“I THINK it’s worth it, Jim.” During the September 30 presidential debate, George Bush didn’t hesitate when asked if the war on Iraq was worth the hundreds of deaths and thousands of terrible injuries suffered by U.S. troops.
Too bad debate moderator Jim Lehrer couldn’t ask Sgt. 1st Class Larry Daniels the same question. Daniels is one of hundreds of U.S. troops with critical injuries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the U.S. military hospital in Germany where nearly all ill or wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan are sent.
In mid-September, Daniels and his men were guarding Iraqi contractors repairing a chain-link fence near the Baghdad airport when a car bomb exploded. Today, his arms are pinned with metal rods and wrapped in bandages from just below the shoulders to the tip of his fingers. Shrapnel wounds scar his back, from behind his right ear to his ankles. And Daniels is one of the “lucky ones”–because doctors believe he’ll make a full recovery and won’t suffer disabilities.
Col. Earl Hecker, a critical care doctor at Landstuhl, says that the casualty situation for U.S. troops is far worse than most people in the U.S. can imagine. “[The public has] no idea what’s going on here, none whatsoever,” he told New York Newsday. Then he blurted out, “Bush is an idiot.”
Hecker has every right to feel angry. On an average day, he sees 35 young men and women transported to Landstuhl, mainly from Iraq. Doctors and nurses at the hospital say it is like something out of a nightmare–where “the cost of the Iraq war is measured in amputated limbs, burst eyeballs, shrapnel-torn bodies and shattered lives,” wrote Toronto Star reporter Sandro Contenta.
Since September 2001, more than 18,000 military personnel have come to the hospital from Iraq and Afghanistan–roughly 20 percent because of combat injuries, the rest due to accidents or illness. While the Pentagon has reported approximately 7,300 soldiers injured in combat in Iraq, that number doesn’t reflect soldiers evacuated for illnesses, like diarrhea or persistent fever, which are often related to living conditions.
And it doesn’t count the thousands of soldiers sent home because they are suffering from mental health problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder. At Landstuhl alone, more than 1,400 soldiers have been admitted for mental health problems.
Back at home, the Pentagon says that some 28,000 troops out of the 168,000 who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan have sought medical care from the Veterans Administration. Nearly 20 percent of those–well over 5,000–have done so for mental health reasons.
It’s no wonder why. According to a New England Journal of Medicine study released in July, during the six weeks that the Iraq war lasted officially, 95 percent of Marines and Army soldiers surveyed said that they had been shot at, 56 percent had killed an enemy combatant, and 94 percent had seen bodies and human remains. “It’s probably the biggest challenge to mental health [in the military] since Vietnam,” Col. Gary Southwell, chief of psychology services at Landstuhl, told Newsday.
For these soldiers, help may not be available, even if they manage to make it home alive. The Veterans Administration (VA) has been overloaded for decades–and has a current backlog of more than 300,000 claims.
Of the claims for benefits filed by soldiers returned from Afghanistan or Iraq, fewer than two-thirds have been processed–leaving more than 9,750 recent veterans waiting for help, according to the Washington Post. And a September 20 Government Accountability Office report concluded that the VA isn’t able to determine if it can handle a rush of post-traumatic stress disorder cases.
Meanwhile, soldiers who are injured in Iraq and sent home are in for a rude awakening–a 50 percent pay cut. When Marine Lance Cpl. James Crosby left Iraq, he was unconscious, his legs paralyzed, his guts pierced by shrapnel.
According to the Boston Globe, that’s when the military cut his pay. “Before you leave the combat zone, they swipe your ID card through a computer, and you go back to your base pay,” said Crosby. “You need that pay more than ever, to move your life around.” In a wheelchair and attached to a colostomy bag, Crosby told the Globe: “I still have to fight the consequences of what happened. I struggle every day.”
That struggle is leading more troops and their families to question the war. “The army is not going to like what I have to say, but I think we have no business being there,” Larry Daniels’ wife, Cheryl, told Newsday.
She says that she voted for Bush in 2000, but has changed her mind this year. “I will definitely vote for Kerry, not because I prefer Kerry over Bush, but because I don’t want Bush back in office,” she says. “I’m hoping that if Kerry takes office, we’ll be pulling out” of Iraq.
Unfortunately, as Kerry has made all too clear, he won’t answer the hopes of people like Cheryl. During the first presidential debate, when asked if U.S. soldiers were “dying for a mistake,” Kerry answered “No, and they don’t have to…I believe that we have to win this. The president and I have always agreed on that.” That means more U.S. troops killed and maimed for oil profits.
“I don’t want to go to Iraq”
WILL MORE troops be heading to Iraq? No matter who sits in the White House in January, the answer to that question is a definite yes–since both Bush and Kerry have made it clear that they believe the U.S. has too much at stake to withdraw.
That’s why the Pentagon recently announced plans to deploy an additional 15,000 troops to Iraq in the first four months of 2005. But with the occupation spiraling out of control, and thousands of troops killed or injured, the military is facing a crisis–both in the number of troops on the ground in Iraq, and in levels of recruitment and retention.
Last month, the Pentagon announced that the Army National Guard fell nearly 10 percent short of its 2004 recruiting goal of 56,000 enlistees–the first time it has fallen short since 1994. This despite the fact that the Army even eased some of its standards for people to qualify.
Meanwhile, the average mobilization for members of the Reserves throughout the military has more than doubled–to 342 days this year, from 156 days during the 1991 Gulf War. The Pentagon has issued a controversial stop-loss order, preventing soldiers whose tours of duty were up or who were scheduled to retire from leaving the military.
And the brass have called up more than 4,400 Individual Ready Reservists, former soldiers honorably discharged after finishing their active-duty tours, but who remained technically eligible for call-up. As of September 28, 1,765 Individual Ready Reservists had been scheduled to report for duty. But, according to the Army, some 622–about 30 percent–failed to show up.
Of course, when orders don’t work, the Army figures that threats will do the trick. According to the Rocky Mountain News, soldiers from a Fort Carson combat unit were recently issued an ultimatum–re-enlist for three more years, or be transferred to other units expected to deploy to Iraq.
“They said if you refuse to re-enlist with the 3rd Brigade, we’ll send you down to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is going to Iraq for a year, and you can stay with them, or we’ll send you to Korea, or to Fort Riley [in Kansas], where they’re going to Iraq,” said one of the soldiers, a sergeant. “I don’t want to go back to Iraq. I went through a lot of things for the Army that weren’t necessary and were risky. Iraq has changed a lot of people.”
NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker and is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch.