I'm an Iraq veteran and I want to die

I'm full of compulsions, full of shame, locked in my room alone

Cary Tennis
September 8, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)


I'm writing you in the hope that I can find a way out of this. You seem to be a voice of sanity, and before I begin to tell my story I want to say thank you for helping people in this way that you do. I know that sometimes it must feel like a burden to take on so much suffering and to take so much sadness into yourself. I can relate.


I want to die because I can not seem to shake my addiction to violent pornography, child pornography, and stories and artwork of the same nature. I feel such enormous shame for looking at this content and allowing it inside me. This is not my only reason for hating myself.

From 2003 to 2008 I served in the Army. When I was in training I sexually assaulted a classmate (and a friend). I was shamed publicly, but for whatever reason this classmate did not press charges. That was the first time I ever touched a naked woman. After this incident I thought my life was over. I contemplated suicide but I did not do it for some reason.

I think at the time I had developed a belief system strongly influenced by the idea of reincarnation and that I was sent to this planet to learn something and that if I killed myself I would just be required to learn the same lessons in another life. I guess I still believe that, which is the only reason I have been able to endure as much pain as I have. It's been years since the incidents I'm describing and the pain of these memories has lessened somewhat but as I write this it is fresh.


When I deployed to Iraq I coped with stress in two ways: Masturbating to graphic violent pornography, Vipassana meditation (breathing meditation) and meditating on the possibility of my imminent death. By some chance of fate the girl I assaulted in training was on the team whom we took over operations from. I saw her only once but soon everyone in my unit knew that part of my life or at least I believe they did. My work in Iraq sometimes involved watching videos made by Iraqi militias and insurgents. In 2006 when I deployed there were many instances of sectarian torture and violence. I remember a video of a man whose eyes had been gouged out.

At the end of my term of service of five years, I received an honorable discharge. I did not feel honorable and my feelings about the war had changed in Iraq. I saw it now for what it was, another kind of assault, a different kind of rape. I had managed to save two years' worth of leave leading up to my discharge, about two months' worth of vacation. A month into this terminal leave I received a call from my commander telling me to return for deployment. I had been stop-lossed. I disobeyed that order and was AWOL for two and a half years. I turned myself in about a year ago and received a general discharge under honorable conditions.

I am free now of the Army but I am still in the desert. I spend most of my time in my room alone. I have one or two friends who have helped me quite a lot but even they don't know everything about me. I have two jobs that have allowed me to pay rent and barely eat enough to survive.


Something must be profoundly wrong with me. I don't seem to have any control over myself. I don't understand many things. But I know pain. It is constantly with me. For my participation in these insane wars. For my weakness.

I remember times when I was not like I am now. Once I remember innocence. I want peace for everyone and myself. When I was on leave from Iraq I visited Las Vegas, walking the streets there and in a particular mood, I made the vow of the Bodhisattva, to help all beings to bring peace and understanding to all encounters. I have failed this vow. I cannot even help myself. But once made I do not think this vow can be unmade. It will follow me through this life and into the next if there is one. So I ask for your help. You seem as much a Bodhisattva as anyone I know. Having seen horrors, having done horrible things, how is peace possible for me? Is atonement possible?



Dear Soldier,

Peace and atonement are possible. I do believe this.

I also believe in getting help.

I appreciate the respect you express for me and my work, and I return that respect.

I do have a great deal of hope for you. I often see people who have been through the fire, as you have, who have been wounded and are full of shame and are walking through agonies of personal hell, and I see how healing can work.


We do not heal alone in airless rooms. We heal, and are healed, as we form connections and build trust and bit by bit unclench our fists and open our hands to others.

We may have broken rules and lashed out; we may have been overtaken by rash impulses we did not know we had; we may have harmed others and behaved badly; we may have become habituated to harmful habits; we may have become addicted. But we can come back from this.

These are simply words I am writing now and the words themselves can't relieve you of your pain. But there are ways that you can be relieved of this pain.


Just as you were trained by the military to have automatic responses that will save your life when you are threatened, so your body has automatic responses when past threats are repeated. These automatic responses can be modified through exercises and techniques.

In the same way that if we rub a wound with salt, and abrade it, and re-injure it, we can make it into a festering sore, so with a traumatic event or memory, if we castigate ourselves and obsess over it, we can amplify its effect on us. On the other hand, with the help of others, if we treat it with care and let it naturally heal, we can eventually be free of it. We will still feel it there; it may leave a scar or be permanently tender, but it will not be a disabling, crippling wound. It will be just something that happened in the past.

We can learn to view these past traumatic events in tranquility using PTSD treatment techniques such as EMDR. There are many ways that we can do this. It happens gradually.

I do believe in seeking help. And I practice what I preach. I spent this morning with two psychiatrists, talking about my recent difficulties with mood swings and feeling low. I described how I have been feeling and they agreed with me that I am suffering from depression and I am going to have a few months of weekly treatment for my depression. It's nothing shameful. I'm not perfect. I have my share of problems. I'll continue to write the column and I will speak of it from time to time as appropriate.


One thing you might think about -- though this may seem a bit fanciful -- is the fact that you are just a part of the earth; you are a natural creation, a part of nature, that's all. You live in a human world but in certain ways you are just like a tree or a cow or a river. Try to see yourself as the mountain sees you; the mountain just sees a man walking along the road. That's all you are, just a man walking along the road.

The air, the plants, the mountains and animals, they do not condemn us; they just see us as we are. We are just a part of the earth. When others see you, they do not see some shameful ogre. They just see a guy.

So try to see yourself as a mountain or a horse sees you.

Finally, let me recommend one concrete thing. Your interest in child pornography is dangerous to you because possessing child pornography is illegal. So please, no matter what else you do, get rid of any child pornography you have, and eliminate any links to child pornography websites you may have on your computer. If you have any physical evidence of child pornography, get rid of it.


Also, recognize that you are not alone with this compulsion. You are in the grip of something extraordinarily powerful and unexpected, a kind of visual, neurological crack cocaine. Take a look at this forum found on MentalHelp.net's "Ask Dr. Dombeck" to see what I mean.

Under your general discharge, you are eligible for certain veterans' medical benefits; they may include treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

I urge you to seek help for your condition. You can be healed.

This can happen for you. We can get over things. We are not so dissimilar, you and I. We both have our demons. We both have walked through fire. And we both can be OK. We can do this together. There is help for us. We just have to ask for it.


Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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