Ten years on from the invasion of Afghanistan, America has grown weary of war. President Obama, having realized his long-held target of withdrawing from Iraq, is trying to wind down the war in Afghanistan with the aim of ending American involvement by 2014. As Washington has lost faith in the war effort, so too has the broader public. Skeptical of success and encouraged in their doubts by the political establishment, Americans increasingly want the war, like a tiresome, too-long movie, to end at last. This national resignation is fraught with peril – for America’s counterterrorism objectives, for our strategic allies – but perhaps most of all for the soldiers who did the fighting. The U.S. military has a policy of leaving no man behind. But as the country turns its attention away from the warfront, it risks forgetting the servicemen who fought so valiantly on its behalf, and who have returned home bearing the wars’ indelible marks.
The official end of the Iraq war this month is an occasion to reflect that, for many of America’s wounded veterans, the war will never be over, that they will always carry its scars. Over 32,000 servicemen have been wounded post-9/11, spanning all branches of the military. In the sands of Iraq, and in the mountains of Afghanistan, they have suffered horrific injuries, of which the most painful often left no outward mark. Limbs lost, lives turned upside down, futures permanently altered. For those of us safe in the comforts of civilian life, the enormity of their sacrifice is utterly beyond comprehension.
Just as awe-inspiring, though, is their resilience, their relentless determination not to surrender to the hardships imposed by their injuries, mental or physical. Where lesser spirits might have yielded, they have worked to embrace life, going to school, finding jobs, raising families. While others their age were playing at rebellion on the streets of New York and Oakland, they, who have so many reasons to complain, refused to turn their personal struggles into a public spectacle. They’re not the protesting kind. For these daily acts of heroism, no less than for the heroism they showed in battle, America’s wounded warriors are Front Page Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
They are men like Army Sergeant First Class, Leroy Petry. The product of a military family, Petry enlisted in the Army Rangers in 1999, at the age of 20, inspired by their motto: “Rangers Lead the Way.” Petry did just that in May 2008, when he and his platoon found themselves in the midst of a deadly firefight while attempting a raid on a Taliban compound in Afghanistan’s remote Paktia province. Inside the compound’s courtyard, Petry and a fellow Ranger, Private First Class Lucas Robinson, were pinned down by heavy fire from Taliban fighters when a bullet round pierced both of Petry’s legs. As the Rangers battled back, a live enemy grenade landed just a few feet away. Acting on instinct, Petry lunged at the grenade to throw it back, but could not release it fast enough. The blast blew off his right hand at the wrist. Undaunted, Petry placed a tourniquet on his arm and called in by radio that he and two other Rangers had been wounded. Then he added, “And I also lost one of my hands.” Not until the Taliban fighters were killed would Petry allow himself to be evacuated. During his recovery, Petry received a prosthetic hand and arm. To his new arm, author Peter Collier recounts, Petry added a plaque listing the names of the fallen Rangers in his unit. For his bravery, Petry this July was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming only the second living recipient of the medal for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The medal did not mark the end of Petry’s military career. He recently re-enlisted for another eight years of service in the Army.
Marine Staff Sergeant Chad Brumpton was serving in Iraq when an improvised explosive device blew up the tank he commanded in 2005. “Both my legs from the knee down were shattered to little pieces,” Brumpton recalls. “My left hand, thumb, and wrist were shredded up and broken. I received four compression fractures in my lower back.” For two years, Brumpton went from one surgery to the next, undergoing 19 in all. He required heavy dosages of medication just to get out of bed. In the end, his legs could not be saved. Yet, Brumpton is anything but a broken man. Newly mobile on prosthetic legs, including a pair for running, he continues to defy his physical constraints. As he puts it: “I won’t let anything hold me down, especially my disability. After the explosion, doctors told me I’d never walk again, but on the day I was discharged from the hospital, I walked out. There was no way I was going to let anything stop me.”
Army Spc. Brent Whitten exhibits the same single-mindedness as he tries to move on with his life. Whitten was 20 years old when his Humvee was struck by a suicide bomber in eastern Baghdad in 2006. Flames engulfed the Humvee, but Whitten couldn’t move his legs to escape. Eventually, he managed to roll out of the Humvee’s roof and onto the street, where a rescue unit picked him up. Whitten’s pelvis was fractured and he suffered second-degree burns to his arms and face, but he still mustered the strength to call his wife back in Kansas and tell her not to worry. Now a broadcasting student at the University of Kansas, he urges other wounded veterans to look upon their injuries as a new battle to be won. “When I think of my recovery, my message to other wounded warriors is this: Your recovery is your new mission. You have to get victory. You’re still a soldier, so you have an obligation not to surrender. Your family is counting on you.”
Marine and machine gunner Mike Heller knows how difficult that recovery can be. When his Humvee hit a landmine in Iraq in 2005, Heller was violently ejected, seriously injuring his spine. But his immediate concern was not for himself but for his unit’s team leader, Cpl. Joseph Tremblay, who was badly injured in the explosion. For the next three hours, as they made their way to the hospital, Heller tried to keep Tremblay calm and divert his attention from his bleeding wounds. Tremblay did not make it to the hospital. Heller survived, but today he suffers from chronic back pain and the awful thought that he failed to keep his comrade alive. It has taken time and treatment for Heller to realize that he could not have changed what happened, that he could not have done more to save his friend. He is still working to come to terms with his memories. But he is also getting on with his life, raising his daughter, working as a stock analyst, and pursuing a business degree.