The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about an Athenian soldier who, in 490 B.C.E., suffered no injury from war but became permanently blind after witnessing the death of a fellow soldier in the Battle of Marathon.
In the early 1800s, soldiers were often diagnosed with “exhaustion” after the stress of battle. The only treatment for this “exhaustion,” which was characterized by mental shutdown, was to bring the soldier to the back of the battlefield for a while. Soldiers returning home forever changed by their experiences in the Civil War were diagnosed with “soldier’s heart,” named for a racing heartbeat that seemed to have no physiological cause.
During times of intense and repeated stress, fatigue is the body’s natural reaction to fear and shock. What occurs in soldiers’ parasympathetic nervous systems, as well as in their brains, has been called by many different names over the years: shell shock, battle fatigue, exhaustion, soldier’s heart, battle-weariness and traumatic hysteria.Today, the condition is called post-traumatic stress disorder, although to call it a disorder is misleading. PTSD is actually an injury—a psychic wound that can paralyze, devastate and, in its immeasurable complications, even prove fatal to the person with PTSD—and to people nearby.
I am looking at a photo of Marine Corps Staff Sgt.TravisTwiggs standing with President Bush in front of the White House, smiling broadly. He has a Marine Corps haircut, bulky shoulders and a solid body. His teeth look slightly bucked, and if you look at the picture for a while, you begin to see what Twiggs looked like as a little boy; it’s still there in his face.
President Bush has his arm around Travis’ upper shoulder and is squeezing his trapezius muscle. The president has his usual guffaw-smile, which makes him look confused or senile or slightly drunk. President Bush signed the photo for Travis, who, in six years of service, had done one tour of duty in Afghanistan and four tours in Iraq. According to an embedded writer who went on patrol with Twiggs in Iraq, Twiggs was “regarded in the U.S. military as one of the best combat trackers alive.”
There is a lot to be said for being a good tracker, the animal sniffer in us born again: Locate, identify, pursue; follow and interpret signs; notice if any signs have been left in the dirt—a footprint, rocks overturned; turn on your senses full throttle—smell the air, hear beyond sound.
And you—are you a good tracker yourself, these days? Can you decipher the enemy?
President Bush was cropped out of the photo when it was later used for a wanted poster of Travis.
I have in my hand the book “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing” and the journal article “Neurobiological Sequelae of Childhood Trauma: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders in Children.” Both the book and the article are by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., who is an adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University in Chicago. (The book is co- authored by Maia Szalavitz.) I highly recommend both the book and the article.
I’m looking at a paragraph, for example, which states that the symptoms of PTSD “tend to fall into three clusters: 1) recurring intrusive recollection of the traumatic event, such as dreams and ‘flashbacks’; 2) persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma or numbing of general responsiveness; and 3) persistent symptoms of increased arousal characterized by hypervigilance, increased startle response, sleep difficulties, irritability, anxiety and physiological hyper-reactivity.” Perry goes on to say that while PTSD was originally described in combat veterans, “a high percentage of rape victims, sexual abuse victims, survivors of natural or manmade disasters and witnesses to violence also experience symptoms of PTSD.”
“The largest group of victims of these traumatic events,” Dr. Perry writes, “is children.”
Children who live in abusive households, children who have been physically or sexually abused or have been witness to violence, have, essentially, the same experiences as soldiers in combat and, thus, suffer the same effects.
The recurring dream I have has been with me for nearly 25 years. In it, I am the owner of a large, square metal shovel with a wooden handle, the kind you find in a horse stable or on the back of an asphalt truck.The handle is the gray color that wood turns from frequent use. The blade is rusty. I am alone in streets and neighborhoods I don’t recognize. My senses are at super-power level: I can see 360 degrees; I can hear everything people are saying; my skin vibrates and tingles with awareness. I am the wrong kind of Wonder Woman. In this dream, I feel life-or-death threatened. People in groups especially make me unbearably paranoid. I walk by a group of people and hear someone say something critical about me. Or maybe they don’t; maybe I just imagine it. I spin around and, in one economical movement, smash the back of the shovel into a girl’s nose. She screams out in pain. Blood runs everywhere. Her friends huddle around her, and some yell at me, and I glare back as I stand there puffed out to three times my normal circumference. No one dares come near me. I am brandishing this shovel, and I am shaking with rage.
