Tucked behind a gleaming machine gun, Sgt. Joseph Hall grins at his two companions in the Humvee.
“I want to know if I killed that guy yesterday,” Hall says. “I saw blood spurt from his leg, but I want to be sure I killed him.”
The vehicle goes silent as the driver, Spc. Joshua Dubois, swerves around asphalt previously uprooted by a blast.
“I’m confused about how I should feel about killing,” says Dubois, who has a toddler back home. “The first time I shot someone, it was the most exhilarating thing I’d ever felt.”
Dubois turns back to the road. “We talk about killing all the time,” he says. “I never used to talk this way. I’m not proud of it, but it’s like I can’t stop. I’m worried what I will be like when I get home.”
The men aren’t Special Forces soldiers. They’re just ordinary troops with the Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment serving their 14th month in Iraq, much of it in daily battles. In 20 minutes, they will come under attack.
Many GIs and Army psychiatrists say these constant conversations about death help troops come to grips with the trauma of combat. But mental health professionals within and outside the military point to the chatter as evidence of preventable anguish.
Soldiers are untrained, experts say, for the trauma of killing. Forty years after lessons learned about combat stress in Vietnam, experts charge that avoidable psychological damage goes unchecked because military officials don’t include emotional preparation in basic training.
Troops, returning home with untreated and little-understood mental health issues, put themselves and their families at risk for suicide and domestic violence, experts say. Twenty-three U.S. troops in Iraq took their lives last year, according to the Defense Department -- an unusually high number, one official acknowledged.
On patrol, however, all that is available is talk.
“Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill,” Hall says. “It’s like it pounds at my brain. I’ll figure out how to deal with it when I get home.”
Home is the wrong place for soldiers to deal with combat experiences, some experts say.
“It’s complete negligence,” says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a retired psychology instructor at West Point who trains law enforcement officers and special operations soldiers.
“The military could train soldiers to talk about killing as easily as they train them to pull the trigger. But commanders are in denial. Nobody wants to accept the blame for a soldier who comes home a wreck for doing what his country asked him to do,” he said.
The emotional and psychological ramifications of killing are mostly unstudied by the military, defense officials acknowledge.
“The idea and experience of killing another person is not addressed in military training,” says Col. Thomas Burke, director of mental health policy for the Defense Department. “Training’s intent is to re-create battle, to make it an automatic behavior among soldiers.”
He defends the approach, saying that if troops think too much about emotional issues in combat situations, it could undermine their effectiveness in battle.
Other military representatives, including officers overseeing combat stress control programs, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Much of the military’s research on killing and battle stress began after World War II, when studies revealed that only a small number of troops -- as few as 15% -- fired at their adversaries on the battlefield.
Military studies suggested that troops were unexpectedly reluctant to kill. Military training methods changed, Grossman and others say, to make killing a more automatic behavior.
Bull’s-eye targets used in basic training were replaced with human-shaped objects. Battlefield conditions were reproduced more accurately, Burke says. The goal of these and other modifications was to help soldiers react more automatically.
The changes were effective. In the Vietnam War, 95% of combat troops shot at hostile fighters, according to military studies.
Veterans of the Vietnam War also suffered some of the highest levels of psychological damage -- possibly as many as 50% of combat forces suffered mental injury, says Rachel MacNair, an expert on veteran psychology. Most notable among the injuries was post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition contributing to violent outbursts years after soldiers leave battlefields.
“The more soldiers ignore their emotions and behave like trained machines rather than thinking people, the more you invite PTSD,” says Dr. David Spiegel with the Stanford School of Medicine.
Military officials say there have been changes in treating psychological trauma since Vietnam.
Foremost among them is the creation of combat stress-control teams -- mental health professionals in Iraq who speak with troops immediately after traumatic events, such as a U.S. casualty.
Military psychologists say immediate intervention is important in avoiding mental distress.
“We get them to voice what they are feeling, to realize they’re not the odd man out, not to blame themselves,” says Capt. Robert Cardona, a psychiatrist with a combat stress-control team based in southern Iraq.
But the demands of the military’s mission and a soldier’s mental health are sometimes at odds.
“Our primary goal is to keep soldiers functional, so they can continue to fight,” Cardona says. “Everything else, including feeling well, is second to that.”
Mental health technicians are available for troops who request help, Cardona says, but stress teams aren’t deployed to bases just because U.S. forces kill hostile fighters. He says about half of the soldiers seeking help are traumatized because they killed someone.
