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What Combat Veterans See in Ferguson, Missouri | Vanity Fair

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To my eyes the police, whose business is peace, have no business strutting through the streets carrying M-4 carbines with reflexive-fire sights on top, surefire tactical flashlights on barrel-mounted rail systems slung from three-point harnesses, or white zip-tie flex cuffs over black-body armor, their eyes and faces obscured by gas masks and their heads covered with Kevlar helmets. A bunch of other combat veterans I stay in touch with online agreed. Indeed, besides black Americans, to whom these kind of disturbing images are hardly new, these veterans seemed the most irate, but also the most attuned to the danger posed by the cognitive dissonance of peace officers dressed for war—and not just in Ferguson, but in Boston in the wake of the marathon bombing.

I sent a message to a former Special Forces friend in Oregon.

“I was wondering what would happen if a bunch of us vets kitted up without weapons and stood in-between the cops and civs.”

His message came back: “I'm doing that this weekend! I’m kitting fully up armor helmet everything. And showing police what they look like. I fully support you!”

With another infantry veteran in Oklahoma on Wednesday night, I joked about “kitting up and going to Ferguson” to watch things unfold.

“No. I’m out now and I don't do stuff that could get me killed anymore. I have, however, donated to the ACLU.”


I called an old friend from the Army, Justin, who’d served with me in Afghanistan, as part of the 10th Mountain Division’s Delta Company, 2-87 Infantry (Catamounts!). Justin’s been a cop in a town in Iowa roughly the size of Ferguson for the past four years. I wanted his opinion as a cop planning to make it a career following his stint as the self-described “worst soldier in the Army.” (He wasn't, he just didn't give a hoot about the dog and pony show aspects of spit-and-polish soldiering.)

“The trend nowadays is thinking we’re in a police state, and we’re not,” he said. “Why are these cops lined up like Stalingrad?” That said, he is glad the equipment is available to those who have to serve high-risk warrants and respond to mass shootings. “We didn’t have this kind of gear 10 years ago because we didn’t need it then, but now, you’d be surprised what is out on the streets—we’re dealing with cartels, sophisticated criminals who didn’t exist on small-town radars before—there are SAWs [the same type of belt-fed, small caliber machine gun that killed Pat Tillman] missing from military arsenals.”

I asked him if he thought there was a difference between wearing the military style gear and the regular blue or brown police uniform and shield in how the officers regarded themselves—whether, in essence, the clothes make the man.

“Why they’re wearing woodland camo is beyond me,” he said, much less pointing their weapons at people. We’d both been well-trained that when you aimed your rifle at a person, that meant you were prepared to kill them. “If someone tells me what to do without telling me the reason, I’m liable to be resistant too. So, when I’m dealing with people I try to let them understand why, show them some compassion. If you don’t treat people like savages, you can get people to do anything.”

Justin has grown up quite a bit since the Army.


“Why they’re wearing woodland camo is beyond me” -- why does the Navy wear blue camo??!?

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