Later in the dream, I see the girl again. Her nose is bandaged, and she is wearing glasses. She is bruised all over her face. She is sitting at a table with her friends. Seeing her enrages me. I walk past her, and they yell out that I am crazy and a loser and an animal. I turn the shovel sideways in my hand, and in one ultra-swift movement, using the power of my hips and pushing off one foot like a pitcher throwing a fastball, I stab the shovel toward her, smashing the blade right between her eyes, into the already cut and broken cartilage. Her scream breaks the sky. I pull the shovel back, and now I must run—as fast as I can—because men, her friends, are coming after me.
I am fast. Faster than they are. They don’t have my heart, which is pounding with the hot crystal meth of adrenaline.
I am running toward the end of the street, where there is a painted scene.The scene is from the musical “South Pacific,” the part when they are in Tahiti. If I can just make it there, I can burst through the canvas. I fall into a black oblivion, from which I wake up, unable to tell if the dream happened or not, my heart pounding and my eyes wide with terror. Usually, I get up and let my little dog out of her crate and bring her into bed with me. She wags her tail and licks my face and wiggles because she isn’t usually allowed to sleep in the bed. If I am sleeping beside my partner, I don’t wake her. I’m too ashamed.
When Travis Twigg met President Bush in late April of 2008, he bear-hugged the president. “Sir, I’ve served over there many times, and I would serve for you anytime,” he said. Travis’ wife, Kellee, told New Yorker reporter William Finnegan that if you cut Travis, “he bled green,” such was his devotion to the Marine Corps. Three weeks after Travis left the White House, he was in Arizona, in a stolen car, with the police in pursuit and a helicopter overhead. He pulled out his .38 and shot his older brother, Will, who idolized Travis, in the left temple, killing him instantly, and then he shot himself under the chin. The bullet ricocheted out his cheek, so he fired again into his own right temple. His nervous system was finally at rest.
Neurobiological: pertaining to the biology of the nervous system.
Sequela: a condition that is the consequence of a previous disease or injury.
Trauma: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience; an emotional shock that sometimes leads to long-term neurosis.
Four months before he killed himself, Travis wrote an article about his struggle, “PTSD: The Enemy Within,” for The Marine Corps Gazette. He publicly acknowledged his emotional problems. He wrote that he was irritable, sometimes enraged, paranoid for no reason, unable to sleep. He hallucinated and suffered flashbacks, he wrote; he turned to alcohol. He was hospitalized and put on 12 different medications.Travis successfully completed his treatment at the hospital; his medication was adjusted, and he did well for a time. He was in a better mood, trying to help other soldiers, until, inexplicably, he started to exhibit the symptoms of PTSD all over again.
In Fort Carson, Colo., Pvt. Tyler Jennings, a machine gunner, spoke out about PTSD on NPR’s “All Things Considered” in 2006. After returning from Iraq, Jennings, who received a Purple Heart after his first tour, wouldn’t follow orders from his superiors; he had nightmares; he used drugs; he beat his wife in his sleep. Following his appearance on the radio, he was court-martialed for misbehavior. Jennings’ experience, as the reporter Daniel Zwerdling put it, “symbolizes a dilemma that’s facing the whole army— should officials discipline soldiers who have illnesses like PTSD and then misbehave? Or should officers forgive those soldiers and do everything possible to help them? Studies show that soldiers who have PTSD commonly misbehave. It’s a side effect of their illness.”
The easiest solution for the armed forces, of course, would be if no one talked about PTSD at all.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” doesn’t apply only to gay people, you know. Silencing as a weapon has been around forever, used against those who would challenge the power structure. Salem “witches.” Rape and incest survivors. Children beaten by their parents. McCarthy-era writers. Blacks. Women. Soldiers with PTSD. Jews. Employees. What’s the story you aren’t telling?
On the subway, I hope I can somehow control the whole car I am in. Make everyone behave, stay in their own personal spaces. Be aware of themselves. Don’t hog. Then it will all be OK. I will make it wherever I am going, unscathed. I have hope every time. I try my hardest. When I step from the platform into the metal car, my hackles go up.
