Feature

My Handwritten War

An eyewitness to history, from the 9/11 attacks to the toppling of Saddam.

Courtesy of Tim McLaughlin
Courtesy of Tim McLaughlin

I worry that most people don’t understand the unforgiving violence of my Marine Corps experiences in Iraq. Shoot a few seconds too soon, and you kill a civilian. Hesitate, and another Marine dies. There are no second chances. Killing people is ugly, brutal, and abrupt. It is final, and it stays with you for a lifetime. It’s done because that’s what your country asks you to do. Yet most Americans only experience war through cable news, political speeches, and Hollywood. It’s a flag on a statue, a talking point, or a movie.

There is no particular explanation for why I kept a diary during my deployment. I hadn’t kept one before and haven’t done so since. But during my occasional moments of downtime in Kuwait and Iraq between February and June 2003, I decided to write about what was going on around me. When I left the Marine Corps, I packed away all my military belongings and forgot about my diary completely until 2010, when Peter Maass discovered it while doing research for an article about the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square.

Ten years ago, when I came home from combat in Iraq, I drank too much. I stopped that on my own, but I still have difficulty in social situations, trouble connecting with people, and constant nightmares. I take prescription medication to sleep at night. The Department of Veterans Affairs says I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t have a disorder; it’s a natural reaction. It would be a disorder if I were unaffected.

I recognize that not everyone who serves in the military is as lucky as I am. I’m still here, for starters. I grew up in a loving family. I graduated from high school and went to college. When we were sent to Iraq, I was 25 years old, which was six years older than most of our servicemen and servicewomen. Then I got to go to law school. I have a wonderful wife, a nice home, and a good job. I even have the honor of serving as the president of an organization that provides free legal care to homeless veterans.

Most importantly, though, I have an opportunity to speak about my experiences, while knowing that so many others who’ve shared similar experiences don’t get that chance. Peter Maass and Gary Knight were journalists who reported alongside my battalion in Iraq. Together, we hope people are willing to read my diary and Peter’s writings, look at Gary’s photographs, form their own opinions, and not forget.

Lt. Tim McLaughlin’s official PTSD diagnosis

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