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Hard questions

Spending an afternoon last week with disabled veterans from the Iraq war was not just another writing assignment. There are degrees of involvement for a writer, and this one was intensely emotional.While interviewing a 42-year-old staff sergeant who served as a senior Army sniper in Iraq, he fixed me with a penetrating gaze from his only eye. The other eye had been literally shot off a year ago during a firefight in Ar Ramadi.Here was eye-for-an-eye vengeance of monstrous proportions, especially when the sergeant lifted his black eye patch to show me the occipital cavity in his skull. A lost eye and a traumatic brain injury are this man’s lifelong contributions to the war.His friend, a young corporal, had the misfortune of standing four feet away from a car bomb in Ar Ramadi. When it detonated, he was blown through a concrete wall. As he lay stunned, but conscious, in the rubble, he was shot twice by a man on a rooftop.The corporal, then 19, lost his right leg below the knee and was peppered with shrapnel and bullets. His wounds were still fully visible as he sat on a picnic table having a smoke in the shade of a tree at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs. His prosthetic leg lay next to him as he described, with strange detachment, his injuries.The physical wounds on these vets were obvious, but the mental wounds were not. The sergeant explained that he is now prone to sudden outbursts of anger and rage, the result of his brain injury. “I’m scared,” said this father of three boys, “about my future and what I can do for a living.”When an idle freight train jolted to a start on nearby tracks, several of the veterans jolted with it. Even as they relaxed by the placid river where they had just floated in their kayaks, a deep psychic tension surfaced with the sudden clamor. My resulting article in Sunday’s Aspen Times and Glenwood Post Independent revealed the hope and healing these “Wounded warriors” experienced by paddling kayaks in the Colorado River. It explained how they were sponsored by a group of Aspen-area contributors and by Team River Runner, an all-volunteer organization based at Walter Reid Army Hospital in Washington, DC.I wrote that article from my heart, from an intense sympathy and sadness that only personal contact with the wounded can manifest. It was only later that I asked myself the hard questions that I was unable and unwilling to ask them, questions that need to be asked if we are ever to avoid in the future the terrible calamity from which these grievous wounds resulted.Must there be wars that kill and maim men, women and children? Seeking the cause for a disaster of human invention begs an evaluation of leadership and values. The wounds suffered by these vets did not result from a random act of God, but from a premeditated act of man. Will we ever acknowledge that war represents the failure of leadership on both sides of a conflict?In lieu of conscription, why did these men join the military in a time of war? Part of the answer is a lack of opportunity and the perceived socioeconomic self-interest of a mercenary adventure. Another part is pride in their battalion; in this case the 503rd Infantry, known as “The Rock of Corregidor.” Perhaps the strongest, most noble, answer is brotherhood.What compensation can these casualties expect from the federal government? Wounds are rated by severity, and compensation is paid according to personal trauma. What is the price of a limb, an eye, the normal functions of the brain? The sergeant estimates that he will receive $1,000 a month for losing an eye and injuring his brain.What of the Iraqi counterparts to these men, the wounded soldiers on the other side of the line? In Ar Ramadi there is no Walter Reid Hospital, no Army pension, and certainly no rehabilitating kayaking program. Perhaps religion, family and ideology are the only balms to heal their wounds.Articles like the one I wrote describe one facet of a complex story. For the sake of future generations we must consider the wounded warriors on both sides of the battlefield and the disastrous leadership that mired them in such tragic circumstances.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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