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Moral Injury: One Military Veteran Kills Teenager, Another Kills Himself

Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez was killed by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus on October 22, as the boy walked home in a Latino neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California. The Iraq War veteran claims that he mistook the eighth-grader’s toy rifle for a real one.

A month later another Army vet, Paul Duffy, took his own life nearby. Duffy, as some friends called him, was found by his wife hanging from a rope in the writer’s cabin that he had built outside his home in Tomales by the Pacific Ocean. Far more veterans of the American wars on the people of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan commit suicide than were killed in combat; the number of suicides by vets increases.

Twenty members of the Veterans Writing Group, in which Duffy participated, gathered on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, for our seasonal all-day meeting, to remember our comrade. We sat in a circle in the comfortable home of a surviving World War II vet in the Redwood Empire of Sonoma County in Northern California. Many of us had participated in the group since near its inception over 20 years ago.

As someone raised in a military family, where you move to a new post about every three years, this group has been one of the longest-lasting relationships, of any sort, that I have had during my nearly 70 years of life. Many of us speak of the VWG as a “family” that adds stability, safety, security, and confidence to our lives, as well as something to look forward to. The VWG has helped my writing and contributed to my mental health.

“MORAL INJURY”

These two deaths raise “deep and troubling questions,” noted veteran Joe Lamb, now an arborist who works in countries like Borneo and Chile, after our meeting. “In how many unexpected ways are Paul’s suicide and Andy’s killing similar? What is the effect of the violence on their communities? Will these ripples of violence claim other victims? What is it about ‘moral injury’ that makes humans more prone to both suicide and violence against others?”

Studies reveal that one suicide can stimulate those left behind to consider taking their own lives. One of my college students, a Marine, committed suicide, leaving behind three young children. He was one of the best, most active students in the class—no visible signs of depression. His sparing partner in the class, an Army vet like myself, soon dropped the class.

Duffy helped me during 2012, when I was researching and writing about the emerging concept of “moral injury.” Some prefer this term to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to describe the invisible injuries many veterans acquire from their military services. I used quotations from him in various published articles.

Newsweek’s Dec. 10, 2012, describes “moral injury” as referring to “the psychological burden of killing.” Some veterans speak about a sadness attributed to “bearing witness to evil and human suffering and seeing death and participating in it.”

“Every generation gives war trauma a different name,” explained Korean vet Jiwon Chung at the 2012 winter meeting of the VWG. “‘Moral injury,’ the latest term, is important because it de-pathologizes the condition. If you go to war, come back, and are not the same, not at ease, troubled, or suffering, it is not because you are psychically weak, but because you are morally strong. What you witnessed or did went against your deepest moral convictions, violating our humanity to the core. War is the reason for moral injury, not any individual shortcoming. Peace, justice, and reparation are the cures for moral injury.”

VETERAN PAUL DUFFY TAKES HIS LIFE

The original writing prompt planned for our December 7 day together had been about the dog tags that military personnel wear, to identify them if they are killed. A few days before we were to meet, when we heard about Duffy’s death, we shifted to focus on thinking, feeling, and writing about his death.

“Our winter meeting is when we go into the darkness,” Nancy Brink opened the session. “Then we come into the light,” she added. Near the end of our time together, our writing teacher Maxine Hong Kingston said that she is not always sure that we will arrive at the lightness. “This is the suicide of a writer who did not finish his work,” Maxine noted; Duffy had been working on a novel.

Duffy was unique. He would sometimes sing or even stand up at our meetings and dance. He had an intriguing, mysterious, and unpredictable quality about him. My memory of Duffy was that he was so alive, communicative, and willing to engage.

“Paul was a unique individual with a wicked sense of humor,” writes his friend Bert Crews. “Most people here in Tomales had a reaction of: ‘But I just saw him yesterday,’ or ‘He was helping with a sheetrock job,’ or ‘He stopped in to say hello on his daily walk thru town.’ I think everybody felt like they were one of Paul’s best friends. He had that effect on people.” Duffy was able to connect with people.

