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Shannon P. Meehan Headshot

Shades of Guilt in My Purple Heart

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The unofficial marker for summer's beginning is upon us, and beyond the noise of summer barbecues, some will take time honor servicemembers that fought and died in our nation's wars. As a veteran of a recent war, I feel it is important to look past the general niceties spouted out over heroic service, and truly reflect upon the costs of war, and honor the complexities of the situation that we soldiers are fighting in.

As a former platoon leader in the Third Brigade of the storied First Cavalry Division, I consider all those we lost over our 15 month deployment to Iraq: the 110 killed, and the 400 injured -- a number that includes me.

During a foot patrol in Iraq's city of Baqubah, my boot caught a tripwire and ignited an improvised explosive device (IED) just yards behind me. I was immediately med-evac'ed to Iraq's theatre hospital. In and out of consciousness in the ER, I recall my brigade commander, Colonel Sutherland, arriving to see me, reaching over me and placing a Purple Heart medal on my pillow.

I struggle to take pride in my Purple Heart. A complex medal awarded to the combat-injured, both those who survive and those who are killed, the Purple Heart is largely seen as a medal to be proud of, representing a righteous, enemy-tested capacity to survive, endure, and sacrifice. I certainly see the honor in such an award. It sparks feelings of pride in my soldiers' and my willingness to sacrifice, and I recognize the honor in receiving the oldest, active award the military offers.

Still, as a survivor, I also see the 110 lives lost, some of whose names I can no longer fully recall but who also were awarded the same medal. I see the civilians that I failed to protect while overseeing the security of Iraqi cities. But most of all, I see the innocent Iraqi family that I inadvertently killed: the mother, father, and all their children huddled in fear inside a house I destroyed, tearing innocent life from earth. As I stare down at the image of General Washington on my Purple Heart, I see the faces of the children, etched deep into my memory, staring back at me.

While I am proud of my soldiers' and my achievements, I cannot let go of the people I failed, and I do not want their deaths to go un-honored or forgotten. By carrying the Purple Heart, whether as a lapel pin or as an image engraved on a coffee mug, I remind myself of a tragedy that I am ultimately responsible for -- a violation against humanity.

When you see my Purple Heart, you see my sacrifice, but I see and feel much more. I see the people I killed, the civilians that I failed to protect, and I am reminded that there will be no Purple Heart for them.

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