The first time I ever had to kill an animal it wasn't a clean kill. It was a cool morning with blue skies with a few clouds dotting the horizon. I remember it was a cool spring morning. I had to take my jacket off when digging the grave, the leaves on the vine maple and alder were green, the dirt was rich brown and I was far enough from the trees I didn't have to break roots to get deep. I led him to the hole on a leash and he fell into it and cowered at the bottom, too wild to struggle out of the pit to try to escape, too untamed to know what goes in graves.
The first 22 rifle my Father brought failed to fire. Dad walked back to the house for another. I stayed, looking down at the pitiful animal huddled in his grave. The rifle he brought this time had a scope on it, and I'd dug the pit too deep to easily push the muzzle behind the dogs ear and pull the trigger, the dog struggling away from human contact made that impossible in the first place.
I unloaded all sixteen rounds into that poor dog, none of them going where I really wanted a round to go. I remember one hole appearing the the dogs muzzle, a bright red spot on dirty white. In the end the dog was dead and I felt bad that I couldn't deliver a clean kill. Dad helped me heap the loose dirt back over the dog one shovelful at a time. We walked back to the house. I must have been around fifteen.
Every couple of years this memory will creep up on me, filling me with remorse. I can't imagine that should I take a human life I'd have any more sympathy than I do for that poor dog buried for over a decade in my parent's back pasture. Of all the things that need killing, a dog is probably the most pure, and hardest to harden your heart against. Even one wild dog who couldn't be tamed possessed more innocence and honesty than anyone I've ever met.
That is why I don't take snap shots at deer. I don't have a problem with killing animals, I know where my meat comes from. What I do have a problem with is not being humane about it. It costs me nothing to minimize cruelty, and it costs me a little bit of my soul every time I screw it up. How would I feel looking through my ACOG watching some underfed fanatic with an AK jerk on the ground as his life bleeds out into the sand? I don't know, but unlike that poor dog, I know that the guy with an AK would put lead in my guts given half a chance.
Sometimes I wished that I'd killed an animal earlier in life, too young to have experienced pain and a couple near death experiences. Other times I'm glad that I was given that chore at a time and place where it would mean something. I don't know what serial killers feel when they commit the act, is there a sense of satisfaction in seeing blood? Is there a sense of empowerment? I don't know, my brain doesn't work that way. I may be abnormal, but not that abnormal.
My job has been vilified by many as “paid murderers”. The truth is that few of us ever fire a shot in anger, and those that do come away different. The best of them come away with a sense of having accomplished a dirty job, others come away with PTSD. I have not met anyone who hasn't been changed by the act of killing. And so I wonder about how it would change me. I'd like to think I wouldn't be a PTSD case, but sometimes I think about that poor dog bleeding from sixteen bullet wounds in the dirt and wonder if that means something.
I didn't join the Army to kill people. I joined the Army to save lives. Not even just American lives. Since the turn of the last century the US military has saved lives on every continent, including Antarctica. We build roads, dig wells, teach people, deliver emergency supplies.
One dear friend of mine is a die hard liberal. She asked me how I could serve in the US Army with my personal beliefs. I asked her, “Think about it this way, right now there is someone who loves you enough to step up and die to keep you alive.” And she stopped to think about it. I told her that is why I serve. I told her about my list of people worth dieing for, how when it got cold and wet and miserable I went through the list in my head to make sure I hadn't forgotten anyone. She understood, she got why good men can pick up a rifle and go across the world to fight for the freedom of people they don't know.
Because we don't just fight. We fight for a goal. And oftentimes it's a dirty job. Like putting down a half crazy dog, it doesn't make you feel any better because of the necessity. But you grit your teeth and do the job. And maybe afterward you'll think about it from time to time.