In 2016, I was treated in a psychiatric unit for PTSD after a career spent covering conflict and tragedy. Last July, I was back in Ward 17. It was time to face up to my moral injury and the event that drove me into mental hell.
Return to Ward 17: Making peace with lost comrades
MELBOURNE, Australia – As the start of the memorial service neared, I hurriedly texted an Indonesian friend. “Is it OK for me to stand on a Muslim prayer mat?” I asked.
I’d spent 10 days preparing for this ritual. It was really 10 years. I wanted to get everything right.
I was about to ask Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh, both Iraqis, to forgive me for what I saw as my complicity in their deaths.
I was the Iraq bureau chief for Reuters when Namir, 22, and Saeed, 40, were shot dead by a U.S. Apache helicopter on the streets of Baghdad on July 12, 2007, along with 10 other people. The attack grabbed global attention when WikiLeaks released classified U.S. military footage of the incident in 2010. The video, titled “Collateral Murder,” was viewed millions of times.
I had planned to be in Iraq for the 10th anniversary, to apologise to Namir and Saeed’s families. Instead, unable to cope as the day approached, I was admitted to the Psychological Trauma Recovery Services inpatient unit at Melbourne’s Austin Health. It was my second admission to the facility, known as Ward 17, in less than a year.
Hoping more psychotherapy would help, I connected instead with a chaplain in training with streaks of white colour through her brown hair. This former fashion designer never questioned my guilt and shame. She helped me plan the memorial service and stood by my side at Austin Health’s chapel when I read aloud a hand-written, 4,885-word letter to Namir and Saeed. I also sought advice from a towering Egyptian-born imam at a nearby mosque. I attended Friday prayers. Together, they helped me heal. They helped me forgive myself.
During my first hospitalisation in Ward 17 in 2016, I learned how I’d developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from years of covering war, terrorist attacks and natural disasters in the Middle East and Southeast Asia for Reuters. I was taught strategies to deal with the many symptoms I had such as anger, anxiety, emotional numbness and an inability to deal with unexpected noise. I read everything I could find on PTSD, trauma and war.
But I did not make peace with the event that really drove me into mental hell. I was only starting to comprehend the moral dimension of losing Namir and Saeed.
Besides PTSD, I was suffering moral injury.
Most research into this little known condition has focused on American veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. A small number of experts say it helps explain the debilitating guilt and shame that some soldiers have carried home from the battlefields. Think of a soldier in Iraq who accidentally killed a civilian or blamed himself for not noticing an improvised explosive device at the side of a road that exploded and killed comrades in a vehicle behind. Or a medic in Afghanistan who blamed herself for not doing enough to save a wounded buddy.
Moral injury is the damage done to a person’s conscience or moral compass from something they did, failed to prevent or witnessed that transgresses their moral and ethical values. Besides guilt and shame, it can lead to rage, depression, social withdrawal and intrusive thoughts such as flashbacks and nightmares. Sufferers lose their sense of self-worth. It can end in suicide.
“PTSD is a mental disorder that requires a diagnosis,” write Shira Maguen of the University of California and Brett Litz of Boston University, two pioneers of research into moral injury. “Moral injury is a dimensional problem – there is no threshold for the presence of moral injury, rather, at a given point in time, a veteran may have none, or mild to extreme manifestations.”
Australian clinicians have written that moral injury affects police and emergency service workers. A recent report on the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe found many journalists who covered the story suffered distress from moral injury.
There is no consensus among experts on whether moral injury is a subset of PTSD or a distinct condition. Where there appears to be some agreement is that moral injury and PTSD can co-exist and that it’s possible to have one, and not the other. It can actually affect anyone and result from one or multiple experiences.
I first heard of moral injury the week before my first admission to Ward 17 in August 2016. A former colleague mentioned the term in an email after I told him how I felt about Namir and Saeed. I found a few articles on the internet about the condition. They talked about soul repair and healing.
Thinking I might be on to something, I wrote in my journal the day I was admitted:
“Namir and Saeed. Maybe the key is to come to some sort of acceptance and then seek atonement. How does one atone for 9 years of guilt?”
“Moral injury. Feel this describes me.”
