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Opinion | Soldier's false guilt can often lead to moral injury

By Steven Beynon
On April 1, 2014

I'm serving my sixth year in the Army as a Cavalry Scout Sergeant in the Ohio Army National Guard's 2/107th Cavalry, 28th Infantry Division. I deployed with the Ohio Army National Guard's 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team to Afghanistan 2011-2012.

Tony Lang is a Miami student and Army veteran. He is a recipient of the military's Bronze Star with Valor award for actions in Afghanistan. Today he is ashamed of his prestigious award. Lang believes the actions that lead to the award got innocents killed. His name has been changed to protect his identity.

Lang is credited by the Army for fending off a Taliban advance and saving the lives of other soldiers. "Me and my team were cut off from the rest of our group," Lang said. "There were five of us and three Afghan Army soldiers. One of my soldiers suffered a concussion and some broken bones."

The fighting went on for a while. Two of the Afghan soldiers were killed and another American was seriously injured. "We had to fight off Taliban and take care of our wounded at the same time.," Lang said. "It was incredibly chaotic. There was only four of us that could fight. The Taliban were getting more aggressive."

With ammo dwindling down and casualties mounting up, Lang called for artillery fire dangerously close to him. When the bombs fell, the battle ended. After a long stretch of constant shooting and shouting, everything was silent. Medical evacuation aircraft came to pick up the soldiers killed and wounded in the fighting. Lang was then able to regroup with the rest of his platoon. "We went into the area I called for fire support on to gather up anything the enemy left behind," Lang said.

Among the debris, the platoon discovered the bodies of an older male and a female child. Their wounds were the result of Lang's artillery. "When we found those two, I fell to my knees and couldn't believe what I did," Lang said.

There was a long pause in Lang telling his story at this point. This event was only a year ago.

The Taliban often have children fight for them, but it's unheard of for them to have women and elder men within their ranks. All evidence pointed to these two Afghans being civilians.

"There was a farm where we were shooting at. But we've walked by it a thousand times and it has always been abandoned. Even if civilians are in the area, they usually take off before the Taliban attack. I had no reason to believe anyone was there," Lang said. In the heat of combat it is easy for troops to quickly become very tired and stressed. "I got tunnel vision and lost situational awareness. I was scared. Almost half my soldiers were dead or too injured to move safely," Lang added.

Lang often flip-flops on whether or not his decision to call for artillery was the right one. Because of his actions, he and most of his soldiers are still alive. Yet he is haunted with constant gruesome visions of the child and old man he killed.

Despite the debate on Lang's decision-making process, he is incredibly ashamed of the Bronze Star he received as a result of this battle; he refuses to display or wear it.

"You can give me credit for getting rid of a lot of Taliban. I don't know if me or my soldiers would have all died that day. At the time it seemed like that. Looking back, I'm not too sure. I panicked. That's a terrible quality for a soldier, especially a leader," Lang said. He constantly asks himself if the two innocent lives were worth him and his soldiers' safety. While his leadership stands with him, upper-level command started an investigation on the battle. Lang hasn't gotten any updates on his investigation. Contact with military legal representatives failed to be useful on providing any information. All he knows is that he is possibly being investigated for murder and excessive use of force.

It is possible the investigation is over, but Lang may never know.

He followed his mission's Rules of Engagement, the criteria of use of force troops have to follow. Large explosives are not allowed to be used in most urban environments in Afghanistan.

The farm that was destroyed in the fight was allegedly abandoned for months before this event took place, the surrounding area was clear of any other civilization.

Lang said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but refuses to be officially diagnosed in fear of any impact that might have on his future career. He said he went through a phase of being suicidal, but no longer feels the need to end his life.

Veteran unemployment has always been higher than the civilian side. Discrimination against mental disorders is likely to be part of that problem.

"I thought about it. I couldn't deal with the guilt of that in addition to other things every combat veteran probably deals with. I don't think I'm at risk anymore. I just developed a drinking problem," Lang said.

Nearly one in five suicides in the U.S. is a veteran. In 2012, suicide among troops exceeded combat deaths with 349 as opposed to 310 troops killed in Afghanistan. In 2013 the suicides decreased to 296, probably due to reduction of force and less combat.

The VA found the rate of veteran suicide is 22 per day in 2012 and more than 20 percent of all veteran deaths in 2010 were suicides. Data for 2013 is still being analyzed.

Roughly 11 percent of Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD, according to the VA. This is an astounding number considering that most statistics state less than 10 percent of troops are combat forces, and an even smaller number than that see combat or even deploy.

The most extraordinary element about this story is that it isn't extraordinary at all. This is an incredibly common scenario. Many troops have survivor's guilt and suffer moral injuries.

The sad truth is that the trooper has to believe he made the right decision. He can't be responsible for collateral damage if intentions were righteous. If he can't believe in himself and the decisions that saved his friends and defeated the enemy, than the trooper is likely to be a part of these saddening suicide statistics.

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