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The Grunts

Damned If They Kill, Damned If They Don’t

U.S. Marines carry a wounded comrade hit by an Improvised Explosive Device to a medical evacuation helicopter in November 2011. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images)
March 18, 2014

How do we begin to accept that Nick Rudolph, a thoughtful, sandy-haired Californian, was sent to war as a 22-year-old Marine and in a desperate gun battle outside Marjah, Afghanistan, found himself killing an Afghan boy? That when Nick came home, strangers thanked him for his service and politicians lauded him as a hero?

This is the first in a three-part series. Read Part 2 ».

Can we imagine ourselves back on that awful day in the summer of 2010, in the hot firefight that went on for nine hours? Men frenzied with exhaustion and reckless exuberance, eyes and throats burning from dust and smoke, in a battle that erupted after Taliban insurgents castrated a young boy in the village, knowing his family would summon nearby Marines for help and the Marines would come, walking right into a deadly ambush.

Here’s Nick, pausing in a lull. He spots somebody darting around the corner of an adobe wall, firing assault rifle shots at him and his Marines. Nick raises his M-4 carbine. He sees the shooter is a child, maybe 13. With only a split second to decide, he squeezes the trigger and ends the boy’s life.

The body hits the ground. Now what?

“We just collected up that weapon and kept moving,” Nick explained. “Going from compound to compound, trying to find [the insurgents]. Eventually they hopped in a car and drove off into the desert.”

There is a long silence after Nick finishes the story. He’s lived with it for more than three years and the telling still catches in his throat. Eventually, he sighs. “He was just a kid. But I’m sorry, I’m trying not to get shot and I don’t want any of my brothers getting hurt, so when you are put in that kind of situation … it’s shitty that you have to, like … shoot him.

“You know it’s wrong. But … you have no choice.”

“You know it’s wrong. But … you have no choice.”

Nick Rudolph, Marine

Almost 2 million men and women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are flooding homeward, profoundly affected by war. Their experiences have been vivid. Dazzling in the ups, terrifying and depressing in the downs. The burning devotion of the small-unit brotherhood, the adrenaline rush of danger, the nagging fear and loneliness, the pride of service. The thrill of raw power, the brutal ecstasy of life on the edge. “It was,” said Nick, “the worst, best experience of my life.”

But the boy’s death haunts him, mired in the swamp of moral confusion and contradiction so familiar to returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is what experts are coming to identify as a moral injury: the pain that results from damage to a person’s moral foundation. In contrast to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which springs from fear, moral injury is a violation of what each of us considers right or wrong. The diagnosis of PTSD has been defined and officially endorsed since 1980 by the mental health community, and those suffering from it have earned broad public sympathy and understanding. Moral injury is not officially recognized by the Defense Department. But it is moral injury, not PTSD, that is increasingly acknowledged as the signature wound of this generation of veterans: a bruise on the soul, akin to grief or sorrow, with lasting impact on the individuals and on their families.

Moral injury raises uncomfortable questions about what happens in war, the dark experiences that many veterans have always been reluctant to talk about. Are the young Americans who volunteer for military service prepared for the ethical ambiguity that lies ahead? Can they be hardened against moral injury? Should they be?

With widespread public impatience to move beyond the long war years, it’s easy to overlook the pain that endures among service members and their families. Experiences like those of Nick Rudolph and tens of thousands of others are theirs to bear. Many have found peace and acceptance: I did what I had to do, and I did it well and honorably. Others struggle to reconcile the people they have become with those innocent selves who jubilantly enlisted just a few years before. Either way, they manage mostly out of sight and on their own.

Yet a glimpse into their world also raises troubling questions for those of us outside the military – about wartime morality, about the accountability of those who encouraged or tolerated the decisions to go to war. What is the culpability of those who engineered the wars? Of those who approved the funding that enabled the fighting to go on, year after year? What of those who demanded the end of the draft in 1973 and its replacement with a professional fighting force? This “all-volunteer” military excused almost all Americans from service, while its relatively small numbers mean those who do serve must deploy again and again, and again.

Multiple Deployments For Troops In Recent Wars

Frequent deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq have become routine for American soldiers – raising the risk of lasting mental trauma.