While moral injury is not recognised as a mental illness – some experts regard it as a wound to the soul – my psychiatrist in Ward 17 agreed I was suffering from it. I’d been diagnosed with PTSD earlier in the year. I spent hours talking about Namir and Saeed with this perceptive psychiatrist, Dr Maryam Dar. One thing Dr Dar suggested I do was write a letter to tell Namir and Saeed how I felt. There were words I couldn’t utter aloud, she reasoned. A letter might help unlock those emotions.
It was a great idea, I thought, and is a healing strategy recommended by some therapists for moral injury. But it took me 10 months to work up the courage. It was only during my second admission to Ward 17 in July 2017 that I put pen to paper. I wrote for six days. Once done, I finally understood why I felt culpable over Namir and Saeed’s deaths and why I felt shame for failing them in later years.
A bit of background first.
In the classified U.S. military video released by WikiLeaks, Namir and Saeed can be seen with a group of men in a street in eastern Baghdad, a few of whom appear to be armed with AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, all pointed downward. The men walk about casually.
The U.S. military said in a statement on July 13, 2007, that Namir and Saeed were killed in a firefight with insurgents. The video showed that was untrue.
After checking if any U.S. or Iraqi forces are near the group, the Apache gunship seeks and gets permission from a U.S. ground unit to attack. At that moment, the crew’s line of sight is blocked by houses, so they have to circle into position.
Some 20 seconds later, Namir can be seen crouched down, peering around a street corner with his long lens camera raised. He’s about to photograph U.S. Humvees crossing an intersection less than 100 metres away. One of the Apache’s crew exclaims: “He’s got an RPG.” About 45 seconds later the helicopter fires the first of several bursts of 30-mm rounds from its automatic cannon.
Most of the men are dead. About three minutes later, Saeed can be seen wounded – but alive. He tries to get up and crawl. The crew wants to finish him off. “Come on buddy,” says one. “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” says the other.
When Saeed comes back into view of the circling gunship, the crew sees a minivan pulling up next to him. The Apache crew tells the U.S. ground unit the van is “possibly” picking up bodies and weapons and requests permission to attack. The video shows the minivan driver, Saleh Matasher Tomal, 43, getting out and sliding open the cargo door. Two other men who’d arrived on the scene, apparently unarmed, pick up Saeed and put him in the vehicle.
The U.S. ground unit grants permission to attack. The gunship fires at the van. Saeed and Tomal are killed and two of Tomal’s children inside are wounded.
I NEVER DID THAT
I got a first, partial glimpse of the killings on July 25, 2007. Two senior U.S. officers gave myself and Michael Lawrence, then our global head of news at Reuters, an off-the-record briefing in Baghdad about the military’s investigation of the attack. In one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, we met Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks, then a deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Baghdad, who oversaw the investigation; and Vice-Admiral Mark Fox, the then spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq.
Brooks told us a large contingent of U.S. soldiers had been operating in the area since dawn on July 12, 2007, to clear out Shi’ite militiamen. After coming under attack from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, the U.S. ground commander requested air support, Brooks said. Two Apache gunships arrived and later spotted the group of men that included Namir and Saeed. My staff had gone to the area to check reports of a U.S. airstrike on a building earlier that day.
Lawrence and I pressed Brooks: Had anyone from the group fired on U.S. forces? Brooks said no. The Americans were taking fire from other areas, not where Namir and Saeed were, he said. But because some of the men were armed, Brooks said, the group was deemed to be expressing “hostile intent” – and so, under the U.S. military’s rules of engagement, they could be fired upon.
We objected that every household in Iraq had an AK-47 rifle. But not RPGs, said Brooks, and even if everyone had an AK-47, they should not be carrying those guns on the street. It was against the law.
The generals then showed us less than three minutes of video from the Apache’s gun camera, up to the exact moment it opened fire the first time. Brooks said additional footage showed a van stopping at the scene. The military had believed the driver was aiding insurgents, so it was attacked, Brooks said.
Lawrence asked to see the remaining footage and to obtain a full version of the video (it was 38 minutes long) so Reuters could check whether it had been edited or manipulated. The generals refused, telling us to seek access to the tape under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Our lawyers did so later that day. The Pentagon never handed over the tape despite several follow-up attempts by Reuters.
