By Chad Storlie:
For the military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, their wars overseas have been replaced by a battlefield no less challenging but frighteningly different—how to decompress, adapt, and succeed at home. C.J. Chivers, a US Marine veteran and gifted writer, describes the heartbreaking story of Sam Siatta, who broke into a house while catatonically drunk and suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS) and was sentenced to prison in Illinois for his crime. Chivers’ story details Siatta’s time as a Marine in Afghanistan and then his fight to finally be freed from jail.
Siatta was from a difficult background and became a great Marine in the difficult conflict that was, is, and will remain the US fight in Afghanistan. C.J. Chivers knows Marines, and he knows what makes a great Marine. Clearly, Siatta was one of them. Siatta was hardworking and relaxed under extreme stress; he led by example and was an amazingly accurate shot, even while under fire. During my military experience, I was a good officer and a good Special Forces officer. The difference between good and great in combat seems narrow to civilians, but military veterans know that it is a wide gulf that very few achieve. Many people are “good” in combat, but only a few are great at it. The great ones develop their military skills into an almost mythic combination of art, science, fitness, and detachment that makes them the foundation of their military units. Siatta was one of those Marines—one of whom the United States should be proud.
The larger question that Chivers’ article calls out (but does not answer) is that we as a country did this to Siatta. The United States decided that we needed soldiers—Marines, sailors, airmen, and others—to answer the country’s call and be successful in the longest insurgency that the United States has been involved in overseas. Moreover, the training of U.S. military personnel in all services has reached a brutal combination of art and science that develops guns, knives, hands, and knees into weapons. Even the voice and fingers that control radios, GPS, and computer terminals are now weapons to control GPS-guided bombs and precision drone-launched Hellfire missiles. Good military training makes every part of a soldier or Marine into a weapon.
After training, Siatta and hundreds of thousands of others have been around the globe to fight the complex wars of counterinsurgency. Difficult training followed by hard, frequent combat assignments made the US military a skilled tactical fighting machine. However, soldiers are not drones; they cannot sit contentedly for days undisturbed by emotion or conscience until the next battle starts.
The fundamental problem for America was how to turn the war off when the warriors came home. If the military has been great at training soldiers and Marines for combat, then the military and US society have been abject failures at creating a way for combat veterans to dial back their military fighting skills to integrate into US society. As 2016 fades into a glimmer, the US economy is challenged to find growth, schools need passionate teachers, businesses need innovative workers, and the government needs leaders passionate for their citizens. Skills in leadership, innovation, teaching, and management are all skills that military combat veterans have in abundance, but they cannot be applied unless we do a better job of helping combat veterans “turn the war off.”
Fighting was the challenge that veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq accepted and completed quite well. Now, the 99% of America who did not fight has to help military veterans find ways to adapt. We still want a warrior standing in front of us, because warriors lead, accept challenges, see the possible when the impossible is present, and make sure everyone makes it home. What we do not want is the stress from the memory of conflict, the lifesaving reactions that are not needed stateside, and the belief that no one looks out for them when we desperately need them here at home.
Chad Storlie is an OpsLens Contributor and retired Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Special Forces. Storlie deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002-03 and three separate times to Bosnia and Herzegovina.