Afghanistan 2001-2013 Iraq 2003-2013 Individuals deployed Number of deployments 823,136 1,115,872 1,489,394 2,337,197 0 500,000 1,000,000 1,500,000 2,000,000 2,500,000

Source: U.S. Department of Defense

As the broad moral injury of these wars is acknowledged, what is our part in the healing?

“Maybe people don’t want to talk about or know about what can happen to some of our sons and even some of our daughters when they go defend the country. It’s not politically correct. It’s not attractive.”

Michael Castellana, psychotherapist

“Maybe people don’t want to talk about or know about what can happen to some of our sons and even some of our daughters when they go defend the country. It’s not politically correct. It’s not attractive,” said Michael Castellana, a psychotherapist who provides moral injury therapy at the U.S. Naval Medical Center in San Diego. “But it’s the truth.”

‘Bad Things Happen In War’

Until now, the most common wound of war was thought to be PTSD, an involuntary reaction to a remembered life-threatening fear. In combat, the physical response to fear and danger – hyper-alertness, the flush of adrenaline that energizes muscles – is necessary for survival. Back home, it can be triggered suddenly by crowds, noise, an argument – causing anxiety, anger, sleeplessness and depression. PTSD can be quickly diagnosed, and therapy at last is more widely available.

It is not fear but exposure that causes moral injury – an experience or set of experiences that can provoke mild or intense grief, shame and guilt. The symptoms are similar to PTSD: depression and anxiety, difficulty paying attention, an unwillingness to trust anyone except fellow combat veterans. But the morally injured feel sorrow and regret, too. Theirs are impact wounds caused by the collision of the ethical beliefs they carried to war and the ugly realities of conflict.

War Trauma Symptoms

The definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder doesn’t cover all the symptoms of moral injury, the lasting wounds to the soul caused by participation in morally ambiguous combat events. Here are the symptoms of each, and those that overlap.

PTSD Moral Injury BOTH “Startle” reflex Memory loss Fear Flashbacks Sorrow Grief Regret Shame Alienation Anger Depression Anxiety Insomnia Nightmares Self-medication with alcohol or drugs

Source: The Huffington Post

“Things happen in war that are irreconcilable with the idea of goodness and benevolence, creating real cognitive dissonance – ‘I’m a good person and yet I’ve done bad things.’”

Dr. Wayne Jonas, military physician

Most people enter military service “with the fundamental sense that they are good people and that they are doing this for good purposes, on the side of freedom and country and God,” said Dr. Wayne Jonas, a military physician for 24 years and president and CEO of the Samueli Institute, a non-profit health research organization. “But things happen in war that are irreconcilable with the idea of goodness and benevolence, creating real cognitive dissonance – ‘I’m a good person and yet I’ve done bad things.’” Most veterans with moral injury, he said, “self-treat or don’t treat it at all.”

A moral injury, researchers and psychologists are finding, can be as simple and profound as losing a loved comrade. Returning combat medics sometimes bear the guilt of failing to save someone badly wounded; veterans tell of the sense of betrayal when a buddy is hurt because of a poor decision made by those in charge.

The scenarios are endless: surviving a roadside blast that strikes your squad, but losing lives for which you felt responsible. Watching as your dead friends are loaded onto helos in body bags. Being wounded and medevaced yourself, then feeling burdened with guilt for leaving behind those you had sworn to protect. Seeing evil done and being unable, or unwilling, to intervene.

Troops See Things They Can’t Forget

A study of 3,761 paratroopers and Marines after their return from combat in Iraq in late 2003 found grim results about troops’ exposure to morally damaging events.

0 20% 40% 60% 80% 100% Killed an enemy combatant Were responsible for the death of a noncombatant Handled or uncovered human remains Saw ill or injured women or children whom you were unable to help Had a buddy shot or hit who was nearby Saved the life of a soldier or civilian 48% 65% 14% 28% 50% 57% 69% 83% 22% 26% 21% 19% Paratroopers Marines

Source: The New England Journal of Medicine

“An individual on a mission may at the end have questions about the morality of what went on, and most guys reconcile that fairly rapidly,” said Thomas S. Jones, a retired combat-decorated Marine major general. He is fiercely fond of young Marines and runs a retreat for the wounded, Semper Fi Odyssey, where he sees many cases of moral injury. He speaks with a parade-ground staccato, occasionally punctuating his thoughts with a concussive “Hell-fire!”

