chin and nose when bursts of defensive fire from the three closest marine-posted guard towers began to crescendo—from the percussive, metallic timbre of air-cooled, belt-fed, .50 caliber machine guns to the cramped staccato thud of Mark 19 automatic grenade launchers. Five hundred and fifty 12.7 mm rounds per minute. Three hundred and seventy-five 40 mm grenades per minute. Two gunners per tower. Three towers. Six marines with bolt releases set to the automatic down position. Interlocking fire, grenades, and rifle rounds woven together in orchestral synchronicity.

The scent of oil and carbon filled my nostrils as I ran to my personal quarters for body armor and Kevlar. Everyone from privates first class to lieutenant colonels scurried around the compound corridors with mismatching socks, PT shirts partially tucked in, and Kevlar protective gear in various stages of vestment.

Then I saw First Lieutenant Schribner make his way to the command post, a personally modified CAR‑15 A2 assault rifle slung reverse across his back. Chaos everywhere while this former Israeli Defense Force, turned US Army Infantry, turned US Army Intelligence officer stormed his way to the command post like the shirtless Robert Duvall taking indirect fire in Apocalypse Now. Master Sergeant Collum followed after Lieutenant Schribner as the first of three successive explosions jolted the compound walls.

“White Status! White Status! Casteel! Get your fucking gear on! Make sure Sergeant Tyler’s taken accountability! Get everyone in the hallway! Gear up! Gear up!”

Crawford and Patrick were already in their White Status positions outside our cell. I ran past them into our cell for my gear. As I reached my bed, through the patchwork breeze-holes of our rear wall I could see sparks and debris from another explosion spiraling fifteen to twenty feet above the outermost perimeter. I stood perfectly still, watching the sparks descend back below the prison wall as thick, black puffs began to dissipate in the wind.

I joined Crawford and Patrick in the hallway with the rest of the cell wing, bullets streaking down the courtyard just outside our exit corridor. Fahid pounced back from the exit, his olive Iranian skin suddenly Irish pale.

“Holy fuck! Did you guys hear that?”

“What happened?”

“Bullets came over the wall! Must be motherfuckers on rooftops!”

“Sergeant Tyler, what’s the count?” Master Sergeant Collum bellowed, as he burst into our wing, his eyes and body still directed toward the command post in the outer hallway.

“All up!” Tyler responded.

With that, Collum left the room. The thuds and cracks of grenades and .50 cals began to subside, sporadically flaring up over the gradual die down. Then complete silence.

And then more silence as we stared at one another, waiting for the refrain, the anticipated next barrage.

A nervous rage began to rise.

“The fuck just happened?”

“Is that it?”

“What the fuck just happened?”

“Couldn’t have been mortars. Did you hear any mortars?”

“A few, but way off target. Don’t think they landed in the prison.”

“The fuck were those five explosions, if not fucking mortars?”

“The marines opened up a good two minutes of .50 cals and Mark 19s!”

“Two minutes of 19s? They’ll be lucky to find teeth!”

Then the silence broke, but not quite the tympanied finale we all had expected. Just a few wooden pelts of AK‑47s followed by the steady metallic cracks of M16s and M60s. Smiles spread across faces as we realized just how big an ass kicking the Marines had delivered. Archive video of Apache attack helicopter assaults flashed through my mind: Infrared clusters of a single arm and leg pulling a limp lower body across the ground; patches of infrared forming a blotchy trail leading to the truck just sliced open by Apache .50 cals; then another swift barrage of Apache fire sparking an infrared video patchwork, then nothing; the retreating cluster slows, dims.

“Sergeant Tyler, are we still at White?” somebody asked, all twenty or so of us standing in the cell wing, hands and fingers cupped around firing grips and selector levers.

No response.

Abu Ghraib Commander
Lt. Col. Craig Essick, 391st Military Police Battalion, a commander at Abu Ghraib in 2005 (Anja Niedringhaus / AFP / Getty Images).

We stood our ground—routine roll-call positions outside our cell doors—for another twenty minutes. Master Sergeant Collum finally entered, gave the all-clear.

“Why do they gotta cause so much ruckus if that’s all they got?” someone yelled, tossing a Kevlar into a prison cell.

“Fuckin’ A!”

I took the Kevlar strap off my chin, felt something slippery on my thumb, then wiped shaving cream between my fingers. I un-Velcroed my flack vest and limply let it slide, crash to the floor. My ears were still ringing with the slamming of doors, the call to prayer, small-arms fire, grenade explosions, and the whatever else set off by those grenades.

Crawford picked up his shaving kit, set down his M16 next to his bed, and then left the cell.