“Killing unleashes emotions few people are prepared to deal with,” Cardona says. “We help soldiers put those emotions and experiences away, so they can go into battle the next day. We set the expectation that shock is temporary, and that they will return to duty.”
He’s familiar with the death fixation in the soldiers’ conversations.
“When they talk, they’re trying to prove to themselves and each other that what happens doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’s a posturing going on, and sometimes soldiers themselves don’t know how much they are affected by what they see. They start to believe what they tell each other.”
Talk Turns to Killing
The men of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Alpha and Charlie companies are resting and playing cards in the shade of a staircase here, and the talk turns to killing.
“I enjoy killing Iraqis,” says Staff Sgt. William Deaton, 30, who killed a hostile fighter the night before. Deaton has lost a good friend in Iraq. “I just feel rage, hate when I’m out there. I feel like I carry it all the time. We talk about it. We all feel the same way.”
Sgt. Cleveland T. Rogers, 25, avoids dwelling on his actions.
“The other day an Iraqi guy was hit real bad, he was gonna die within an hour, but he was still alive and he started saying, ‘Baby, baby,’ telling me he has a kid,” Rogers says. “I mentioned it to my guys after the mission. It doesn’t bother me. It can’t bother me. If it was the other way around, I’m sure it wouldn’t bother him.”
Spc. Nathan Borlee tries to keep a lid on what he’s feeling.
“I feel like I’d lose control if I think about it too much, so I don’t,” the 23-year-old says. “Usually everybody comes back and just gives everybody a hug. You kind of get overwhelmed by the feelings.”
Without the proper training, experts say, these conversations may contribute to mental injuries.
Grossman says training troops to have therapeutic discussions about killing is “not that hard.” His curriculum, used by law enforcement officers and in the wake of traumas such as school shootings, focuses on mental and physical techniques to consciously manage anxiety and other emotional reactions to killing.
“To make killing instinctual, rather than conscious, is inviting pathological, destructive behavior,” Grossman says. “We have to give soldiers a vocabulary to talk through emotions and teach them not to be embarrassed by troubling feelings.”
Grossman says his suggestions have been overlooked by military commanders who are uncomfortable with the emotionally destructive aspects of military service.
“The military goes for long periods without having to kill anyone,” he says. “Generals don’t spend a lot of time dealing with the parts that come after battle.”
Others say today’s soldiers are fundamentally different from previous generations.
“These guys grew up with video games,” says Maj. John Hamilton, 50, an Army chaplain stationed in southern Iraq, where he counsels troops. “They’ve seen thousands of people die on TV. They’re already numb. It scares me that some take delight in combat.
“Others just become immediately scared, have nightmares. But that reaction is more frowned upon.”
Duty vs. Ethics
Back in the Humvee, Hall and Dubois approach an abandoned elementary school that commanders say is hiding mortars and hostile fighters. Suddenly, the ground is punctuated by the yellow bursts of improvised explosive devices.
Hall begins firing his .50-caliber machine gun, the phosphorus on each fifth bullet trailing long, red streaks.
The constantly squawking radio pauses briefly and a calm, transmitted voice fills the truck.
“Enemy contact,” the radio broadcasts. “Kill ‘em, kill ‘em.”
Ahead, a tank pushes a hole through the school’s wall. Staff Sgt. Robert McBride, 35, enters a classroom and sees a group of six Iraqis with guns, he later recounts. He throws a grenade. The blast cuts one Iraqi in half, and the rest lie dying from abrasions and burns on their bodies. The soldiers collect dozens of mortar rounds and return to their vehicles. McBride looks at the hostile fighters once more.
“It did not bother me at all to see those bodies up close,” McBride says later. “I’m a warrior. You’re either born to this or you’re not.
“My soldiers, they are all warriors. They have no problems. I don’t let them have problems. There is no place in this Army for men who aren’t warriors.”
The men’s commander, however, worries about them.
“During the heat of the battle the adrenaline is such you don’t really think about it,” says Capt. Brandon Payne, 28. “Once that adrenaline wears off, though, it gets tough. Some kids, it rolls right off their backs. Some, it’s like they break down a little more each day.”
Payne is as conflicted as his troops about making sense of war. Reconciling duty with ethics, he says, seems more complicated in Iraq.
“I’m a Christian. I feel I’m saving my soldiers’ lives by destroying as many enemy as I can. But at the end of each day, I pray to God. I worry about my soul,” he says.
“Every time a door slams, I flinch. I’m hoping it will just go away when I get home.”