March 4, 2015
A Trail of Tears
Posted on Nov 15, 2013
By Ann Jones, TomDispatch
The cavernous plane is very cold. There’s a blanket on each of the seats along the wall. I wrap myself up and sit down next to my military minder Sergeant Julian, mainly to stay out of the way of the CASF nurses who are busy checking on their patients, getting those on the bunks well settled for the long flight. The mother of the handsome kid has also sunk into a seat next to her son’s litter, but she leans forward, still clutching the bedrail as if to hang on to her boy. She has thrown a blanket around her like a cape, but even at a distance I can see that she’s cold. I pick up a spare blanket and take it to her. She looks up as I hold it out to her wordlessly in the deafening plane. “I’m fine,” she says, loudly enough for me to hear.
“He’s fine.” She looks at him and changes tense. “He’s going to be fine.”
“That’s good,” I say.
Square, Site wide
I offer the blanket again. “Take it. Keep warm.”
Later I notice that she has made a cocoon of the blankets and slumped over the adjacent seat to sleep. Only toward the end of the flight, when she must be feeling some relief that her son is going to survive it, does she begin to tell me about him. She got word of his injury when he was still in the field hospital in Helmand Province, and she arrived at LRMC from southern California the same day he was brought in from Bagram. Three days later, miraculously, she is bringing him home. Well, not home really, but to the States anyway, to the Naval hospital at Bethesda, Maryland.
Her son has an older brother who deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and now is safe at home in California. But this boy, a Marine, had a training accident that left him with a head injury requiring brain surgery. He was medically discharged, but reenlisted and was deployed to Afghanistan. He had been there two months when his unit was assigned to clean up an area another unit had officially cleared of Taliban. You remember the policy: clear, hold, and build. They were doing the hold part when he stepped on the IED. The other Marine, the one who can’t breathe, was hit by the same blast, or maybe another one at the same time. “They told me how it happened,” she says, “but I don’t think I heard.”
Months later, I will call her in California to see how her son is getting along. He’s still in the hospital. They’re still working on his wounds. He’s not doing any rehab yet. But the military moved him to San Diego so she and her husband can visit him often. She says he’s doing “fine,” though it will still be many months before he can come home.
In the meantime, her contractor husband has enlisted his friends to help widen doorways, lower light switches, build ramps, and reconstruct a bathroom on the ground floor for a boy in a wheelchair. It’s a weekend and I can hear them hammering as we talk on the phone. “They say he’ll always be in a wheelchair,” she says, her voice shaking. “I was in our pool this morning, and I realized that he’ll never be able to get into it by himself. He loves the pool.” I stay on the line, listening to her cry. She says, “He’s a beautiful swimmer.”
“Everything Still Hurts…”
On the plane I talk to some of the ambulatory patients sitting along the walls, wrapped in blankets like so many Pashtuns. Most are hurt just enough to have to be out of action for a while. One boy got a boot caught in the door of an armored vehicle, an MRAP, that wasn’t moving at the time. It’s a long way down from the passenger seat. He broke his arm. He blurts this out, then tells me he worries about what he’s going to say back at his home base. “I can’t tell them I just fell out.”
Another kid dropped a barbell in the gym and broke some bones in his foot. Two others hadn’t recovered from chronic back pain and muscle spasms induced by carrying too much weight. Doctors sent them back downrange to their units two or three times and each time they broke down again. The painkillers had only left them dazed. One says, “Everything still hurts, and you can’t remember what you’re doing, so it makes you nervous. So now they’re sending me home because I guess maybe the pain doesn’t make you so nervous in the U.S. of A.”
One young man collapsed while jogging at a base in the Persian Gulf. “I need a new valve in my heart,” he says, “so they’re sending me home to get it done there. I’m really lucky they found it. The Army saved my life.” His wife sits beside him, wearing a brand new Frankfurt sweatshirt and a bracelet dripping with gnomes. While the doctors at LRMC assessed her husband’s cardiac function, she went shopping. She tells me confidentially, “I for sure didn’t want to sit around any old hospital.”
An older Army officer calls me over and gestures toward the empty seat by his side. He sits ramrod straight, wrapped in his blanket, and speaks through tight lips as if he fears what might come out of his mouth. “I’ve been in the Army twenty-six years,” he says, “and I can tell you it’s a con.”
He has been an adviser to the chief counterterrorism officer in Iraq. It’s hard even to imagine what’s involved in work like that, but his version of his job description evidently failed to match the official checklist of his boss. He doesn’t think much of military bosses or politicians or Americans in general who send the lowliest 1% to fight wars that make the other 1%, on the high end, “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.”
He says he’s going home for “psych reasons” caused by “life,” and he is never going to deploy again. He has two sons, 21 and 23, in college, “They won’t have to serve,” he says. “Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself.”
I ask if he has any particular reason to dislike the military so intensely. “War is absurd,” he says. “Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars—it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.”
TomDispatch regular Ann Jones is the author of a new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account—the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over. This article is an excerpt from her new book.
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Copyright 2013 Ann Jones
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