PIQUA — “Talk to veterans.”
That was the encouragement and message from 2017 Dayton Literary Peace Prize nonfiction winner David Wood when he visited Edison State Community College this week to talk about his experiences with veterans as a war correspondent, explaining concepts like “moral injuries” that veterans go through while fighting this nation’s wars.
Wood’s award-winning book, “What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars,” chronicled his considerations of “moral costs” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wood, a veteran war reporter, is a staff correspondent for the Huffington Post, where he won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on severely wounded warriors. A Quaker and raised as a pacifist, Wood has spent more than 30 years covering the U.S. military and conflicts around the world, most recently in extended deployments embedded with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wood began his journalism career at a weekly newspaper in the Chicago suburbs. “My motivation was to really find out what’s happening,” he said.
He recalled that one of the first controversies he ever covered was an investigation into who owned a vacant lot which had a refrigerator with its door still attached and closed on it and other items littering the lot.
Wood found out the lot owner was a prominent community member who sat on numerous boards in the area. “It was his town,” Wood said.
The owner of the lot said he did not know how the refrigerator got there, Wood explained. The newspaper then ran Wood’s story on the vacant lot. “It got cleaned up,” Wood said. “A week later, he (the owner) had a heart attack and died.”
Wood was unsure if the stress of the news exposure had caused the man’s heart attack, but he said it was the job of journalism to seek the truth and then “taking responsibility for the consequences” of the truth.
“We get as close as we can,” Wood said. “There’s consequences to facts.”
Fast-forwarding in his career, Wood later became a reporter for TIME magazine and was sent to Africa as a war correspondent covering post-colonial wars. “I probably should have had some training to do this,” Wood said.
What he lacked in preparation he made up for in enthusiasm. “I couldn’t get to the stories fast enough,” he said.
He later landed a post at the Pentagon, but then sought out covering what the military was doing on various missions.
“I spent a lot of time embedded with military units,” Wood said, adding that he also trained with the military units.
During his time in Afghanistan, Wood was embedded with a Marine battalion. He told a story in which the battalion came under fire one day and a young Marine named Nick Rudolph chased and shot the assailant, who happened to be a 10-year-old boy.
The decision was tactically correct, as the boy was shooting at the Marines and morally correct, as Rudolph needed to protect his fellow Marines, Wood said, adding, “But he killed a child.”
Wood also said that, with decisions like that, “You don’t have anymore than a split second.”
It was with this story that Wood explained the concept of a “moral injury,” a kind of damage to one’s conscience when one’s actions may cross his or her moral code.
“It was hard for him,” Wood said. “He felt it was both the right thing to do and a deeply wrong thing to do.” Wood added that, after they had returned to the U.S., Rudolph had asked Wood if he should tell his girlfriend about what happened, saying, “She might not trust me as a father.”
Wood said that, in hearing Rudolph’s story again while with other Marines one night, he wanted to offer some words of comfort to Rudolph, but did not know what to say until another Marine said, “Yeah, that was f***** up.”
Wood said he felt that was the best possible response to Rudolph’s story, as it acknowledged what happened but “there’s no blame attached.”
Wood said that the Marines also described what it was like being in the midst of incidents where they are coming under fire and how the camaraderie they have for one another is real. One Marine described that feeling of needing to protect one’s fellow Marines as feeling like as if his 2-year-old sister had been out there and needed protection. Wood said it was that type of “total devotion” to one another.
Wood then encouraged connecting with veterans and hearing their stories.
“Marines like Nick Rudolph come back, and they’re not sick,” Wood said, noting that they may still be asking the question, “How do I deal with this?”
Wood said, “I think it’s up to us who sent them there,” and suggested listening to veterans’ stories if they are willing to talk about them and then responding with validation.
“Men and women go to war, and they have these searing experiences,” Wood said.
With experiences and discreet events like that, Wood asked, “How do we talk to veterans?”
Wood suggested that people could make themselves accessible to veterans and hear veterans’ stories, acknowledging that they may never understand what veterans have gone through, “But if you could talk about it a little bit, I would like to listen.”
“The critical thing is listening,” Wood emphasized
When it comes to drones and the use of modern technology in war, Wood noted that there are still moral injuries that occur and can be so severe that psychiatrists and chaplains may be present to help the military personnel.
“We’ve invented ways to do remote warfare, but there’s always someone pushing the button,” Wood said. “The damage is unavoidable.”
Wood ended by reiterating his earlier advice: “I encourage you to talk to veterans,” Wood said.
Reach Sam Wildow at firstname.lastname@example.org or ((37) 451-3336