The majority of moral injury cases go much deeper, he said. “They’re more about survivor’s guilt, death of children, death of civilians, that are just part and parcel of combat action. We continue to see guys four, five years on, still struggling.

“This is experience talking! Hell-fire!”

Dr. James Bender, a former Army psychologist who spent a year in combat in Iraq with a cavalry brigade, saw many cases of moral injury among soldiers. Some, he said, “felt they didn’t perform the way they should. Bullets start flying and they duck and hide rather than returning fire – that happens a lot more than anyone cares to admit.” Bender found himself treating anxiety and depression among soldiers “doubting the mission, doubting the fundamental nature of who they are – pretty deep stuff.”

‘We Did It All For Nothing’

Moral injury is as old as war itself. Betrayal, grief, shame and rage are the themes that propel Greek epics like Homer’s Iliad, and all have afflicted warriors down through the centuries.

But during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it proved especially hard to maintain a sense of moral balance. These wars lacked the moral clarity of World War II, with its goal of unconditional surrender. Some troops chafed at being sent not to achieve military victory, but for nation-building (“As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down”). The enemy, meanwhile, fought to kill, mostly with the wars’ most feared and deadly weapon, the improvised explosive device. American troops trying to help Iraqis and Afghans were being killed and maimed, usually with nowhere to return fire. When the enemy did appear, it it was hard to sort out combatant from civilian, or child.

A U.S. Marine sergeant runs to safety as an IED explodes in the Garmsir district of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on July 13, 2009. (Manpreet Romana / AFP / Getty Images)

At home, as the rest of America gradually decided to oppose the wars as wrong and unjustified or futile, it became difficult for troops and their families to justify long and repeated deployments.

Navy Cmdr. Steve Dundas, a chaplain, went to Iraq in 2007 bursting with zeal to help fulfill the Bush administration’s goal of creating a modern, democratic U.S. ally. “Seeing the devastation of Iraqi cities and towns, some of it caused by us, some by the insurgents and the civil war that we brought about, hit me to the core,” Dundas said. “I felt lied to by our senior leadership. And I felt those lies cost too many thousands of American lives and far too much destruction.”

Dundas returned home broken, his faith in God and in his country shattered. In addition, he was diagnosed with chronic severe PTSD. Over time, with the help of therapists, friends and what he calls his ”Christmas miracle,” his faith has returned.

As the wars dragged on, it became clear that the campaigns to win hearts and minds were not working, and often not appreciated. For some who fought, the memories of their sacrifices have since become tempered by the recent deterioration of security in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We did it all for nothing,” said Darren Doss, 25, a former Marine who fought in Marjah, Afghanistan, and lost friends in battle.

In both wars, context made it tricky to deal with moral challenges. What is moral in combat can at once be immoral in peacetime society. Shooting a child-warrior, for instance. In combat, eliminating an armed threat carries a high moral value of protecting your men. Back home, killing a child is grotesquely wrong.

Guys like Nick Rudolph ended up torn and confused, feeling unhappy and out of place, perhaps guilty and ashamed, or disturbed by their own numbness. Many newly returned veterans simply shrink from civilian society, unable to craft an answer to a jaunty “Thanks for your service!” or “So how was Afghanistan?”

“People say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ Do you know what I did over there? It just seems like you’re being patronized. Don’t do that to me.”

Navy combat corpsman

Or the worst: “Did you kill anyone?”

“I can’t go to a bar and start talking about combat experience with somebody – people look at you like you’re crazy,” said a Navy combat corpsman who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and asked not to be identified by name. He returned burdened with guilt over the lives he couldn’t save. “People say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ Do you know what I did over there? It just seems like you’re being patronized. Don’t do that to me.”

