The flights almost always land at night–and the wounded are brought off planes in the dark. Kept away from the news cameras, the nightly parade of the injured who arrive at Maryland’s Andrews Air Force base from U.S. Army medical facilities in Germany are driven–sometimes in vans or school buses converted into ambulances–to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the nation’s top military hospitals.
These soldiers have gone from the front lines to the back door–brought back to the U.S. under the cover of darkness to keep them hidden from the media and the public.
According to the Pentagon, the soldiers arrive at night because “operational restrictions” at a runway near the military’s main hospital in Germany, where the wounded from Iraq are brought first, affect the timing of flights.
But Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Operation Truth, an advocacy group for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, told Salon reporter Mark Benjamin that there is a different reason. “They do it so nobody sees [the wounded],” Rieckhoff said. “In their mindset, this is going to demoralize the American people. The overall cost of this war has been…continuously hidden throughout. As the costs get higher, their efforts to conceal those costs also increase.”
For the nearly 4,000 U.S. troops wounded in Iraq who have been brought through the doors of Walter Reed as of March, the personal cost of the war is staggering. Despite the Bush administration’s repeated claims of reaching a “turning point” in the occupation of Iraq, the 250 beds at Walter Reed have been filled to capacity since the invasion–and before that, since the early days of the war on Afghanistan in 2001.
In late 2003, press accounts reported that medical staff at Walter Reed staff were working 70- to 80-hour weeks to handle the influx of patients. Overcrowding was so bad, in fact, that a number of the less seriously wounded were sent to stay in hotels near the hospital–transported during the day to Walter Reed for outpatient treatment. The situation is no better today–though it is more hidden than ever because of the media blackout that the Pentagon has tried to throw over Walter Reed.
Among the patients, the number of seriously injured–suffering from burns, amputations, brain damage, infection and combat stress–show anything but a “turning point” in Iraq.
Ironically, the main reasons for the overflow of seriously injured are improvements in body armor and the use of better medical technology on the battlefield. Because of this, many soldiers today are surviving with more severe injuries than in previous wars.
According to Pentagon statistics, approximately 6 percent of the more than 12,000 troops wounded by bombs or bullets in Iraq or Afghanistan have required amputation–three times the rate in Vietnam. About 20 percent have head or neck injuries, and many more have suffered breathing and eating impairments, blindness or severe disfiguration. Dr. Roy Aaron of Brown Medical School in Rhode Island told the Boston Globe in December that the Veterans Affairs system “literally cannot handle the load” of amputees.
A recent USA Today report found that between January 2003 and January 2005, more than 400 cases of traumatic brain injury–usually the result of a bomb or rocket attack–were diagnosed among wounded soldiers at Walter Reed alone. Slightly more than half of those were left with some form of permanent brain damage.
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IN NOVEMBER 2003, when the Bush administration was still claiming that U.S. soldiers were being greeted as “liberators” in Iraq, Ellen Barfield managed to visit Walter Reed. A member of the national board of directors of Veterans for Peace, Barfield and three others members of the group went to the hospital to visit wounded troops, bringing them gifts and offering to talk.
She described meeting two Iraq war vets, one with a badly shattered leg and the other with a wound caused by being shot through both hips–bad enough, Barfield told Socialist Worker, that both were certain to be “fairly messed up for the rest of their lives.”
As she and the others were leaving the hospital, they saw a soldier walking the halls of Walter Reed who was missing both hands. “Different people are affected by different wounds differently, but I think that would be a really hard thing to experience,” she said. “Those are the things that kind of hit me the hardest.”
Barfield said this was the last visit to Walter Reed that Veterans for Peace was allowed to make. “We tried again, and they didn’t even ever respond to our request,” she said. “They figured out who we were, and we were on the no-go list. And it wasn’t just us. They got really touchy about everyone.”
Patrick McCann, an activist with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, says that he remembers meeting one soldier during a Veterans Day vigil outside Walter Reed in 2003. “Number one, he had both of his legs blown off mid-thigh by a rocket-propelled grenade,” McCann said. “Not mid-calf, but mid-thigh–above the knee…The guy was in complete shock, to the point that he was denying the injury, as if it was a hangnail or something.”
McCann said he wonders about that soldier today. “This guy was still very jingoistic,” McCann said. “He talked about some little Iraqi kid flipping the bird at him, and he shot at the kid. I said, ‘Well, I hope you didn’t hit him.’ And he said, ‘Well, I tried to.’ I wonder where that guy is, 18 months later, because I bet the reality has sunk in now.”
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FOR J.D. (a pseudonym), the reality of Walter Reed has sunk in–only too well.
A patient at the facility last year, J.D. joined the Army in 2002–after being assured that there were no plans for deployment overseas. “But once I get there, and we’re in basic training, that’s when we find out about they’re going to send people to Iraq,” J.D. told Socialist Worker. “I thought, ‘Okay, what have I put myself into?’ But it was too late already.”
