Walt Smith was a geeky Mormon kid who enlisted in the Army Reserves right before 9/11 and was working at Wal-Mart when he was called for duty in January 2002. After a few months fighting the Republican Guard on a tour that included an early engagement during which he was shot at relentlessly for several hours, Walt returned to America irrevocably fucked up. One day he had a sobbing fit on the Quantico shooting range; he was discharged. And two years later, during a post-coital bath, he pushed underwater and drowned the young mother of his infant twins. They had been newly reunited; after a brief courtship during which she lost her virginity to him and he wondered if the babies were his, he had checked up on her MySpace page and, struck by the babies' resemblance to himself, called her up and begun, after spending the past two years drunk and drifting, attempting to assume his fatherly responsibilities. Instead, he killed her. Seven months after the death had been ruled a suicide, he confessed. The charge was manslaughter. He'll serve somewhere between one and fifteen years.
The questions, in no particular order, are whether the singular tragedy of Nicole's death got unfairly pushed aside in the news by the larger, more complex and deeply politicized tragedy of the Iraq war. "They are practically saying that President Bush killed Nicole. Well, Walter killed Nicole," says Nicole's dad, who nevertheless concedes that "They said Walter confessed because of us...I think he did care for us."
It's a pretty fair question, since we definitely wouldn't be reading this in a Times series on the crimes committed by Iraq war vets if Walter had suffered his post-traumatic stress disorder during some sort of drug cartel standoff or police shootout back home. Which naturally makes you wonder about the gulf between the experiences of people who have experienced harrowing violence and people who haven't — and whether it's a good thing that so many of the kids we send to war these days fall into the former camp.
But there we go again, wading into another stupid political debate when there ought to be nothing partisan about asserting that violence is bad, and war is deeply traumatizing, and that good people who grow up trying to value human life should expect nothing less. If the Speirs sense an element of liberal Blue State "I told you so"-ism to the media circus surrounding their daughters' wrenching murder, they're probably not wrong; both sides of the aisle spin stories like this to suit their political agendas all the time, when the only real takeaway is the salient point that war — just or no, properly executed or no — is bad, and it doesn't end when it ends.
"I can't completely honestly say that, yes, PTSD was the sole cause of what I did. I don't want to use it as a crutch. I'd feel like I was copping out of something I claim responibility for. But I know for a fact that before I went to Iraq, there's no way I would have taken somebody else's life."
"Not to be coarse, but I've been around a ton of death, and it doesn't affect me anymore."
In all seriousness, can we please get these guys some Ecstasy?