Back from War, and Feeling Guilt

Commentator Ken Harbaugh is attending Yale Law School. He's also a former Navy pilot. He describes the guilt he feels about not fighting in the Iraq war.


Commentator Ken Harbaugh served as a Navy pilot before attending Yale Law School. During his nine years of active duty service, he flew intelligence and combat reconnaissance missions in the Western Pacific and Middle East. Now, he says he feels guilty about not fighting in the Iraq war.

Mr. KEN HARBAUGH (Former Navy Pilot, Yale Law School student): Across the street from Yale University, there's a cemetery. Sometimes I wander over and sit next to the grave of a sergeant killed in Iraq. I did not know him. But this is as close as I can get to those of my comrades who died fighting.

I left the military in the middle of a war to attend Yale Law School. I made a promise to my wife that once our first child was born, I would make the transition. We're both tired of deployments and I did not want to miss seeing my daughter grow up.

But there are thousands of other mothers and dads, soldiers, in Iraq and Afghanistan, who carry that burden every day so that I don't have to. Many of them will never come home.

On my last day in uniform, my commanding officer called me into his office. Without a hint of insincerity, he gave me his blessing. It was, looking back, an almost priestly act. There were no recriminations for abandoning the military in wartime, no accusations of not giving enough. He thanked me for serving honorably and wished me well in civilian life. What an amazing thing.

The hardships of this war are not borne fairly. As a country, we are asking far too much or far too few. But the men and women doing the fighting, carrying on without nearly the bitterness they are entitled to.

As grateful as I am to be at Yale, I still feel guilty. Every minute I get to spend with my daughter is paid for by the sacrifices of soldiers better than me. As a veteran, people occasionally thank me for my service. Some even say, like my commanding officer did, that I have given enough. I don't know how to respond to that. What is enough? My part in this war, at least on the front lines, is over. I don't want to orphan my daughter. But neither do the thousands of other moms and dads who are fighting in my place. Sometimes, it is all I can do to cross the street, sit with a falling comrade, and ask his forgiveness.

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NORRIS: Ken Harbaugh is currently in his second year at Yale Law School. He is working on a book about the culture and class divide between the civilian elite and the U.S. military.

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