Progressive Writers Bloc

Too late for one Marine

By Bill Becker

Bill Becker

As I wrote in a previous essay, Operation Healthy Reunions is a program of the National Mental Health Association designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by returning Iraq war veterans. PTSD-related incidents of violence and tragedy are "only getting worse," according to one OHR team leader, Cpt. Vanessa McMillian White. I suggested that one source of PTSD among our Iraq veterans, unmentioned—and unmentionable—by Cpt. White, is their increasing awareness that they are killing innocent Iraqi men, women, and children not to protect America from terrorists, but rather to satisfy the emotional needs of the President and his advisors—emotional needs bound inextricably to the economic goals of the military-industrial complex. For all but those in denial, it is by now a truism that President Bush used the bully pulpit to manipulate the American people into supporting a war against Iraq. Our soldiers know they were lied to, and they feel guilty.

Another important lie, of course, is that the U.S. military does not indulge in torture or other violations of the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, implemented in October, 1950. Thanks to Army Spc. Joseph Darby, a courageous soldier who understood that he owed more allegiance to his conscience and the rule of law than to his superiors, we learned of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and lost at least some of our innocence.

One soldier did not survive his own loss of innocence, however. In mid-Summer of 2004, 40-year-old Jeffrey Lehner, a former Marine sergeant recently home from Afghanistan, contacted reporter Ann Louise Bardach. He needed to talk about what he had seen there. Bardach met him at a Santa Barbara restaurant, where Lehner explained to her why his initial support for the President's policies in Afghanistan had been shaken. He showed Bardach photos of young Afghanis detained for interrogation by a CIA special operations team. These young Afghanis were not fighters—"By the time we got there," Lehner said, "the serious fighters were long gone."

Lehner's fellow soldiers told him that the young men were tortured, were given psychotropic drugs, and he came to believe that several of them had died in custody. Lehner was present when detainees were put in cargo containers, loaded onto a plane, and interrogated while circling in the air. "He was deeply disturbed by what he had seen," writes Bardach. "He also told me he was deeply shaken by the collateral damage he saw to civilians from U.S. air attacks—especially the shrapnel wounding of so many Afghan children." Lehner "often couldn't sleep at night, thinking about what he had seen and heard." Lehner's friend and support-group member, Jim Nolan, said that Lehner had witnessed "the unspeakable," which he had been unable to stop.

Bardach and Lehner took leave of each other, and Bardach put his story on the back burner. She did not know how seriously to take Lehner. There had been no reports of torture or abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan, and there was no way to verify his allegations. She also knew that he was undergoing treatment for PTSD, and she was not sure if he could stand the scrutiny he would certainly face if his charges were made public. She did keep in touch, though, sometimes talking with Lehner's father, Ed, with whom he lived off of Old San Marcos Road in Santa Barbara.

In late 2005, after reports of secret prisons, and of the torture and abuse of prisoners became more frequent, Bardach decided to call Lehner again. It was too late. Earlier that same day, he shot his father multiple times, killing him. Jeffrey Lehner then laid his troubles to rest by turning the gun on himself. "The irony," writes Bardach, "was that after eight years in the military, the first and only person Jeff Lehner killed was his father."

As I write this, I have in mind the Iraqi boy shown in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. He is maybe 6 years old, and if memory serves, his foot is connected to his leg by a few threads of torn flesh and sinew. He is one of the children who haunted Jeffrey Lehner's dreams, and he should haunt our dreams, too. Lehner himself is as much a victim of President Bush's lies as is that Iraqi child. Because Jeffrey Lehner loved his country, his conscience tormented him to death. He is not the first, nor will he be the last. Do we really care all that much?

This article was based on the L.A. Times Op Ed piece, For one marine, torture came home, by Ann Louise Bardach.

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