WASHINGTON — Many soldiers wounded in Iraq suffer injuries so terrible they would have died in past wars. But today they survive thanks to advances in shock trauma medicine. Yet they return home with terrible disabilities — missing limbs, blinded or with severely disfiguring scars.
Tens of thousands more are returning with wounds not visible to the naked eye, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of other disabling illnesses may not surface immediately — for example, those caused by exposure to depleted uranium.
Until a court ordered an end to the censorship, the Bush administration enforced a news blackout on coverage of both the dead and wounded returning from this dreadful misadventure. In the name of “respect for family privacy,” no photos were permitted of the cargo planes filled with flag-draped coffins that fly into Dover Air Force Base in the dead of night. It is part of a strategy orchestrated by President George W. Bush’s chief spinmeister, Karl Rove, to sell the war to the public as a noble enterprise carried out at very low cost to the folks back home.
Hidden casualties, horrifying stories
Similarly, the wounded have been kept under close wraps. The web site www.thememoryhole.org features photographs and stories of wounded soldiers and their struggle to heal. “Most Americans haven’t seen the growing legion of wounded troops returning from Iraq who are cared for at facilities sealed off from the public,” the web site explains. “Little attention has been paid to the long, difficult and very personal struggles that ensue at … Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.”
The web site tells horrendous stories.
Jose Martinez’s entire face is a mass of scars from a firebomb that engulfed him during a battle in Iraq.
Robert Acosta, a specialist with the First Armored Division, was riding in a Humvee near the Baghdad airport when a hand grenade flew through the window. He picked it up and tried to throw it back. But it slipped from his hand and exploded, destroying his hand and a leg.
“I think I should be dead right now,” he told a Denver Post reporter. “But I feel like I failed myself. If I hadn’t dropped it, I would still have my hand.”
Pfc. Tristan Wyatt, who lost his right leg in a roadside bombing, said administration officials “seem to underplay it a lot. They think the war is over and it’s not. It’s getting worse and worse with everybody coming here wounded. There are people who have lost both legs in wheelchairs here.”
Doctors with the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center report that 67 percent of the wounded soldiers they examine are suffering brain injuries ranging from concussions to coma, a result of the insurgents’ heavy use of explosive devices.
Veteran Max Cleland speaks out
Vietnam veteran Max Cleland understands the plight of these men and women better than most. On April 8, 1968, during the siege of Khe Sanh, he stepped out of a helicopter and saw a grenade at his feet. It exploded inflicting such terrible wounds it required the amputation of an arm and both legs. He spent eight months at Walter Reed.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter named Cleland secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia as a Democrat. He was defeated by ultra-rightist Saxby Chambliss in the 2002 election. Cleland had objected to a section of the Homeland Security Act that denies union rights to federal workers, and the right wing went after him.
During the 2002 election campaign, Karl Rove orchestrated television attack ads for Chambliss that displayed pictures of Cleland beside Osama Bin Laden as the narrator questioned Cleland’s loyalty in the “war on terrorism.” Cleland calls the smear campaign Bush’s “slime and defend strategy.”
Sitting in his wheelchair Sept. 15 after testifying in a congressional hearing on an “exit strategy” from the Iraq war, Cleland told this reporter that many of the nearly 2,000 soldiers killed and 14,000 wounded in Iraq lacked body armor or were riding in un-armored military vehicles, a case of Bush administration incompetence and negligence that can’t brushed aside with “support the troops” platitudes.
The soldiers returning from Iraq are facing cutbacks in vital Veterans Administration health and welfare programs, increased fees and the closing of VA hospitals and clinics, Cleland said. The Commission on Base Closings has even listed Walter Reed to be closed.
“It’s really becoming an embarrassment,” Cleland said. “The president’s budget underfunds the VA to the tune of $3.5 billion. Congress may not be able to control this war, but they can correct that now by closing that funding gap.”
Full funding is urgent, he said, “in light of the massive numbers of soldiers who are surviving terrible wounds in Iraq. Nearly 85 percent of the casualties are due to explosive devices. We are saving a higher percentage of these men and women than in the Vietnam War. They are being discharged into a VA system that they will depend on for the rest of their lives. The system is grossly underfunded. That is immoral. It denies these young men and women who have risked their lives for this country the right to a good life.”
Last June, the administration admitted a $1 billion shortfall in VA funding. A few weeks later, the administration revised that shortfall upward to a whopping $2.6 billion. VA officials explained that they had expected 23,553 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to apply for medical treatment. Instead, 209,000 have applied, swamping the VA system.