I am on alert. Ready. My skin feels porous, penetrable. I am too short, too weak, too female. I need people to move back, make a bigger space for me. Don’t touch me, bump me, stare at me. I need to sit down. I need the boundaries of the seat. I am ignited into rage oh so easily. A man sitting with his legs spread in a V encroaches on my portion of the seat. I silently push back to gain equal ground for my legs to go out straight, not uncomfortably to the side. What’s mine is mine. If he doesn’t respond, I ask nicely, “Could you close your legs a little, please?” His refusal is where things start to go south. A heat rises within me and covers my body in a cold sweat.The back of my head tingles, and I salivate like you do just before throwing up. My eyes become hard; things start to close down, narrow in. My mind has exploded inside my skull, and I have no access to thought. I am somehow being run by another part of my being, watching with horror as well as acting out.The watching me is powerless to intervene in any way; she is helpless all over again. My face is flushed; my ears are buzzing. It’s the V legs now, but it could be a big backpack that is pressing into my back or, worst of all, a tall man whose dick is eye-level as I’m sitting down, who keeps leaning toward me to let people pass behind him or lurching toward me as the train takes a bend. I am wearing a straitjacket. I am suffocating.
Here’s what I’ve done: I have thrown hot coffee at a man who wouldn’t stop staring even after I asked him “What the fuck are you looking at?” I have pushed my elbow, hard and constant, into the body of a man sitting next to me who refused to move over a few inches. I have spat at a man on my way out of the subway car. I have stepped on a foot hard, feeling it crunch under me as I exited. I had to prove my point: Don’t fuck with me. My heart pounded, and I could barely control my legs to get out the door. I was wooden legs, full of leaded adrenaline.
I got out of the Vietnam of my childhood taking place on the subway. Disoriented, I fell onto the city street, looking for refuge, which is found in walking, walking, always in movement.
Kellee Twigg told The New Yorker a story about sitting in a PTSD support group for spouses of soldiers at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia:
[A] 22-year-old girl gets up and says,“He’s got guns all over the house, including a 9-mm. he puts between the mattress and the box spring.And one night I woke up and he had the gun up to my head, calling me an Iraqi. So I had to talk him all through that and get him to put the gun down.”
He went berserk.
Berserkers were elite Norse warriors who fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trancelike fury, which may have been aided by the use of hallucinogenics. I have another article: “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry,” from The American Journal of Psychiatry, No. 113, from 1956.The author, Howard D. Fabing, writes:
This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power. This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, a chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color.With this was connected a great hotheadedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe.When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.
It’s common knowledge that amphetamines, among other drugs, were used during the Vietnam War to hype up the soldiers for combat as well as to keep them awake and hyper- alert for long periods of time. How much evidence, both ancient and modern, do we need to understand not only the cost of war, but the reluctance that must be overcome—the deep perversion and corruption that must take place—in order for human beings to fight in battles?
Jonathan Shay, M.D., makes an explicit connection between the berserker rage of soldiers and the hyper-arousal of PTSD. In “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” he writes:
If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyper-arousal to his physiology—hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries.
Fort Bragg, N.C., covers more than 251 square miles in four counties and is home to almost 10 percent of active U.S. Army forces. By population, it is the largest Army facility anywhere in the world. The elite Green Berets and Delta Force (the secretive special mission unit), among other divisions, are based here. The Green Berets use “unconventional warfare,” also called “guerilla warfare.”
Since 9/11, the typical soldier based at Fort Bragg has been deployed between three and six times, on tours lasting from a few months to a year, to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the Army, there were 832 victims of domestic violence at Fort Bragg between 2002 and 2004. In 2007 alone, Fort Bragg investigated nearly 550 domestic violence incidents, a 38 percent increase from the year before.
Fort Bragg, June 11, 2002
Sgt. 1st Class Rigoberto Nieves, a Green Beret, had been back from Afghanistan for two days. On his third day at home, Sgt. Nieves shot his wife and then himself in their bedroom.
Fort Bragg, June 29, 2002
Master Sgt. William Wright, also a Green Beret, had been back from Afghanistan for about a month. He strangled his wife, Jennifer, age 32, whom he met in high school and had been married to for 12 years.The night of her murder, their sons—Ben, 13; Jacob, 9; and John, 6—heard their mother crying. In the weeks prior to the murder, Sgt. Wright asked for psychological help. According to Jennifer’s father, Archie Watson, Wright told his superiors he “was upset and didn’t know what to do.” On July 19, he led investigators to his wife’s body in Hoke County and was charged with murder. In photos of his arraignment, he stands in handcuffs and shackles, his eyes cast slightly down and fixed on a middle distance in front of him. His shoulders slump forward. His eyes are red around the rims, and he looks as if he needs a shave and something warm to drink.
