Veterans bear the burden of war long after they leave the battlefield. It’s time for America to acknowledge it.

Iraq circa 2006. Photo courtesy of Ben Sledge

I went to the market
Where all the families shop
I pulled out my Ka-bar
And started to chop
Your left right left right left right kill
Your left right left right you know I will
-Military cadence

“You can shoot her…” the First Sergeant tells me. “Technically.

We’re standing on a rooftop watching black smoke pillars rise from a section of the city where two of my teammates are taking machine gun fire. Below, the small cluster of homes we’ve taken over is taking sporadic fire as well. He hands me his rifle with a high powered scope and says, “See for yourself.”

It’s the six year old girl who gives me flowers.

We call her the Flower Girl. She hangs around our combat outpost because we give her candy and hugs. She gives us flowers in return. What everyone else at the outpost knew (except for me, until that day) was that she also carried weapons for insurgents. Sometimes, in the midst of a firefight, she would carry ammunition across the street to unknown assailants.

According to the rules of engagement, we could shoot her. No one ever did. Not even when the First Sergeant morbidly reassured them on a rooftop in the middle of Iraq.

Other soldiers didn’t end up as lucky.

Sometimes they would find themselves paired off against a woman or teenager intent on killing them. So they’d pull the trigger. One of the sniper teams I worked with recounted an evening where he laid up a pile of people trying to plant an IED. It was a “turkey shoot,” he told me laughing. But then he got quiet and said, “Eventually they sent out a woman and this dumb kid.” I didn’t need to ask what happened. His voice said it all.

I often wonder what would have happened if the Flower Girl pointed a rifle at me, but I’m afraid I already know. The thought didn’t matter anyway. There was enough baggage from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq that coming home was full of uncertainty, anger, and confusion — and not, as I had been led to believe, warmth and safety.

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Source: Benjamin Sledge/Human Parts