The New Yorker’s 6/12 issue offers “Soldiers’ Stories,” selections from letters, e-mails, journals, and personal essays by soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines who served or are serving in the current war in Iraq. The writings, which are part of the NEA-sponsored project “Operation Homecoming,” are very moving. One of the passages that moved me most was from Captain Lisa R. Blackman, who wrote friends and family while serving as a clinical psychologist in Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar:

A quick word on guilt. No one ever feels like they are doing enough. If you are in a safe location, you feel guilty that your friends are getting shot at and you aren’t. If you are getting shot at, you feel guilty if your buddy gets hit and you don’t. If you get shot at but don’t die, you feel guilty if you get to go home and your friends have to stay behind. I have not seen one person out here who didn’t check off “increased guilt” on our intake form….

Each time, I sit there with not a clue what to say…offering tissues…saying I’m sorry…trying to normalize…trying to say, “It was not your fault that so-and-so died” and “If you could have done differently, you would have” and “You had a right to be scared.” And, even worse, “You had to shoot back,” and “Yes, you killed someone, and you still deserve to go back to your family and your life.”

Next time you are hanging out with a friend, think about what you would do if he turned to you and said, “My boss made me kill someone, and I know I’m going to Hell for it, so why bother?” What would you say to “normalize” ‘that?

I will probably never see these folks again. I have no idea if I have been helpful. Maybe I planted a seed of reprieve that will grow into self-forgiveness. Maybe I did absolutely nothing but sit here. Who knows?

I can’t stop thinking about the fact that these folks have lost something that they will never get back – innocence (and a life free of guilt). My heart hurts for them.