The war in Iraq may be over, but the memories of that conflict are recurring nightmares for some U.S. troops who witnessed horrific scenes of violence. In debriefing sessions in Baghdad, they are voicing anger and grief at what they saw.
They're called “critical event stress debriefing” sessions, and they’re now mandatory for U.S. soldiers heading home. The aim is to help those returning from combat know when and how to stop acting — and reacting — like soldiers. Last year, after Afghanistan, Americans were horrified when a number of returning soldiers brought the violence of the battlefield home with them. Four combat veterans at Fort Bragg alone killed their spouses, and two of them then turned their guns on themselves.
The debriefing sessions, which took place on Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds, are intended to head off the potentially explosive consequences of “post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
We were allowed inside one session, for soldiers of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. What we saw — and heard — was extraordinary.
AT FIRST, WISECRACKS
There were the typical GI wisecracks at first, some awkward silences as the first questions went around the room and then some of the usual war stories. But the process wasn’t about war stories. It was about horror-of-war stories, those seconds in the cauldron of battle that leave an indelible imprint.
And gradually, as the room seemed to get smaller, the stories came out: The tough young recruit frothing in anger as he recalled a lieutenant’s command to leave a dead brother soldier on the road — another crew would retrieve him, “Keep that vehicle moving!” The veteran squad sergeant, all sinew, jaw working against his grief, recalling the task of pulling the remains of a dead friend from his ruined tank, “even a piece of skull that I put in my pocket and carried around, I don’t know why.”
THE SLAUGHTER OF INNOCENTS
And finally, from nearly every one of the 16 soldiers in the room, heartbreaking details about the death of innocents at their hands. The killings occurred April 9, the day before Saddam’s statue was hauled down in a scene that told the world the regime had been vanquished.
Amid a series of suicide bombings, soldiers at a checkpoint near the entrance to one of Saddam’s palaces had been ordered to take out any vehicle that ignored instructions to stop and a volley of warning shots.
An Iraqi soldier had barreled through, dressed as a civilian in a car full of weapons, and he’d been cut down by these soldiers hunkered down in ambush position. Then came another car, whose driver also ignored warning shots, and the soldiers opened fire with deadly purpose. A father and his daughter were killed. The mother, who emerged from the burning car unhurt, spent the next four hours in the faces of the men who had just wiped out her family.
“That was the worst thing of the whole war,” one soldier said. From another: “Having to listen to her cry and scream that whole time, that she and her family were just coming home from church services (they were Christians, not Muslims), I’ll never forget it.”
Another voice added that he saw the terrible accident unfolding as though in slow motion and knew at the outset, when he saw who was in the car, “all it would take is one guy to start firing” and then he’d have to decide — shoot a brother soldier to try to prevent a tragedy, or.... But everything happened so fast, there was no time for that decision.
A young soldier nodded his head, listening, thinking the thoughts he then spoke: “I just hope that these people can find it in their hearts to forgive us, and that they know it was an accident.”
Then Spc. 1st Class Bill Scates of Oklahoma City spoke. “I had to look that woman right in the eyes,” he said, “and I felt so horrible for her. I’ve got a little girl.”
His rage began to boil. “I’m f———- constantly angry over what happened with that family. ... I’m pissed off at my chain of command for not putting up signs in every language (at that checkpoint), to warn ‘em. Normally I’m a talkative guy, a happy person, … but I’ve been real quiet lately, because I’m so pissed off. I’m thinking more and more I’m so frustrated, so angry, I want to choke somebody ... constantly.”
And there it was, that level of honesty that is the point of the “stress debriefing” sessions. Scates later said that after talking about it “the weight’s kinda off me, sort of. A little bit.”
It is a little bit at a crucial time, an emotional unburdening so important for all the soldiers coming home, if they are ever to leave this war behind them.
(NBC News correspondent Mike Taibbi is on assignment in Iraq.)