On Valentine's Day, I tell myself that I am not there. I am just watching it happen. Like many other people, I find it very hard to see mass murder on TV. This is good because human beings are not made for brutality. Yet it is now upon us, that brutality. But there is something else at play for me and others like me. A reaction sets in. Combat veterans describe it as a flashback. It feels like this: I feel that am there. The violence grabs me and I can't shake loose. Protective instincts--the love of comrades--possess me. They take over. It's the "sheep dog" thing. We protect defenseless sheep from the wolves. I run toward the sound of the gunshots, my weapon at the ready, eyes scanning for the enemy who lurks close by. I do not care about myself. I have made the conscious decision that my life is forfeit. I will throw myself against the whole pack of wolves. I must stop the enemy before he can kill any more of my men. Their screams tear my heart. Some of them are very young, just boys, new to the battlefield. I see them but I don't want to see what is happening to them. It is not just death. It is their innocence. It is terrible to see. The destruction of that innocence drives me into a blind rage.
I know I must stop. I realize what is happening to me and I cannot fall into that trap. Then they play the cellphone video. AR15 rounds, staccato gunshots, let loose the war memories. I see the children in the school cower on the floor. It is heartbreaking to hear their shrieks. I think only one thing. I must protect them. I must not let the enemy destroy them. The kids run outside. The cops are in their tactical gear. They are just standing there. Why aren't they inside the building looking for the killer? What is wrong with the cops? They dress up like soldiers and pretend they are having a combat experience. But they don't do anything. "Let's go, follow me!" I yell at the cops. They do not hear me. The homicidal lunatic has escaped, gone to McDonald's.
I have heard men during our Military Veterans Community Dialogues recount their guilt because they could not save comrades. One wounded Afghan War veteran refused his Purple Heart. "I don't deserve it," he said. "I didn't save my friends who died." Combat veterans are a small fraternity. Most of us did not want the experience. Many of us feel survivors' guilt, however undeserved that guilt may be. As I watch the massacre unfold on TV I console myself that I am not the only one who wants to atone for perceived failures with present action.
The Valentine's Day tragedy is compounded for combat veterans because it brings back the past. And it's not the end. We know that as long as civilians can freely buy weapons of mass destruction known as military assault rifles, and as long as there are lunatics ready to kill innocent children, there will be more mass murder. It's not a matter of "if." It's a matter of when the next wacko goes berserk.
America, listen to us. We want to save you, beloved country, from collective PTSD. Your combat veterans who put their lives on the line for you many times over, and are ready to do so again, give you a warning. We must reinterpret the Constitution. We must realize that effective gun regulation is necessary if we the people are to form a more perfect union. The unity of our country is in danger. Our survival as a nation is at stake.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.