Fort Bragg, July 9, 2002
Sgt. Cedric Ramon Griffin, 28, stabbed his estranged wife, Marilyn, 32, who was asleep in the master bedroom, at least 50 times in the chest, neck, back and abdomen before setting the house on fire. As she was dying, she told her daughters, ages 6 and 2, to run to the neighbor’s house. Marilyn died in the fire, but the girls escaped.
Fort Bragg, July 19, 2002
Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Floyd, a member of the elite Delta Forces, home from Afghanistan for five months, had been fighting so vehemently with his wife, Andrea, a retired soldier, that she took their three children—Harlee, 8; B.J., 5; and Garrett, 4—to Ohio to stay with her mother. A few days after she returned, neighbors heard Andrea and Brandon screaming and fighting. Two shots rang out, and then it was quiet. Sgt. Floyd had shot his wife and then himself inside their home. Andrea’s mother is now raising the children. “I told them the truth,” she says. “I told them Daddy wasn’t himself for one brief moment in time.”
CNN, July 26, 2002
“Army sources at Fort Bragg say there’s no common thread among the cases and suggest it may simply be an ‘anomaly’ that so many incidents have occurred together.”
Common: Ordinary, of ordinary qualities.
Thread: A long, thin strand.
Anomaly: A deviation from the standard of what’s expected.
Fort Bragg, Summer, 2008
Three killings of females by soldiers. More than one involved stabbings.
I can’t go on. I can’t tell you any more. Do you understand yet what is happening?
Fort Bragg, Aug. 17, 2009
Specialist Jacob Gregory Swanson, 26, was a paratrooper who served five year-long tours in
Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005. Born and raised in Fort Bragg, he had enlisted in the Army right out of high school. By 2005, he had been discharged and was receiving disability payments for his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Swanson was working at a paving and rock company, driving a truck. On Aug. 19, on his lunch hour, he had an argument with his girlfriend. He did not return to work that afternoon. Authorities found Amy Salo, his girlfriend, in the bathroom of his house, with a gunshot wound to her face, and Swanson on the floor of the living room, with a gunshot wound to his head. The gun was lying close to his body. It is unclear where Salo’s three children, ages 3, 10 and 12, were at the time of the shootings. In lieu of flowers, Swanson’s mother asked that donations be made to the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps spread the word about the treatment and prevention of PTSD.
If I stop here, who will write about the five murders committed in 2008 by members of Fort Carson’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, who had returned from serving in Iraq? Or about how the suicide rate among veterans is twice that among non-veteran civilians?
Dr. Ira Katz, head of mental health services for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, testifying before a congressional committee, denied a suicide epidemic. He told CBS News there had been 790 reported suicide attempts among veterans in the VA’s care in all of 2007.
But then, an e-mail came to light: “Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” Dr. Katz wrote to a colleague in February 2008.
Shh!: Used to call for silence. Variant of hush.
Liar: someone who tells an intentionally false statement.
Cover-up: an attempt to prevent people from discovering the truth about a serious mistake or crime.
Hippocratic Oath: an oath taken by doctors swearing to practice medicine ethically.
I’m choking her. I have my two hands around her neck, and I am squeezing hard. I am inches from her face, screaming the most obscene profanities I can think of. But I don’t have to think hard at all.The disgusting words come easily. Her face is turning deep red and blue. I can feel the hard lump of her Adam’s apple under my thumbs. She is pulling at my forearms, but I am locked in. Nothing can break my grasp. I am leaning in toward her with the power of my hips and thighs. My feet are cemented to the floor. She doesn’t have a chance against the force of my past. But she has done nothing to merit this. She is my lover. Whom I love. I let go of her neck and push her down to the floor in secret fear of what I could actually do, and as she sobs, I go into the bathroom, slamming the door, and take out the razor blades. Sitting on the edge of the tub, I make long cuts down the underside of each arm until the burning, stinging blood rises to the surface. If I were braver, I would cut to my bone.
I’m house-sitting in a mansion in San Francisco. I have driven as far west as I could get from my family home in Connecticut. I am house-sitting because I am homeless and it’s either my car or this empty house to sleep in.There are large, curved glass windows without any panes—just giant sheets of smooth glass—along the front of the house.
