His name's Maurice. He's 26 years old with a face like an angel and a computerized prosthesis where his left leg used to be. His name's Victor and he still seems like a boy. His cherubic face, set against blond hair, is plagued by an unanswerable question every time his restless eyes inadvertently fall on the stump: "Why?" His name's Steve and you couldn't imagine a more All-American soldier -- that is to say if he hadn't lost his right arm. A real patriot, he's always in control of himself and he has the air of an American hero. His name's Rob. Bound to a wheelchair, he's mad at the whole world and explodes in a barrage of insults at everyone and everything for the loss of his right leg and the uselessness of his left.
Maurice, Victor, Steve and Rob are just a few of the thousands of GIs returning from Iraq -- often with one or more limbs amputated, flown in with little notice under the cover of night and brought to Walter Reed military Hospital in Washington, D.C. Here, they're operated on, treated, fitted with prosthetics when possible, generally medicated, and given psychological and physical therapy.
For the record, Walter Reed is the hospital where wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam went. No fanfare for these heroes. On top of the injuries they've had to endure to their bodies and hearts, they come home to be ignored by mainstream American media. Only an English TV station, Channel 4, considered it newsworthy to go to the hospital to interview the injured soldiers.
Of course, all interviewees must be selected and briefed by army leadership in advance of any conversations with journalists. Curiously, the casualty statistics released by the Pentagon contradict those of the US Air Force. While the Pentagon contends that 2,722 soldiers have been wounded in action and 417 in non hostile fire as of March 1, the Air Force confides that it has flown approximately 12,000 evacuees into Andrews Air Force Base over the past 9 months. With the severity of injuries sustained, it seems as if the Pentagon's reduced estimates are meant to camouflage a scandal that could cost George Bush his re-election.
"They come here [to Walter Reed Hospital] 19 or 20 years old and when I see them leaving with missing limbs -- I've seen up to 3 limbs gone off people and I don't think in our generation, we've seen this amount of harm done to young people," explained Major Gene Delaune on Minnesota Public Radio.
"During the Gulf War, there were about 3 soldiers wounded for every death. In the current Iraq war, there are 7 wounded for every death," says an article titled "New Technologies and Medical Practices Save Lives in Iraq" from the Knight-Ridder News Service. Facts support this statement: the Kevlar vests the soldiers now wear save lives, not limbs. The London Guardian reports that the medical personnel, overwhelmed, work 70-80 hours a week and, according to CBS, Washington's largest military hospital has had to borrow beds from its cancer ward to meet the swollen needs of its prosthetics ward. Still the hospital can't handle the load, and several wounded soldiers are being put up in a nearby hotel. This writer was able to meet with some of them there after having been prevented from continuing her interview in the ward, because she hadn't obtained the permission of the army, passed its screen tests, and the soldier she was interviewing hadn't been briefed as to how to respond. Against all odds, she had made it through the security gate at the entrance to the military-medical complex, into the building, to the 5th floor.
"Do I have to get naked for the interview? Can I keep my shoes on? Oops! I said 'my shoes' I have to get used to saying 'my shoe'" Rob snapped bitterly. "It's like yesterday, I went to buy a pair of sneakers and I messed with the young guy's head at the store. He turned red as beet when I asked him if he would sell me one, just one shoe, at half price." Rob laughs sardonically. But Rob, always cutting, isn't finished evening his score with humankind, or with himself. He defends his pain with sadistic, self-effacing jokes. "Look, I lost one leg! I must have left it outside." To another wounded soldier: "You didn't find it by chance, did you? I think I might have left the foot near the trash can." His last masochistic jest is received with suppressed awkward laughter and turned heads. But Rob takes pride in his sense of humor.
Dec. 3, 2003. Abu Gharib prison. Rob's Humvee, accompanied by two other vehicles, is suddenly caught in an ambush. His jeep is hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. "It took the quick-reaction forces 20 minutes to get me, and here I'm bleeding, the flesh of my left leg is blown off and my right leg is gone GONE!" He says this while repeatedly folding and unfolding the empty leg of his blue-jeans. Somehow, you know he's leaving out the worst. The interviewees only hint at it, saying the madness, destruction, blood, and burnt flesh can make the strongest man lose his mind. In their silence, the soldiers mute themselves much like the mainstream media, downplaying the bloodbath on the battlefield to keep up the unflinching image of an individual (or nation) at war.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune was one of the few newspapers to describe the X-rated scene: "Explosions shatter and sever legs and arms. They char flesh and drive debris deep into the soft tissue that remains. Unattached muscles, nerves and tendons dangle. Red-hot shrapnel sometimes punctures torsos below waist-length body armor, ripping bowels and bladders. Concussions bruise skulls and brains. Soldiers thrown into the air are injured again when they hit the ground."
