By writing the paper, Charles Whittington thought he would confront the anxieties that had tormented him since he returned from war.
He knew it wasn't normal to dwell on the pleasure of sticking his knife between an enemy soldier's ribs. But by recording his words, maybe he'd begin to purge the fixation.
So Whittington, an Iraq veteran, submitted an essay on the allure of combat for his English class at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville. He called war a drug and wrote that killing "is something that I do not just want but something I really need so I can feel like myself."
Whittington's instructor gave him an A and suggested that he seek publication for the piece. The essay appeared in the Oct. 26 edition of the campus newspaper.
Two weeks later, the former infantryman was called to a meeting with high-ranking college officials, who told him he would be barred from campus until he obtained a psychological evaluation. "We all believe in freedom of speech, but we have to really be cautious in this post- Virginia Tech world," says college spokesman Hope Davis, referring to the 2007 massacre of 32 people by a student gunman.
But Whittington, 24, says that he has his violent impulses under control with the help of counseling and medication and that the college is unfairly keeping him from moving forward with his life.
"Right now, that's all I have left," he says of his classes.
The dispute speaks to the apprehension that steers college officials as they try to prevent campus violence. But it also illustrates a common dilemma for veterans, who have endured traumas their peers can barely fathom and who often feel misunderstood when they try to discuss their experiences.
"They have this problem on jobs and at colleges everywhere," says Deborah O'Doherty, president of the Maryland chapter of American War Mothers, a nonprofit group that supports troops. "The minute people feel a little shaky around a veteran, they just kick him out because they're uncomfortable."
A family tradition
Whittington grew up in Southwest Baltimore, attended Catonsville High School and joined ROTC, knowing that he wanted to be the latest in a long line of family members who had fought for the country. He enlisted in the Army in October 2005 and was deployed to Iraq a year later.
His younger brother, Chris, who talks with him every day, says Whittington found a natural fit in the Army. "He's a hard worker, that's the biggest thing," Chris Whittington says. "He has always been patriotic, too. I went in to the Reserves because of watching him."
About two months after his infantry unit arrived in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, Whittington began going on raids to capture insurgent leaders. The Army trucks rolled out in the evening, right around the time curfew set in. They tried to surprise their targets. "But we were the only ones on the road, so they knew we were coming," Whittington says.
Enemy fire could come from anywhere at any time, so Whittington lived on a perpetual adrenaline rush. He tried to stay in constant motion, a lesson he says he learned from neighborhood scraps in Baltimore. He found the insurgents cowardly, prone to firing a few shots and then scurrying into the shadows.
Firefights often erupted when his unit found an insurgent target, and Whittington believes he first shot and killed an enemy soldier during an exchange only a few months into his tour.
"It felt wrong to me," he says. "I had to tell myself that it was him or me. But it bothered me enough that I went to a chaplain to talk about it."
When he was out fighting, he didn't dwell on the danger or the killing. But during down time, his psyche became an open sore. "You can't think about it," he says. "Because that's when it hurts you."
He's not sure how many enemy soldiers he killed but says he became numb to the violence over time.
Whittington was injured by three different roadside explosions, the second of which took the ring finger on his right hand.
Guilt tore at him as the injury kept him from fighting beside his friends. Though he is right-handed, he learned to shoot left-handed so he could stay in Iraq with his unit. He says he also lied about how much it hurt so doctors would clear him for action more quickly.
But his tour ended with the third roadside explosion, which knocked him unconscious for five days. He awoke in a German hospital, disoriented and unable to remember the explosion or large chunks of his childhood. He couldn't walk at first and spent weeks in Germany getting strong enough to return to an Army base in El Paso, Texas. There, he learned that he wouldn't go back to Iraq.
He can't find words to describe the pain of that realization. The guilt haunts him to this day. He says that when he wrote about killing in his essay, he was expressing his intense desire to get back in the fight with his Army buddies.
"It's mostly the guilt that messes everyone up," he says.
Writing as therapy
Whittington suffers from ligament damage in his back and neck and nerve damage in his right arm. He says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic- stress disorder and medically discharged from the Army in August 2008.
