\’Purple Hearts\’

Oct 22 2004

By Karen Fragala
Updated: 11:12 a.m. ET Oct. 22, 2004

Oct. 21 – Since the beginning of the conflict in Iraq, more than 1,000 American soldiers have been killed. But nearly eight times as many have been injured so far, according to the Defense Department. Soldiers know there are grave risks involved in going to war, but none of the 20 disabled veterans profiled by photojournalist Nina Berman in her new book “Purple Hearts: Back From Iraqâ€? (Trolley Books) expected to return home blind, as amputees or otherwise disfigured. Some went to Iraq hoping to bring freedom to the Iraqi people. Others were following in the footsteps of family members. Some just wanted to get out of their small towns and do something. NEWSWEEK’s Karen Fragala spoke to the author about her book and what the veterans found upon their return to America. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did the veterans react to being interviewed and photographed?
Nina Berman: Every single vet, regardless of how they felt about this war wanted to tell their story, which is so surprising to people because everyone thinks that they’re going to be reluctant. This can only say something about the mindset of the country. It has to do with the concealment of what’s really going on, the fact that we see no funerals. That it’s basically off-limits to go into Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] with a camera.

How did the controversy over the war in Iraq affect the veterans’ assessment of their experience there?
Most of the soldiers still believed in the war. But when you started asking them specific questions, things would change. Lt. Jordan Johnson was very disturbed by it, and you could see that she was starting to question everything.

Some soldiers expressed more remorse at having to leave the military than at the loss of a limb. Why?
This was very confusing to me when I first began. Regardless of their political views on the war, I asked them all this question, “Would you want to go back?â€? I was interviewing one soldier, [Spc.] Luis Calderon—he’s paralyzed from [the chest] down—and he said, “Oh, yeah!â€? [His] father was in the Air Force. When [Calderon] said this in front of his father, I looked at the father, and he said, “He doesn’t understand. He misses his friends. He feels guilty that he is home, and they are there. They’re not fighting for God and country. They’re fighting for their friends.â€?

What did the Purple Heart combat decoration mean to these soldiers?
To some of them, it meant nothing. A bunch of them said, “It was one medal I never wanted.â€? Some of them just said, “Yes, it was cool; the president gave it to me.â€? Cpl. Tyson Johnson never even got his, they just sent him a certificate in the mail. Eighteen of the 20 soldiers [in the book] have Purple Hearts. One soldier really wants one, and is fighting to get it. It is very important to Spc. Luis Calderon, who was injured [following orders to] smash a wall with Saddam’s face on it. They didn’t award it to him because they claim there was no enemy fire at the time. And Lt. Jordan Johnson was in a Humvee flip. The medal summed up how I imagined these guys would be—a slightly dying, bruised heart.

What was most striking about the veterans you interviewed?
My overwhelming feeling about a lot of them was intense loneliness, especially those that joined because they had no other options. They left these towns because they had no future. And they’re back where they started, but now they don’t have their health, and they have horrible memories. Three weeks ago I got a message from [Tyson Johnson’s] mother that said, “The hurricane destroyed our house, and Tyson’s coughing blood, and we don’t know what to do.â€? Insult upon injury, he got a bonus for joining, and they wanted to take the signing bonus back because he didn’t fulfill his contract because he was wounded … I feel a tremendous anger about the hypocrisy of the “Support Our Troopsâ€? slogan. If you really want to support our troops, then in your hometown, find out who these soldiers are and make sure they’re being cared for. [Editor’s note: The Army has since abandoned its efforts to collect Tyson Johnson’s signing bonus.]

Did the veterans express frustration with how they have been treated since returning?
They expressed frustration with how they’ve been treated in the system, not frustration with how the public has been treating them. Soldiers who clearly are nondeployable, like Spc. Luis Calderon [a quadriplegic], should have been given a medical discharge right away, [but] it was taking months and months. This is very crucial for the soldier because there’s an enormous difference between being a veteran medically discharged on disability and being a simple grunt on a soldier’s pay. And so I don’t know if it’s a cost-saving measure by the Pentagon to deliberately hold up their paperwork or if it’s because so many of them were wounded and they simply do not have the manpower to process their documents. Every single soldier, pretty much without exception, was frustrated by the lack of progress in their paperwork, and it seemed to me that there was no one person they could go to to sort that out.

Many people don’t wittingly come into contact with veterans except when they watch the parades on Nov. 11. What do Americans need to know about the men and women coming back from war?
Anyone who has spent some time with these vets or any vets [knows that] you can’t believe how smart and sensitive some of them are. They seem much older than they are. They’re so much more mature than their friends around them. This is why Spc. Robert Acosta can’t go to clubs or parties anymore, because he cannot relate to the people that are wondering if it was hot in Iraq or if he shot anybody. He said his friends wanted him to glorify what he did, and it made him sick. They also say that their value for life is much greater now than it was before.

Sgt. Wasim Khan said that as a veteran he felt like a part of history. How do you think history will see the veterans of this conflict?
I think that these vets will have less trouble than the Vietnam vets, most definitely. For history, the discussion will be, “Is this the end of the [all-]volunteer American Army?� and it will take into account what [John] Kerry calls the “back-door draft� with the reservists and the [National] Guardsmen.

Given that Iraq is such a major issue in the upcoming election, did anyone express a preference for either Bush or Kerry?
Some said they liked George Bush. Another soldier’s girlfriend goes up to the soldier when I was there and says, “Hey, have you heard about this guy Kerry? He’s got three Purple Hearts. He sounds like the guy we should vote for.â€? And the soldier said, “I don’t know who he is.â€?

What do you hope people will take away from this book?
The biggest shocker in this experience was when I asked the soldiers to give me definitions of freedom and democracy because they said that’s what they were fighting for. Most of the soldiers looked at me like I was from Mars. I told Pfc. Randall Clunen, “This is your first presidential election. You must be excited to finally be able to vote.â€? And he goes, “Hell, no, I’m not voting.â€? And he looked at his mom, and she goes, “Hell, no, we don’t vote.â€? And I thought, “You were sent to Iraq to bring democracy to people that you know nothing about, but after so many surgeries at Walter Reed, you sit here and tell me that you’re not going to vote?â€? What kind of population are we creating here? I hope people look at this book as something more than the portraits of 20 wounded soldiers. I hope it’s a little picture of America to them.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio

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