War Crimes, Hard Choices and Harder Consequences: Part VII

22Aug14

Part VII: Eric Lauzier, continued

Not long after they were pulled from the field and assigned to FOB Mahmudiyah, the chaplain invited first platoon to gather at his tent. The chaplain tried to give the men some encouragement, to help them deal with everything they had been through. Then Colonel Kunk and the operations sergeant major came in and joined the conversation. Lauzier remembers Kunk being friendly at first, asking the soldiers how they liked life at the FOB. And a soldier made the mistake of giving a totally benign, honest answer.

“It’s pretty good, sir. We have a gym and everything.”

“The gym?” Kunk roared. “You guys already fucked up the gym! It’s a mess!”

The colonel’s friendly talk turned into a profane, hostile tirade. He told the soldiers they were undisciplined pieces of crap who failed at their jobs. Soldiers made seething, near-insubordinate remarks back at him. The sergeant major stood by and said nothing. When their lieutenant tried to protest, Kunk screamed “You shut the fuck up!”, humiliating him in front of his subordinates. The lieutenant shut up. John Diem wound up being the voice of the platoon, professionally telling Kunk that he was wrong. Kunk wasn’t impressed.

After Kunk stormed off, the chaplain quietly said, “Well, that wasn’t what I expected from this meeting.”

Lauzier walked into the battalion Tactical Operations Center one day while a group of officers were having a discussion. One of the officers saw him and said, “Look, there’s one of them now,” which caused the others to burst out laughing. Furious, Lauzier left the building.

At the FOB the company held a “command climate survey”, where soldiers were asked how they felt about their leadership. After the results came back, the first platoon sergeant gathered the squad leaders. “I came out looking pretty good,” he said. Then he looked directly at Lauzier. “But according to this, some of you should face criminal charges.” Lauzier didn’t know what the hell the platoon sergeant was talking about, but the veiled threat shook him.

Lauzier felt abandoned, then started getting paranoid. One day he left a piece of paper with his Social Security Number, address and wife’s information on his cot, then briefly left the room. When he came back the paper was gone. He confronted the other soldiers in the room, demanding to know who took his paper. One of the men made a smartass comment. Lauzier drew his pistol, chambered a round, and pointed it at the man.

After a brief standoff, Lauzier holstered his pistol and walked out. When he returned, the paper was back on his cot. He won. But he knew he had lost control, and almost killed someone for no good reason.

The day he got back to the United States, Lauzier had a nice welcome home surprise: an FBI agent with a subpoena. He remembers thinking, Damn, guys, at least let me go home and see my wife first.

Lauzier’s career continued in a slow downward spiral. The effects left by his past combat experiences, threats of jail time over his head, and feelings of isolation combined to suck the drive out of him. He was removed from his position as squad leader and moved to division staff. Lauzier hated staff work. He wasn’t built for PowerPoints and operations orders. As time went on, he felt less and less like a soldier. And in effect, he was no longer treated like one.

In our first conversation, Lauzier summed it up: “They took my honor.”

Eric Lauzier

Eric Lauzier today

Despite the fact that I barely knew him, those words stung me. Honor comes from inside, not from others. There are people who truly believe all of us war veterans are deluded fools who were tricked into murdering innocent foreigners so rich people could get richer. Our sense of honor doesn’t depend on their opinion of us. And Lauzier’s sense of honor shouldn’t depend on the opinions of senior leaders who badly failed his entire platoon.

I told Lauzier that. I don’t know if he bought it.

As months went by, Lauzier slid into a deeper and deeper depression. He drank heavily every day. He lashed out at anyone who annoyed him. One day at a division formation, he heard a support company call out “Assassins!”, their company nickname, when they came to attention. Lauzier blew up at them. “Who the fuck do you guys think you are? Assassins? What the fuck ever. Not a single one of you has ever killed anyone!”

In another instance, Lauzier heard an officer talking about the attack on the Alamo. This officer hadn’t been in Bravo in Iraq. The officer told someone “That platoon was all screwed up, they had no idea what they were doing. That’s why the enemy was able to capture those two soldiers.”

