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Is anyone ever truly prepared to kill?

(Page 3 of 3)

At the end of the 1989 US invasion of Panama, Army chaplain R. Ryder Stevens, now retired, and another chaplain sought out soldiers individually. "One guy talked, but kept his M-16 between us and kept taking it apart, cleaning it, and putting it together again," says Colonel Stevens. "Finally he blurted out, 'I murdered a woman and her baby the other day and I'm going to burn in hell!' " He had followed the rules of engagement and shot at a car that didn't stop fully at a checkpoint. After he was assured that God's love was big enough to forgive him, "he fell into my arms crying," Stevens recounts.

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In Iraq, there may be one chaplain for every 1,500 soldiers, Rieckhoff says. Those who need help must be encouraged to seek it. But the system is failing, many insist. Seeking help carries a stigma, and procedures for getting help lack privacy.

Making it easier to ask for help

The case of Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany - cited by Sheehan-Miles in his book - is a vivid example of what can go wrong.

Sergeant Pogany experienced panic attacks while serving with the Special Forces in Iraq, and sought medical help. But he was urged to reconsider his request for the sake of his career. Later he faced a court-martial for "cowardice" - the first such case since Vietnam. Only in July 2004, nine months after he was made a public example, was it determined the attacks were probably caused by an antimalarial drug, and all charges were then dropped. [Editor's note: The original version of this story failed to mention that all charges were dropped against Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany when it was determined that his panic attacks in Iraq were probably due to an antimalarial drug he had been given.]

"That kind of thing sends shock waves throughout the military community," says Sheehan-Miles, who didn't seek help himself for fear of ending his career. He got back on track only when he began focusing on helping other veterans. Now executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, he asks, "How do you take away the stigma of asking for help?"

Everyone coming home from a war zone should be required to have two or three counseling sessions, Sheehan-Miles proposes. "A lot of people think they don't need it who really do, and it ends up coming out in their lives later on," he says.

The Marine Corps' Warrior Transition Program - a pilot effort run by the chaplain corps of the Marines - is required for everyone returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. During transit home, marines discuss their most positive and negative experiences, and find succor in sharing with others.

Soldiers who may have killed in the line of duty are included in the program, although there is no specific focus on that particular experience.

Rieckhoff, who just formed Operation Truth ( to enable Iraq vets to explain their experiences to folks back home, says America "isn't ready for the guys to come back the way they are going to come back." Thousands are going to need help and "all you get at the end of the war is a 'a don't-beat-your-wife briefing,' as we call it." The VA needs more funding, he adds, and "the whole nation needs to commit to this."

Shay's ideal for returning soldiers would be peer counseling from volunteer vets, who he says can reach those in need better than can mental-health professionals. This is now happening on a limited basis through VA Readjustment Centers run by vets.

Many say Americans must learn to be honest about the nature of combat. In a culture saturated with media violence, killing has become almost trivialized. Many veterans have the wrenching experience of being asked, "How many people did you kill?"

"They should not be treated as some sort of figure from a video game," says French.

Throughout history, cultures have had various means to purge warriors of their combat experience and help them readjust to civilian life. "Many had purification rites the whole community took part in," Shay says. In ancient Greece, drama provided a cathartic experience for the veterans and the community. Some African societies today have cleansing ceremonies that reintegrate fighters into community life.

He would like to see some interdenominational, nonpartisan civil or religious rite in the US that goes beyond parades and welcome-home ceremonies.

"People coming back from having killed aren't necessarily injured, but need to purify themselves," he says. "And we sent them and need to be purified, too."