After serving in Iraq for 11 months, J.D. was taken to a hospital in Iraq after suffering mysterious symptoms. J.D. was sent back to the U.S. to Walter Reed, where doctors diagnosed cancer. Since then, J.D. has undergone surgery at Walter Reed–although doctors have not been forthcoming about the exact procedures.
J.D. says that there is no history of cancer among family members and is convinced the illness was caused by exposure to depleted uranium–possibly during a night when the camp in Iraq came under fire for two hours. The next day, the platoon sergeant said the attack was friendly fire.
“He explained to us that the unit in charge of the camp was testing some new equipment, and they were testing it on the Iraqi side,” J.D. says. “Our camp is divided from the Iraqi side only with a fence…They test everything on the Iraqi side. They don’t care who they kill, what kind of damage they do, because they’re Iraqis. So they don’t care.”
For months, J.D. asked doctors to perform a test to measure for depleted uranium–but they haven’t responded. “The other day,” J.D. said, “I had an argument with one of my doctors because he said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing, uranium doesn’t really cause cancer like you think.'”
J.D. says that “there are a couple more soldiers in this hospital who are young people who have no history of cancer, and they have leukemia or lymphoma or other types of cancer. And the only one thing we all have in common is that we all were in Iraq. There is another person who is trying to get that test done, and they keep on–not refusing, but they avoid the subject.”
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OTHER PATIENTS at Walter Reed have reported similar treatment. Often, they say, the situation is even worse when dealing with injuries that can’t be seen–the post-traumatic stress and other psychological problems resulting from witnessing and participating in the horrors of war.
Reporter Mark Benjamin interviewed 14 soldiers receiving psychiatric treatment at Walter Reed over the course of a year. His conclusion: “[T]he Army’s top hospital is failing to properly care for many soldiers traumatized by the Iraq war.”
According to Benjamin, therapy is mostly administered by “a rotating cast of medical students and residents, not full-fledged doctors or veterans,” with a heavy reliance on medication. Even more troubling, however, is that the Army seems bent on denying that the stress of war caused the soldiers’ mental trauma.
“When you get [to Walter Reed], they analyze you, break you down and try to find anything wrong with you before you got in [the Army],” Spc. Josh Sanders told Benjamin. “They started asking me questions about my mom and my dad getting divorced. That was the last thing on my mind when I’m thinking about people getting fragged and burned bodies being pulled out of vehicles. They asked me if I missed my wife. Well shit, yeah, I missed my wife. That is not the fucking problem here. Did you ever put your foot through a 5-year-old’s skull?”
Then there’s the case of Spc. Alexis Soto-Ramirez, who served with a unit of the Puerto Rico National Guard. Suffering from chronic back pain that became excruciating during the war, Soto-Ramirez was diagnosed with “psychiatric symptoms” that were “combat-related.”
He was sent to Walter Reed’s “Ward 54”–the in-patient psychiatric unit–where he was supposed to get the best care the military had to offer. Instead, less than a month later, he was dead–having hanged himself with the sash from his bathrobe.
René Negron told Benjamin that he visited Soto-Ramirez at Walter Reed shortly before his death and that “he was real upset with the treatment he was getting. He said: ‘These people are giving me the runaround…I’m getting more crazy being up here.'”
Soto-Ramirez’s medical records illustrate the military’s “bottom-line” thinking. “Adequate care and treatment may prevent a claim against the government for PTSD,” wrote a psychologist in Puerto Rico before sending him to Walter Reed.
“The Army doesn’t want to get into the mental-health game in a real way to really help people,” said Col. Travis Beeson, who was flown to Walter Reed for psychiatric help during his second tour with one of the Army’s special operations units in Iraq. They want to Band-Aid it. They want you out of there as fast as possible, and they don’t want to pay for it.”
As of March, of the 244,054 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan discharged from service, more than 12,000 had been in VA counseling centers for readjustment problems and symptoms associated with PTSD. According to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “will produce a new generation of veterans at risk for the chronic mental health problems that result, in part, from exposure to the stress, adversity and trauma of war-zone experiences.”
But if the experience of soldiers at Walter Reed is any indication, the U.S. government will turn its back on this newest generation of battle-scarred veterans–just as it did with soldiers returning from Vietnam.
Patrick McCann says this disregard for the health and welfare of veterans is part of a familiar cycle. “They say that one in four Iraqi war vets–I’m not talking about Gulf War vets, I’m talking about this one–one in four Iraqi war vets who have returned have already been in for medical treatment,” he said.
“VVAW used to have this slogan: Used once and thrown away. You’re beginning to see that now, and it’s going to balloon in geometric progression.”
Josh Brand and Laura Lising contributed to this report.
NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.