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.
Marine Corporal Anthony Villarreal has answered a different calling: he helps his fellow wounded veterans come to terms with their injuries. Villarreal knows what that takes. He served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in June 2008 that his Humvee struck an IED. In the ensuing blaze, Villarreal just managed to crawl out before a rocket in the vehicle’s rear exploded. He received third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body and spent three-and-half-months in a drug-induced coma. In the course of over 70 surgeries, doctors had to amputate his right hand and his left fingers. Basic physical tasks became a challenge. Villarreal says he felt like a “baby,” relearning how to live. Yet another struggle: people’s constant staring at his burns. In time, Villarreal learned to cope, and today he advises other veterans through their recovery process as part of the Wounded Warrior Project. He also tries to help civilians understand the wounded veterans among them. “I want to give insight to civilians that these warriors are out there,” he says. “Ask us and we’ll tell you our story. We’re so much more than something to stare at.”
Incredible as it is, the perseverance shown by veterans like Anthony Villarreal cannot obscure the grim fact that, for many wounded warriors, adjusting to post-war life remains a trying ordeal. Studies conducted over the past ten years have shown that almost 20 percent – one in five returning war veterans – report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Flashbacks, haunting memories, recurring nightmares – these debilitating wounds they carry in addition to their severe physical injuries.
Finding work – a crucial part of rejoining civilian life – presents yet another challenge. In October, the rate of unemployment for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan was 12.1 percent, compared to 9 percent for the country as a whole. This economic picture for veterans is dark enough, but many wounded veterans say their physical disabilities present a further obstacle. Surveys show that those seriously injured while serving are less likely than other veterans to be employed full time and are more likely to be unemployed. A November Pew poll found that nearly 28 percent of wounded veterans say their disability has prevented them from getting a job. Of those wounded veterans who are currently not working, almost half say their impairment is preventing them from getting a job.
If there is a bright spot, it is that help exists. Countless civic organizations have emerged since 2001 to honor the troops and to assist them as they work to resume everyday life. National non-profit organizations like the Jacksonville, Florida-based Wounded Warrior Project, which collected the above stories, have done extensive work helping wounded veterans adjust to society. Besides offering wounded veterans a social outlet, the Project offers a number of different services, including rehabilitation, stress counseling, and career retraining. Another non-profit, Homes for Our Troops, works to assist severely injured servicemen and their families by raising money, building materials, and professional labor to build them homes that are adapted to their disabilities and that go well beyond what is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. A similar non-profit, Operation Finally Home, recently helped the abovementioned Marine Corporal Anthony Villarreal and his wife Jessica, also a veteran, to get a new mortgage-free and fully furnished home.
Commendable as they are, such support efforts are woefully insufficient. While transitioning from the battlefield to the home-front remains the veterans’ enduring challenge, Americans’ great task is to show themselves equal to the sacrifice that these men and women have made for their country, and to pay proper homage to the heroism for which many of them paid so dearly.
That task begins with recognizing the indomitable spirit and the heroic character of these wounded warriors. Amid all the discouraging statistics concerning the challenges wounded veterans face, there is one that is not mentioned nearly enough. The same November Pew poll that showed their unemployment struggles found that almost 70 percent of the seriously injured veterans surveyed would advise a young man or woman to enlist in the military. Despite everything they have lost, they continue to believe in the honor of national service and they take pride in defending their country. In an age when those who make the most noise attract the most attention, they may not command newspaper headlines. But there can be no greater tribute to American greatness than the exceptional caliber of the warriors it produces, and who gave so much on the wars’ frontlines.
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