Afraid or unwilling to be judged by civilians, many new veterans isolate themselves, never speaking of their wartime experiences. Unable to explain, even to a wife or girlfriend, the joy and horror of combat. That yes, I killed a child, or yes, soldiers I was responsible for got killed and it was my fault. Or yes, I saw a person I loved get blown apart. From there it can be an easy slide into self-medication with drugs or alcohol, or overwork. Thoughts of suicide can beckon.

“Definitely a majority” of returning veterans bear some kind of moral injury, said William P. Nash, a retired Navy psychiatrist and a pioneer in stress control and moral injury. He deployed as a battlefield therapist with Marines during the battle of Fallujah in 2004. “People avoid talking about or thinking about it and every time they do, it’s a flashback or nightmare that just damages them even more. It’s going to take a long time to sort that out.”

That’s certainly true for Nick Rudolph. Back home at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in January 2012, after three deployments – a total of 16 months in combat – he was sinking in a downward spiral. Drinking so heavily that he picked up a DUI and got busted a rank, losing his prized position as a squad leader. Seeking help, he snuck off-post to see a civilian therapist. There, he was prescribed sleeping pills and twice slept through morning formation, getting slapped with two unauthorized absences. All this added up to what the Marine Corps considers a “pattern of misconduct.”

At war, he’d been exposed to IED blasts six times and shot once, while he was manning a machine gun in a firefight. He’d risked his life, led men he loved in combat and seen some of them die. And now that he’d come home sick at heart, the Marine Corps, which he also loved, meant to kick him out.

Let’s pick him up now, a year or so later, in Philadelphia. Despite his earlier trouble, he’s been honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and is rooming with Paul Rivera, a Marine buddy from Afghanistan. Nick is working as a bodyguard for a security firm. His physical wounds have healed. Physically he is here. But the sounds and sensations and urgency of battle keep puncturing the peaceful civilian reality he’s trying to occupy.

“Coming back, I didn’t know what could help, like … how do I get those feelings to stop?” Nick said. He can be out in public and then comes something like a panic attack: He feels the adrenaline rush of combat, the crazy excitement, the hyper-alertness … and watches again as the boy comes around the wall. “The feeling hits you and like … I don’t want to be like that.

“I just want to be normal.”

‘Your Trust Has Been Ruined And Broken’

At the U.S. Naval Medical Center in San Diego, close by the sprawling Marine base at Camp Pendleton, staff psychologist Amy Amidon sees a stream of Marines like Nick Rudolph struggling with their combat experiences. “They have seen the darkness within them and within the world, and it weighs heavily upon them,” she said.

Morally devastating experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have been common. A study conducted early in the Iraq war, for instance, found that two-thirds of deployed Marines had killed an enemy combatant, more than half had handled human remains, and 28 percent felt responsible for the death of an Iraqi civilian.

If the resulting moral injury is largely invisible to outsiders, its effects are more apparent. “I would bet anything,” said Nash, the retired Navy psychiatrist, “that if we had the wherewithal to do this kind of research we’d find that moral injury underlies veteran homelessness, criminal behavior, suicide.”

The moral injury of Sendio Martz involved neither killing a child nor disillusionment with the mission. It was the weight of command responsibility, and the guilt and shame he feels for having been unable to bring all his guys home safe.

Martz is a stocky man, soft-spoken with a gentle manner. Haitian-born, adopted and home-schooled by religious American parents, he’s got a pretty firm grip on moral values and personal responsibility. That made him a good squad leader, responsible for the lives of a dozen or so Marines.

In April 2012, Martz was 26 and a Marine sergeant already on his third combat deployment, in the Kajaki District of southern Afghanistan. He’d lost a good friend in combat, 22-year-old Lance Cpl. William H. Crouse IV, of Woodruff, S.C. Martz’s unit, 1st Battalion 10th Marines, had taken other casualties. Now, Martz was leading his guys out on daily foot patrols through some of the same terrain and most heavily contested places in Afghanistan. IEDs everywhere, hidden in the dry, tall grass and rocky scrubland.

When they’d departed Camp Lejeune a few months earlier, wives and sweethearts and parents had crowded around to say their tearful goodbyes, imploring Martz, Make sure you bring my boy back, now. Looking him in the eye, hand on his shoulder. Keep my boy safe.