“I’ve lost six people this year, three by suicide, including two young people,” Maxine reported. “It is good to attend memorials and have ceremonies to help you through it,” she added. “This is the seventh veteran who has gone this way,” former military medic Ted Sexauer read from his poem—some by alcoholism and one by a rifle.

 Denial, anger, sadness, and grief were among the diverse feelings expressed in response to Duffy’s death. The morning session, as we retired to write, ended with Maxine explaining a Buddhist tradition, after someone dies, of giving a name to the person’s departed spirit. The name she proposed was “Bearer of the Story Without an End,” partly since Duffy never finished the novel he was writing.

 

THE VETERAN ERICK GELHAUS KILLS ANDY LOPEZ

As we spoke and when we went to write at the VWG gathering, the differing yet related deaths of Duffy and teenager Andy Lopez rushed in on me. Within seconds of shouting at Andy, deputy Gelhaus shot him dead through the heart with his first shot. He then fired seven more times, hitting the dead boy’s body another six times. Gelhaus then handcuffed him, to make sure.

Something triggered Gelhaus, perhaps a memory, and he opened fire without thinking, in the Wild West style–“Shoot first and ask questions later.” After a brief break from work, this killer cop was back on duty six weeks later, this time at the desk rather than in the streets. The community continues its vocal, peaceful plea for justice for Andy and protection from such militarized killer cops.

Gelhaus had gone from the killing fields of Iraq to a Latino neighborhood of other brown-skinned people, where boys play cops and robbers, as this veteran did on bases around the world with my military family. Gelhaus’ partner, driving in the same squad car, did not fire a single shot. Perhaps he realized that the boy was not a threat or someone to be feared.

The response of the marginalized Latino community has been strong, enduring, and peaceful. Latinos and their allies have had numerous nonviolent marches and rallies attended by over a thousand people to demand justice for Andy and many prayer vigils attended by hundreds. His killing has become a national and international story.

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are each around 25% Latino, which is also the fastest growing population. The aroused Latino population decrying the killing of one of its young sons shows signs of making some needed changes.

Andy’s mother Sujey Lopez wrote a Thanksgiving letter addressed to Gelhaus, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, and those “responsible for the death of my son.”

“May this day of Thanksgiving be an unforgettable one for all of you, never forgetting my misery and the suffering of my family,” she writes. “You didn’t even give my son time to face you. You murdered him like it was nothing, killed like a bird or raccoon on the side of the road.”

“Go on, laugh, drink, while I comfort myself by hugging my son’s ashes,” Mrs. Lopez concludes. When I see this mother and Andy’s father at meetings, their faces are the saddest I have ever seen, making a lasting impression.

Gelhaus’ post-combat experiences differ markedly from Duffy’s. As with other veterans, Duffy returned to Vietnam frequently, where he worked with children in hospitals. As he explained at a meeting last year: “I’ve gone back to Vietnam a few times to say that I’m sorry. We help kids with heart operations and have done about 300 a year for the last ten years.” Many vets return to that crime scene.

FARMING AND REMEMBERING

From living and working on a farm for over 20 years now, this writer deals with death more regularly than most urban dwellers. My chickens die often. I see many graceful vultures circling above or on the ground eating dead deer and other wildlife. Birds fly into the windows on my ranch house and fall to the ground. Rural roads are full of road kills of possums, raccoons, and other wildlife. Friends bury their cats and dogs on my acreage. Death is a normal part of living on farms.

I watch many things decay on my compost pile and then feed the soil that nourishes my crops. I need to compost the distinct but related deaths of Andy and Duffy, watering them with my tears. A puppy recently adopted me, so I have been studying canine assisted education and equine assisted education. The four footeds have a lot to teach we two footeds.

“Many of the veterans that I conversed with over the past four to five years said that connecting with nature, in whatever form, connects them to life in a way that nothing else has since they left the military,” says Stephanie Westlund. Her book Field Exercises: How Veterans are Healing Themselves through Farming and Outdoor Activities is scheduled to be published in the summer of 2014.

