“Wait…you were his platoon leader?”

I’ve received this particular question probably about a hundred times over the last five years, and roughly 95% of the time, it’s followed by a particular look of recognition, doubt, and horror, all combined into one washing over the asker’s face. As I recall the details of the story, and explain all the caveats, for those who know me and understand how the Army works, they can see how the pieces fit and how it all makes sense.

But more often than not, when you drop “my first platoon sergeant murdered 16 people in the biggest war crime since Vietnam” in casual conversation, it tends to throw the uninitiated for a loop. It’s because the Army has a particular culture with regard to leadership. In its most basic form, a leader is responsible for everything the unit does, or fails to do. Army commanders at all levels are routinely relieved for the actions of subordinates, even when it’s almost impossible to see how they could have prevented their behavior.

So, as a brand-new lieutenant, given the awesome responsibility to lead a platoon of infantrymen in combat, it’s hard to overemphasize the stew of mixed emotions you feel when you get to watch the President of the United States apologize for the actions of one of your subordinates in-theater.

On March 13th, 2012, two nights after the attack, while we were under a total communications and operational blackout following the massacre, I sat in our Village Stability Platform (VSP) Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) tent, next to the random Afghan war hound we adopted on a dusty, blown out couch, and watched Barack Obama give this statement.

All I could think of at that time was: holy fuck. How did it come to this?

So first, let’s get back to how all this started.

The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks happened during my first semester of high school. As a freshman, I can vividly remember watching the grainy night vision device footage of Army Rangers seizing Kandahar Airfield. I told the kid next to me in Geometry class “I think I wanna be one of those Rangers,” to which he looked at me (at the time I was nearly 6 feet tall and about 130 pounds soaking wet) and said “yeah fucking right, dude!”