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(Photo from NYT, courtesy the man’s family)

The New York Times began a new series today, “War Torn,” that focuses on crimes and wartime experiences of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings (or been charged with them) after coming home. The first piece, “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” is a heart-breaking, provocative, and essential piece of reportage. The paper also offers multimedia case studies, a slide show, an audio interview with a psychiatrist, and an excerpt from a related book.

 “Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories [of violence committed by veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan]. Lakewood, Wash.: ‘Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.’ Pierre, S.D.: ‘Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.’ Colorado Springs: ‘Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.’

Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.

The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killingi n this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.”

This story hits home for me, having two brothers that have spent time fighting in both countries. I don’t see either very often, and when I do, the subject is off-limits. Occasionally, something about their time there will slip out — one Christmas, right after Saddam had been captured by the U.S. (“like a rat!”), one of my brothers kept mentioning how he swore he saw Hussein driving a taxi around Baghdad, and how he should have just shot him in the fuckin’ head right there, while he had a chance, how he always regretted not shooting the driver in the fuckin’ head. Another time, when someone asked if he had killed anyone, my brother got quiet, then noted that people there got killed all the time, but that the military was very respectful, that he had helped bury dead combatants in mass graves as soon as possible out of respect for Islamic mores and customs.

It’s hard to hear these stories, and even harder to figure out how to process them (imagine how hard it must be for my brothers themselves). As I’ve begun writing this, I’ve gotten…increasingly agitated, simply because I don’t know how to make sense of it all, or how to work my concern for my brothers (and people I went to high school with, and other acquaintances) into everyday life. But as I continue to ponder the subject, looking forward to the next story in the series, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Brockton D. Hunter, a criminal defense lawyer:

“To deny the frequent connection between combat trauma and subsequent criminal behavior is to deny one of the direct societal costs of war and to discard another generation of troubled heroes.”

It’s difficult to make sense of stories in which there may be no winners, only losers, only gaping holes where pieces of ourselves used to be. But it’s important to review them and cast a critical eye on them — and I applaud the Times for highlighting this important issue.

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