Iraq Vet Offers to Family He Destroyed — His Anguish

In a powerful article called Atonement in The New Yorker by the unparalleled Dexter Filkins we get a story that should be part of every recruiting package to anyone who thinks joining the armed forces is a good thing to do.

It tells of Lu Lobello, a hell-raising kid who joined the U.S. Marines and found himself in a fire-fight in Baghdad that nothing. nothing, nothing, had prepared him — or any of his squad– for.  Trained only for “when in doubt, light ’em up,” he was part of a massacre of an Armenian Christian family who were themselves trying to get out of harms way.  His memories of the afternoon have destroyed the rest of his life:  dishonorable discharge, heavy drinking,  continual insomnia.  Finally, in desperation, he decided to track down the young woman in the car they had shot at. And he found her — living in the United States, her shattered shoulder healed.  Filkins, who had written about the family after the incident, helped arrange a meeting between Lobello and Nora Kachadoorian.  And, out of uniform, away free fire zones and in the deepest wonder of human beings, he found forgiveness.

This is a story you will long remember.  It should be widely known, and read for all its lessons:

  • once in a war, you don’t get to chose what happens
  • what happens in 10 minutes may affect the rest of your life
  • bullets don’t know good guys from bad
  • no matter what you’ve prepared for, you haven’t prepared for this
  • no matter what your superiors tell you, they haven’t planned for this
  • some people, some times, find empathy beyond the imaginable

Some excerpts… but read it all..  New Yorker Oct 29 & Nov 5  [Sorry, no complete link.  You have to log in, or buy the issue, or go the library or a friend with a subscription, and of which will reward you]

” During the war, I [Filkins] sometimes asked American soldiers about dead civilians, and the reaction was always defensive, even angry. But these marines spoke in sombre tones about what had happened.  The firefight had been intense–they’d shot five thousand rounds, and seen some eleven of the comrades wounded.  When the Kachadoorians had come barreling through the intersection the marines  thought they were under attack.  They called for the Kachadoorians to stop, and then they opened fire. When they realized what they had done they ran into the middle of the intersection –with the firefight still going on–to rescue the survivors.”

A navy corpsman. Mike DeGaetano, worked on Nora’s shattered shoulder.. “He had asked for a helicopter to take the wounded Iraqis to an American field hospital, and his request was denied — the hospital wasn’t taking Iraqi civilians. The marines screamed and screamed into the radio, but the answer was no.  So they patched up Nora and Anna and the others and sent them away.

Several days later, in an Iraqi hospital, doctors looked at Nora’s shoulder.  She kept screaming for Mike, the corpsman.  “The orderlies began to snip the dressings and pull them away from her skin.  Nora shrieked.  The doctor said he could give her something for the pain, but the wait would be long.  ‘Please give me an anesthetic,” Nora pleaded, as the orderlies kept tugging.  Then she shrieked again, a long high pitched scream that frightened everyone.  The doctor winced and left the room.  Not long afterward, I [Filkins] left to.

“The trouble he got into was completely and utterly due to post-traumatic stress.  It’s not a normal thing for a human being to take a rifle and kill another human being.”  Lobello’s squad leader.

Having been discharged as “other than honorable” he got little help — “a disability payment of one thousand dollars a month, and he started receiving treatment, mostly in the form of antidepressants.  “I was a functioning, fucking, crazy person,” he said.  Without the Marines , Lobello found himself cut off from the main source of his identity. “The Marine Corps is like a church, and I felt excommunicated.”

Like the police or the FBI, the Marine Corps represented its own moral universe, and institution that gave you license to kill and absolved you of all your sins. . Without it, Lobello had to figure out things on his own.’

As time went on, he began to harbor deeper suspicions.  How was it he and his buddies, all good and patriotic young men, had been thrust into a situation where they were almost certain to kill innocent people?

Some of the most severely affected soldiers suffer ‘moral injury.’  “It occurs when you’ve done something in the moment that you were told by your superiors that you had to do, and believed truthfully and honorably , that you had to do, but which nonetheless violated your own ethical commitments,” he said.  “It’s bad moral luck…   Rules of engagement are central to soldier’s well-being.  They hate it when they kill someone they didn’t need to kill.  It’s a scar on their soul.

 When Filkins asked the Kachadoorians if they would meet Lobello “they did not hesitate. “If he is asking for our forgiveness, then we will give him forgiveness…God ordered us to forgive.  He forgives so we must forgive others.  Even people who killed our dears.”

And Lobello was not alone.  “When I [Filkins] called Kenneth Toone, a former lance corporal, he started sobbing the moment I mentioned the Kachadoorians, and he cried for several minutes.  “I’m haunted,” Toone said.  “I’m so glad we found them.  I think a lot of us want to see them and say we’re sorry.  We don’t get that chance.  There was a different mind-set over there: we deal with it when we come back.  But wait a second:  what were we doing over there? They gave us the power to shoot anyone we wanted and face no consequences.  Well you have to live with yourself.  It destroyed me.  I’m a wreck.”

According to Toone and others half the men of Fox Company face severe psychological problems .

Toone had not found his way back to his Mormon faith “I don’t believe any of it anymore. We are atheists, several of us now, because of what happened.   I can’t deal with the thought.  Basically, it was — we murdered them.  I don’t understand God–whatever, if there is a God.  You don’t understand how terrible it really is.

The men’s recollections of the shooting are a reel of hideous images: a dead teen-age boy splayed out in the backseat of the car; the mother with a mangled arm holding up a baby who was red with blood.

“Of course our force was excessive. But that’s how we were trained.  We use maximum force.  We didn’t train for civilians coming out of houses.”

Nick Lopez remembers Brigadier John Kelly coming into the firefight yelling at the top of his lung, nearly hysterical with anger “You’re killing civilians,” he said.  But we didn’t stop.

“A woman is on the ground behind the car, cradled by young marines.  She’s shot up so bad the whole side of her body is peeled away, still alive.   What do I do?  asks Lopez.  “I lost my marriage over this…wonderful lady… [says] you are not the same person when you come back.”

“The Kachadoorians had always put faith before war.  Nora’s father, James, refused to pick up a gun when he was pressed into serving in Sadaam’s army; he was imprisoned twice for being a Jehova’s Witness.

Lobello had come before the Kachadoorians, whose sons he had killed, to beg their forgiveness.  Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist, told me that Lobello was a supplicant , making the only plea he could: “I don’t have money to give you.  I am not going to take my life.  I can’t give my blood.  All I can give you is my anguish. “

Margaret [the mother] at the end of the meeting stands up and says to Lobello, “You remind me of my older son, Nicholas”  –one of the men who died from the marines guns–   “Even your behavior.  Your looking.  Everything.  Everything.  Believe me.”


Our deepest anger of course should be for the planners, war=whoopers, and executors of this war.  To send a massive army into the Capital City of a large country, with heavy heavy weapons — machine guns that fire 1,000 rounds a minute– and not be prepared to evacuate the wounded, to deny use of helicopters, shows either moral or intellectual idiocy that is not repairable, and which should not be voted back into office.





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