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Guns, a Plane Ride, and War

by Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP

I recently evaluated a kindergarten-aged child who began having violent nightmares about guns starting last November. In her first nightmare, she and her classmates were lined up against a wall and were being shot. In her kindergarten class, gunplay had been allowed in the playground for many months. According to her parents, children were shooting one another with "imaginary" weapons. Her parents wanted the gunplay in the kindergarten to stop, and asked for some help and advice.

I remember when this issue came up with my 5 year old son. I attended a class at the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto where a psychologist discussed gunplay as being normal and part of the "healthy" development of young boys. Somehow that argument has never made sense to me. I thought about the current state of our world and our relationships. I thought about what Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Buddha, Christ and the Dalai Lama would have to say about this topic. I knew that if you made gunplay "strictly forbidden" and showed a strong emotional reaction to it, then the child would actually be drawn to the activity. Yet, gunplay was so easy to redirect. Just stating in a matter of fact voice that it was never okay to hurt another Human Being was enough. We did have water filled toys for squirt fights and my son received a gun with suction darts one time for his birthday, but shooting at another Human Being was never okay. Interestingly, my son's early exposure to gun play was an invitation to a classmate's birthday party. The entire class of 5th grade boys spent several hours firing paint balls at each other. Frankly, that activity didn't make sense to me either.

I pondered over all of these questions as I boarded a plane for the East Coast where I was invited to speak at an elementary school about the seven essential ingredients for a healthy child and healthy family. The young man that sat next to me must have been in his mid to early 20's. He could easily have been my son. He told me that he had just finished a second tour in Iraq and was on a 21 day leave. He was traveling all over the United States to see everyone that he had ever known or cared about before he had to return. He was being sent to fight in Afghanistan this time. I thanked him for going to Iraq. I shared with him that my Grandfather had taken care of soldiers that had survived the Bataan Death March. My father-in-law had fought in the Army during World War II, and my Dad had served later as a ship's doctor in the Navy.

I asked him what were the hardest things he had to endure while in Iraq. He talked about not being able to bathe or shower for 70 days at a time and explained why Baby Wipes were so appreciated. He was grateful for the Girl Scout cookies, Starbucks coffee, and Gatorade though also said one of his comrades just had six cavities! He was moved by the outpouring of care packages that they all received from people they had never even met. I asked what he missed the most thinking he would talk about something he missed from his home town. He told me, that as strange as it may seem, what he missed the most right now was his gun; even though he didn't want to miss it. "You see", he said, "I clean my gun everyday, I care for it, and I sleep with it. My gun is my friend and it makes me feel safe."

I told him that I didn't want my son to go to war because I just didn't believe that killing ever solved any problems. For me, war just generated more hatred, grief, and revenge. He agreed. He said that he had enlisted in the military because he wanted to serve our country, and he was promised tuition for education, good pay, health benefits, and of course travel all over the world. He said that just about everyone he knows in the service is drinking alcohol, getting stoned, and taking drugs just to numb the pain. "You are psychologically messed up and maimed for life", he said. "What is the point of having money for education when you can't use it? When you come back, you don't fit in." Many guys he knew were now yelling at the ones they loved and were sometimes violent.

The saddest thing for him was that three of his fellow comrades had recently committed suicide during their 21 day leave because they did not want to return and because their lives at home were in such turmoil. He, himself, had been married for several years and he and his wife were now getting a divorce because she couldn't understand why he wanted to go back. He said he had a high probability of being killed because of his particular job. I asked him why he was going back. He told me, "I am going so your son doesn't have to go. So other mother's sons don't have to experience what I have had to experience. I have decided to continue doing this job to keep someone else from taking my place, to save them." "But what should I tell my son?", I asked, "If he wants to serve his country?" "Tell him", he said, "That I would not have my son do this."

The plane descended and I wanted to cry. He was one of my sons. He was one of OUR sons. When I finally arrived at the home where I was to stay for the weekend while giving my workshop, I met the parents who also had a daughter attending kindergarten. I told them that they had to excuse me for I was feeling a little overwhelmed from my plane ride. "I hate war", I said. "It makes no sense. When will we as Human Beings learn to respect each other, to love each other, and just get along?" Then the mother shared something with me. She had been a CNN war correspondent for many years and even had written a book about her experiences. She said once you see a father grieving for his dead child that is cradled in his arms, it doesn't matter anymore which side of the war he is on.

I did not need to ask her what she felt about gunplay in her daughter's kindergarten class. The answer was already in her eyes.

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© Susan R. Johnson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
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