“You are praying that the decision you make is the right one, and if it is the wrong one – which a couple of decisions were the wrong ones – you are paying the price and you are living with it.”

Sendio Martz, former Marine

“Well, that’s a high order,” Martz told me, “given that I am the one directing these guys where to go and I don’t know where anything is. I can’t say, ‘Oh don’t go there, there’s a bomb there, and there’s a guy over there, make sure you watch him and don’t get shot.’ You are praying that the decision you make is the right one, and if it is the wrong one – which a couple of decisions were the wrong ones – you are paying the price and you are living with it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed in my life.”

It was a young Afghan boy, Martz found out later, who detonated 40 pounds of explosives beneath Martz’s squad. He was one of the younger kids who hung around the Marines. Martz had given him books and candy and, even more precious, his fond attention. The boy would tip them off to IEDs and occasionally brought them fresh-baked bread. One day, as Martz’s platoon walked a routine patrol, the boy yanked a trigger wire from a hidden position. Whether he had been a secret enemy all along or whether some incident had turned him against the Americans are questions Martz wrestles with to this day.

But the effects of the blast were immediate. The detonation and blizzard of jagged shrapnel felled Martz, knocking him unconscious, and ripped through his squad. Every Marine went down wounded. Luckily, no one was killed, but several were severely injured.

Martz fought back to consciousness. He checked to see if his legs were there (they were), and got on the radio. “As a leader you can’t – I wasn’t allowed and couldn’t allow myself to crumble, or just give in to despair,” he said, his thoughts and words accelerating as he remembered.

We were talking in a quiet corner of the Wounded Warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune in November, shortly before Martz received his medical separation from the Marine Corps (his traumatic brain injury from the IED blast ended his dream of a lifelong career as a Marine). It took a while for that maelstrom of remembered sound and images to slow and fade – his men lying injured, a dazed Martz directing the evacuation of casualties and getting his surviving guys fighting back.

Martz told me that he looks on that incident as his own failure because he didn’t spot the IED before it went off. Because he didn’t warn his men away. “I’d say one of the things I struggle with the most is, all my guys got hurt and I let them down. It’s a constant movie, replaying that scenario over and over in my head. I constantly question every decision I made out there.”

Almost three years later, he’s “kind of stuck,” he said. He seems to be moving on with his life, taking college courses to become a mental health therapist. But inside, he’s not healed. “I have a hard time feeling comfortable around kids, because it was that kid that we got close to, and to have that same kid turn around and blow you up, it shatters your reality of what’s OK and what’s not OK. Your trust has been ruined and broken. The only ones you trust are the guys you went with.”

The evidence suggests that such invisible wounds are widespread. A study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that for all the military personnel medically evacuated from Afghanistan between 2001 and 2012, the most frequent diagnosis was not physical battle wounds but “adjustment reaction.” This category includes grief, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and other forms of moral injury and mental disorders caused or inflamed by war. Between the start of the Afghan war in October 2001 and June 2012, the demand for military mental health services skyrocketed, according to Pentagon data. So did substance abuse within the ranks.

The Wounds That Don’t Show

Mental health wounds far outnumbered physical injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

0 100,000 200,000 300,000 400,000 500,000 Physically wounded Affected by PTSD 52,000 Between 275,000 and 500,000

Source: U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

The statistics suggest a massive and widespread wartime trauma whose scope and depth we are only now beginning to grasp. And it worries people like Marsha Four, who was a combat nurse in Vietnam and knows war trauma intimately. She eventually found purpose and solace running a veterans center in Philadelphia, before she retired last year to work with the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Vietnam veterans like Four have their own struggles. But most of them served only one tour. The new veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, she believes, are especially wounded, because they serve multiple combat tours. “What have we done to this generation?” she wonders. Moral injury, acknowledgement and forgiveness, aren’t so easy. “But we gotta give it a shot. Otherwise, we are going to pay the price for what we have done to them.”

“Civilians are lucky that we still have a sense of naiveté about what the world is like,” said Amy Amidon, the Navy psychologist. “The average American means well, but what they need to know is that these [military] men and women are seeing incredible evil, and coming home with that weighing on them and not knowing how to fit back into society.”