Lauzier almost lost it. He angrily approached the officer and yelled, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! Sometimes I was at that outpost with just one other guy, because we were stretched so fucking thin that we couldn’t spare anyone else! Don’t tell me we were fucked up, you weren’t there and you don’t know what the hell was going on!”

Someone pulled Lauzier away, and later apparently explained to the officer what had really happened. The officer apologized to Lauzier. Lauzier doesn’t know how he wasn’t Article 15ed for what he did.

With the depression, anger, alcohol abuse and threats of jail time came the almost inevitable thoughts of suicide. Lauzier started setting parameters: he wouldn’t do it unless he personally was court-martialed, he wouldn’t do it unless he was sure he was going to prison. “I can deal with a lot, but I wasn’t going to prison for something I didn’t do. I would have taken myself out first.”

More than once Lauzier sat at home, alone and drunk, with the muzzle of his .45 in his mouth. One tiny motion of one finger would have ended it all. And more than once, the thought of his wife’s horror at finding him with his head blown off stopped him.

Yet he still resisted seeking help. He didn’t relent until a civilian contractor he worked with, a man he barely knew, took him aside one day. The contractor was a combat vet from the 75th Ranger Regiment. He bluntly told Lauzier, “I’m worried about you. You’re fucked up. You can be an absolute killer at work, but still be a total wreck at home. Right now, you’re a total wreck. And you need help.”

Lauzier finally went to a psychiatrist. About twenty minutes into the conversation, the psychiatrist told Lauzier he needed to be chaptered out. Lauzier’s career was almost over.

Months after he came home from Iraq, Lauzier ran into Justin Watt on post. Lauzier was at this point barely hanging on. “By this time, I didn’t give a fuck. I just didn’t care.” And he had heard rumors of soldiers from his old platoon plotting to retaliate against Watt.

If Watt had never turned in the murderers, Lauzier wouldn’t have suffered the loss of his honor. He would probably still have been leading troops, preparing them for their next deployment, instead of fighting alcoholism, depression, anger and suicidal impulses. Lauzier might be forgiven for feeling anger at Watt.

But he wasn’t angry at Watt then, and isn’t now. When he saw Watt that day, he told him he’d watch his back. He offered to let Watt move into his house if he didn’t feel safe on post.

Lauzier is rightfully proud of standing up for Watt, But, oddly enough, he continually blames himself for what he feels are leadership failures. When Lauzier and I talked about the firefight where he directed supporting arms onto the enemy and got his men out without casualties, Lauzier didn’t brag about it. Instead, he berated himself for going on that patrol too light, without enough men or firepower. He gets angry at himself for forgetting details of certain events, an inevitable byproduct of a traumatic brain injury. When we talked about how others in the platoon praised him for always being outside the wire, how they said he always led from the front and never made his troops take risks he wouldn’t take, he didn’t respond with pride. Instead, after several conversations and maybe a few beers, he revealed a not-so-hidden emotion:

Eric Lauzier thinks he didn’t do enough. He thinks he allowed his platoon sergeant to walk all over him and strip his squad of manpower. Because they were stripped so bare, not enough supervisors were around to keep tabs on the men. That lack of supervision at least contributed to the Yusufiyah murders. If he had just stood up for his squad, they wouldn’t have been so shorthanded, supervisors could have done their jobs and the murders would never have happened. Long story short, Lauzier thinks the murders were at least partly his fault.

Lauzier told me that about two hours into a phone conversation. When he discussed other aspects of his story, he was calm. There was nothing exciting in his description of the invasion of Iraq. He mentioned his hand-to-hand kill in passing. The ambush outside Rushdie Mullah where Lauzier and his troops barely escaped death could have been a ping-pong game, for the utter lack of passion Lauzier displayed when he talked about it. But when he talked about his perceived failure to stand up to his platoon sergeant, the tone of our conversation changed. Lauzier became serious, passionate and angry. And guilt poured forth from wounds I never thought he’d have.

Read the rest at http://www.breachbangclear.com/war-crimes-hard-choices-and-harder-consequences-part-vii/

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