“Hey, Patrick?” I said.


“How long you think it took them to put that together?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The guys the marines just took out. How long you think it took them to put that attack together?”

“I don’t know. A while.”

“Could you have done it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Unload the .50s and the 19s for that long.”

“Casteel, you ask some fucked-up questions.”

“Hell of a lot of fire power.”

“Haji’s playing with the pros now.”

Patrick took his towel and toiletries to the shower trailer, leaving his body armor at the end of his bed. I changed into my desert camouflage and donned my body armor. Before I left my room, I stopped to take another look out the holes in my wall, traces of smoke still hovering in the air.

On my way to the interrogation center I looked up to the guard towers. I pressed my fingers against the body armor wrapped around my chest. I moved my toes around in my boots. I shook the Kevlar on top my head. I felt the steel of my semiautomatic assault rifle, months-old neglectful carbon filming my fingers. Then I went back to work.

Later that afternoon Master Sergeant Collum gave the official briefing. Somebody had loaded a truck full of explosives and tried to ram a hole in the wall. Others had tried to take out the marine tower guards. Both attempts failed. The truck was blown into more than five separate pieces, partly from the explosives on board, mostly from the automatically launched grenades. Similar attacks occurred throughout the Baghdad area that day. All failed.

The army calls chaplains “combat multipliers.” Definition: Supporting and subsidiary means that significantly increase the relative combat strength (power) of a force while actual force ratios remain constant. Laymen’s terms: Something other than bullets or bombs that helps kill your enemy. A soldier at peace with killing is more apt to kill.

The term came to mind while I sat at my computer station, researching insurgent groups and their cell and command structures. My interrogation was not until the afternoon, so I took the morning to focus in on my target: Omar Hadid, chief lieutenant to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. If I was to pry any actionable intelligence on Hadid from my detainee, I would need to know everything about him—hope to catch my detainee in some lie.

I scrolled through pages of information. Hadid rose to prominence in the aftermath of the April 2004 siege of Fallujah by US Marines and joint-force air assaults, assuming local leadership of Tawhid wal‑Jihad, which to Sufis means “Divine Unity and Inner Struggle,” but to Wahhabis like Zarqawi and Hadid means “Monotheism and Holy War.” During the May ceasefire that followed the April siege of Fallujah, Hadid managed to supplant moderate imams with those of his liking, further consolidating power despite the continued presence of US Marines at the city limits. Hadid facilitated the installation of Sharia law, eradicating every Western influence from magazines to hairstyles. Intelligent, charismatic, nearly mythological—like Zarqawi and bin Laden—Hadid himself was a certain sort of combat multiplier.

Scanning satellite imagery of American and mujahideen traffic-control points; linking diagrams of al Qaeda leadership; intelligence inventories of timelines and personality bios. Reading articles and briefing transcripts detailing the growing US mandate to reassert dominance over Fallujah. The coming months would determine the substance of US response. Forty-three miles west of Fallujah, the morning after a feebly executed suicide attack, we were becoming relatively accustomed to just how this response was developing.

As I studied the histories and tactics of insurgent organizations from the safety of the joint interrogation and debriefing center, my mind began to race between tactical threats and appropriate tactical responses.

East Fallujah Bridge: armed mujahideen checkpoint. Chief insurgent: Omar Hadid. Weapons arsenal: Soviet-era Kalashnikovs, surface-to-air missile launchers, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades.

My mind quickened.

These groups operate checkpoints? Openly armed checkpoints? Why haven’t we taken them out with Apaches? Why are we just sitting on our thumbs letting these guys parade around when a single Apache could take them out in seconds?

I stood and left the office.

The lunch hour was approaching, but I could never eat during the day, at least not in public. I went back to my room to read. Another book by Stanley Hauerwas. Another treatise on Christian pacifism and the kingdom of God. I wanted to scream. Where the fuck does this kingdom exist, Stan? Certainly not here. Yet I read anyway. I needed something to bring me to a world beyond suicide bombers and automatic grenade launchers.

I looked down at my watch: 1210. I read more then looked again: 1235 . . . 1241. I had a 1330 interrogation but couldn’t get myself to stand from my chair . . . 1251. It was well past the time I should have left to resume my planning and prep. But I couldn’t seem to move. I sat in my prison cell under the illumination of a clip lamp, nibbling on dried fruit and chips.

The advice of a spiritual mentor came to mind. God is more concerned with who you are than with what you do. I finally rose.