The Republican leadership was so embarrassed — and veterans’ organizations so angry — that within 24 hours Congress approved a spending bill to partly close the gap.
Anger at closing Walter Reed
Cleland shook his head over the proposal to close Walter Reed. “It’s a disaster! That is the hospital where the Army brings its most seriously wounded, especially the amputees. President Eisenhower was being treated there while I was at Walter Reed. I still go there often to visit the soldiers. We call it the ‘mother ship’ of Army health care not only for treatment but also research.”
The announcement “has already taken a toll,” Cleland continued. “Can you imagine the message it sends to those soldiers lying in a bed with a missing limb to be told that Walter Reed is going to be closed? For them to make that proposal in the middle of a shooting war is outrageous.”
The Rev. Grayland Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington and a leader of United for Peace and Justice, joined a recent vigil outside Walter Reed together with many members of his congregation. “Walter Reed is a health care entity for thousands of people and now it is slated to be closed and put in the hands of developers,” Hagler said. “It is the flagship of the VA hospital system. Walter Reed employs so many Black people and other people of color in the D.C. area and losing those jobs will have a large negative impact on our community.”
The Base Closing Commission argued that Walter Reed could be consolidated with Bethesda Naval Hospital. “But these consolidations do not produce one-plus-one equals two. It may be one-plus-one equals one-and-a-half. Or even less than one. We are angry that these consolidations are based on political and budget policies. The places that will be preserved are those that were loyal to this administration.”
VA – the only health coverage for many veterans
Hagler’s views were echoed by David Cline, president of Veterans for Peace, in a phone interview soon after he returned from the Cindy Sheehan vigil outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The VA has classified Cline 100 percent disabled from multiple wounds he suffered as a combat infantryman in Vietnam. “I was so angry about the war, I refused to go to the VA for years,” he said. “But now it’s the only health coverage I have. Millions of veterans are in the same boat, depending on the VA for care. All the veterans’ organizations, from the VFW to the American Legion, have protested the budget shortfall for the VA.”
The Republican-majority House of Representatives voted 215 to 212 in 2003 to cut veterans’ health care benefits by $28 billion over the next 10 years. That vote came just one day after a resolution was approved unanimously to “support our troops” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vets are now charged a $250 annual fee for treatment at VA facilities that was previously free. The co-pay for prescription drugs was doubled to $15.
Private charity scam
As with many other disasters, the Bush administration is appealing for private charity to help close the gap. One slick packet was sent out in the mail recently by a McClean, Va.-based outfit called “Salute America’s Heroes” (SAH). It included two cover letters, one from retired Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. Army, and the other from Army Spc. B.J. Jackson, who lost both legs and suffered severe burns over most of his body in Iraq. Both letters plead for a generous contribution to help wounded service men and women.
SAH is described in fine print as a “special project of Help Hospitalized Veterans” (HHV) which in turn is identified as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax deductible organization.”
Nonpartisan it is not. The entire thick packet, including a magnetized car sticker with the slogan, “Support Our Wounded Troops,” was produced by an extreme right-wing public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts (CRC ).
CRC produced the attack ads for “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” smearing John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. The Golden Rule Insurance Co. hired CRC to promote Bush’s “private medical accounts” swindle as an alternative to Medicare. The Discovery Institute turned to CRC to package its “intelligent design” pseudo-scientific answer to Charles Darwin. Most recently, the right-wing Federalist Society enlisted CRC as a booster for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.
So it is no surprise that the message in the SAH packet describes the war veterans as “America’s wounded war on terrorist freedom fighters.” The fine print also says that “some of the cost of this appeal is regarded by HHV as a public education program rather than as a fundraising expense.” Translated, that means that CRC will pocket a share of the contributions, profiting from the misery of these wounded soldiers.
Support the troops — bring them home
Cline chuckled when told about the CRC packet. “This is nothing new. Wounded and disabled veterans have been the target for every hustler and crook under the sun.”
The only way to end the endless train of misery, Cline said, “is to end this war and bring our troops home, safe and alive, and take care of them when they get home. When soldiers are sent off to fight and come back wounded, it is the responsibility of the government to care for them. Abraham Lincoln said as much in his second inaugural: ‘To care for those who bore the burden of battle and their widows and orphans.’ That’s an obligation George Bush now wants to evade.”
Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @ yahoo.com) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.