At dusk, I am hunted. The ghosts come out at dusk, and in the middle of the night, I hear voices. My mother’s. My father’s.The group home leader, the nurse on the psych ward, the neighbor, the social worker from child services, the minister.They blur into a cacophony of terror and confusion. I will not be afraid. I will not show weakness.The doorbell rings. A friend. I let her in, but I am irritated by her every move. I scream at her. She leaves in terror, and it’s too late. I am uncorked again. I throw every shoe I can find through the glass windows, one by one. I throw the shoes hard. I have a good arm. The combination of athleticism and anger makes for swift, deft movement. Shattered glass lies in the lawn, sprinkled on the hedges, glistening on the pathway. I am covered in sweat. I don’t know how this could have happened. I go to the garage and take a hammer off the workbench. I lie down on the living room couch and don’t move.The light fades to black, but I don’t get up to turn on the lights. I have to pee, but I hold it.
I am paralyzed. Frozen. I spend the night on the couch in my clothes and shoes with the hammer across my chest in case anyone comes into the house.The wind screams through the house all night.
Remember how I told you I am the wrong kind of Wonder Woman? Instead of magic bracelets, I have decided I want a gun. I am standing in a gun shop, turning over different handguns at the glass counter. I have weighed the outcome and decided prison won’t be so bad. I am planning on killing my parents. But I am shaking so much that I feel embarrassed, and so I leave the shop and walk around the city until Happy Hour. At Happy Hour, I drink just enough alcohol to pump myself up. I go to a gay bar and antagonize other women until I am in a fistfight, my childhood comfort.
My stomach is a tight, sickening knot. I’m bleeding, bruised, terrified, totally alone. I turn around and spit on my way out of the bar. Fuck you. I can’t say it hard enough. Nothing seems to soothe me. I wipe snot and blood from my nose, across my cheek, with the back of my hand, and then wipe my hand on my jeans, glaring at the world. The roots of my hair hurt from being pulled.
One more. I have to tell you this one. It’s so thick and snarled and fated that you might feel overwhelmed. But don’t do it. Stay with me. Try. This is not fiction. The pieces fit into a puzzle that spells atrocity.
Connection: a relationship in which a person, thing or idea is linked or associated with something else.
Linked: connected; joined physically.
Relationship: the way in which two or more concepts, objects or people are connected; the state of being connected by blood or marriage; the way in which two or more people or organizations regard and behave toward each other; an emotional and sexual association between two people.” Association: “a connection.
Atrocity: an extremely cruel act, typically involving physical violence or injury.
Ronald A. Gray. Have you guessed his residence? Yup. Fort Bragg.
Gray was born in Cochran, Ga., in 1966. But he didn’t grow up there. He grew up in Liberty Square, a 753-unit public-housing project in Miami, Fla. The complex is also called the “Pork ’n’ Beans” for the inexpensive meal that is said to be the staple diet of the tenants. It was built in the 1930s, and the attraction for African-Americans was the concrete structures and indoor plumbing. A 4-foot concrete wall along the edges of Liberty Square separated the Black and White communities.
Outrage: an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock or indignation.
Ronald A. Gray grew up with his mother, sister and a stepfather who was in and out of the picture. At 18, Ronald enlisted in the Army. By the time he was 22 years old, he had pleaded guilty in state court to two counts of murder, five counts of rape and other offenses, and he had been court-martialed for two murders and an attempted murder. All of his crimes were committed in a two-year span while he was in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Bragg.
At trial, Ronald’s mother and sister testified he had been extensively physically and sexually abused by his stepfather.
Colonel David Armitage, a military forensic psychiatrist, testified that in Ronald’s early life, he had experienced “… fairly substantial socioeconomic deprivation, multiple male figures in the home, multiple physical moves, living in substandard poverty conditions, circumstances in which the electric lights were turned out by the electric company because bills were not paid. … He had a [stepfather] at one time who was extremely abusive to his mother and abusive to himself, using belts on him to the point of inflicting injury, drawing blood.”
Ronald raped, sodomized, repeatedly shot, repeatedly stabbed, beat with blunt objects, gagged with cloth belts and hog-tied several women. Two of them died, but one survived multiple stab wounds to her neck and identified Gray.
I’m deep, way deep in this microfiche. I barely know how to work the machine but am too ashamed that I might be truly stupid so I don’t ask for help. Hour after hour, I gaze at this machine, which is hard to operate and seems encoded with left-brain activity. My left brain didn’t develop properly, I’m sure of it. I’m 45 years old, and I still don’t know my multiplication tables by memory. I can’t do division or fractions. I can’t add or subtract without using my fingers.
There was no logic to my childhood.Things that should have been definitive, weren’t. I created an alternate reality to survive. Imagination delivered me.The left side of my brain might have shorted out, the neurons not fusing properly. A series of imperceptible strokes with each trauma that prevented synapses from forming. It’s a jumble of floating cells in the left hemisphere, still trying to connect. Illogic trying to become logic.
