We, Americans, speak of loving our troops, supporting our soldiers and yet we demonstrate this in the oddest of ways. Recently, on April 1, 2005, I was listening to what I wish were an April “Fool’s Day” ruse. Sadly, it was not. I was tuned into On the Media, a National Public Radio program. The topic was “Wounded in Abstraction.” Radio host Brook Gladstone was interviewing Salon correspondent, Mark Benjamin. Mr. Benjamin has been covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has followed the injured soldiers, listened to their stories, and observed their stresses.
He has written much on the subject. During this discourse, he spoke of the Pentagon, its practices, policies, and the manner in which it calculates war casualties. He offered that the numbers are “deceptively low” and he explained why this is.
Reporter Benjamin shared that the Pentagon selectively defines the term “casualties.” Casualties are only persons that are “hurt directly by the bullets and the bombs of the enemy.” If an ally wounds a soldier, if s/he is injured in an automobile accident, if a combatant commits suicide, or is s/he is impaired accidentally, then s/he is not considered a casualty of war.
In “The Invisible Wounded,” a Salon.com piece published on March 8, 2005, journalist Benjamin wrote of a January 2000 warning. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Henry Shelton, while speaking to a Harvard audience, cautioned politicians. He offered that they “must weigh military actions,” and be certain that the public is “prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets.” The General spoke of the "Dover test.”
You may recall that recently, in April 2004, there was a scandal; photographs of our fallen soldiers were released. Images of flag-draped caskets were revealed publicly; they were captured “illegally.” People were astonished and alarmed to see these coffins. There were so many, so many young soldiers whose lives were lost. How could this be? A year earlier, on May 1, 2003, President Bush told us that the war had ended; yet, American soldiers are arriving home in coffins.
Possibly, you know that our fallen American soldiers are regularly flown into Air Force bases such as Dover. They arrive in coffins covered with the American flag. Whether the American public can tolerate seeing this practice is the test, the Dover Test.
The Whitehouse has long known that support for Operation Enduring Freedom was fragile and the Administration feared lessening the little support that they had. Therefore, they banned the photographing of soldiers’ caskets. They feared that the American people would not support the war effort if the stark reality of our young soldiers’ deaths were so publicly displayed. The Administration has reason to believe that informed citizens protest and revolt against war. Vietnam is the evidence.
The Pentagon and persons in the Executive Office knew that if the public were to continually see photographs of what is war, if they were to witness the daily devastation, if they saw young soldier losing limbs and eyes, if they saw the badly burned bodies of their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, then support would wane. It is for this reason that the Bush Whitehouse chose to impose the same strategy for the injured as they had for the fallen.
It is for this reason that wounded soldiers are flown in during the dark of night. Capturing these images is forbidden. In his recent writing, Mark Benjamin notes, “Since 9/11, the Pentagon's Transportation Command has medevaced 24,772 patients from battlefields, mostly from Iraq.” However, this is not the number released to the public. We, the people, are told that there are far less. Only half of these numbers are widely reported. Now, more than two years after the invasion of Iraq, we know little of the wounded, and thus Mr. Benjamin chose to share their story.
There are other stories as well. There are the tales of suicide. In October 2003, Gregg Zoroya, of USA TODAY wrote, “Army probes soldier suicides.” At the time, the Army arranged for a team of doctors to investigate the cause; the Navy also expressed alarm; it seems that the rate of soldier suicides in Iraq is greater than that of past wars. Why might our troops take their own lives? Might the long deployments cause depression? Might the stop-loss orders bring troops a sense of hopelessness? Could the stress of combat cause soldiers to consider suicide? Might it be all of these reasons and more? There is much concern, though little reporting. When talk of suicide does surface, it is quickly swept aside.