I asked Maj. Gen. Jones, who is deeply concerned about moral injury and its effect on combat Marines, whether he thought war itself is immoral, whether moral injury is unavoidable in war. I wanted to know what he’d meant when he said actions that involve moral transgressions are “part and parcel” of combat. He weighed his answer carefully before responding.

“A democracy is dependent on having guys that will come forward and put their right hand in the air and volunteer and do things that others decide [need] to be done,” he said. “You have to have a military that will do things, regardless.”

Blood Under His Fingernails

Outside of Marjah, Afghanistan, January 2010. On a routine combat patrol, a platoon from 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, enters an adobe compound in a farm village. Walking point, at the head of the column, is Lance Cpl. Zachary Smith, from Hornell, N.Y. He is 19. An IED suddenly erupts beneath him, tearing off both his legs and scything down other Marines with shrapnel wounds. Cpl. Zachary Auclair rushes to save him, frantically pulling out tourniquets and bandages, and he is soon bathed in Smitty’s blood. That’s when the platoon’s sergeant, 28-year-old Daniel M. Angus, steps on a second IED and the blast blows him apart, killing him instantly. In the chaos, Staff Sgt. Warren Repsher, wounded in the face by shrapnel, is on the radio calling for a medevac bird, and Smitty is dying in Auclair’s arms.

A medical evacuation helicopter is seen in the background in this photo taken during Stephen Canty’s time in Afghanistan.(Courtesy of Stephen Canty)

Late that afternoon Darren Doss, a slim, black-haired 22-year-old, watched as his fellow Marines zipped up the two body bags, placed them tenderly on stretchers and ran out to the waiting helicopter. Away it went with the remains of Smitty and Angus, and Doss with a heavy heart turned back into the tent.

“Auclair is sitting there with, like, guts hanging off his helmet and blood all over his stuff. He is crying and he has baby wipes out trying to clean under his fingernails, but the baby wipes are all dried up.”

Darren Doss, former Marine

“And Auclair is sitting there with, like, guts hanging off his helmet and blood all over his stuff. He is crying and he has baby wipes out trying to clean under his fingernails, but the baby wipes are all dried up,” Doss recalled. “I wanted to talk to him, maybe try to cheer him up, but I didn’t know what to say, so I, like, gave him a pack of baby wipes I’d gotten in the mail, and I just went outside.”

Doss fell silent. He was sitting with his arms on his knees, head down, eyes wide and unseeing. Two of his former platoon-mates, Nick Rudolph and Stephen Canty, sat watching him. They’d gotten together in Philadelphia for a reunion of sorts: Canty was video-taping interviews for a documentary about the struggles of returning combat veterans. The camera was off and for hours they’d just been talking.

Doss picked up the narrative: The battalion held a memorial service for Smitty and Angus. The next day, Doss’s platoon went out on patrol and immediately there was a large explosion and Marines started taking fire. “We were in open desert and you could hear rounds bouncing off the rocks and no one took cover because we were like, just flat open,” Doss said.

Burning with revenge, the Marines responded with a hurricane of rifle and machine-gun fire, blowing apart adobe walls and ripping one insurgent to shreds. “We fucked up this dude, and another guy was like dragging him, dragging him behind a wall,” said Doss. “And I saw him throwing up after he dragged that dude in and we, like, just leveled the place, shot the whole place up, went insane! But … yeah.”

Then what? Doss paused, glancing around to where Rudolph and Canty were sitting, listening.

“We walked back in and I had an MRE,” a military ration, he said. The room erupted in laughter. Life at war goes on!

That gaiety hides a deeper, lasting pain at losing loved ones in combat. A 2004 study of Vietnam combat veterans by Ilona PIvar, now a psychologist the Department of Veterans Affairs, found that grief over losing a combat buddy was comparable, more than 30 years later, to that of bereaved a spouse whose partner had died in the previous six months.

‘A War Of Moral Injury’

In Afghanistan, some ugly aspects of the local culture and the brutality of the Taliban rubbed American sensibilities raw, setting the stage for deeper moral injury among Marines like Nick Rudolph.