A few cells made it. The ones needed for writing. Writing comes from the left, and so here I am.
Hooray for me.
People zoom around me with stacks of books, and other people doing research at these machines look straight ahead, reading and taking notes. Everyone looks very important. I should sit up straighter in my chair. I swivel my head back and forth, looking for any sign that someone else is panicking as I am. But I’m not giving up. I want this information. It’s in here somewhere. I’ll fight this inner war again, with its endless mutations that try to stop me, thwart me, imprison me, silence me.
Finally. After lunch and a few minutes in the bathroom trying to keep it together, to re-absorb the rage, sublimate it with breathing, self-talk and a call to my girlfriend, I see something. It’s by criminal defense lawyer and Georgetown University Law Professor Abbe Smith. In 2005, she published an article, “The ‘Monster’ in All of Us: When Victims Become Perpetrators.” I read the following, and my heart beats hard and fast:
Although victims do not always become perpetrators, a truism repeated by prosecutors at sentencing, as if it were a profound revelation never before put into words, it is the rare serious perpetrator who was not also a victim. … It is the rare death row inmate whose life does not read like a case study of extreme deprivation and abuse. It is the rare juvenile incarcerated in an adult prison for rape or murder who has had anything other than the cruelest of childhoods.
Gray’s childhood and combat training were a lethal combination. Whatever level of damage Gray came
into the military with, his repressed rage co-mingled with the training in aggression he received at Fort Bragg unleashed a torrent in his nervous system and brain functioning, with devastating results. Eighteen years of hurt, humiliation and pain would leave two women dead and one severely injured.
Gray would pay with his life for what happened to him and what he acted out on others. After pleading guilty to 22 felonies in Superior Court, he was sentenced to three consecutive and five concurrent terms of life imprisonment. He was also tried by a military court composed of commissioned and enlisted soldiers at Fort Bragg, and was convicted of 14 charges that included premeditated murder, forcible sodomy, rape and robbery.
He was unanimously sentenced to death on April 12, 1988.
As if that weren’t enough, he was additionally sentenced to dishonorable discharge, total forfeiture of all pay and allowances and reduction in rank to private.
Ronald was 22 years old at the time of his sentencing.
As a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, he could not be executed unless the president approved the death sentence. On July 28, 2008, President George W. Bush approved Gray’s execution.
If the U. S. District Court for the District of Kansas had not issued a stay of execution, Ronald A. Gray would have been put to death by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Ind. Army personnel would have conducted the execution, and may yet.
Terre Haute: French for “high ground.”
High Ground: a position of superiority in a debate.
Early spring. Hyacinths on my desk. Intoxicating, sweet, fresh, alive—the sticky, cloying scent of a novice’s hope. Hope for light, for warmth, for thawing soil.
I cannot change the past. I cannot mend the brokenness. I cannot stop the endless cycle. But I can be a different kind of carrier. Sometimes, I beg. On my knees, even though I don’t believe in God. I call out to anyone who can hear: Please.
Regret is my compass. I am an alchemist, trained in the transmutation of my nervous system. I have installed trained guides beside me. I am saving at least one life.
Incantation, chant, spell, charm, recitation, mantra. Please.Please.Please.That’s what I whisper most of the time. I ride a commuter train home, and one guy pulls a gun on another guy during a name-calling fight. I am in the seat right beside them.
Frozen. Terrified. Please, please, I am whispering under my breath. No, don’t do this. Please, Sir. I have constricting pains behind my left breast. My grandparents died of heart attacks. We are barely alive in the violence. We collectively hold our breath. Is peace just a bumper sticker, a charm on a necklace, a hip idea? Killings, rapes and beatings are passed from one generation to the next like heirlooms. I dreamt last night of a training camp for inner disarmament and extended healing. People wore all white linen, and we simply refused to participate any longer. Basic training camps were empty, and it was possible to heal children. A silly, embarrassing sentimental dream, I know.
Practice: to carry out, perform, observe, repeat, go over, polish.
Nonviolence: the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change.
Peace: freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility, mental calm, serenity; freedom from civil dispute or dissension between individuals and groups.
At Peace: free from anxiety or distress, in a state of friendliness.
Make Peace: reestablish friendly relations; become reconciled.
I keep writing. I must. Over and over and over. The same story a million ways.
This essay is dedicated to victims of violence everywhere who didn’t make it through.