In early January 2010, a squad of Marines from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, got pinned down in a gully under fire from Taliban fighters holed up in an adobe farm compound on the outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan. It was the beginning of Operation Moshtarak, the attempt to wrest the town from the Taliban’s grip.
Two of them, Lance Cpl. Joey Schiano and Lance Cpl. Chuck Newton, took turns cautiously raising their heads to see if they could pinpoint where the shots were coming from. Both of them — Schiano was 22, Newton 25 — were seasoned combat infantrymen on their second deployment. They ducked at a whooshing sound and a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in the tree over their heads and branches and twig clattered down on them. Finally Schiano spotted a muzzle flash and slid down excitedly. Newton inched up to take a cautious look.
“I don’t see ‘em — which window? Where?” Newton was trained and assigned as a SMAW gunner. The Shoulder-Fired Multi-Purpose Assault Weapon was the squad’s most powerful weapon. But he couldn’t see the shooters.
“Lemme do it,” Schiano yelled and Newton shouted, “I’ll cover for you!” and handed over the SMAW. Schiano rose into a crouch, lifted the 54-inch tube to his shoulder, squinted into the viewfinder and focused on a section of blank wall. Then he fired.
The SMAW, a descendent of the World War II bazooka, is designed to disable tanks and blow apart concrete bunkers. Against adobe, it is devastating. The blast demolished one end of the building. As the rubble and dust settled, the Marines could hear shouting and wailing.
“They want to bring out the wounded,” the Marines’ interpreter reported. The Taliban gunners fled and the survivors dragged out torn and bleeding bodies, some draped over wheelbarrows. Gaping at the sight, Schiano sagged and broke down sobbing, shattered at the carnage he’d caused. It became clear that the Taliban had herded women and children behind the wall that the SMAW had struck, using them as human shields. The Marines were stunned and horrified.
“I mean, all of us would have stopped for a kid,” Newton told me later. “Joey’s thing was, we’re taking fire from that building and there are Taliban there. Who would ever think they’d put a family in there?”
“Gaping at the sight, Schiano sagged and broke down sobbing, shattered at the carnage he’d caused.”
Schiano was tormented by images of the torn bodies. But neither the military nor our civilian society is comfortable recognizing or dealing with what afflicted him. When his four-year enlistment was up a year later, he went home to Connecticut. He tried the VA for help and was put on a wait list. That spring, he died in a noontime car crash.
I have spent much of past 35 years with people like Joey Schiano and Chuck Newton, part of what I call the blue-collar military: the mostly young, mostly enlisted men and women who are the trigger-pullers, the wrench-turners, the watch-standers, the tank drivers, the helicopter crews, the corpsmen. For all their youth, they carry immense responsibility. They handle it well and with passion. They get their hands dirty.
I came to admire their grit, their sense of honor and commitment, their unfailing humor, their spontaneous generosity. I have known some of their families. I have watched tense leave-takings, joyful homecomings, and the trauma of loss. In war, I have seen Americans at their best. In a very personal way, I admire and honor their service.
Eventually, though, I couldn’t ignore the conviction that something was wrong — that I knew too many Joey Schianos. That I was looking away from the dark side of war, which was causing real pain among the men and women I knew.
“I have watched tense leave-takings, joyful homecomings, and the trauma of loss.”
I have come to understand their emotional storms as evidence of moral injury, a violation of our sense of “what’s right,” a jagged disconnect from our internal moral code. Each of us, of course, falls short of our own expectations in ordinary civilian life. In wartime, moral injury — far more than post-traumatic stress disorder — cuts wider and deeper. Firing a SMAW at a house of Taliban gunners is tactically and legally justified; killing civilians is a consequence too awful to bear.
In my reporting, I have come across many such stories. A medic carries guilt and anger when he can’t revive a dying buddy. At a checkpoint, a soldier fires at an oncoming car that won’t stop; he finds out the dead occupants were civilians racing to the hospital. A Marine fails to spot a sniper in time and his buddy is killed. A battalion commander painfully composes letters to families of his dead.
Like any wound, the guilt, anger, shame, sorrow, and grief of moral injury ranges from temporary and self-healing to severe, requiring professional attention. The guys I know with moral injury are not disabled or sick or dangerous. But the anxiety, insomnia, anger, depression, and isolation endure, and spill over into civilian life, impacting families and careers.
There is help. The best therapy I’ve seen involves story-telling and acceptance. By acceptance I mean listening hard, without judgment. Neither accusing nor dismissing. Not saying, “Oh, don’t feel bad.” Or, “You couldn’t help it, it was war, bad things happen.” Maybe just, “I understand a little bit of what you must be feeling.” Or as the Marines would say, “Yeah, that was fucked up.” It was bad that civilians died, but it’s past, we don’t think less of you, and it does not define who you are.
This is something each of us can do. Rather than just a heartfelt but awkward “Thanks for your service,” ask veterans if they would mind talking about some of their experiences in uniform. Then listen.
Veterans Day is a good time to start.