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As number of U.S. soldiers killed nears 2,000...
Maimed in Bush's war

October 21, 2005 | Page 5

ERIC RUDER looks at the spiraling cost of the war in Iraq--in human lives.

"WE DON'T do body counts on other people," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in November 2003.

Since the beginning of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. military officials have refused to discuss how many civilians have been killed by U.S. bombs and bullets. The world will probably never know how many Afghans and Iraqis have died--let alone get an accounting of their names and ages, or the stories of those they left behind.

But U.S. officials have also tried to downplay the reporting of deaths and injuries suffered by U.S. soldiers.

It's all part of an elaborate attempt to manage public opinion. The administration, for example, banned reporters from photographing the flag-draped coffins of troops killed in action as the caskets arrive in Dover, Delaware. Soldiers wounded in Iraq invariably arrive back in the U.S. on flights that land in the dark of night--and they are then whisked to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., through an entrance that's inaccessible to the media.

The grisly tally of U.S. soldiers killed in action is likely to top 2,000 in the coming weeks. But the official count of those killed or injured in Iraq and Afghanistan obscures more than it describes the enormous cost of the war for those who must fight it.

For example, the Department of Defense (DoD) lists on its Web site the names of all service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it doesn't list the names of soldiers who returned from combat so shattered by the experience that they committed suicide.

"An example is a guy named Master Sgt. James Coons," Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center and a retired Army Ranger, told Socialist Worker. "He committed suicide and his family wanted his name and death to count as one of the losses of life in fighting the 'war on terrorism,' so they lobbied the DoD to classify his death as such. He killed himself at Walter Reed.

"We also noticed that DoD was reporting about 40 suicides in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan, but they weren't reporting the people who had killed themselves one day, one week or one month after coming back from the war. We were able to track down 30-plus media accounts of people who had served in the war and had committed suicide and weren't listed on any DoD Web site."

The scale of injuries suffered by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is even more drastically distorted by the Pentagon.

"A large number of people in Iraq are getting injured from bullets and bombs, and we're hearing about them," said Robinson. "But there's an even larger majority of people getting injured by non-combat-related causes--like endemic disease, motor vehicle accidents that stem from avoiding crowds and flipping over in ditches, breaking legs because they're carrying heavy equipment. There's a whole bunch of people that have been injured that aren't on the DoD Web site."

The severity of injuries in Iraq is much worse compared to earlier wars. "We know that people are surviving injuries that would have killed soldiers during the Vietnam War because of body armor," said Robinson. "You also have to remember that this is urban fighting in an area about the size of California that has trauma-response teams all throughout the region. So no matter where you are in Iraq, you can probably be at a field hospital in a matter of minutes. That's another reason that people are surviving, and that's a good thing. However, it also means that there are a lot of people in wheelchairs and missing arms and legs as a result of their combat experience."

As an added insult, the military also seems determined to force those injured in combat to cover the costs of their care. This is especially true of those suffering from combat-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)--because it's easier for the military to claim that the mental trauma didn't actually occur in Iraq.

"When you get [to Walter Reed], they analyze you, break you down, and try to find anything wrong with you before you got in," Specialist Josh Sanders told investigative journalist Mark Benjamin, who spent a year following more than a dozen soldiers being treated for psychological trauma suffered in Iraq.

"They started asking me questions about my mom and my dad getting divorced," said Sanders. "That was the last thing on my mind when I'm thinking about people getting fragged and burned bodies being pulled out of vehicles."

Robinson thinks it's important for the public to hear these stories. "During the war in Vietnam, the willingness to send people off to war began to drain away when they started seeing their loved ones come home in body bags," said Robinson. "The number of dead ended up being more than 58,000. I think by not providing accurate or fully detailed information, the government does a disservice to us, and in essence, conducts information warfare in reverse, which prevents us from knowing what's happening in the war."

How the Pentagon treats injured vets

ROBERT ACOSTA'S life changed forever on July 13, 2003. At the time, he was 20 years old and serving in Iraq. He and his best friend Anthony had gone out in a Humvee to pick up ice and other supplies when a hand grenade was tossed into the vehicle.

Robert picked it up to throw it out, and it went off in his hand. The shrapnel and concussion obliterated his hand, broke his right leg and shattered his left leg and foot.

"I still have my foot, but it really hurts," Robert told Socialist Worker. He has a prosthetic in place of his hand.

Robert credits the medical treatment he received at Walter Reed for saving his foot, but that's where the praise ends. From filling out paperwork for out-processing to struggling to get disability benefits, he has faced one obstacle after another.

When his commanding officer told him to appear for formation in the snow, he went AWOL for a week. "I just got on crutches, and they said you've got to go to formation at 7:30 a.m.," said Robert. "I told them I don't care what you do--you can take my rank away--but I'm not showing up, because my leg hurt."

Robert has given up on trying to get his prosthetic hand fine-tuned so that he's comfortable with it. "The VA here in Long Beach doesn't have the facilities to deal with my injury," he said. "I think I'm the only upper-extremity amputee here. You show up, and you want something small done, and it takes two to three months. When I first got back and filed my claims for the VA, my claims got denied, and they said that they weren't going to count the injured leg and my hearing and my PTSD as part of my disability."

Asked how he resolved this, Robert gave a three-word answer: "The Washington Post." "A reporter interviewed me about the VA treating soldiers the way they should be treated when they return," he says. "I told him everything--about how I was denied, my checks coming late in the mail so I couldn't pay for rent and bills. And that's what got me my disability.

"They were trying to shut me up. My best friend, the guy who was with me when I was injured, is still waiting to get his claim--a year and a half later. It's kind of satisfying that you get what you wanted, but then again, they're shutting you up, and you think about all the soldiers with the same problems, but they won't re-file their claims a lot of times, and they don't have the option to talk to the Washington Post."

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