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25 March 2012

The Burden of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales

Perhaps the worst suffering in war is the pain of abandonment; above all other sacrifice and loss is the separation and isolation forged by the very nature of armed conflict. I can only imagine the thoughts and feelings one must experience participating in a seemingly endless war to realize that he or she has been removed from the realm of the living, existing as human in biology only, but more like a ghost among other ghosts, simply waiting and enduring one's time in hell until quite literally, one can join the dead. The awareness that one is removed from most everything that is traditionally associated with being human must be rather frightening and humbling, but to think you have been forgotten by the people back home, the same people for whom you're supposedly fighting in the first place is the ultimate injury. I wouldn't think the name Robert Bales will ever be forgotten now.

Yet, the other night I asked my college students what their thoughts were on the horrific events of the Panjwaii Massacre and the tragedy of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Most of the class had no clue whatsoever who he was or what he is alleged to have done in that remote area of the Kandahar province during those early morning hours of March 11-12.  Keep in mind these are mostly 18-year-olds, suburban, fairly-affluent Americans—the ones potentially most affected by the war because of their age, while at the same time completely distanced from it simply because of where they live and the concerns and focus of their daily lives. Well, this particular group hadn't much, if any, awareness of the events of that terrible night.

I know as a nation we love sports. We love gambling, both on Wall Street and Main Street. We love television. We love shopping and new things. In fact, our consumption and lust for new technological devices like the I-Phone and I-Pad are really more like a new religion than any retail experience.

In the small town where I live, thousands of people lined up for at least one-quarter mile when the local ice cream shop opened its doors for the first time during a warm spell we've been having in March! Would that many people have turned out for a town hall meeting addressing the consequences of war or ensuring veterans get the health care they require? I wonder. And the truth is that our freedom to line up in safety for ice-cream in small towns across America is a direct result of the sacrifices made by our military throughout the centuries, but now we seem to have every distraction under the sun to turn our attention away from the most important issues at hand, especially the burdens we have been asking our servicemen and women to carry for the last decade in our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the true toll this war is taking on all of us whether we realize it or not.

I believe the greatest loss a soldier can face is the pain of abandonment. 

Previously we've have little time or attention for the likes of Staff Sgt. Bales, and I even wonder how big this story will ever be. Does anyone really care? During the Vietnam War I was just a child, but the My Lai Massacre took center stage in the news for many years. In some ways, rightly or wrongly, it became one of the defining moments of the Vietnam War. That tragedy forced us to examine what was happening all those thousands of miles away.

How many other men and women in the current military have been stressed to the max but will not react as Sgt. Bales did and merely turn the fight against their demons inward, and why is there so little reflection or awareness directed toward these individuals in the United States media and popular culture? They need and deserve more help, but will they get it? Our President makes his "March Madness" basketball bracket selections a big public event; maybe he should select the next serviceman or woman likely to snap as well? If Sgt. Bales is eventually sentenced to death and executed will the problems also die with him?

But really, I don't even know much about him; all I know like anyone else is what I've read. 

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is a 38 year-old Army veteran with three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He lived with his family in Lakewood, Washington and served out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord where his trial may take place. He now sits in solitary confinement in a prison cell in Fort Leavenworth Kansas awaiting the next phase in his trial where he has been charged with seventeen counts of murder.

This photo is from Aug. 23, 2011. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is seen at the National Training Center in Ft. Irwin, California. The link to the original story:

Sgt. Bales joined the Army shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He is described by friends and family as someone with a good heart who cared about other people. He was wounded twice in combat suffering the loss of part of his foot and also suffered a traumatic brain injury and a severe concussion.

I will not make excuses for what he did as I cannot dishonor the civilians who died allegedly by his hands on that night by doing so (do we even know their names?), but something is terribly wrong within the Department of Defense that could evaluate Bales and then somehow declare him fit for combat (is any human being on this planet really fit for combat?) and send him back again and again on tour after tour.

I believe this incident is not just Bales' burden—it is our burden—military and civilian alike.

How can we hypocritically ask these people to serve and then abandon them when they need us most? Very few human beings could stand that kind of stress for so many years and keep it together. The fact is that most of our military personnel show up every day, dedicated and disciplined, and they do their jobs, but what we are asking them to do is often not fair and sometimes not even human. So, again, on March 11-12, 2012, Staff Sgt. Bales left his base and allegedly shot seventeen sleeping civilians (many of whom were children) and then set fire to the bodies.

Was this a suicide turned outward or the actions of a diseased mind?