I walked slowly toward the interrogation center but, my anxiety spiking, finally decided to see the chaplain. Sergeant Tyler agreed to take over my interrogation; I walked back across the prison in search of Chaplain Fischer. A first lieutenant not much older than I am, Chaplain Fischer sat behind a desk at the rear of the religious services office, an expansive room decked with paperback novels, magazines, folding cots, and candy. Finishing a phone call, he motioned to me to take a seat.

I put my body armor and M16 on a couch, sat, and began skimming the photos and bold print of People magazine. I spotted a few Bibles, even some Qurans, but they were vastly outnumbered by duplicate copies of The Hunt for Red October and The Da Vinci Code. Chaplain Fischer hung up, then gave me a sincere but skeptical look—as though worried by what I might ask.

“Where were you, yesterday, when it happened?” I asked.

A poster hung on the wall behind him. A single trail of footprints stretching across a beach . . . THE LORD REPLIED, “THE TIMES WHEN YOU HAVE SEEN ONLY ONE SET OF FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND, IS WHEN I CARRIED YOU.”

“Camp Victory,” Chaplain Fischer replied, “but I got the briefing.”

“The marines unloaded Mark 19s and .50 cals for two entire minutes. Happened a few dozen meters from me.”

“Bad move on their part.”

“Was shaving when it happened.”

“Got to know who you’re dancing with before you step onto the floor.”

His tone was uncharacteristically brazen. It caught me off guard.

“Everyone has a duty,” he continued, his voice now returning to the milder, more casual Nazarene pastor I knew. “We simply have to perform those duties with as much integrity as possible.” But instead of being put at ease, I found myself feeling combative with this mild man.

“Chaplain, have you ever pointed a loaded weapon at another man? Or, say, a child?”

He offered no reply. I averted my eyes, shifted in my seat.

“Where did that painting in the chapel come from?” I asked.

“A soldier painted it.”

“Jesus looks like a linebacker. And the way one of the soldiers is positioned, it looks like Jesus is one-handing an M16.”

“I didn’t notice that.”

“It’s disgusting.”

“I’ll make sure it’s turned around for Catholic services. Is this really why you came in today? A painting?”

“Do you ever feel like a cheerleader?” No sooner had I asked than I regretted the question.

“A what?”

I tried to find a gentler tone of voice. “The army calls chaplains combat multipliers.

He leaned forward in his chair, his fingers intertwined, forearms resting purposively on the surface of his desk.

“What’s on your mind?”

“My dad and I have had this ongoing debate about the Sermon on the Mount.”

“What about?”

“Whether countries need to turn the other cheek.”

“The state bears the sword for a purpose.”

“Romans 13. I know.”

“We’ve discussed this before, Joshua.”

“I’m not the state.”

“If you can’t find it in your conscience to do this job, you shouldn’t do it.”

“How can you do it?”

“Aren’t you on the day shift?”

“I couldn’t do it. Not after yesterday’s attack. I’ve been sick ever since.”

“Who’s the man you’re interrogating?”

“Someone innocent. Like all the others.”

“Then why are you still interrogating him?”

“Because the people who make decisions don’t step foot near all these taxi drivers. I have to harass guys that I know don’t know anything just to prove to some other guy on a signature line that I’ve tried every approach.”

“So, do what you have to. Make the case.”

“I’ll have to really push his buttons. Get nasty.”

“Your heart is in the right place.”

“I’m tired, Chaplain.”

You are in the right place. Ask yourself what’s at stake. Play nice and your man stays in prison. Or push his buttons and prove to your superiors that you’ve exhausted him of intelligence.”

“Doesn’t this just feel wrong?”

“It is wrong, Joshua. But you are not. God is more concerned with who you are than with what you do.”

I knew that whatever that was supposed to mean, it was bullshit. But I stopped fighting. I gave in and let Chaplain Fischer pray me through my anxiety. I thought of all those PowerPoint slides about “spiritual fitness” we’d been forced to endure during those semiannual visits from base chaplains (Spiritual Fitness: development of those personal qualities needed to sustain a person in a time of stress, hardship, and tragedy). I could almost hear Chaplain Fischer cheering a boisterous J-E-S-U-S, praying with pompons, readying me for war.

I didn’t listen to what he said, but I’m sure he summoned a solid assemblage of Old Testament pillagers to help boost my morale. And Jesus, of course, really was that M16-toting linebacker, surrounded by Smurf-skin angels, leading the charge to make me once again combat effective.

And I was so cowed by the sheer idiocy of the moment that I did nothing.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

I knocked on the interrogation-room door and waited for Sergeant Tyler.

“You’re back?” he said.

“What approach you been using?”

“None really. Fact-checking mostly. Been real friendly.”

