above, for articles in
The Cost of War at Walter
by Stewart Nusbaumer,
20 October 2005
Walter Reed Army Hospital is the horrible reality of the Iraq War, a reality
that few Americans see, and fewer want to see.
DC - In the dining hall is a family of three. The mother's shirt says "Thank a
Soldier," the father's hat says "Vietnam Veteran," and the son's T-shirt says
"Seattle Sonics." A normal family, except the son has no legs.
tough talking lions of the Bush Administration proclaimed "shock and awe" would
destroy the Iraqi will to fight and then it would be a simple "cakewalk." So the
cocky civilians unleashed the "mother" of all air assaults on Baghdad and then
our strutting commander in chief - decked out in a fine flight suit -
proclaimed, "Mission Accomplished."
the flight-suit President dodged the Vietnam War, hiding in the Air National
Guard's "Champagne Unit," strongly supporting the war from Texas. The
Vice-President "had other options," although he insisted other Americans had no
option but to fight the war. The Secretary of Defense enrolled in Princeton
University instead of the Korean War; after the war he enrolled in the Navy. All
the hawkish Neocons were too busy arguing for the Vietnam War to actually
fight in that war. Shame, they missed their "noble" causes. So when it
came to Iraq, none of these men had a clue about the will to fight.
in the halls of Walter Reed hospital soldiers with leg braces and neck supports,
soldiers with faces slashed by bombs and stitched up by doctors. Soldiers with
legs terribly mangled, soldiers with no legs - amputees with short stumps, with
long stumps, without any stumps since entire limbs are missing. A man walks by
without an arm. I suddenly travel back in time to another war, to another
hospital when I was one of those young men without a limb. But the human carnage
and waste in Walter Reed is too overwhelming to escape for more than a flash of
Army's flagship medical facility, where thousands of wounded soldiers pass
through, there is no political spin, no media filter, no presidential lies, and
no patriotism without cost as there is in America. There are only the wounded
and mangled from Iraq. There is the ground zero for ugly war reality. For these
men and women there was no safe "Champagne Unit," no other options, no Ivy
League hiding, no just talking while others did the fighting. At Walter Reed
there are no Chickenhawks.
large dining room, mothers prepare their son's food, applying ketchup to
hamburgers, cutting pork chops, raising tables for their wheelchairs to clear.
Fathers mostly sit with slight smiles on their faces. The conversations are
mundane, and sedate. Talk about family, talk about the weather, talk about the
future. Recuperating from serious wounds is slow so it's best not to go too far
into the future.
wheelchair, a young man who barely looks 17 years old rolls by with a pair of
ugly "road kill" legs - the spaghetti I'm eating rumbles in my stomach -
followed by a soldier on crutches, doing a Frankenstein walk with stiff legs
thrown outward. Several tables away, a slightly older soldier, in his early 30s,
with a nasty looking scarred leg propped up on a chair, rubs his fingers over
the smooth surface of his Purple Heart Medal. This is the medal given for combat
wounds, to everyone wounded by enemy fire. This is the medal that delegates at
the Republican Party mocked.... I need some fresh air.
front of the hospital a man in his mid-20s sits down on the bench next to me.
His right leg is bloated to at least double its normal size. Most of the top
layer of skin had been removed, it's raw reddish. Puss glistens in the sun
light, or maybe it's some kind of ointment.
like you had a bad day," I wisecrack gently.
IED?" (Improvised Explosive Device, roadside bomb or land mine.)
bullet, it splattered bone."
sergeant has been back from Iraq since January, nine months in Walter Reed, and
his leg remains ugly looking. It will probably always be ugly looking. But in
Walter Reed looks mean nothing, what matters is walking. I remember my obsession
to walk, an obsession that overcame the pain and the blood, anything to be able
to walk again. And the sergeant is walking, with crutches. But I doubt this
sergeant will do much walking in his lifetime.
it's best to just cut the leg off, but doctors can not always do what is best.
The sergeant stands up, struggles to walk five feet, stops for a rest. He looks
over his shoulder and says, "I'll make it, I have to make it."
you will," I say, knowing clearly that as the years pass his walking will become
even more difficult, until there is no walking. All this sergeant from North
Carolina ever wanted was a normal life, with a normal family, a boy and a girl.
A smile broke his straight face when he said, "a boy, and a girl." But his
normal life is gone and all he has is the dream of returning home to North
Carolina, and hopefully that boy and girl.
Rules of War
America's shock and horror at Walter Reed there are rules. I will give you the
four that I believe are most important.
to the person and not to the wound. This can be difficult in the beginning since
ugly wounds tend to overwhelm. But the bearer of ugly wounds remains much more
than a wounded person, and this you need to respect. You can ask about the
wound, but you cannot talk to only the wound.
wounded soldiers to do what they can do themselves. Give them the space and the
opportunity to have control over their lives, even when severely dependent upon
was in Bethesda Naval hospital in the late 1960s, leg amputated and bed ridden,
frustrated with my constant dependence on others, a visitor asked me for a
cigarette - in those days you could smoke right in the hospital - and I was
ecstatic to hand him one. It felt great to do something on my own, in this case
hand another human being an simple item.
forget your moral questions about the war. Morality is for those who support the
war and for those who oppose the war, not for those in the war. Those
seriously wounded are still fighting the war so clam up about the immorality of
this stupid war.
corollary to this rule is never protest against a war in front of a military
facility, especially a military hospital. That is a no-brainer. You demonstrate
against those who made the policy to go to war, not against those who are sworn
to carry out the order to go to war.
assume this is a sad time for these recuperating men. For most their physical
pain is receding or is being managed by drugs, and the true mental anguish has
yet to sink in. They are focused on their future which after a close call with
death looks darn rosy.
man how you doing?" a soldier greets another stepping into the elevator.
he replies. I notice out of the corner of my eye he is missing a chunk of his
cheek, it's ugly.
what, man? Smithy's coming up!"
he's driving up this weekend."
is the spirit that America sees when it sees anything of these wounded soldiers.
