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Far Beyond the Superficial Politics of Patriotism Is the Lived Experience of Patriotism

By Alex Kingsbury

Feb. 16, 2020

Outside the headquarters of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum stands a monument to the unit, the one most frequently deployed in the years since the attacks of 9/11. Two wiry soldiers, frozen in bronze, help each other ascend a crag with the help of a rope. Etched around the monument is the unit’s motto: “Climb to Glory.”

I walked around the stone and bronze, in the frigid darkness of upstate New York, for a good 20 minutes last month, as my old friend Capt. Richard Murphy stood just out of earshot and spoke on his phone about his looming deployment to Afghanistan and about suicide.

I went to Fort Drum because I’d been thinking a lot recently about patriotism. It is, after all, an election year. Our political tribes are fighting over what counts as “real America” and, by extension, what does not. Yet in their telling of the national narrative, the right overwrites facts that tarnish the American story, while the left leaves few of them out.

Far beyond the superficial politics of patriotism is the lived experience of patriotism. For Captain Murphy, 40, that means keeping soldiers mentally healthy so they can fight overseas and stay healthy once their fight is over. He listens well because, more than most, he has seen what is both great and appalling about the United States. He knows how love of country can seize the heart, and he still grapples with moral ambiguities of military service.

The soldiers in the 10th Mountain are getting ready for another tour in Afghanistan. The war there has lasted more than 18 years. Last year, the Air Force dropped more bombs on the country than in any year since 2013. The 17-year-olds who enlisted with parental consent were not yet born at the time of the terrorist attacks that were the initial impetus for all those deployments.

As a behavioural health officer in the 1st Brigade Combat Team, Captain Murphy helps decide who ships out and who stays and gets help. Not all soldiers are mentally fit to deploy. Others who are fit are terrified. His evening phone call that kept me stomping my feet to keep warm was related to a patient, but that’s all he’d tell me.

Captain Murphy sees patients during the day, and works the phones at all hours, talking to combat leaders about the readiness of the men and women in the unit. It takes a lot of listening to make the right call about what’s going on in someone’s mind. Just because a soldier mentions suicide doesn’t always mean that soldier is serious about taking his or her own life. Some are serious about doing so but don’t let it be known.

No one goes to war alone, the saying goes. Garrison life is also a community project, especially when it comes to mental health and suicide prevention. In 2018, the last year for which there is comprehensive data, 541 active duty service members died by suicide. Adjusted for demographics, the suicide rate for the military is close to the rate for the general population, where it has become the second-leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34. (The Veterans Crisis Line is staffed 24/7: 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online or by texting 838255.)

Teaching hardened mountain commanders how to listen — and what to listen for — isn’t where Captain Murphy imagined his military career would lead when he enlisted. Nearly 20 years ago, when he was the editor in chief of our college newspaper, I wouldn’t have predicted this path.

But people are changed by age and experience. And history.

In January 2001, Richard Murphy and I wrote an article for that paper about a visit by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the incoming president and vice president to our school, George Washington University. The event was to honor the military. Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and John McCain were all there, in an auditorium just blocks from the White House. “The national security team I’ve put together is the best in our nation’s history,” Mr. Bush told the crowd.

Outside, students demonstrated against American sanctions then imposed on Iraq.

Inside, Lee Greenwood belted out “God Bless the U.S.A.”

There were lots of flags. Very patriotic.

Eight months later, by then a law student, my friend sat on the roof of his apartment building in Foggy Bottom, looked across the Potomac River and watched as the Pentagon burned. He walked into an Army recruiting station a few days later.

“It just deeply affected me,” he told me later. “I felt completely compelled to join and do my part.”

His unit then, the 372nd Military Police Company, arrived in Kuwait in May 2003, two weeks after President Bush addressed the nation in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to major combat operations.

“The War on Terror continues, yet it is not endless,” Mr. Bush said. “We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.”

That changing tide had a vicious undertow.

The 372nd spent five months training and supervising Iraqi police officers in Hilla, a city of about 450,000 people beside the ruins of ancient Babylon. A history major and law student, Captain Murphy, then an Army specialist, appreciated the incongruity of trying to bring law and order to one of the birthplaces of written law.

His unit was sent to Abu Ghraib prison, a run-down complex between Baghdad and Falluja that would soon become synonymous with some of the Army’s most shocking human rights abuses since Vietnam.

While soldiers and contractors tortured prisoners on Tier 1 of the facility, he was assigned to Tier 6. The tiers were a couple of hundred yards apart, but they converge in the rearview mirror of history.

In November 2004, when he was 25, we recorded a three-hour oral history of his deployment, and he was at a loss to explain what it was like to come home having been so close to one of the most public crimes of the war on terrorism. The vast majority of soldiers at Abu Ghraib served honorably, he said. “People look at me and they think that I’m lying to them,” he told me, “and it’s so frustrating to try to convey what really happened at Abu Ghraib, what the atmosphere was really like.”

“Why did those seven military police look so gleeful in those pictures? You really become desensitized to the human condition when you’re at a place like Abu Ghraib. Every night, every night you see something that you wouldn’t see in an entire lifetime in the States. I saw a man eat a fluorescent light bulb … I saw a man rub feces into his hair … I saw prisoners cut themselves with razor blades.”

A moment of moral reckoning came when Specialist Murphy had to conduct a body cavity search of a college professor who could barely walk without a cane, during his prison intake for some unknown crime.

“And here I was in my United States Army uniform and here was this very sensitive looking grandfather-type guy, and just the … I don’t know. It kind of was one of those moments where I was just taken aback and I just was affected.”