He drank excessively to dull the physical and emotional pain. One night, he crashed his car into a stalled tractor-trailer while drunk and veered into another car, injuring several people. He was sentenced to three months in a Texas prison. Confronted with so much free time to think about combat, he realized how much he missed the adrenaline of daily missions.
He says he didn't learn to cope with his anxieties and violent urges until he followed a doctor's suggestion to write about his experiences. He found a new calm wrestling with combat on the page.
After serving his prison sentence, Whittington returned to Baltimore and moved into a small room on the bottom floor of his father and stepmother's house off Caton Avenue. He kept to himself more than he had before enlisting. He hated it when old friends asked how many people he had killed or thanked him for his service.
"If you didn't go through it, you don't understand," he says. "To have to sit there and explain, it just makes me feel more guilty."
Whittington started classes at the community college this past spring. He sought a new purpose, and his spirits rose when he earned a perfect 4.0 average in his first semester.
"When he first came home, he really wanted to go back [to Iraq] because that's what he knows," Chris Whittington says. "Over there, there ain't no problems. You're just doing your job. But he was doing good with his classes. As long as you give him a chance at something, he'll succeed. We don't like failure in my family."
Essay and aftermath
In English class this fall, instructor Linda De La Ysla encouraged Whittington to write about his time in Iraq. His previous writings were private, and he had rarely talked with anyone about his anxieties. But he decided that after two years, he was ready to lay them bare.
Asked if that step was a big deal, he says, "Yes, sir."
"I still feel the addictions running through my blood and throughout my body," Whittington wrote in the essay. "But now I know how to keep myself composed and keep order in myself."
He said he could not stop dwelling on what he was trained to do. "When I stick my blade through his stomach or his ribs or slice his throat, it's a feeling that I cannot explain," he wrote. "But it feels so good to me."
He ended the essay with a warning to terrorists, writing that they "will have nowhere to hide because there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers like me who feel like me and want their revenge as well."
Despite those words, O'Doherty, a family friend who has spent a lot of time with Whittington since he returned from Iraq, says Whittingon is "harmless to everyone but himself." He visits local churches on behalf of her organization, she says.
She went with him to the meeting where administrators told him he was barred from campus.
"They had their minds made up," she says. "They're just a bunch of suits trying to protect their jobs. People who weren't in the military might be troubled by what he wrote. But instead of trying to work with him, they treat him like a criminal."
Whittington seems baffled at the reaction to his work and the comparisons to Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. "That guy wasn't a veteran or a soldier, and he was mad at the school," he says. "What I'm writing about has nothing to do with the school. Really, it's through writing that I've been able to deal with things."
Chris Whittington says he can't imagine his brother hurting anyone despite the traumas he endured. "He's definitely the same guy to me," he says.
Jonathan Shay, a Boston psychiatrist who has worked with numerous combat veterans, says they commonly wrestle with guilt and a sense that civilian life is boring and tasteless. He says friction with college professors is common.
"The veteran knows that he knows incredibly valuable things," Shay says. "And now, in civilian life, those things may not only be useless, they may be looked upon with horror or fear. The veteran is not valued by the setting in which he finds himself."
Whittington does not regret a word he wrote or his decision to publish the piece.
The school's concerns
Davis says the decisions to call Whittington in for a meeting and to bar him from campus came from administrators who were concerned about what they read. She says she is not aware of any concerns expressed by students. De La Ysla deferred questions about the essay to the spokeswoman.
In fact, fellow veterans raised concerns about the article, says Mike Brittingham, a former Marine who is studying air traffic service at the college. Brittingham says campus veterans worried that Whittington's word's would portray all of them in a negative light.
"I think the main point is that he does not express how most veterans feel," Brittingham says. "Being in the military is certainly not about going out and being addicted to killing people."
Brittingham says he contacted campus safety officers and the president's office with concerns about the article and says the college acted properly in barring Whittington from campus. He adds that the college does an excellent job of working with veterans to process their benefits.
"He didn't make any direct threats, but we still found some of the content disturbing," Davis says. "We felt that it was better to be cautious."
