by Jonathan Miller / Channel 4 (London) –
(February 10, 2004) — In a dark corner of Andrews Air Force base on the outskirts of Washington DC, America’s war-wounded come home.
The human cost of humbling tyrants: No ceremony, no big welcome. More than 11,000 medical evacuees have come through Andrews in the past nine months, the Air Force says.
Most, we suspect, from Iraq. But that’s 8,000 more than the Pentagon says have been wounded there. Most of those wounded in action come through the vast Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington.
Washington Is Hiding the True Casualty Count
The American public is, for the most part, unaware that the true casualty count of the war in Iraq may actually be higher than official figures suggest. The apparent discrepancy is fuelling suspicion that the US government’s got something to hide.
There’d been a suicide at the Center the previous week. Another of what the Pentagon terms a “non-hostile” death — in other words, one that won’t figure on its list of fatalities,
We were the first foreign TV crew to film at Walter Reed Army Medical Center since the invasion of Iraq one year ago. One patient, Staff Sergeant Maurice Craft, had his leg blown off in November by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. He’d gone to liberate a land whose people turned out to be hostile. It was a nasty surprise :
Doing that kind of operation over there, you don’t really know who the enemy is. They use cowardly tactics, women and children.
Another patient, Staff Sergeant Roy Mitchell, lost his leg in Afghanistan three months ago:
The ones that are covered are the KIAs. The “Killed in Action.” I’m not taking anything away from those soldiers. They deserve that coverage. But there is also us. To say we’re forgotten, that would be going just a little bit too far to say we’re forgotten but I’d say we are the’ missed soldiers’ of the army.
Says Sgt Craft, “A lot of people are getting hit. What they are showing are the deaths. They are not showing this here. They have a death toll but they’re not showing the number of people being hit and being amputated because of their injuries.
Channel 4 News: “And in you’re opinion, the number of wounded in action, the number wounded generally, is quite high?”
The Specter of Vietnam
Students of modern military history could be forgiven a sense of deja-vu. It was to Walter Reed Medical Center that America’s war-wounded from Vietnam were brought. Numbers-wise, there’s still no comparison. 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam; fewer than 600 have been killed in Iraq. But psychologically, Vietnam has a resonance that still shapes politics here.
Come November, President Bush, who never fought in South East Asia, may well be up against Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam vet. Could that be why the dead and wounded return to Washington in the middle of the night with no fanfare?
The images the US government does want us to see depict the return of America’s heroes – such as arrival back at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, of the 101st Airborne division after a year in Iraq. It was to have been a six-month tour of duty. They are the survivors, the lucky ones.
But when it comes to the wounded, an astonishing situation has arisen: the Pentagon’s figures clash wildly with those of the US Army. The Pentagon lists 2,604 wounded in action and just 408 “non-hostile wounded”. But the Army says many thousands more have been medically evacuated from the conflict zone.
Why the discrepancy? Well, the Pentagon doesn’t count as victims soldiers who come back with brain injuries or psychiatric disorders, those hit by friendly fire or those who’ve crashed in their military vehicles.
You could call them “the missing wounded” of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Some suspect the government’s been deliberately massaging the figures. According to Steve Robinson, from the National Gulf War Resource Center:
“Information warfare is a tenet of war. It’s part of the strategy in war and it’s something we employ in Iraq to win to gain the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. And in some cases it looks as if the Department of Defense is employing information warfare back doing this at home by not releasing accurate information or making it difficult to obtain information. That prevents the story from being told or it makes it take longer for the story to be told or it frustrates people to where they don’t even try to tell the story.”
Steve Robinson is no anti-war liberal. A former Special Forces soldier with 20 years’ service, he now briefs Presidents. He believes we’re not being told the full story.
“People don’t want bad news stories coming out from this war and at every level where I need information, every time I need information from the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, about the injuries of this war, I run unto obstacles. None of this is national security. None of this will cause the collapse of the coalition. It’s just information that we need to understand what’s happening.”
Heath Calhoun, 24, wasn’t able to walk off the plane with his brothers from the 101st Airborne. This was how he broke the news from his hospital bed in Mosul to his 21-year-old wife Tiffany : “I called her and I told her she could have the good news or the bad news. I said I’ve got my legs blown off, but the good news is I’m coming home.”
Heath’s Humvee crew was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
“I didn’t know what had happened. It hit and I saw a big burst of white powder and than I saw white and went flying into the air. I could see my legs were mucked up and blood coming out of them and I screamed.
He still wears the ID tag of his friend Morgan, who was blown to pieces.
Was it all worthwhile?
“I can’t answer that question yet. If Iraq becomes and democracy, yes. But if it all falls apart, I think it will be in vain. We’ll have to work that out.”
Was It All Worthwhile?
This is a patriotic part of the south. Fort Campbell, headquarters of the 101st Airborne, straddles the state line between Tennessee and Kentucky. There is an awkwardness here when it comes to asking questions about America’s adventure in Iraq.
There’s a lot to work out and there’s a lot going on inside the heads of some of these soldiers. I went to meet some injured Iraq veterans on the base who’d formed a support group. Not a very macho thing to do, they admitted, but they said they needed to get stuff off their chests.
Pat Collins from New Jersey is 38. He took shrapnel though his neck in Baghdad and is in permanent pain.
I was injured on patrol in Baghdad. Couple guys ambushed us. I’ve got nerve damage. A lot of pain. I took a lot of morphine. Readjusting. Getting my life back on track. I’m not going to do what I did before. Time to move on and find something else to do. I’m not going to what it was I did before.
His anger is, in some cases, producing political transformation.
Pat: “I was a Republican … I’m going to be incredibly active in the Democratic Party once I get out.”
And who’s his democratic preference, we asked?
We Are Asked to Stop Filming
It was at this point that we were asked to stop filming. Other members of the group had grown uneasy that things had taken a political turn.
Says Terry James, a Psychiatric Counsellor : “The only other war I can closely compare this with is Vietnam. When we went to Somalia, Bosnia, Panama, etc. once war was declared over, it was over. But this one is not over even though it’ s declared over.”
President Bush may have declared major combat operations in Iraq over ten months ago, but fresh planeloads of wounded soldiers continue to fly into Andrews Air Force base every week, unseen by most Americans.
If the US government was to admit to the true human cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom — the wounded as well as the dead — then how many Americans would support George Bush and his war?