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Over two decades of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, much research has explored the psychological toll suffered by the men and women who serve. A phenomenon that is perhaps less well understood is survivor’s guilt. Adam Linehan was an Army medic in both wars and is now a journalist who recently wrote about the agony of seeing others die. He talks to Nick Schifrin about his story and recovery.
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.
As you sit here, do you feel guilty about surviving?
Sgt. Adam Linehan, (Ret.):
I don't feel guilty about surviving. I feel guilty that I'm on camera talking about my deployment.
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?
Take me back to 2010. Take me back to Kandahar. Tell me what happened in the village of Sangsar.
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.
You had 18 people killed during your deployment, right? That is a lot of people.
Yes. Our battalion lost, yes, 18, 18 people.
What you experienced was traumatic, and it deeply affected you. How much despair did you go through?
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.
At this point, you understand that some of the guilt you felt was irrational.
You talk about existential survivor guilt being resistant to logic.
What does that mean, and why is it resistant to logic?
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.
Meaning you know guys who went through worse.
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.
How did you lose the feeling of doom?
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.
And it seems to me that this is where your grandfather's story comes in.
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.
Do you feel at some point you realized there was a point to staying sober?
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.
And so you realized, as you write, that moving on isn't running away. What does that mean?
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.
So now you have made those contacts. You have thought about what you have done.
You understand a little bit more.
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.
Someone who's felt the despair that you felt, when they read this piece, what understanding do you want them to have?
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.
Adam, the piece you have written is extraordinary.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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