The 4th of July talks should tell us the true cost of war

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My grandfather once spoke about the exorbitant cost of freedom and how important it was for Americans to reflect on Independence Day. We sat on a deck in front of a golf course with red, white and blue fireworks in the sky. He was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne during World War II, and when the national anthem played, he made sure we stood up and put our hands on our hearts, reminding us that “freedom is not free.” He must have known, lost friends during the war.

I was too young to understand his point of view at the time, but then one day found myself in Iraq aiming a rifle at a little girl in a yellow dress. She lay near the street of a mosque, loaded with weapons, and headed for a plume of smoke a short distance away. Where the plumes rose, two of my comrades were suppressed by heavy enemy fire, who were fighting to clear heavy obstacles.

“You can shoot him,” came a voice next to me. “Technically.”

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I didn’t know and didn’t know that little girl’s name Anyone on my team But she hung around our fighting post. Most of the people in the outpost had conversed with her, as she was all smiling, laughing and cheering. Between the candy, hugs, and attention, she was a frequent visitor, reminding other soldiers back home of their children. She would give us flowers in return for the gifts we gave her, so we named her “Flower Girl”. I kept a yellow daisy in the pouch on my chest rig for weeks because I was so impressed by its gesture.

Injured Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Benjamin Sledge’s new book “Where Cowards Go to Die.”

Peeking through my circle, every emotion turned around, and I was paralyzed. What do you do? Am I the kind of person who shoots a child? Do I let the enemy get stronger and sign the death certificates of my comrades?

My finger was hovering on the trigger, while the other soldier looked at me curiously. “They do that, you know. Using kids to fetch explosives or ammunition,” he said.

Slowly, I took my finger off the trigger, backed off to the side, and handed the rifle. I couldn’t even fight for words, but he understood, then slapped me on the back and laughed.

“I just wanted to see what kind of man you are. We don’t shoot kids. We’re American soldiers.”

This was not technically true. I worked with a sniper named Stahwell, who committed an impressive number of kills. Talking one afternoon, he turned serious, recalling an evening when the rebels tried to set up several improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“The first couple people went down like a sack of bricks,” Stahwell said. Then he paused before speaking in a calmer tone. “…then this kid ran away with the IED.”

I didn’t have to ask him to elaborate because I already knew. Stahwell and I had many conversations over the months during the mission and patrol, from our hobbies to what we would do when we got home. Stahwell loved golf and planned to play a ton once he got home. He also played in some fancy tournaments as a scratch golfer. While pulling security one afternoon, he made a remark that shook my beliefs about the war effort.

“I’ve played against a some senators and congressmen on the golf course. They are all rich. The difference between me and them is that they send me to war, and I pull the trigger for them.”

A photo of Benjamin Sledge's time in Iraq.

A photo of Benjamin Sledge’s time in Iraq.

His brutal honesty was not what I expected, so I turned my full attention to him, ignoring my responsibilities. He continued to scan the horizon, peeping through his scope, then over his shoulder, “I’m going to do this until I’m old enough to beat all their dumb asses and we’re in this godly place.” The more money you earn, the more you earn.”

Back home, no one really knew about the harsh realities we faced every day. Politicians would travel, then return to their posh lives, while we attended the funerals of people we spoke to the day before. Then one day you too go home. The experience is somewhat overwhelming. You’re in Iraq or Afghanistan where the mob is trying to kill you, and next thing, you’re at home, and the crowd is screaming, “It’s Pumpkin Spice Latte Season!”

What became most apparent after returning home from both Iraq and Afghanistan was that no one cared about the wars because they did not affect their lives. War was the background noise. The latest Kardashian scandal deserves more attention because dead soldiers in wooden boxes don’t go well with your morning coffee.

A year after returning home from Iraq, I woke up under a green, brown, and white striped scarf, the sun shining through my window. Lying there in solitude and silence, a deep feeling spread through me like a silent cancer. I joined the military in 1999 at the age of 18, and am a full decade now, I only knew war. I was either training for combat, preparing to go to war, or on some other deployment. The Army Reserve unit I had now joined informed me that we were going abroad soon, and, given my combat experience, they “needed” me.

Lying in bed, I remembered the dozens of men I knew who had been killed in action. Others died by suicide. With no end to any of the current wars, if I kept up this pace, I would surely enter my 30s only knowing the war. Or maybe I’ll be killed. Even worse, I may end up snapping and killing myself. Without the draft, it was always the same men and women who went back overseas again and again.

I left the service soon after that announcement.

But I never talked about war or the cost of freedom, even when I left the army. When you remember the moments in “Band of Brothers” where people are bleeding or dying or their heads are exploding, citizens get uneasy. They try to be polite, but we see it in their body language, fake smiles that communicate “you’re a monster.” Most of the times, we laugh to stay conscious while remembering our worst moments. The moral dilemmas we face in war make large populations so distant, our experience is isolated.

There is no community involvement or ownership in the dirty business of war. Of course, you hear the argument that Soldiers “signed up to go,” So it’s on us, but it’s missing the point and the responsibility is to shirk. We forget that because we live in a democracy, we vote for men and women to conduct our affairs, and those elected representatives send troops overseas. We may have voted for someone else, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have placed ourselves under the rule of the United States. When you live in a country, you subject yourself to its governing body and laws – even if you don’t vote or agree. So, while the civilian of the house may not have pulled the trigger, he asked the constable to go to his place.

Our wars were different from my grandfather’s. In retrospect, Afghanistan and Iraq became like Vietnam. Like the Vietnam veterans, I no longer know for sure what our goals were, but the price we paid over two decades was astronomical. I know that those of us who fought in one of the longest wars in American history kept other youths from being drafted. In the end, it cost us our lives, our conscience and our youth.

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Of course, “freedom is not free.” When I was the kid who stood next to my grandfather, I bought into the linguistic, nonsensical version of the phrase. These days, I nod with respect, understanding the price we often forget—that freedom always requires blood. No war has ever been fought without facing pain in the hearts of men and women, separation from families, morally questionable decisions, and death to ensure that the rest of the population is not aware of the horrors of war. Men and women in uniform die in each other’s arms, washed in viscera and tears, while the rest of America sleeps.

But for those of us who fought?

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We remember the staggering price of our neighbours’ freedom, which was bought from our blood-stained sand, forests and mountains on land far from home.

Every Independence Day, all we ask is that you also consider the high cost of your freedom.