How might we respond to the deaths of Duffy and Andy? One way is to express our feelings and write about it. Another way is to engage in actions to reduce such incidents happening in the future.

“Don’t remember the first names of your men until they have been in combat a while,” my drill sergeant told us during basic training around half a century ago. “Some will not be good soldiers and will die soon. You cannot grieve that often.” I have never been good at remembering names, which may date back to that training.

Or back to the torture and execution of my good friend Frank Teruggi. We were working together in Chile when the “other 9/11” happened, 1973. The military ousted the democratically-elected government of President Salvador Allende. Among those tortured was my first adult sweetheart. As I feel the deaths of Andy and Duffy, those earlier losses rise in my memory, heart, and body.

“After the first death, there is no other,” wrote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Now I carry two more deaths, which I try to process through writing. I do not want them to make these additional moral injuries even more difficult for me to establish enduring relationships, and wake up in the middle of the night.

Our Veterans Writing Group is based on Buddhist principles, which include accepting impermanence and realizing that “this, too, shall pass.” But practicing those principles can be difficult. I want these deaths to decrease, rather than increase.

 

THE MILITARY COMMUNITY DIFFERS FROM THE CIVILIAN COMMUNITY

Deputy Gelhaus turned his moral injury outward, killing an innocent boy walking home. Duffy turned his injury inward, killing himself, hurting his wife, son, and others who loved him. They both took their unhealed war wounds and wounded others.

“The self-destructive nature of suicide can continue for generations,” says the Oakland artist and musician Larry Stefl. His grandfather killed himself, as did his father, with the same military pistol. “The impact of suicide can be a death sentence for survivors,” Stefl added, who also lost a sister to suicide. His friends took this seriously when he was about to reach the age that his father took his life. Stefl has survived into his 60s, with the support of friends.

I was born into the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, and then served as an officer in the Army during the American War on Vietnam, as a non-combatant. I have learned that there are big differences in the military community and the civilian community. The cultural differences are important.

“You can take the boy out of the military, but it is harder to take the military out of the boy,” goes an old saying. As someone who was militarized for some 20 years, I have been spending nearly half a century seeking to de-militarize myself.

So as not to be misunderstood, let me say that I continue to honor certain values and virtues that I learned from the military, such as the following: discipline, follow-through, keeping commitments, helping protect others, duty, country love, having a mission, team-work, and seeing beyond merely the self. It is the war-making part that I reject.

In many indigenous communities warriors are welcomed home from battle by rituals that help re-integrate them into civilian life. For example, among some people the women hold the men for as long as it takes them to break down and cry, sometimes even asking for forgiveness.

Gelhaus was not re-civilized back into civilian culture, as he should have been. He has a long record of violence and gun use. Civilians need protection from him and other vets-turned-cops who fail to deal with their “moral injury.” Instead, police forces today have been increasingly militarized by their training and advanced weapons of destruction. Unless this is changed dramatically, we may see more murders of innocent children and adults.

Duffy, on the other hand, worked hard for decades to heal himself by doing good work back in Vietnam, in his home town, and in a Veterans Writing Group. Many thoughtful veterans, like Duffy, do reflect on their wartime experiences and try to transform them into positive contributions to society.

 

(Shepherd Bliss {{3sb@comcast.net}} teaches part-time at Dominican University of California, has operated the organic Kokopelli Farm for over 20 years, and has contributed to over two-dozen books.)

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  • http://thetrumpetsummons.blogspot.com/ Larry Conley

    With eighteen months in Vietnam and three years in the U S Army, I was in, but not of, the military. I concur that there are admirable values extolled and instilled by the military at its best. There are also, the ever present toxins that can infect one with hyper vigilance, latent aggression, and a “fire-fight” mentality. One has to be constantly on guard against these afflictions while on duty and shortly after mustering out. Shortly being relative to each person.

    As a society, we betray those who serve when we do not effectively help them retain what is of value and detoxify from what is dangerous and harmful. There are so many worthy causes and so few resources to address them.

    Thanks for giving this some much needed attention.

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