1-grunts-wounded-fb53b51450d3ae93fd9993ed5990eda4
U.S. military soldiers tend to a local Afghan man, who was shot after being suspected of planting an IED roadside bomb in Genrandai village in September 2012. (Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty Images)

He remembered one time where Marines helped local Afghans build a school, near Combat Outpost San Diego, outside Marjah. “And all the kids went to that school, and the Taliban came over and splashed acid in their faces and, like, horribly deformed them,” he said. “And it was because they went to a school that we built and they didn’t like it. They didn’t view it as we were trying to help them be educated. They just didn’t give two fucks at all.

“You see the Afghan tradition of having basically boys dance for grown men and they give them money and the guy who gives the most money gets to take the boy home. We are partnering with guys who are basically screwing the neighbors’ kids, 6- and 7-year-olds, and we are supposed to grin and bear it because our cultures don’t mesh?” Rudolph said, his voice rising. “When I really want to fuckin’ strangle those dudes?”

1-grunts-canty-be0dbdad8536e8ac41335ca3adc97d55
Stephen Canty during his time in Afghanistan.(Courtesy of Stephen Canty)

Stephen Canty, now 24, is living in Charlottesville, Va., and trying to make sense of his own wartime experience. He told of manning a vehicle checkpoint one day, when along came a middle-aged man on a moped with two bruised little boys on the back. They had makeup on and their mascara was running because they were crying, and the Marines knew they’d been raped. “So you check ‘em,” Canty said of the men and boys, “and they have no weapons, and by our mission here they’re good to go – they’re OK! And we’re supposed to keep going on missions with these guys.

“Your morals start to degrade.”

On his second combat deployment in Afghanistan, Canty shot and killed an Afghan who was dragged into the Marines’ combat outpost just before he died. “I just lit him up,” he recalled, brushing his long hair out of his eyes. “One of the bullets bounced off his spinal cord and came out his eyeball, and he’s laying there in a wheelbarrow clinging to the last seconds of his life, and he’s looking up at me with one of his eyes and just pulp in the other. And I was like 20 years old at the time. I just stared down at him … and walked away. And I will … never feel anything about that. I literally just don’t care whatsoever.”

But Canty wondered what kind of person didn’t have qualms about killing. “Are you some kind of sociopath that you can just look at a dude you shot three or four times and just kind of walk away? I think I even smiled, not in an evil way but just like, what a fucked-up world we live in – you’re a 40-year-old dude and you probably got kids at home and stuff, and you just got smoked by some dumb 20-year-old.

Stephen Canty joins HuffPost Live to discuss some of the more difficult situations he found himself in while serving in the military.

“You learn to kill, and you kill people, and it’s like, I don’t care. I’ve seen people get shot, I’ve seen little kids get shot. You see a kid and his father sitting together and he gets shot and I give a zero fuck.

“And once you’re able to do that, what is morally right anymore? How good is your value system if you train people to kill another human being, the one thing we are taught not to do? When you create an organization based around the one taboo that all societies have?”

“How good is your value system if you train people to kill another human being, the one thing we are taught not to do? When you create an organization based around the one taboo that all societies have?”

Stephen Canty, former Marine

Canty is bright and articulate. For a guy who never feels anything about killing, he constantly monitors and analyzes his feelings about war, rubbing together his thoughts about duty and morality like worry beads, until they’re raw.

“My thought was, you did what you had to. But did I really? I saw him running and I lit him up. It’s the right thing to do in war, but in every other circumstance it’s the most wrong thing you could do,” he said. Faced with those kinds of moral challenges, “your values do change real quickly. It becomes a war of moral injury.”

Canty’s moral injury is his own struggle. But his intimate, dark knowledge of war is also a gift – of insight, which he badly wants others to share.

“We keep going regardless of knowing the cost, regardless of knowing what it’s gonna do,” he said. “The question we have to ask the civilian population is, is it worth it, knowing these mental issues we come home with? Is it worth it?”

This is the first in a three-part series. Read Part 2 »

For help with moral injury or other mental health issues

The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury’s 24/7 live chat outreach center (also at 866-966-1020 or email resources@dcoeoutreach.org).

The Pentagon website Military OneSource for short-term, non-medical counseling.

Veterans can call, text or chat with the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 800-273-8255.