‘Facing Stigma’ with General Isler.

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“I entered the Air Force Academy to become a fighter pilot in 1987. After pilot training, I stayed as a T-37 instructor pilot for three years before transitioning to the F-15C, and flew the Eagle until 2008. I deployed to Iraq in 2008 as an Air Liaison Officer and operational-level planner, coordinating our daily air support missions and strikes for Coalition and Iraqi forces. We would figure out the best way to support the Coalition and Iraqis, including pre-planned and dynamic strikes against insurgent targets. After that deployment, I served in a variety of positions including Joint Staff operations officer at the Pentagon where I did deployment and mission planning for the Secretary of Defense; policy assistant to Secretary Clinton’s military advisor supporting her travel all over the world; Vice-Wing Commander in Mississippi; and Wing Commander at Randolph Air Force Base where I ran flying training pipelines for the US Air Force. In 2016 I deployed to Iraq, where I advised and supported the Iraqis in the liberation of their country from ISIS. Our job was to provide Iraqis with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and support them with kinetic strikes. During that period we conducted between 50 to 200 precision strikes per day to help the Iraqis re-capture terrain that ISIS had taken. One of my duties was approving strikes against ISIS, as part of a team of 20 joint operators and intelligence personnel supported by live feeds from aircraft overhead and electronic tracking of Iraqi forces. We took every feasible action to build an accurate picture of the enemy, friendly forces, and civilians so we could make the most accurate and timely determinations on positive identification. When things went well, the Iraqi forces moved quickly and safely, and we were able to inflict great damage on ISIS. However, not every day was good. There were hard days where the Iraqis were taking a beating and we weren’t able to support them as much as we wanted for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that ISIS increasingly used civilians to protect them from strikes, and there was no way we could do what the Iraqis needed us to do without significantly harming civilians. There’s also times when you do everything right and catastrophic things still happen. One specific example is when I did an investigation into the Coalition’s largest civilian casualty incident, where 105 civilians were killed in a building where we killed two ISIS snipers.

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In the al Jedidah district of Western Mosul, there lived a well-regarded Iraqi elder who lived in a very big and strong house. When ISIS cleared out a majority of the neighborhood to prepare defensive fighting positions to fight against Iraqi forces, the elder and his family welcomed neighbors who sought shelter. 130 people sheltered from the fighting in the house, most in the basement, and ISIS knew it. ISIS fighters told them to stay in the house, staged a large amount of explosive material on the upper floor, and prepared it for detonation. ISIS then staged attacks to draw the coalition into bombing snipers they had put on the roof. Iraqis and the Coalition didn’t know about the civilians and the ISIS plan, and targeted the sniper position with a relatively small munition. The Coalition munition ignited the ISIS-prepared explosives, which brought down the structure and killed 105 civilians. The Coalition fully investigated the incident, conducting two team visits to the site and personal interviews with witnesses. That’s just one example of a terrible thing that can happen, and there are many instances where you feel the guilt and burden that comes with strike decisions. I felt strongly about a lot of the precision strikes we delivered, their importance and the high standard of the Law of Armed Conflict that we upheld; however, those high standards didn’t make some of those situations or events less difficult to deal with. After leaving Iraq in May 2017, I thought I was good for the two years following; however, by December 2019 I couldn’t go to church anymore. Five minutes into the service, I’d have to put my head in my hands and couldn’t get up. My 10 year old son didn’t understand and was troubled by it. After a few weeks, I decided to not attend church anymore, which wasn’t good for our family. I was stuck and didn’t know how to deal with what was going on. I couldn’t be alone and quiet or attend church and that’s when I decided to reach out to Headstrong.

I was originally introduced to Headstrong while working at the Pentagon in 2019. A friend of mine encouraged me to get help after some of the things I experienced in Iraq, but I tried to tough it out until I couldn’t any longer. He introduced me to MaryAlyce who put me in touch with Headstrong and got me going. After starting EMDR therapy with MaryAlyce, we identified about 20 incidents that I needed to reconcile. I realized that in executing my strike-approval duties, my responsibility to weigh the military advantage with the collateral effects required me to assess people as collateral persons, not as humans you love and cherish. It was the human element of those decisions that I struggled with, and the light bulb came on that although I had done what was lawful and required, I hadn’t valued some of those harmed fully as people, I hadn’t honored their lives and valued them as humans, and I hadn’t mourned their loss. MaryAlyce helped me develop a process to deal with that grief, and worked through moral reckoning and atonement. I feel like I now understand my feelings and the grief associated with what is a part of me. MaryAlyce helped me realize a lot of this through a series of drills to develop valuable coping mechanisms. We went through a funeral process for those affected, including a series of drawings and prayers, and I planted a tree at a local base as a memorial for those impacted in those operations. I put those artifacts underneath the tree, and spend time there in a place where I can address these feelings. The geography of finding a place to remember is really important to me; it’s the equivalent of a cemetery where you can go mourn someone, and that’s been really helpful. Now I’m grateful for the opportunity to vector others to help because I know there are so many others out there struggling. The biggest struggle I had was not knowing there were options that could help me so I’m really grateful to be equipped to help others in need.”

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Healing the hidden wounds of war

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