In October 1985, I was discharged from the US Army. I’d served four years as a photojournalist/public affairs specialist, the last 27 months in Germany. Back home with my parents in southern Indiana, I had no plans — no future I could see.

My longtime best friend, Steve Stillwell, phoned and invited me to join him in the fabulous Florida Keys. I quickly and happily agreed. I loved fishing and the ocean, and I loved my best friend, Steve. Steve and his wife, Suzie, made all the preparations, renting a bungalow in Islamorada and furnishing it with a bed, a sofa, a TV, a couple chairs. It was a much nicer setup than I’d had in Army barracks.

Twice I had visited the Keys as a tourist, and I’d loved it.

Working and living there was something else entirely and, after four years in the Army, I struggled to adjust to civilian life. I’d become addicted, or habituated, to stress in the Army. I was always tense and agitated. I made unnecessary problems for myself. People said I acted like someone fresh out of prison. (That wasn’t a bad analogy, really.)

After a few months I started to relax. I began to put the Army behind me. I was shocked — mortified, really — to receive in the mail orders to report for active duty at the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, the Pentagon, on such-and-such a date in early April, as a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).

(Every enlisted person had a total 6-year obligation. I’d served 4 years on active duty, so I had a 2-year obligation in the IRR. According to the regulations, they could keep me up to 400 days.)

I phoned the Pentagon office and tried to decline their unwelcome invitation. I had bills to pay, a job — a life there in the Keys. But the sergeant insisted: “You have your orders; you know what to do.”

Unfortunately, yes — I did know what to do. I drove to the Miami airport and left my car in long-term parking. I flew into Dulles International Airport and took a taxi to the Pentagon. (The cherry blossoms were in bloom in Washington D.C., but, alas, I did not appreciate their beauty.)

I didn’t have the faintest clue what was happening militarily. I scarcely watched the news down in the Keys. Soon I learned that Libya had been deemed responsible for a number of recent terrorist attacks, and the Pentagon was up in arms.

Operation El Dorado Canyon was launched on April 15, 1986. Approximately 100 U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force planes dropped 60 tons of munitions in or near Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and its second largest city, Benghāzī. Their targets included military barracks and bases, a military airfield, and a residential compound where the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi resided with his family.

According to Britannica: “The bombings...caused heavy damage to all targets, though some planes were unable to drop their bombs for various reasons, and some bombs missed their targets, resulting in the destruction of apartment buildings and houses in Tripoli...Libyan civilian casualties included Qaddafi’s infant daughter, though Qaddafi himself survived.”

After the bombing, I sensed an atmosphere of triumphant jubilation, but I was largely unaware of what had happened. Eventually I saw some news coverage on TV. My initial thought was that surely they could have managed the bombing of Libya without me. I could hardly wait to return to the Keys.

Rather unexpectedly, my office came to attention when we were visited by a general — the Chief of Public Affairs, no less. The general pinned a medal on my chest — the Army Award for Excellence. It was a heady moment, indeed.

About a week later I returned to Islamorada. After the big doings in the Pentagon, I was feeling rather full of myself. I was very glad to see my best friend Steve again — at first.

Steve frowned at me and said quite sternly, “Way to go — you killed Qaddafi’s baby girl. She was just 15 months old.”

What?!? I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t even know about the bombing until after the fact. I was reminded of stories I’d heard about Vietnam War veterans being spat on and called baby killers. It was totally unexpected, and it affected me profoundly.

My relationship with Steve went downhill quickly. No longer able to work with Steve, I found a different job. By the end of that summer, I was ready to leave the Keys — and I did.

Still I was haunted by Steve’s accusation that I had killed Qaddafi’s baby girl. I had not been involved in the planning or execution of the bombing, but I had played an active and supportive role in the U.S. military. I had been involved indirectly — and indirect involvement is involvement nonetheless.

Eventually I came to mourn that day in April 1986. The loss of human life is always sad and regrettable — more so when innocent people are killed.

In 1989, California became the first state to ban assault weapons after 34 children and a teacher were shot in Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California. Five children died. The gunman used a semi-automatic AK-47 assault weapon.

In July 1989, President George H.W. Bush banned all imports of semi-automatic rifles.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was passed by Congress on September 13, 1994, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton the same day. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004. Numerous attempts to renew the ban have failed, along with efforts to pass a new ban.

Seven U.S. states have assault weapons bans: three were enacted before the 1994 federal ban; four were passed before the federal ban expired. Washington, D.C. and some U.S. counties and municipalities have laws banning assault weapons.

Forty-three states, including Kentucky and Texas, have no laws prohibiting the buying and selling of assault weapons.

On May 24, 2022, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos shot his grandmother in the head, then drove to Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and killed 19 children and two teachers. Ramos had legally purchased two AR-15-style assault rifles and ammunition for his 18th birthday.

On June 25, 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law a bipartisan gun bill designed to prevent certain people from buying firearms. After nearly three decades of government gridlock, it was a step in the right direction — a very small step. Although they’re the weapon of choice in mass shootings, Republicans refused to ban assault weapons.

Less than two weeks later in Highland Park, Illinois, 22-year-old Robert Crimo III fired down on a 4th of July parade with an assault weapon, killing 7 and wounding almost 40.

Here in Kentucky, lawmakers and politicians tout their NRA endorsements and their protection of our 2nd Amendment rights. But there is a law higher than Man’s law, and everyone — legislators, politicians, and ordinary citizens — who fails to support meaningful gun laws (such as those that ban assault weapons) are responsible, albeit indirectly, for the deaths of innocent people, past and future.

Every news story about our latest mass shooting should bear the subtitle: Endorsed by the NRA.

Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at

Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at

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