A longtime friend, a career soldier and flag officer, returned home from Iraq recently and said that, sadly, he is thinking of retiring, something he can easily do at this point in his career.

After a record of service that extends from Vietnam to Panama to Desert Storm and, finally, to the invasion of Iraq, he says the will to serve his country is gone.

“This country used to stand for things that meant something,” he said. “Not now. Honor, justice, loyalty, pride: None of these words have any meaning now.”

As we sat down for lunch, I noticed a change. My friend could always look you in the eye and argue passionately about the need to use military force to defend democracy. No longer. He couldn’t make eye contact. He looked down mostly and spoke in hushed, apologetic tones.

“We’ve destroyed their country,” he said of the Iraqis. “We’ve turned it into a hellhole.”

He talked of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the country each day. No one is sure how many have fled but he estimates the number will be more than a million by the end of the year.

“The last estimate I saw was over 800,000 have left. Think of that. Eight hundred thousand people have abandoned their homeland because we turned it into a place that is too dangerous to live. We’re not liberators. We’re destroyers. We destroyed a country, a culture and any hope they have for a future.”

Iraq, he said, is out-of-control. The civil war that many predicted is already here and it cannot be stopped by either American presence or propaganda, he said, and Iraqis blame Americans for what has happened to their country.

“As bad as the situation may have been under Saddam Hussein, we have made it worse. Iraqis had electricity under Saddam. They don’t now. They could go to the grocery story without fear. They can’t now.”

Perhaps, I suggested, he could help turn the tide by going public. He’s a career military officer, I argued, someone with immediate credibility.

He shook his head.

“I’ve given my life to the military. It’s all I have. If I go public, I could lose my pension. I can’t afford bad paper. Not at this point in my life. I’m retiring but I have to do it on my own terms and in a way to protect myself and my family. I can’t put them at risk.”

He left his lunch mostly uneaten and we walked out into the street. A light rain fell.

“They give us ‘talking points’ when we come home and they tell us to go out and talk up the war. I can’t do that. I won’t do that. I’ve done many things for my country but I won’t lie for them. Not now. Not anymore.”

As I watched him walk away in the rain, I realized the proud military man I’ve known for so many years no longer walked tall and straight. Those who sent him to fight in this current war based on lies and political opportunity took the spring out of his step and the pride out of his stance.

He spent his life fighting for our freedom. Now, when he needs that freedom the most, he cannot speak up.

Like too much else in America today, freedom is an illusion.

(WRITER’S NOTE: This column was revised after its original publication to correct a mistatement in fact and two errors in quotations. I don’t take notes when I have lunch with a friend and he later pointed out my errors.)

Doug Thompson published his first story and photo at age 11 -- a newspaper article about racism and the Klan in Prince Edward County, VA, in 1958. From that point on, he decided to become a newspaperman and did just that -- reporting news and taking photos full-time at his hometown paper, becoming the youngest full-time reporter at The Roanoke Times in Virginia in 1965 and spent most of the past 55+ years covering news around the country and the globe. After a short sabbatical as a political operative in Washington in the 1980s, he returned to the news profession in 1992. Today, he is a contract reporter/photojournalist for BHMedia and owns Capitol Hill Blue and other news websites.