Live Update

11.15.12

Vets Discuss Healing After the Horrors of War

Failure to bring back wounded soldiers and survivor’s guilt haunt our veterans for the rests of their lives. Healing, they say, starts with talking.
Video screenshot

Maj. Shirley shares her story.

U.S Marine Lu Lobello watched Iraqi insurgents in Baghdad ambush his unit and shoot his radio operator in the head. During the battle, Marines killed 20 innocent civilians. 

A member of his troop screamed, "We shot a baby. We shot a baby."

Lobello is one of thousands of military veterans who wrestle with the psychological wounds of war. During a panel discussion at Newsweek & The Daily Beast's Hero Summit on Thursday, William Nash, a combat therapist who served in Iraq, told the audience that the stress soldiers experience stems from what they feel is a failure to live up to deeply held values, to bring back fellow injured soldiers, and to cope with survivor’s guilt.

Nash told moderator Wolf Blitzer, CNN lead political anchor, that many warriors feel they let their units down. "They failed to live up to deeply held values and ideals," Nash said, which leads to "survivor guilt, moral injury, and feeling betrayed by leaders sometimes."

Nash added that there is a "hierarchy of shame" in the military in which those who were not wounded or shot at are deemed less worthy.

Zach Iscol, a Marine veteran and founder of the Headstrong Project, recalled his unit fatally shooting a suspected suicide bomber in Iraq, only to learn he was a harmless civilian.

The question that Iscol asked himself: "What do you tell your marines?"

A member of his troop screamed, ‘We shot a baby. We shot a baby.’

For Iscol, part of his own healing process involves making a film about his experience in the hope that it can prevent others from making the same mistake. He cited his mentor, General John Allen, who once told him, “there’s no excuse to not have a 5,000-year-old mind,” meaning wisdom doesn’t just come from your own experiences, but from those who came before you, who told their stories in books.

“The irony of that is I read every great war novel growing up,” said Iscol. “Yet those books, though they were brutally honest war stories, for some reason, a lot of young men like me, we still have an itch to go to war, we have in itch to go to combat…And what’s interesting to me now on the other side of combat is that those stories were written as warnings to a younger generation, and yet they weren’t received as such. So I hope that maybe in some way I can take some of these awful experiences, and if I tell those stories honestly, maybe there’s a way to prevent others from making the same mistake, and then there’s a way of at least feeling that there was some meaning and some purpose behind them.”

Chaplain Major Sarah Shirley of the Florida National Guard works to help those who suffer from what is now termed "moral injury." She says her work in the field is to "to bind up the broken hearted." She told Blitzer that many no longer can relate to the traditional ideas of God.

Soldiers cope in different ways. Lobello started a Facebook group. Many use their experiences to help others heal.

Nash concluded with some parting words that resonated throughout the rest of the summit, reminding the audience that most soldiers don’t go to war and fight on the battlefield for some “national political gain,” but for much more personal and immediate reasons. “Two of the emotions that are way stronger than fear on a battlefield—love and honor,” said Nash. “Those things are always worth while.”