The Day I Stopped Believing in American Democracy

As a veteran, I’ve realized the country I fought for is no longer a democracy — but something far more sinister

Benjamin Sledge
Human Parts
Published in
14 min readSep 12, 2019

--

Photo: sid whiting/Getty Images

Staff Sergeant Stehval* had an alleged 56 kills.

His room was no more than 75 square feet, complete with white concrete walls, peeling and faded from the Iraqi sun. Black tally marks scribbled above his cot indicated the weaponry he used for each shot. A .50 caliber sniper rifle, M24, or a modified M16 with an adjustable gas block each carried the death warrant of an Iraqi man, woman, or sometimes a child carrying an IED.

Back home, Stehval was an accomplished golfer who had earned his way into a celebrity golf tournament after crushing the competition at a local country club. When I heard that, I remember laughing and shaking my head in disbelief until other members of his squad spoke in his defense.

“Golf or killing people. He’s the real deal,” they told me. I later found out he played next to Charles Barkley or some other legend (I don’t follow basketball so I forgot the name of the celebrity).

Prior to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, grunts would read about famous snipers like Carlos Hathcock — a Marine sniper with 93 confirmed kills in Vietnam. So, when Stahvel’s troops swore by his 56 kills, that alone sounded impressive. That is, until they told me about “some SEAL asshole named ‘the Devil’” racking up kills in southern Ramadi. He turned out to be none other than the legendary American Sniper, Chris Kyle. In fairness, Ramadi was a turkey shoot with fast and loose rules of engagement, so while it may seem heresy to say, there have been better snipers in military history. Perhaps in an alternate universe, Stahvel could have taken Kyle’s place as the “legend,” but the Stahvel I knew was far more even-keeled than the Chris Kyle I’d read about. In fact, it was Stahvel the Sniper who planted the seeds of democratic doubt in my mind during my time in Iraq.

Once, I asked about his golf handicap and average, still uncertain if his troops were pulling my leg. When he responded with impressive numbers and knowledge, I knew he was telling the truth. Embarrassed, I stared out the side of the Humvee as the sporadic beeps of our radio punctuated…

--

--

Benjamin Sledge
Human Parts

Multi-award winning author | Combat wounded veteran | Mental health specialist | Occasional geopolitical intel | Graphic designer | https://benjaminsledge.com