Brooks, now a four-star general who commands U.S. Forces Korea, declined to comment for this article. Fox, who retired from the U.S. Navy in 2016, said access to combat gun camera tapes could only be granted via the Freedom of Information Act process.
In my letter to Namir and Saeed, I said I couldn’t understand why I had failed to ask the U.S. military about its rules of engagement. Iraq at the time was the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. Scores – including four from Reuters – had been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. I arrived in Baghdad in January 2007, just before the so-called surge of 30,000 extra U.S. troops into Iraq began. At no time since the invasion had U.S. troops gone on such an intense offensive in Baghdad as they did during the first six months of 2007.
I knew all this, and yet I did not ask for an explanation of how the rules of engagement could affect my staff, I wrote to Namir and Saeed.
“I never did that, and I believe it cost you both your lives,” I wrote.
Andrew Marshall and Alastair Macdonald, two of my predecessors as Reuters Baghdad bureau chief, told me recently that they had for years demanded to see the rules of engagement or be given confidential briefings on them. They were repeatedly rebuffed.
When my nebulous but crippling sense of culpability emerged in mid-2016, family, friends and current and former Reuters colleagues assured me the deaths were not my fault. Therein lies a key problem for people with moral injury. Everyone wants to make you feel better. Some experts say this prolongs the pain, paradoxically.
“We have observed that intense feelings of shame and guilt can arise in situations when, by any objective analysis, the individual had no power to prevent what happened,” Australian clinicians and trauma experts Zachary Steel and Dominic Hilbrink, from the St John of God psychiatric hospital in Richmond, near Sydney, wrote in an essay for a 2015 book, Moral Injury: Unseen Wounds In an Age of Barbarism.
The only person who seemed to understand how I felt was a former Apache pilot who served in the same unit as the men who killed my colleagues but wasn’t involved in the attack.
This man, who I tracked down, wanted to be identified only by his first name, Dan. I sent him a message in December 2016, asking if he would send the Apache crew a note. I just wanted to talk to them, I said.
Dan responded: “It is understandable you feel at least partially responsible for the loss of people working for you.” He added: “I can tell you that having seen the entire tape several times, that if I had been there that day, I would have pulled the trigger myself. The weapons were easily identifiable and they were in an area where U.S. ground forces had been taking fire.”
Dan eventually heard back from one of the four Apache crew members who were in the air that day. He didn’t want to talk to me.
Then there was the shame.
A U.S. military intelligence analyst working in Baghdad, now called Chelsea Manning, had leaked the gun camera tape and more than 700,000 other classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning is a transgender woman formerly known as Bradley Manning. When WikiLeaks unveiled the video at a press conference in April 2010, I was on holiday with my family in Tasmania and out of phone or email range. When I learned about the tape two days later, I had a patchy internet connection. But deep down, I also wanted nothing to do with the story. It was too traumatic. I just wanted to hide.
My Iraqi colleagues were livid when they saw the video of the killings, believing I had seen the entire 38-minute recording during that off-the-record briefing by the U.S. military in Baghdad in July 2007.
Lawrence and I had seen less than three minutes. We hadn’t seen the attack on the van that killed Saeed. We hadn’t heard the shocking banter between the pilots: “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards,” one pilot is heard saying. “Nice,” a comrade replies.
One Iraqi colleague wrote to me a few days after the video was released. “Do you know Dean: we, the Iraqis in this office, put some of the blame on you as you were one of those who saw this tape at that time and you were convinced of the pretext said by U.S. army that both of our late colleagues represented at that moment a source of threat to U.S army personnel!!!!! What a ridiculous point of view.”
That nearly broke my heart.
It also dawned on me during my second stay in Ward 17, to my horror, that I had been blaming Namir for what happened, from the time I saw him lean around the corner with his camera raised in that off-the-record briefing in Baghdad.
In my letter to Namir and Saeed, I wrote: “Namir – I just cannot understand why I was thinking like this. They were going to attack whether you peered around that corner or not. For me, nine years later, and at the time, to have blamed you is beyond comprehension. How did I not see this? … Maybe I was just genuinely shocked at what I saw on the video … I have buried so deep my own culpability.”