It makes Americans feel good, proud of their country, confident about their
military. But it is only part of the truth. There is a hidden truth. It is ugly.
"For What" Questions
spirits high - hey, they just "cheated" death - surrounded by fellow soldiers
day and night, with family and friends visiting and attentive, life is not bad.
But this is the easy middle, coming after the initial shock of being seriously
wounded and before the tortuous work of transforming one's identity to accept
the new reality. The easy middle is relatively easy.
discharged from the hospital, their tight support network disappears and the
strong optimism in the wake of a close call begins to wane. There is now time
and space to think, and to ask questions. Sitting alone in an apartment,
probably a spartanly furnished apartment, maybe in a dingy bar with their back
against the wall, the questions start. They always do, for those severely
wounded. Those "for what" questions: for what do I have to put on an artificial
limb every morning? For what must I live with this horrible pain every day? For
what did my buddy die? For what was all the horror?
will attempt to evade these questions, but that's not possible. They paid too
high a price. Some will turn to stock replies, such as, "It was for God,
country, and family." To the degree this works is the degree that they cut
themselves off from reality. Vietnam was not for God, America, and family, and
neither is Iraq. Most of the wounded will learn this, and then they will demand
a real answer to, "For what?"
only satisfactory answer is for defense of country. Nothing else
justifies the sacrifices, sacrifices Americans quickly forget but endure a
lifetime for these men and women. The other answers, to rebuild another country,
to stay the course so others won't perceive America as weak, to fulfill a
president's fantasy of a great legacy, to fill our vehicles' gas tanks, to save
the world from the latest new evil, they cannot withstand the ugly questions
that come from horror and suffering. "For what?" is too strong for weak answers.
Porchia, whose son Jonathan was killed in Iraq, said if he had died in Afghanistan that would have probably
been easier to accept - still horribly difficult, of course, but easier than
Jonathan dying in the worthless Iraq War. In defense of country is the only
justification for our dead and wounded soldiers and marines, nothing else is
acceptable in the long run. Nothing else is ever acceptable.
walking through Ward 57, the amputee ward, walking on the 5th floor. There are
grisly sights here. Sights that the dinning room and outside benches do not want
to see, that I do not want to see. Bodies wrapped in blood soaked bandages. Eyes
covered in agony. Nurses' huddled over broken bodies. The air is thick on the
5th floor, hard to breath. The flag of patriotism is less intensely displayed
here. The pain of war is stronger. I feel a deep anger at America rising in me.
Then I see - I walk quickly, I need some fresh air.
Walther Reed, ground zero for ugly war, there is no break from horror. A young
man sits down on the bench next to me - "blew the lower part of my leg off ...
an IED ... getting my first leg next week ... going to college when I get out
... girl friend visits...."
the "For what?" is answered with a closed mind, or with an honest answer, many
seriously disabled veterans will in time turn bitter and cynical. But others
will swallow hard, refusing to let the injustice crush them, and move on in
life. But all will be deeply scarred. If their sacrifices were truly for the
defense of our country, that helps a lot. That cause can justify the sacrifices,
but an unworthy cause justifies nothing.
veteran with Iraq Veterans Against the War recently commented that after the
guys return home and realize that on the home front Americans barely cared about
the war, that here patriotism is an empty gesture because no one sacrifices
anything, they will become angry.
this day, some 38 years later, when I hear someone on the radio discuss the
World Series in 1967, or some similar remark about 1967, I cringe. That was the
year I was fighting in Vietnam. That was the year thousands of young Americans
were dying and losing limbs and their minds for, supposedly, their country. But
our country was excited about the World Series, and.... If a war is important
enough for soldiers to be maimed and to die for, it is important enough for
all Americans to sacrifice something. Something!
World Series of baseball should have been cancelled in 1967, as it should be
cancelled today, because America has young men fighting in a war.
Americans are barely paying attention and would refuse to give substance to
their patriotism, a clear indication this is not a war for the defense of
America. We have an administration that won't fully fund veterans' health care,
while it does not properly equip our troops in war. And we are a people
not insisting our veterans have adequate health care and our soldiers
have proper equipment. This is wrong, America. Wrong to those with "road kill"
legs, wrong to those with partial faces, wrong to those with missing limbs.
stand up from the bench, it's hard for me to sit for too long, and it's hard for
me to walk for very far. Instead of returning to the 5th floor, I return to my
car. Driving through the gate of Walter Reed and onto Connecticut Avenue - a cab
whizzes by, a speeding van honks, a couple on the sidewalk hugs - my head shoots
back as pain rips through my stump, just as fast it leaves. But I know the pain
will be back. This is for a lifetime. What's inside Walter Reed is also for a
editor of Intervention Magazine. He can be reached at Stewart@interventionmag.com.
This article was originally published by Intervention
Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Posted October 25, 2005
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