Davis says the college's response is legally grounded in the Annotated Code of Maryland Education, which says school officials "may deny access to the buildings or grounds" to a person who "acts in a manner that disrupts or disturbs the normal educational functions" of the school.
The college's code of conduct does not address what types of in-class writing might represent a danger, and Davis says Whittington did not commit a conduct violation.
She says the college is not trying to punish Whittington and has encouraged his professors to help him continue his education online while he is barred from campus. "I think we're concerned about his well-being as well as that of others," she says. "It really comes down to safety concerns."
In analyzing the Virginia Tech murders, an appointed panel said one contributing factor was poor internal communication between university professors and administrators regarding Cho's disturbing patterns of behavior.
Whittington's willingness to embrace help and the lack of threats in his writing differentiate him from Cho, says Dr. Aradhana Sood, a Richmond, Va., psychiatrist who served on the panel that reviewed the shootings. But she says the community college's response was reasonable, given the intensity of Whittington's professed fixation on killing.
"The question becomes whether further examination of the issues is appropriate, and I think that it is," Sood says. "You don't want to be sorry later."
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the nonprofit Veterans of Foreign Wars, sympathizes with both Whittington and the college.
"Using the written medium to communicate his feelings is a good thing," Davis says, after reading Whittington's essay. "Although it may be totally alien to others, it could be entirely therapeutic for him. The school does not understand this and did what they believed was right."
Despite his frustration with the college, Whittington says he desperately wants to get back to classes. He was attending school full-time and says he has not settled on a career goal, though the possibility of teaching has crossed his mind.
He says he has scheduled an evaluation with his Veterans Affairs psychologist and is confident that she will tell administrators that he isn't a threat to other students. Whittington says he is also working with the Veterans of Foreign Wars to get a social worker or lawyer to sort through options.
O'Doherty says Whittington is trying to do what's asked of him. But she worries that if he doesn't get back to classes soon, "he's going to just crawl into a shell and not come out."
"It's really hard," Whittington says of the idle time. "I'm just trying to stay as busy as I can to keep my mind off of things."
The following is the essay that Iraq war veteran Charles Whittington wrote for his English class at the Community College of Baltimore County. It was published in the campus newspaper Oct. 26:
War is a drug. When soldiers enter the military from day one, they begin to train and are brain washed to fight and to handle situations in battle. We train and train for combat, and then when we actually go to war, it is reality and worse than what we have trained for. We suffer through different kinds of situations. The Army never taught how to deal with our stress and addictions.
War is a drug because when soldiers are in the Infantry, like me, they get used to everything, and fast. I got used to killing and after a while it became something I really had to do. Killing becomes a drug, and it is really addictive. I had a really hard time with this problem when I returned to the United States, because turning this addiction off was impossible. It is not like I have a switch I can just turn off. To this day, I still feel the addictions running through my blood and throughout my body, but now I know how to keep myself composed and keep order in myself, my mind. War does things to me that are so hard to explain to someone that does not go through everything that I went through. That's part of the reason why I want to go back to war so badly, because of this addiction.
Over in Iraq and Afghanistan killing becomes a habit, a way of life, a drug to me and to other soldiers like me who need to feel like we can survive off of it. It is something that I do not just want, but something I really need so I can feel like myself. Killing a man and looking into his eyes, I see his soul draining from his body; I am taking away his life for the harm he has caused me, my family, my country.
Killing is a drug to me and has been ever since the first time I have killed someone. At first, it was weird and felt wrong, but by the time of the third and fourth killing it feels so natural. It feels like I could do this for the rest of my life and it makes me happy.
There are several addictions in war, but this one is mine. This is what I was trained to do and now I cannot get rid of it; it will be with me for the rest of my life and hurts me that I cannot go back to war and kill again, because I would love too. When I stick my blade through his stomach or his ribs or slice his throat it's a feeling that I cannot explain, but feels so good to me, and I become addicted to seeing and acting out this act of hate, and violence against the rag heads that hurt our country. Terrorists will have nowhere to hide because there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers like me who feel like me and want their revenge as well.