In 2003, I went into Iraq from Kuwait with the 1st RCT (Regimental Combat Team) in Golf Company 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment. I was a mortar man in an infantry company. My job was to control the fires of my mortar section. We only fired a couple mortar round during the entire invasion but I fired my rifle in 9 different engagements and was involved in a total of 11 gunfights. During that time, I saw people killed and know I shot at least one person for sure. It was hard to say who actually killed the others I saw die because we were all shooting at them.
Before the war I was gung ho about going, ready to do my duty and kill the enemy like I was trained. After I actually did it, it’s not as much fun as people think it will be. In fact, killing people sucks. I don’t like doing it and will avoid it in the future, whenever possible.
It changed me as a person. It changed the way people looked at me. It changed the way I saw the world. It changed how I look at people. It changed how I thought about action movies. It changed how I interacted with other fighters (cops, security professionals, soldiers and Marines). It changed the way my wife and I interact. It changed my world, and not for the best, just made it different.
Once you kill someone you will never be the same and you will never forget it. It’s been almost a decade since I actively hunted people to kill them and I can remember some of the sights, smells, and sounds like it was yesterday. I still have quick flash-backs of all sorts when I see, hear, or smell something. It affects people differently. I thought I was an expert before I went to do it. I had studied it in law enforcement and in the Marine Corps, but nothing really fully prepared me for what it was like. It gave me an idea of what to expect and how to overcome it without losing my mind. It worked for me, but didn’t work for some of the Marines I went over with. I still cry for my Marines that didn’t come all the way back. I was lucky and didn’t lose anyone in my unit, but the pain of loss is still there.
I can’t tell you exactly how you will react if you ever have to kill someone; all I can do is share some of what I learned the hard way. I know that it changed me and will be forever with me.
When I interact with others they look at me different when they find out that I teach self defense with firearms and that I’ve actually killed people in war. Some are amazed, some are scared, some are interested, and some are appalled. The people close to me deny that I’m a killer; they look at me and see me as a big teddy bear. I try to have my wife see me as that, but every so often she asks me questions that she really doesn’t want to know the answer to and I’ll see a sudden glint of fear in her eyes. Sometimes when I answer questions like that for her, I can’t look at her because of I don’t want to see that fear.
Even now, from time to time, things will bring me back and I can feel all the emotion, fear, anger, and desperation and it takes my breath away. Luckily I’ve stopped reacting to these things now. But at first, when something would happen, I’d take action like I was there again. When I first went back to work for the armored car company, I was driving one of the big trucks in the dark after a long day of work. My partner for the night was a former Marine and he was asking me about what happened. About half way to our destination a white styrofoam cup blew across the road in front of us. I just caught it out of the side of my eye and it looked like an RPG round streaking across the highway. I yelled RPG, slammed the brakes and started grabbing gears to change our speed and take evasive action. I almost lost control of the truck and crashed because the feeling was so real. Luckily I didn’t crash and no one around us on the highway crashed, but my partner was freaked out and I had an adrenaline rush that comes with almost being killed. My hands are shaking a little as I write about what happened almost 10 years ago. My partner decided that I wasn’t allowed to drive anymore. He was only half joking and I worried about what he was going to tell my boss. Should I be driving a truck in the real world? And was I going to be able to keep my job?
Incidents like the one above made me wonder if I would be able to function in the real world again. Was I a danger to others? What if I had the same reaction while driving with my wife but went too far and crashed? Was I going to hurt someone I was close to?
The scariest thing for me when I first came back was that I couldn’t be around large crowds without alcohol in my system. I couldn’t function at first. I would have an unexplained panic that I had to leave. I was just afraid of this not passing as afraid of what I would do if forced to be in a large crowd for a long time.
I was also afraid of gunfire for a long time. That was understandable to most, but really unnerving for me. One of my favorite hobbies was the gun range, and now I didn’t want to be around gunfire. Would I ever be able to go back to the hobbies I used to love?
This is by no means a comprehensive look at what happens after you are forced to kill someone, but a start to what may happen if you have to defend yourself or someone else. Daniel Shaw did a good podcast about this subject in his Gunfighter Cast. It turned out we were in the same place in Iraq at the same time and it was him and his unit that probably saved my unit from being wiped out.
I’ll close with the same thought I give all my classes on the subject of killing. It’s nothing like what it looks like. It will change you forever. Don’t kill anyone unless you absolutely have to, and only if it’s required to save your own life or the life of someone else.