I haven’t written about Charles Whittington’s ordeal at the Community College of Baltimore County until now because I hadn’t read the essay that got him barred from campus (pending a psychological evaluation) nor had the opportunity to learn any additional details about his case. With word today that he won’t be returning to CCBC, I did a bit more digging. A few thoughts:
First, while his essay is undeniably extreme, I’m struck at the extent his story mirrors those of guys I knew in Iraq. Whittington was seriously wounded, fought to stay with his unit, and feels extreme guilt that he was called home and ultimately medically discharged (after an IED blast, he was unconscious for days). I have a good friend from my unit who suffered a serious wound in a rocket attack and absolutely would not allow the doctors to medevac him out of country. He demanded to be sent back into action. On other occasions medics had to physically restrain injured soldiers to prevent them from returning to the fight.
Second, non-military readers might be surprised at how many vets — at some level — long for their deployment days. As one friend put it, “Over there, we had had purpose, we had a brotherhood, and we had an enemy. I never felt more alive.” Or, as another put it to me just recently, “I feel like I was accomplishing the most important thing I’d ever do in my life.” When you see old vets put on uniforms for Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day — uniforms that have been in their closets for decades — they do it not just out of pride for their service but also because they’re remembering days that were utterly unique, an experience that few of their fellow citizens will ever understand. That’s not to say that war isn’t devastating to the human soul, but you’re sustained in those dark days by bonds that are tough to describe and nearly impossible to replicate in the civilian context.
Third — and the first two points notwithstanding — the essay is undeniably graphic and disturbing, especially to college administrators who can’t possibly fathom Whittington’s combat experience. At the same time, however, it is very clearly directed against our enemies and not against students or professors. It’s not a threat within the legal meaning of the term, and indeed he received an “A” for the paper. In the post-Virginia Tech world, I can understand asking Whittington some questions, but barring him from campus? On the basis of the essay alone? That’s a bridge too far.
I wasn’t in the infantry like Charles Whittington, I wasn’t wounded (thankfully), and I went on a fraction of the missions “outside the wire” that he did, but I did see and experience things that this 41-year-old father of three will never forget, and that haunt me to this day. And I do feel like I know more than one Charles Whittington. In fact, I’d be proud to teach him . . . and all the vets like him.