The media will I'm sure diminish his contribution to the US Army—cite his financial troubles as reason why he enlisted in the first place, say that he was running away from bad investments or that despite his previously solid record, he was always a ticking time bomb—but these are all lies as far as I can tell. He had established who he was through his personal relationships and Army career right up to that point when some final stress sent him forever over the edge—from all I can tell he was a good soldier, not unlike many others, right up to that point.

I now see three potential paths the United States media and popular culture will consider in presenting this story to the people:

1) Brand Bales as a rouge way outside the norm (to make his demonic actions more acceptable or plausible in the context of what we can mentally process without challenging the very nature of our involvement in the war).

2) Try to determine exactly why he did it (providing simplistic explanations and historical "back fitting" of the events leading up to that night to compartmentalize and distance us from the problem).

3) Avoid or ignore it altogether knowing most Americans are too preoccupied with the trivialities of economic survival to care (the most likely path).

All of these options disgust me almost as much as the insensitivity and the manner in which most Americans and most American politicians have simply turned their backs on the war, as if it is the elephant in the room no one wants ever to acknowledge.

But let's look a little closer at the wars we've been fighting for the last decade. Here are a few interesting statistics that show more clearly than words just what war is in the first place—even our modern, technologically cleansed, sequestered, out-of-sight-out-of-mind, wars.

In just the Iraq war alone, from March 2003 to the present, the estimates of civilian deaths fall somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000, and these numbers do not include up to one-million deaths (mostly children) as a result of the US led sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s, right up to the start of the war in 2003. Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State at the time of the sanctions was once asked about the possible death of half a million Iraqi children—if that cost was a price worth paying, and she replied: “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”

In Afghanistan there have been estimates of over 12,000 civilian casualties so far.  The numbers are at least in the tens of thousands. And what about the death and injury suffered by the troops? The US and Coalition casualties in both wars number in the tens of thousands, considering both those killed and severely wounded. Those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury are probably in the hundreds of thousands. Where are so many people going to find healing in a country that completely ignores their problem in the first place? 

In 2010 more US soldiers died by suicide than in combat—and Army suicides are up 80%.

So what about these statistics doesn't scream at you?

First, we need a national day of mourning

Perhaps Memorial Day 2012? I fully realize our retail sales, beach trips, and barbecues might get in the way here, but we as a nation (and the entire world) need to develop a degree of consciousness and awareness of the cost and impact of these wars through prayer, meditation and reflection.

Next, as a nation we dedicate the next decade to healing the veterans who've served us in these and all wars.

Much like President Kennedy challenged Americans to land a man on the moon in a decade during the 1960's, I challenge all Americans and people across the globe to address the consequences of war in the next decade—specifically toward finding healing the following issues:

Post Traumatic Stress

Traumatic Brain Injury

The Environmental Impact

The Economic Impact

The Effect on Families

The Loss of Future Peace and Political Stability

Currently we don't have leaders in the White House or Congress like President Kennedy with the integrity or insight to do something like this on such a grand scale, but we must get together now and get the healing started.

That war still has not been understood as the enemy of humanity in the year 2012 is truly mind-boggling for me. That war still exists at all, considered by so-called leaders as an acceptable and useful means to solve conflicts would be laughable if it weren't so tragic.

1 comment:

  1. You know, a friend of mine who is rather "Right Wing" tried to get me to sign a petition for a "National Day of Repentance". He states that since Americans are unappreciative of what we have, we must ask forgiveness. I bristled at the request. Your blog made me think of my friend's idea a little differently. I don't think Americans need a National Day of Repentance, but a Day of Mourning like you explained. I don't think that any of us here could even FATHOM the depths of suffering that is Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, etc...Yes, we have been attacked, and no, we shouldn't forgive it, but the casualties of the war against the Middle East see the echos of September 11, 2001 every single day. We have bombed and killed innocent civilians. Some say it is the cost of war, and I suppose they're right, but we cannot ignore that our fight against terrorism doesn't cause immeasurable suffering for others.

    Am I anti-military? You and I both know that I am not. I fully respect and support the individuals that put their lives on the line for this country. But I cannot ignore the devastating effects this war has had on the psyche of our soldiers and their families and on Americans in general.

    With mourning can come repentance. We cannot identify the losses and understand the magnitude of them unless we comprehend that it happens. Every single day, a soldier or a civilian is lost. Every day, the soldiers coming home must deal with the carnage and pain they have seen.

    Maybe one day we will realize that we are not the only ones that have suffered and lost during this entire bloody ordeal.


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