“That’s fine. I’ll play the bad cop. Pride and ego down. Fear up harsh.”

“You sure?”

“Got to push his buttons at least once, I guess. Make sure he is who I think he is.”

“I’ll be in the monitor room on the headsets.”

I walked into the interrogation room, closed the door behind me, then motioned for the interpreter to follow my lead.

I softly instructed my detainee to stand.

Asif?” he said, puzzled.

Sorry?” my interpreter followed.

I took a slow, deep breath, held it, then silently counted down from three to one, tensing as many muscles as I could consciously control, intentionally raising my heart rate and blood pressure.

“I said stand the fuck up! Get on your fucking feet!”

“Quf! Al’an!”

My detainee leapt to his feet just before I took his chair out from under him. I opened the door, threw the chair out, then slammed the door shut again, my detainee’s eyes racing back and forth across the opposing wall. I walked a few paces around him, lit a cigarette, took a few drags, and blew smoke past his face. The muscles at the corners of his mouth began to tremble, and I could see him smell, taste the nicotine, his fingers pursing like lips for my cigarette.

“What were you doing when arrested by coalition forces?”

“Driving to see the wife of my cousin.”

“Like fuck you were. A week ago you’d been cruising with Omar Hadid!”

“Yes, I told you already. He asked me to help him. I said no.”

“Quit moving around! Keep your eyes on that fucking wall!” I paused to let the order sink in. “You said no to Omar? Nobody says no to Omar.”

“That is not true. I am a respected person. Educated. He wanted my help. I said to him, no.”

“What else did you say to him?”

“I wanted to know who killed my cousin. People said it was the mujahideen. I asked Omar because he will know.”

Gradually his fear transformed into a visible, jittery impatience. He was maybe ten years my senior and roughly my size. I knew exactly what he was feeling. The military had put me in countless situations where the only safe course was silence. I continued according to standard military protocol.

“And why the fuck would he want to help a coward ass dumbshit like you?”

I waited until I heard a sufficiently lewd translation.

“He didn’t help me.”

“Fuckin’ A. I wouldn’t either.”

“No. He would not help because I would not help him.”

“No. It’s probably because he realized you were a fuckup and didn’t want you to soften his outfit.”

I badgered him for several more minutes, only to hear exactly what I had heard him say the past month and a half. His eyes followed me, perhaps trying to determine whether my anger was legitimate. Perhaps he was beginning to sense the awkward, deceptive rhythm of my pacing, rhythm like ticks of a clock set to an alternate time. I slowed to a halt and stood inches from the back of his head, blowing cigarette smoke past the side of his face. I was tired and, for a moment, broke character. I started tapping my foot to ensure he couldn’t tell I didn’t know what to do next. I motioned to my interpreter for assistance. Nothing. I stopped tapping to gather my thoughts.

“Your family lives in the industrial district of Fallujah.”


“That wasn’t a fucking question! Shut the fuck up and listen to me . . . You are in the custody of coalition forces, and you told me you had the balls to say no to Omar Hadid. What do you think Omar will think of the man who turned him down once he knows that this same man has been speaking with coalition forces? Probably wouldn’t like that very much. Now, your cousin. You say he was killed by the mujahideen. And you tell me Omar wouldn’t let you know who was responsible. You also tell me your cousin’s wife is afraid for her own life now. Maybe Omar was responsible? It’s too bad you aren’t there for her now. To offer protection. To do a man’s duty. Too bad you’re not home with your wife and children.”

His gaze was now entirely averted, indignant, his body rigor mortis. I continued.

“East Fallujah’s not the nicest of neighborhoods. Too bad you won’t cooperate with those who can offer your family protection. People like us. Who can move your family away from those who might cause them harm. People like Omar. Who enjoy the right of revenge. How long have you been gone now? Six weeks? Six weeks is a lot of snitching on Omar.”

His face sank as he listened to the translation.

“You know what, forget it, get the fuck out of my room. I can’t stand to look at you anymore.”

His eyes leapt back to life.

“What is going to happen to me? I have told you everything.”

“I am the one who decides if you’ve told me everything. And until I believe that, get fucking used to canopy tents, mortar explosions, and Omar’s pleasant disposition to those he doesn’t trust.”

The law states an interrogator cannot threaten directly with death. The law states nothing about threatening a man with his own imagination.

I directed my interpreter to take the detainee back to the holding cell. I stared them down as they left the room. When the door shut I stood for a minute, exhaled.

I searched for the remaining chair, sat, and lit another cigarette. My lungs filled slowly, carefully. Sergeant Tyler opened the door.

“That was quite a show, Priest. Get what you wanted?”

