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On killing's cost

By Vince Sturla, Dateline Producer

I was browsing through a bookstore a few years back when I glimpsed the head-stopping title "On Killing," by Lt. Col David Grossman. I thought, "What the … ?"

I picked it up and read the subtitle: "The Psychological Cost Of Killing In War And Society." The general point was that while killing is often presented as an almost casual act in action movies, more often than not, it's a traumatic, life-transforming experience for a combat troop or police officer -- no matter how just the cause. It makes a great deal of sense, but it was something I hadn't seriously considered before.

Several years later, I came across an academic paper by Lt. Col. Peter Kilner that came to the same conclusion as Grossman's book. In his paper, Kilner cited a study done of Vietnam veterans that indicated the most severely traumatized were the ones who had killed. Few of us can read that and say, "Oh yeah. I know what they're talking about." The vast majority of us – fortunately – have no idea what it's like to take another life. We have no idea of the conflicts that take place in the hearts and minds of combat veterans who killed in war. Most of us are incapable of offering any meaningful advice or words of comfort.

On the flip side, you have returning combat troops who are loathe to broach the subject of killing because they don't want their families to know they've taken a life. That's how we end up with, as Lt. Col Peter Kilner puts it, "The Elephant In The Room, no one is talking about."

Photo: Marine Sgt. Jesse Odom

Because of that code of silence, it took a couple of months of digging before I was able to find the three Iraq combat veterans, profiled in the second half of our report, who were willing to share the intimate details of their wartime killing. What was so interesting is that all three share common characteristics. They are intelligent, even though they struggled in high school; they loved the military for giving their lives structure and a sense of purpose; and they are extremely insightful and articulate. All of them are good writers.

One of them, former Marine Sgt. Jesse Odom, has even written a book about his wartime experiences, "Through Our Eyes." They all conveyed a certain wisdom that few of us, no matter how old we get, could ever obtain.

"Coming Home," a special Dateline on the effect combat killing has on soldiers, airs Dateline NBC on Sunday, May 25 at 7 p.m. ET.