“The Instrument of Your Fate”
by JOSEPH BRETT
"Forrest Hollifield and I are flying this mission together to help and heal others. Only veterans who know the randomness of death in combat can truly appreciate the old adage that life is a gift. That is why it is called the present."
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Joe Brett—veteran and Harvard Kennedy School alumnus—addresses Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. He writes, “I gave them a pin of my old unit, 24th Corps, which happens to be a blue heart on a white shield…or in this case a symbol for peace. We all wept when I gave this out with the words that it was up to us to all work for peace, now that we have met each other as brothers at this memorial…One former Soviet colonel hugged me and, with tears in his eyes, said that all soldiers should be veterans.” Photograph courtesy of Joe BrettTHE LIFE LESSON that grasped my soul was born amid the throes of war: If one does not manage the instrument of his fate, it will manage him.
Wars have always produced wounds and soldiers have always suffered depression, and even committed suicide, as a result. These deep, often fatal, wounds are not always physical. Mental and emotional trauma—referred to as moral wounds—have emerged as a separate category of serious wartime injury. More than 7,000 veteran suicides a year speak to this truth, yet we have not fully embraced the reality.
I am surprised to find myself a typical case study for veterans with moral wounds, not because I am unique but because I am no different than any other veteran who had to face a moment of complete moral and spiritual collapse. My future was set in motion in Vietnam on July 30, 1970.
I was an aerial artillery observer/forward air controller—everyday hunters who killed our enemy by directing artillery, bombs, and napalm on them. Our job was to also count the kills, as that was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara‘s matrix for winning the war, and the basis of promotions for career officers.Pulitzer Prize-winning author and war correspondent David Wood tells us that if a soldier kills another soldier in combat, he or she has a 40 percent higher risk of suffering a moral wound. (If a civilian is killed, the percentage is even higher.)
That July, I was a few weeks from heading home. I felt my assigned pilot was too much of a daredevil for my “old guy,” cautionary status, so I casually switched flights with a nice, newer lieutenant, Forrest Hollifield. The benefit to Forrest was that I took the dawn patrol. He got to sleep later, and I got the pilot I preferred. The completely unexpected happened when his pilot killed them both doing a stunt on takeoff. When my pilot and I landed, I saw the body bags being zipped up. My only thought was that it should have been me.
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