I couldn’t look Tyler in the face. “I am a fucking joke.”

Sleep came once again to the sound of gunfire and mortars. The marine towers were silent, but the nightly call-to-prayer firefights echoed as always, rhythmically, like liturgy. I closed my eyes to the white noise of battle and drifted into a memory only the calm of sleep could conjure.

Smelling the guts of our Humvee. We wind slowly enough to rise and fall to the cadence and contour of mortar holes. Left and then right, around concrete slabs positioned to prevent suicide assaults upon the perimeter gate. Someone gives the anticipated command. We all slap up on our magazines, pull back on charging handles, and place our barrels in the direction of the Iraqi countryside.

I’m smelling diesel, but the breeze helps mitigate it. A gust passes, I inhale deeply, pause. Autumn waning, and only an hour or so before sunset, the winds are warm and soft. Slowly setting light extends across houses and farms and small, venous dirt roads. If I look far enough into this distance, I can almost see an October landscape hastening to an ashen, after-harvest Iowa cold.

Captain gives the final command.

Watching my lane.

My lane is westward. Limpid sunlight pours across my face and into my eyes. I look slightly downward, squinting, trying to stay focused on the scene framed outside my window. I hear rubber skid from dirt to gravel, then diesel, acceleration. We approach the lead gun-truck, set up in position at the highway intersection. Then a small creature, a lamb, in my right peripheral, straggling behind its flock alongside the road.

I hold my breath a moment, reposition my grip, blink away salt and sand, refocus again through my sights. Then ten feet from my trigger finger, walking along the side of the road, three sets of delicate brown eyes pass in front of the barrel of my assault rifle. Soft olive skin, dark hair cut above the eyes and ears, weathered dishdashas cropped like trousers and pulled up around the knees.

Each boy gazes at me through my sights. The second smiles. I watch them as we continue our approach of the highway that will take us back to Abu Ghraib. Then the boy in the lead walks to the rear of the flock and lightly strikes the straggling lamb on the backside with a switch. Our tires hit pavement, another surge of diesel. We pass the stationary gun-truck, its .50 cal pointed off to the southwest.

We corner northward. A brief clattering of loose bolts on steel and Kevlar. Finally the lulled buzz of the highway. The call to prayer. I stare blankly at the passing fields and huts, songs of Muslim piety playing as if set to a film. And then once more into the eyes of those three young boys.

I fill my nostrils with dust and diesel, then loosen my grip. The blood returns to my firing hand.

The next morning, silence. No mortars. Staring at my prayer book and rosary beads.

I picked up my prayer book, but didn’t pray. Instead I thought a moment about what prayer could possibly mean, whether I deserved it, whether I could stomach it. Then I set aside my prayers, gathered my shaving kit, and prepared for work.

Two hours later I heard from home. My best friend, Travis, was dead. Friends found him limp in his bath, both his wrists slit along the lengths of his forearms.

Once again I forfeited my interrogation. I didn’t see Chaplain Fischer. I didn’t return to my duties. I sat in a darkened room, my clip lamp extinguished. I felt my single combat wound, that accidental scar on my left wrist, which had concerned my superiors for weeks, and wondered if I had given in to combat stress.

I didn’t pray. I didn’t move. I didn’t even think of the waste, the uselessness of Travis’s death. Even guilt scarcely came to mind, how it should have been me—the combat soldier shaving meters away from suicide blasts.

I lived daily with the threat of being killed, but I was far more terrified of becoming one who kills. Travis had, in an instant, become both.

I remembered the shepherd boys along the road.

The man who had died at the sandstone perimeter.

The innocent man I had just terrorized in the name of greater goods.

Jesus with his host of blue angels.


I felt the first pain I had allowed myself in months.

And I wept.

Months later, like so many vets, I’m at a bar, or a protest, or a church, or in bed with someone who had hoped to offer me some comfort. I’m reading Jarhead. Or watching it. Or listening to eighteen-year-old boys outside a movie theater complain about how they wish the film had had more action. I’m out of the army. In fact, I’m one of a select few to be granted an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector. I’m not in seminary. Very few people call me Priest anymore, but I still think about becoming one. I still believe.

For now, I try to shake hands and look people in the eye and say thank you. I show college freshman how to write clear sentences and deliver nice speeches. I don’t get too swept up in rhetoric or with anyone’s chanting supporters. I’m less a follower of the senator from Chicago than of his South Side’s White Sox. But I do try to follow my doctor’s advice.

I tell my students where I’ve been, what I’ve done. I don’t lie to them. I tell them exactly what I think and feel. And I teach them to do the same for themselves.


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