When the video was leaked “I should have got involved because I knew more about the story – and the backstory – than anyone. I could have made clear that permission to open fire had been given before you peered around the corner – thus avoiding the impression given by many in the media that it was the Apache mistaking your camera for an RPG that caused them to open fire.”
A LONG WALK
I met Cath Slarks about 10 days before the anniversary. Wearing brightly coloured clothes and red lipstick, Cath was 32. She was one of Austin Health’s spiritual care workers. She was doing final chaplaincy studies.
I told Cath I inhabited two worlds: The rational one in which I knew I was crazy to be obsessed with something that happened 10 years ago; and the other one, where I couldn’t cope with the memories.
I got the idea for the memorial service from Matthew Green, a British author and journalist who wrote about less mainstream methods to treat trauma in his 2015 book, Aftershock: The Untold Story of Surviving Peace. Soon after arriving at Ward 17, I emailed Green, who I worked with in Baghdad in 2004, telling him I was looking for ways to heal. Green suggested I hold what he called a private ceremony of remembrance to honour Namir and Saeed.
Cath and I met several times to plan the memorial service. At one point, I said: “I know it’s not the right word to use, but I feel excited about this.” Cath smiled and replied: “It’s your anticipation of doing something very meaningful for Namir and Saeed.”
I also wondered if I could find answers in Islam, especially about seeking forgiveness. I googled Melbourne mosques. The Elsedeaq Heidelberg Mosque was a kilometre from Ward 17, and its imam, Alaa El Zokm, lived in a house opposite the mosque.
I walked there one day. Alaa opened the door of his modest brick veneer home. I introduced myself, and Alaa ushered me inside and made tea. At 28, he seemed young to be an imam. But there was a wisdom underneath his youthful demeanour.
I asked Alaa about forgiveness. He said an imam can’t forgive someone, only Allah can.
We talked about Namir and Saeed. He said their deaths were pre-ordained. It was their destiny. Alaa’s use of the word “pre-ordained” reminded me of what I’d often heard in the Muslim world. That events, especially tragic ones, were the will of Allah.
A few days later, I went to the mosque for Friday prayers. I sat in the courtyard with other worshippers. Alaa delivered his sermon in a mix of English and Arabic. My mind roamed the many years I’d spent in the Muslim world. I noticed a man sitting a few rows in front of me. From behind, he looked like Saeed.
On July 12, 2017, the day of the memorial service, I rose early and went for a long walk. I tried to clear my mind.
Cath and I met at the chapel. On the altar, I placed a framed photo of Namir and Saeed, as well as small candles and little wooden blue wrens that represented their souls. Cath put a large candle on the altar for me. In front of the altar we laid the Muslim prayer mat on the floor. It faced Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Since Namir and Saeed were Muslims, I wanted to show respect for their faith. My Indonesian friend had texted back, telling me not to stand on the mat. I stood next to it instead.
Cath had the order of service on her iPad. She read out a blessing. I then started to read my letter. I had thought about this moment for many days. I wanted to show emotion.
As I read, I grew frustrated. Why I am not crying? What is wrong with me? I didn’t shed a single tear.
We lit the candles. Cath asked if there was anything I wanted to say to Namir and Saeed. I stepped forward, looked at their photo and asked them to forgive me.
Cath then asked me to place my hands over an empty bowl. I closed my eyes. She slowly poured a jug of cold water over my hands. I was transported to the Tasmanian rainforest near my home, where I often seek tranquillity on long hikes. It felt as if my hands were immersed in a stream. It stilled my mind. I felt cleansed.
Cath then dipped her index finger into oil and made the sign of the cross on my forehead several times. It signified absolution.
Then she asked me to blow out the candles. Smoke from the large one billowed into the air. I saw the disappearing smoke as my guilt and shame.
In May 2017, Reuters named Dean as the company’s head of journalist mental health and wellbeing strategy. Dean blogs about mental health on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn @DeanYatesJourno.
Return to Ward 17
By Dean Yates
Photo editing: Barbara Adhiya and Thomas White
Video: John Hyland and Juris Abramenko. Video supplied by Helen Barrow, Evershine Productions Australia.
Design: Troy Dunkley
Edited by Janet McBride and Michael Williams