This is the kind of post that takes a shot of whiskey to write. Only, alcohol gives me migraines, so fuck that. We’re gonna talk about something that many of you live with and most of you will never be able to find words for… and that’s having witnessed or caused the death of children during your deployment. The adult pain of losing buddies and having killed others and killed parts of yourself in combat is somewhat tolerable (or at least expected) compared to the guilt and sadness that comes from the death and suffering of children. Many of you weren’t all that much older than the children you were around, some of them reminded you of your own siblings, and for those of you who were older, some of them reminded you of your kids. They all reminded you that children don’t have a choice in this world and that their innocence even in presenting a threat to you is something adults are supposed to defend…. except you couldn’t…. okay, deep breath. Grab your bottle of whiskey, and keep reading. This is tough terrain, and the only way to the other side is through it.
The fact that children have always been the victims of war doesn’t make the reality of your experience any easier. In an ideal world, when adults go to war, they’d just kill other adults… and in an even more ideal world, warfighters would only kill other warfighters, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in this hurting world we live in. In this real world, children are present in combat zones. They watch warfighters, interact with them, bring both joy and fear to them, gain and earn trust, and often get used by evil adults who enslave them as participants in war. We all know, logically, that children suffer and die in war zones. Just as they do in natural disasters and in any tragic situation in the world where adults fail to protect them.
But knowing that isn’t the issue. It’s living with your personal experience of it.
I’m not going to trigger you with graphic word portraits of images that already haunt you.
I am going to talk softly to your heart…
That ache you feel, the consuming guilt, the feelings of shame, anger, powerlessness and second guessing — those come from the soft, compassionate parts of your spirit that instinctively know that Life is to be protected. Children embody that innocence of Life. And as an adult in a position of power over life and death, you felt even more responsible to protect that innocence.
We don’t often talk about the warfighters’ softer side (and yes, every one of you has one, even if all you can feel is numb right now). Warfighters’ hearts ache from causing and witnessing the immense suffering, grief, destruction and devastating living conditions that the local civilian population endures. Emotions get very conflicted here because if you feel too much, you’ll let your guard down… and if you feel nothing, you wonder what kind of a human being you have become. The military doesn’t make it easy to show emotion, let alone “soft” ones. But just because you are culturally denied the right to show that you have a heart, doesn’t mean that your heart feels less. Quite the contrary, that tenderness gets bottled up and shoved down inside so it’s hidden from others’ view. And the pain becomes a very private wound you carry.
The death of a child kills the child in you.
When you witness children’s remains, or a child dies because of or in your presence, or you couldn’t prevent a child’s death because of rules of engagement or because you weren’t there in time or were there at the wrong time…. a part of the innocent child in you dies, too. And that is the part of you that I want to hear these words. You see, love, all the pain and grief and shame and feeling as if you failed or did the unthinkable… all that incredible sadness, all that was lost and broken in you… comes from a very tender place in your being. The child in you. You see, you go to war as adult as you can be and your mind throws up protective walls that help you endure and do what you’re trained to do. But inside, the child in you holds on to all the hope that love and joy and beauty still exist and will someday return. That child in you holds and protects the essence of your being: Love. And when you experience the death of a child in this world, a part of that child in you dies, too. And you feel deeply broken.
Your adult mind rages against the reality of a child’s death. You feel as if you should have been powerful enough to stop it or change the circumstances and those beliefs can consume you. You feel the grief of the parents, the family, and how fucked up we adults are when we can allow and create a world where killing each other is how we solve problems. Children remind all of us of who we could have been.
So what do you do? How do you deal with this pain? It hurts so deep inside and the shame and guilt keep you silent. After all, what would people think if they knew?
This kind of pain is the kind that drives people to suicide. These unspeakable acts of war become the unforgivable memories of war that eat you alive. The deep sadness at knowing that your presence (the presence of your country) participated in the suffering and changed or ended a child and family’s life forever couples with the aloneness you feel back home knowing how blessed and carefree kids are here and what horrible conditions children suffer back over there. And continue to suffer. What do you do with this weight you carry?
Listen carefully now as I whisper this to you…
Allow yourself to be held in compassion.
There are no magic words that are going to make what happened right. It will never be right. Yet, you are not excluded from compassion. The human heart is amazingly capable of feeling deep compassion toward others while holding itself to the harshest condemnation. Guilt and believing that you should have been more powerful to change what happened are normal feelings to have, yet your heart and your spirit also need compassion that allows you to see yourself in light of your true nature… a loving human being who was also placed in extreme conditions. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t feel guilty. If your heart wasn’t loving, what happened wouldn’t bother you. Try to see yourself with the compassion you give to others. Imagine that a loved one felt as you do and had been through what you have been through, what would you think of him or her? What would you tell him?
Consider the power of forgiveness.
You can’t undo what happened. And if a child died because of you, the thought that you deserve anything but hell may be unthinkable. Why should you deserve forgiveness? Why should you be here when they’re dead? Why should your kids be alive when that child isn’t? Why should you ever allow yourself to be happy when you caused such deep pain? Those are not easy questions to answer. Yet, if you pull yourself out of the tunnel vision of guilt and look at the broader picture, you’ll see that there is something bigger at play in our lives. Why you, that moment, that child, those circumstances, that precise second in time? As painful as it seems, allow yourself to consider the possibility that we choose our lives and our moments of death before we come to this earth… and if so, that child’s life was fully lived when he or she died. (I know that theory stretches a lot of beliefs; stretching beliefs and thinking is what I’m here to do.)
What if in the big picture of life, you were right where you were meant to be? And what went down went down. And there is more compassion and grace for you than you know? And forgiveness isn’t something someone gives you, but something you have to take for yourself?
Honor their lives with life.
The desire to feel redeemed requires action. In Bosnia, mass graves from the 1992-95 civil war are continually located and the remains excavated. Shortly after I moved back to the States in 2004, I was pregnant with my second child and working a desk job in our local town. I remember being on break at work and checking the Bosnian news, and a two-sentence report came on that said they had found the remains of “two small children who had died hugging each other”. Maybe it was because I was pregnant, I don’t know, but that bit of news and the image it evoked hit my hard. I could imagine my own children in that position. It haunted me. And I vowed that I would not let their deaths be in vain. That they would not be forgotten. So, I wrote a novel about them (no, it’s not published and yes, it needs work.) My point is, your heart has felt totally helpless and powerless and it needs action to feel as if it is doing something to honor the lives of those little ones.
There are no magical answers to moving through the pain you feel over this. That pain comes down to the thoughts you think, the perspective you have, the beliefs you hold about yourself. And the way to move forward is to open your heart to new thoughts and new beliefs. So pull off that protective armor and know that it is not only okay to hurt as you do, but it is a sign that your heart and spirit are still tender. And that is a good thing. In the big picture of life, you are also a victim of the tragedy of war. That child in you that died over there also didn’t get protected in the grand scheme of humanity. It’s okay to be a warfighter and feel this intense compassion. And it’s time that you allow yourself to feel that way toward you.