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Aftermath of Afghan massacre: Having the courage to ask for help

courtesy Ed Kiernan

Ed Kiernan pictured while he was serving with the military in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Summerall outside Bayji, Iraq, in early 2007.

NEWS ANALYSIS

"What is the purpose of the bayonet?
To kill, kill, kill with the cold blue steel!
What makes the green grass grow?
Blood, blood, bright red blood!"

It’s a beautiful summer morning at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., in 2003, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs while stabbing a tire with a seven-inch bayonet.  Around me more than 200 other men and women are doing the same thing.

Bayonet training 101 -- just another way the U.S. Army teaches you how to kill.

Killing is what soldiers are trained to do.  And while nothing can excuse the actions that Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is accused of committing in Afghanistan, anyone who thinks the Army doesn’t dehumanize you and others is kidding themselves. 


I’ve never met Bales, but we both enlisted in the Army in November, 2001. While he must have gone straight into basic training, I had 18 months of college to finish after joining up. 

By the time I’d graduated and finished my training as a combat medic, Bales was well into his first tour in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade in the Second Infantry Division.

Contrary to reports from villagers where the massacre took place, U.S. military officials say there is no evidence of an IED attack on Americans around the time of the shooting that killed 16 Afghan civilians. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

In the summer of 2006, he was sent to Iraq again, this time to Mosul.  At the same time, I was deployed a little further south near the city of Bayji as part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne.

When I arrived in the Middle East I believed that I would be able to show the Iraqis that we were there to help, not harm, them.  That attitude lasted until someone I knew was killed. Then I felt – ‘the hell with these people, kill them all.’ 

Those feelings passed, but the anger never went away entirely.  It’s hard to reconcile the thought that the people you are trying to help may be the same ones out to kill you and your friends.  There were no uniforms in Iraq, no way to tell friend from enemy until the bombs went off.

How Staff Sgt. Bales' lawyers are fighting for his life

Courage to ask for help
Several months into our deployment a staff sergeant from the infantry platoon I was assigned to visited me. It was his third deployment, he was anxious, flashbacks made it hard to sleep and things were pretty tough back home. My four months of medical training didn’t cover much psychology but luckily we had a Combat Stress unit on our base. Well, I say unit -- in fact it was one major tucked away in a room on the far side of the base.

courtesy Ed Kiernan

Ed Kiernan, third from right, watches as the battalion's surgeon treats a sick Iraqi in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Summerall outside Bayji, Iraq, in the summer of 2007.

The staff sergeant agreed to speak to the major but didn’t want anyone else in the platoon to know. So I lied and said I was taking him to the aid station for back pain instead.

No matter what they say, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is looked down on in the Army. Soldiers still see it as a sign of weakness. I should know -- I had to give PowerPoint briefings about it while guys joked that it could never happen to them.

But PTSD does happen, and it eventually forced my staff sergeant off the front lines. It was one too many explosions, one too many bodies, and one too many friends gone.

His departure was huge loss to the platoon, but it was the right decision. It took an enormous amount of strength for that staff sergeant to reach out and ask for help. Not everyone supported the decision, and there were many who thought his stepping aside was quitting or worse – cowardly.

Unlike Bales, I never had to experience multiple deployments.  One 15-month tour in Iraq was enough for me. 

I now know that it takes enormous courage to make it through three deployments. If Bales was indeed behind the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, what would have happened if he had shown enough courage to ask for help before it was too late?