By writing the paper, Charles Whittington thought he would confront the anxieties that had tormented him since he returned from war.
He knew it wasn't normal to dwell on the pleasure of sticking his knife between an enemy soldier's ribs. But by recording his words, maybe he'd begin to purge the fixation.
So Whittington, an Iraq veteran, submitted an essay on the allure of combat for his English class at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville. He called war a drug and wrote that killing "is something that I do not just want but something I really need so I can feel like myself."
Whittington's instructor gave him an A and suggested that he seek publication for the piece. The essay appeared in the Oct. 26 edition of the campus newspaper.
Two weeks later, the former infantryman was called to a meeting with high-ranking college officials, who told him he would be barred from campus until he obtained a psychological evaluation. "We all believe in freedom of speech, but we have to really be cautious in this post- Virginia Tech world," says college spokesman Hope Davis, referring to the 2007 massacre of 32 people by a student gunman.
But Whittington, 24, says that he has his violent impulses under control with the help of counseling and medication and that the college is unfairly keeping him from moving forward with his life.
"Right now, that's all I have left," he says of his classes.
The dispute speaks to the apprehension that steers college officials as they try to prevent campus violence. But it also illustrates a common dilemma for veterans, who have endured traumas their peers can barely fathom and who often feel misunderstood when they try to discuss their experiences.
"They have this problem on jobs and at colleges everywhere," says Deborah O'Doherty, president of the Maryland chapter of American War Mothers, a nonprofit group that supports troops. "The minute people feel a little shaky around a veteran, they just kick him out because they're uncomfortable."
A family tradition
Whittington grew up in Southwest Baltimore, attended Catonsville High School and joined ROTC, knowing that he wanted to be the latest in a long line of family members who had fought for the country. He enlisted in the Army in October 2005 and was deployed to Iraq a year later.
His younger brother, Chris, who talks with him every day, says Whittington found a natural fit in the Army. "He's a hard worker, that's the biggest thing," Chris Whittington says. "He has always been patriotic, too. I went in to the Reserves because of watching him."
About two months after his infantry unit arrived in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, Whittington began going on raids to capture insurgent leaders. The Army trucks rolled out in the evening, right around the time curfew set in. They tried to surprise their targets. "But we were the only ones on the road, so they knew we were coming," Whittington says.
Enemy fire could come from anywhere at any time, so Whittington lived on a perpetual adrenaline rush. He tried to stay in constant motion, a lesson he says he learned from neighborhood scraps in Baltimore. He found the insurgents cowardly, prone to firing a few shots and then scurrying into the shadows.
Firefights often erupted when his unit found an insurgent target, and Whittington believes he first shot and killed an enemy soldier during an exchange only a few months into his tour.
"It felt wrong to me," he says. "I had to tell myself that it was him or me. But it bothered me enough that I went to a chaplain to talk about it."
When he was out fighting, he didn't dwell on the danger or the killing. But during down time, his psyche became an open sore. "You can't think about it," he says. "Because that's when it hurts you."
He's not sure how many enemy soldiers he killed but says he became numb to the violence over time.
Whittington was injured by three different roadside explosions, the second of which took the ring finger on his right hand.
Guilt tore at him as the injury kept him from fighting beside his friends. Though he is right-handed, he learned to shoot left-handed so he could stay in Iraq with his unit. He says he also lied about how much it hurt so doctors would clear him for action more quickly.
But his tour ended with the third roadside explosion, which knocked him unconscious for five days. He awoke in a German hospital, disoriented and unable to remember the explosion or large chunks of his childhood. He couldn't walk at first and spent weeks in Germany getting strong enough to return to an Army base in El Paso, Texas. There, he learned that he wouldn't go back to Iraq.
He can't find words to describe the pain of that realization. The guilt haunts him to this day. He says that when he wrote about killing in his essay, he was expressing his intense desire to get back in the fight with his Army buddies.
"It's mostly the guilt that messes everyone up," he says.
Writing as therapy