What we owe our veterans, and ourselves

No matter what they face on the battlefield, warriors often find that their toughest fight comes afterwards. 

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Staff writer Scott Peterson in Fallujah, Iraq, November 2004

When Scott Peterson embedded with the marines in Raider Platoon in 2004, they couldn’t understand why he would agree to go weaponless with them into what they knew would be extremely dangerous house-to-house combat in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. They offered him an M-16 assault rifle. No thanks. At least a pistol? Still no. He was a witness, a journalist carrying cameras and a notebook.

Scott spent a month with Raider Platoon in one of the most intense battles of the Iraq War. What they went through, he went through – and documented. And it is no exaggeration to say they went through hell.

Scott tracked down these men 10 years later. They came home, but most couldn’t leave Fallujah behind. The toll on them and their loved ones – the alcohol, violence, depression, and suicidal thoughts – has been devastating. But after a tortuous decade, there are also many stories of redemption, of the love of family, of faith and steadiness. Scott’s account is not easy reading. But knowing just a little of what these marines went through can help us understand what we ask of, and owe, our warriors.

You may also be curious about the storyteller himself, the unarmed guy who became an invisible member of this band of brothers. I’ll let Scott tell you about that:

“One of the most unexpected blessings of my presence was for the families, who normally had no idea where their marines or soldiers are – but during Fallujah were able to read and see daily reports and photographs. It was good in one way – they could follow the fight – but also led to some days of anxiety, if there appeared to be gaps in coverage.

“I was anxious to contact them all after a decade, unaware of what their state of mind might be: ‘Hi, remember me? Do you mind if I come to your home, meet your wife and kids, and ask you questions about an event you may have wanted to bury part of?’ Their welcome was remarkably warm, and open, as it was a decade before.

“But when I visited the family of one marine who had been particularly affected by post-traumatic stress after Fallujah, his stepfather asked me an obvious question, within a minute of sitting down: ‘Why has nothing happened to you?’ 

“It was a sudden question, but one I had grappled with many times before while doing this work for 26 years. I have been affected, of course, and I have cried.... But I long ago created a firewall in my mind, which separates my work and its occasional horrors on one side, and on the other all the love and healing I draw from my family – and give in return.”

Warrior or civilian, we can’t escape the pain and suffering of the world. We can all broaden our family, however, to embrace the wounded and traumatized, the lost and bereft. We can all choose the side of life, love, and healing.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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