All the while there were nightly mortar attacks. Rockets, too. There were ambushes at the gate and explosives on the roads.

But moral injury — the damage to the soul caused by participating in something unjust — has a wide blast radius for anyone with a conscience. The ambiguity of military operations since 9/11 are fertile ground for moral injury. Average Americans may feel guilt or shame for the conduct of the war on terrorism — the pardoning of war criminals or the indefinite jailing, without trial, of men at Guantánamo or the civilian casualties caused by drone strikes — but it can be devastating for those who are a part of it.

To keep from being desensitized, he told me, he resolved to learn all his prisoners’ names and listen to all the questions they had for him during the twice-daily head counts.

“I took the time to respond to all their questions even if I didn’t have an answer, and 99 percent of the time I didn’t have an answer. But I would stop, I would make eye contact, and I would listen and then just respond to the best of my ability.”

After 15 months in Iraq, he came home. Went back to law school. Joined R.O.T.C., then the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He started working as a military lawyer. Got on with life.

But he remained anxious and depressed. What he’d been through at the prison didn’t fade. His condition worsened over the years. When his thoughts turned darker he sought help.

He said he felt ashamed and embarrassed when he walked into his supervisor’s office to let him know.

“Whatever you need, Murph,” Lt. Col. Anthony Febbo told him. The Army is family.

“The suicidal thoughts really freaked me out,” he told me last month. “I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I knew I needed to get help.”

In 2008, Captain Murphy went to the hospital at Fort Hood, where he was stationed, and reported how he was feeling. Because of a shortage of military mental health professionals, he was referred off-post to a civilian social worker. He got therapy and started getting better.

He was open to having me write about his mental health history. “It’s why I do this work now.”

He became a legal adviser on numerous suicide investigations, and he wrote Fort Hood’s mental health policy to reassure soldiers that seeking help wouldn’t end their careers.

He was preparing for deployment in November 2009 when Maj. Nidal Hasan shot and killed 13 people and wounded another 30 people a few hundred yards from his office on base. Major Hasan had been scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan as part of a unit of mental health professionals trained to deal with combat stress.

After the shooting, a psychological evaluation found Captain Murphy fit to deploy. In Baghdad, he was billeted in one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces. “The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has beautiful tennis courts — come out in October — I’ll spank you in the land between two rivers,” he emailed me on July 5, 2010. I had traveled to and from Iraq as a correspondent for a magazine but never went to see him. He always won at tennis anyway.

As an Army lawyer, he ran the theater’s largest legal aid clinic for soldiers. He also headed up the foreign claims mission, ensuring that financial claims of hundreds of Iraqis whose land had been seized to build military bases were paid.

A year later, he was home again. By then, he had decided that his calling was not as a lawyer but as a listener.

“I am particularly interested in deploying as a member of a combat operational stress control detachment,” he wrote in a 2013 letter applying to the Army’s master’s in social work program. “I have seen firsthand the need for behavioral health services at far-flung outposts and hope I can be a part of a solution to a problem in serious need of remedy.”

The military has shortages of mental health professionals, a result of low pay, long hours and few opportunities to advance, a Defense Department report found recently.

Most of the patients he sees have problems that don’t stem from combat. For soldiers from tough backgrounds, Army life is sometimes their first encounter with boundaries and discipline. The military ends up re-parenting many of the young people who join. Most of the post-traumatic stress he sees comes from trauma encountered before Army life, like abuse in childhood.

Fewer than one-third of all young Americans meet the qualifications for serving in the military. Those who don’t qualify lack enough formal education; they have a criminal records; they’re too overweight.

Among those who do qualify, few serve. Since the attacks of 9/11, the burden of fighting wars has fallen on the slenderest sliver of the population. They deploy again and again and again.

For too many Americans, the military is a distant and indecipherable culture. As for politicians, many are happy to salute the troops when it suits them. The last president to have a child serve in combat was Dwight Eisenhower.

“As a result, the nation’s most expensive and trusted institution is remote from the population that provides the people and money essential to its existence,” the RAND Corporation concluded in a 2019 report. “Such an approach is inconsistent with a vibrant democracy.”

These days, what passes for patriotism can feel sanitized and safe. It can even be effortless, like sharing one of those viral videos of returning soldiers surprising their kids.

The distance between the patriotism of the ballpark and the patriotism of the battlefield is widening in ways that make it harder for Americans to hold on to one another. And the distance between those American experiences is widening in ways that make it harder to hold on to one another and a shared concept of country. Nowhere is it greater than between the public and those who’ve lived their lives inside — and then in the shadow of — the war on terror.

Even after his 27 months in war zones, Captain Murphy’s routine for deployment is never the same. With a wife and two kids, the logistics mount. With FaceTime and WhatsApp and HD video, the battlefield is closer to the living room than ever before.

On the family’s kitchen counter at Fort Drum sits a paper pamphlet: “Welcome Home Dad! 10 Tips for Reconnecting with Your Children After Deployment.” Make time for family. Take things slowly. Expect that things have changed. (“Bonus Tip: Reconnect with Mom, too.”) That’s what most soldier homecomings look like. No videos. No retweets. No publicity.

Nearly two decades after enlisting, Captain Murphy is finally headed to the war he thought he signed up for. One thing he’s learned in that time is that no one climbs to glory alone.

As mentioned above, the crisis line for veterans is 1-800-273-8255 (press 1). Another resource for those having thoughts of suicide is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at

Alex Kingsbury is a member of the New York Times editorial board.

Original Headline: My Friend Lives Inside the War on Terror. Listen to Him.

Source: The New York Times