At times, we hear talk of recruiting. The numbers of recruits are steadily falling in everybranch of the service. During the recent Presidential campaign there was some discussion of stop loss orders, and a possible renewal of the draft; however, this too was soon quelled. This issue could also threaten the security of the war effort, and we do want to support our troops. Nonetheless, issues such as these cause anxiety; our soldiers and those that love them are concerned.
Fortunately, there are those that do wish to discuss these topics. Operation Truth is cognizant of the “Issues Facing Our Troops.” They site the plight of the National Guard and Reserve units. They state that these servicemen and women have long been considered mediocre at best. They are not trained as well as their counterparts, nor are they equally equipped. Yet, though the estimates vary, a large percentage of our active troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait are National Guardsmen and Reservists. According to the Center for American Progress there are 55,000 deployed in the Persian Gulf region, 10,000 of these have been affected by the Stop Loss policies.
Jonathon Turly of USA Today, CBS News, Military.com, and other sources refer to the lack of armor for man and machine; body shields are scarce and metal coverings for Humvees are scant. Radios and bullets are in short supply.
The tension of war, its affect on our soldiers and their families, is great. Sadly, the Pentagon does not the focus on counseling. On February 17, 2005, National Public Broadcasting presented, “Criticism on Postwar Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder [PTSD.]” This piece presented interesting information; Congressional investigators observe that the combat veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan may not be receiving adequate care and counseling for PTSD. The General Office of Accounting notes that the Department of Veterans Affairs does not actively consider this a priority. Many more troops are facing the plight of PTSD than ever before. Although a special panel of advisors was established to study this problem, their recommendations are being ignored.
When a soldier does admit to psychological problems and asks for assistance s/he is often shunned. While the military claims to be making “great strides in improving mental health care and lessening [the] stigma for those seeking help for combat stress” often, this is not the case. On March 31, 2005, Eric Westervelt of All Things Considered aired this story, “Soldier Says Army Ignored His Mental Health Concerns.” A soldier willing to risk the ridicule that he might receive from his fellow comrades spoke of his stress, asked for help, and then, after a short time was returned to the frontlines. His wife, “Dawn Marie Beals says her husband, Army Specialist David Beals, was sent back to Iraq before he was mentally ready.”
Our troops face much; yet, we do not speak of it. We do not see it; we rarely read of it. We say that we support our soldiers, and yet our support seems so tentative.
Post Script . . . Posthumously we praise; on April 4, 2005, President Bush awards a fallen soldier is the Medal of Honor. Sergeant first Class Paul Smith receives a formal tribute from his nation. While this occurs two years after his passing and he was no longer alive to realize his reward, this soldier was given the nation’s highest military award. He did as many servicemen and women have done, he helped his fellow troops to evacuate, and fend off an attack. In doing so, he was mortally wounded. Now, he is acknowledged in an open forum held at the Whitehouse. Photographs are taken. All of the media is encouraged to air this story, however, sadly, the badge of courage and the coverage come only long after the fact.
ODE TO THE TROOPS THAT WE LOVE, HONOR, AND SUPPORT ©
How do we love you?
Let me count the ways.
We give you “life,” love, liberty, and help you to learn.
We tell you of love, of our love for you.
We show our love, showering you with all that we are able.
We speak of loving all, equally.
We teach you to love your neighbor, love your country, and to never covet.
We edify honor, a reverence for life.
Then we train you to eradicate, eliminate, and to execute the enemy, our enemy, and those we say are yours.
If you are hurt, we do not honor you sufficiently.
We do not speak of your wounds.
We do not adequately treat your injuries.
Possibly, we will not even count you as a casualty.
After all, you and your hurts are only “collateral damage.”
We will not reward you well for your services.
We may not grant you leave.
We might not effectively provide for your survivors.
However, we support you, for you are our troops.
You deliver our triumph and we commend you,
At least through our words.
Our deeds? These may be our undoing.
Therefore, we do these in the dark.
Time marches on and soldiers continue to fall silently. On June 7, 2005, paradox offered a post that is beyond brilliant. Please visit This is Our Country