"Wanna see a $100,000 leg?" asks Rob pointing to his computerized prosthesis, the same one that Maurice got. Numerous soldiers tell the same story. They were riding in a Humvee when it got rocked by an I.E.D (improvised explosive device).
But, Victor's story is different. Victor was stationed in Afghanistan for over a year. When a grenade landed on the floor of his truck, he picked it up instinctively to throw it as far away as possible. Only when he went to throw it, he realized he was surrounded by fellow soldiers. He held it in his hand and "blew up" with it, losing his right arm, and damaging is entire right side. "I held it because I didn't want to hurt anybody else. There were too many people all around me."
For this heroic act Victor should receive a medal ("one of the highest medals you can get," according to Maurice). But while George Bush might be the one to give him a medal, you get the impression from Victor that he's going to wait a long time. Unfortunately for Victor, the war in Afghanistan hardly exists in the media, and in contrast to Maurice who, in spite of his pain, wears a mask of happiness, and to Steve, to whom Bush gave a Purple Heart, Victor is pissed. He's over patriotism. "My father is a Vietnam vet. He's really upset. Imagine, my life's ruined and now my brother is going to Iraq." He's disgusted by disability pay. "They'll give me 50% disability. I'm making $30,000 a year, so that means 14 or 15G. How am I supposed to live on that?"
Not exactly the Pentagon's poster-boy amputee. Victor could very well launch his pain and anger right at Bush's face. And what about Rob? Rob, the kind of anti-hero who's always kept hidden from the public view, is like a time-bomb waiting to explode. Meanwhile, a warlords' pet gets good press. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz wrote below a photo of Saddam Hussein's disheveled head from Time magazine, "'We Got Him!': To Sgt. Maurice Craft, A Real American Hero." That's conservative compassion for you.
Beyond the physical pain (many amputees repeatedly refer to pain emanating from their now missing limbs), it's the trauma, and anxiety for the future that haunt these soldiers the most. All of the interviewees, with the exception of Steve, complain of not being able to sleep, in spite of increased daily doses of sleeping pills and anti-depressants.
Bitter, Rob pulls outs a plastic bag full of pills and empties it on his bed. 'See, I have a whole bag of medications for different times of the day and night. I can't sleep all night no matter how many pills I take. I nod off, that's all. They had to increase the doses. For nothing."
"It's so hard. That's why they give us so much medication, a lot of it's just for depression," explains Maurice.
"My arm's cut off but my whole side is taken, and now, I'm gonna spend my life wondering if I'm gonna find a girlfriend " shoots Victor, eliciting a spontaneous reaction from Maurice. "At first, my wife didn't want to come and see me like this. She said she just couldn't. It was really hard 'cause I was afraid she was gonna do just like a lot of wives or girlfriends, who leave their men shortly after they see them in the hospital. I have two daughters But it's alright now."
"Thank God I'm single. I wouldn't want to have to go through what the other guys do. There's this one guy who lost his sight and had both of his arms blown off. His wife is pregnant but he's never gonna be able to hold his baby in his arms," says Rob.
The majority of soldiers interviewed believe that the Iraqis were too poor to go on living the way they were, and that it was therefore necessary to remove Saddam Hussein regardless of whether he posed an imminent threat to the US. Only Rob thinks differently: "They could have overthrown him themselves, those f**king Iraqi's I'm convinced that the people we are training there are the ones who are fighting us, because the screening process is so weak. I have no respect for those f**king Iraqi's. The more of them that die, the better. They use women to hide their weapons and kids to detonate them, but we have to stick to the Geneva Conventions At least in public." And in private? "I'm not gonna answer that one," he said insinuatingly.
Victor, and to a lesser degree Maurice, think that they were just pawns for this administration. "At Baghdad International Airport, there were 15 I.E.D.'s every two weeks. Each time there was an explosion, the whole compound would get shut down. The computers and the telephones would go off all of a sudden And we would know that a soldier had just been killed 'cause they didn't want anyone to be able to reach the family before the Army could."
The soldiers asked that their last names be withheld to avoid reprisals for their comments.
Natasha Saulnier is a writer based in New York City. Email Neljouan@aol.com. This originally appeared in the Paris newspaper l'Humanité. Translated by Stephan Smith.