A war veteran’s story of survivor’s guilt — and redemption

A war veteran’s story of survivor’s guilt — and redemption


JUDY WOODRUFF: Two decades of U.S. wars in
the Middle East have taken a heavy toll on those who served. One consequence of the conflict
is still not well understood: survivor’s guilt. Former Sergeant Adam Linehan served in Afghanistan
and Iraq as an Army medic. He’s now a journalist. One of his most recent articles was published
in The New York Times. And it was titled “I Watched Friends Die in Afghanistan. The Guilt
Has Nearly Killed Me.” Linehan recently sat down with our Nick Schifrin. NICK SCHIFRIN: As you sit here, do you feel
guilty about surviving? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN (RET.), Journalist: I don’t
feel guilty about surviving. I feel guilty that I’m on camera talking about my deployment. NICK SCHIFRIN: Because other people can’t
keep doing that? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: Yes, yes, because other
people can’t. Guilt is a kind of catalyst. You come back
feeling guilty, and so you start drinking to repress it. Maybe you start, in my case,
like abusing drugs. For me, it just felt like nihilism. What’s
the point of being alive? NICK SCHIFRIN: Take me back to 2010. Take
me back to Kandahar. Tell me what happened in the village of Sangsar. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: One day, they just — they
hit us with a suicide bomber, and we just were completely blindsided by that. The guy walked right up to my squad leader.
And it killed five people and it wounded, you know, several more. And I remember thinking like immediately,
I’m in some way kind of responsible for this. NICK SCHIFRIN: You had 18 people killed during
your deployment, right? That is a lot of people. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: Yes. Our battalion lost,
yes, 18, 18 people. NICK SCHIFRIN: What you experienced was traumatic,
and it deeply affected you. How much despair did you go through? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: The way it manifested for
me was, I mean, drinking. You know, alcoholism is a problem in my family,
on my father’s side of the family. And my grandfather kind of set the tone for that
when he came back from World War II. And so I just kind of — maybe that was just the
subconscious blueprint that I had to follow. And so I drank an excessive amount. Drug abuse,
right? I was like, why am I going to go get — you know, what’s the point of getting enrolled
in the VA if — and going, seeing — going to a therapist and stuff, because they’re
going to tell me that, you know, life is worth living? Like, show me the evidence. NICK SCHIFRIN: At this point, you understand
that some of the guilt you felt was irrational. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: Mm-hmm. NICK SCHIFRIN: You talk about existential
survivor guilt being resistant to logic. What does that mean, and why is it resistant
to logic? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: So, if you would ask me
if I felt guilty for anything I did in Afghanistan around the time that I started to kind of
have this breakdown, I would have said no. The guilt is masking something else, because
when I was over there, and I saw these things, I felt afraid, and — but I didn’t feel sad.
And so I thought, I don’t have a right to say I have PTSD, because, when I saw it happen,
I didn’t feel anything. I was numb. NICK SCHIFRIN: Meaning you know guys who went
through worse. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: Yes. Trauma was a guy getting his leg blown off
or people getting shot or people getting killed. That was trauma. That’s traumatic. Simply
witnessing it, that’s — I mean, there are light years between those two experiences. And so me kind of — that’s something I wrestle
with a lot. NICK SCHIFRIN: How did you lose the feeling
of doom? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: I remembered that, when
I left Afghanistan, I had this really kind of, like, life was incredible. And you see people you see people do bad things,
but you also see people do extraordinarily good things, you know? So it’s good to be
reminded of that, you know? And trying to get back a little bit of that
way that I felt, because, at the end of the deployment, you just — you’re looking forward
to life. NICK SCHIFRIN: And it seems to me that this
is where your grandfather’s story comes in. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: So, my grandfather was
a B-24 pilot in Europe, and he flew somewhere between 44 and 50 missions. And he flew D-Day with the 8th Air Force.
He came home, his brother came home from the Pacific, and they started at a company together.
And it was really successful. And somewhere around the age I am now, things
started to, you know, turn in the other direction. And when it — when it happened, it happened
really fast. I mean, if you don’t have any other ways of
coping with this stuff, if you don’t believe that there is a any other way to cope with
it, you’re just going to continue drinking. I mean, my grandfather didn’t see the point
of getting sober. NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you feel at some point you
realized there was a point to staying sober? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: Yes. I mean, at some point I realized that if I
just keep doing what I’m going to — what I’m doing, my life is going to turn out like
his. NICK SCHIFRIN: And so you realized, as you
write, that moving on isn’t running away. What does that mean? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: For me, that’s like — that
was like a really profound realization. I was trying to put as much distance between
myself and all of the kind of the guilt and drama of going to war that’s inevitable, the
people who got wounded and killed, even the personal dramas between people who are so
— who are living so closely together and get to know each other. You feel like you’re kind of abandoning them,
you know, just repress the memory of them too, and sever contact and stuff. And so reconnecting
has been like a — it’s been incredible. NICK SCHIFRIN: So now you have made those
contacts. You have thought about what you have done. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: Yes. NICK SCHIFRIN: You understand a little bit
more. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: I understand a little bit
more. That’s all there is, you know? You understand a little bit more. That is — in itself, can just dial the pressure
down, and you just kind of shift your way of thinking about these things. And you will
see that there are other — you will see possibilities. NICK SCHIFRIN: Someone who’s felt the despair
that you felt, when they read this piece, what understanding do you want them to have? SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: That the stuff that you
saw over there, and what you learned over there about yourself, about the way that the
world works, it doesn’t go away. You’re never going to be able to forget that.
So, you have to figure out how to integrate that wisdom into your life, because that’s
what it is. It’s wisdom, if you let it be. The challenge is to be able to carry that
gracefully, with courage, to be an example for other people. And I think, like, you can
really become someone extraordinary if you are able to kind of leverage that for good. So, I think that’s what I — yes, that’s what
I want them to understand. NICK SCHIFRIN: Adam, the piece you have written
is extraordinary. SGT. ADAM LINEHAN: Thank you.

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