This is what it means to support the troops

Our view: Iraq vet Charles Whittington does not deserve censure for describing the disturbing aftereffects of his time in combat

November 22, 2010

It's perfectly reasonable that officials at the Community College of Baltimore County were concerned when they read Iraq War veteran Charles Whittington's essay in the school newspaper. What Mr. Whittington wrote, including an admission that he had become addicted to the violence of war, is truly disturbing. And ultimately, what the college is asking of him — a psychological evaluation to make sure the zeal for killing he describes acquiring in combat doesn't translate to civilian life — is not so onerous.

But the college's actions, as reported in the Sunday Sun by Childs Walker, are troubling nonetheless, and they speak to a broader problem society faces in reintegrating a whole generation of veterans who have served in what is fast approaching a solid decade of combat in two wars. What needs to be made clear to Mr. Whittington by the college, by his teachers, his classmates, his fellow veterans and by the community as a whole is that his experiences and the psychological scars they caused do not make him an outcast. But the way the situation was handled had the appearance of pushing him away, not bringing him closer.

Mr. Whittington wrote his essay at the suggestion of an English teacher. She gave him an A and suggested he submit it to the student newspaper for publication. He speaks of war and of killing as seeming terrifying and foreign at first but becoming addictions, things he feels like he needs to do to be fully himself. "There are several addictions in war, and this is mine. This is what I was trained to do and now I cannot get rid of it; it will be with me for the rest of my life and hurts me that I cannot go back to war and kill again."

When the essay was brought to the attention of college officials, they called Mr. Whittington in to a meeting and informed him he was barred from campus until he got a psychological evaluation showing he was not a danger to fellow students. The college's version of events is that they were acting out of an abundance of caution, something that is necessary in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre. But the officials came across to a veterans activist who attended the meeting with Mr. Whittington like people who cared more about protecting their jobs than protecting Mr. Whittington or his fellow students.

We don't know exactly what happened in that meeting, just as we don't know exactly what happened to Mr. Whittington in Iraq. But in case the college officials did not make this clear, it bears saying. Despite the troubles Mr. Wittignton faced upon returning from war — including a stint of heavy drinking and a drunken car crash that injured several people and landed him in jail for three months — he shows all the signs of taking his life in the right direction. He is in counseling and taking medication to help with the psychological aftereffects of war, and he has thrown himself into his classes, earning a straight-A average in his first semester.

And in spite of the trouble it has caused, writing about his feelings and experiences and sharing them with a broader audience is a good thing. It shows that he is aware of what's going on in his head and that he is just as disturbed by it as anyone else. And it forces others to confront the real cost that war can have. Interestingly, it was other veterans who complained to the school administration about the essay, in part because they worried it would make people believe that all soldiers felt the way Mr. Whittington does. Certainly, they don't. Every soldier's wartime experience is different. But the way to convey that to the broader community is not by punishing Mr. Whittington for expressing his feelings but by sharing their own.

What is perhaps the most remarkable proof that Mr. Whittington is not the danger some might consider him to be is the way he has reacted to his suspension. Rather than expressing bitterness, he says he is just eager to get back to school, and he is complying with the administration's request to get a psychological evaluation. If a counselor finds, as Mr. Whittington predicts, that he is not a danger to his fellow students, the college should do whatever it can to make sure this incident does not delay or derail his academic career.

There is a broader lesson in this story. Even if most veterans don't feel exactly as Mr. Whittington did, we must recognize that the nation's wars are exacting a tremendous psychological toll. Not only must we provide whatever services returning veterans need, but we must express on an individual level that they are welcome back in the community, even if the process of welcoming them is difficult. That's what it means to support the troops.

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