Don’t Look Away

For Wounded Soldiers, the Battle Outlasts the War

With chilling matter-of-factness, Joshua Tuohy describes the explosion that took his right leg and killed three of his buddies. An infantryman in a Stryker unit, Tuohy, twenty-four, had been in Afghanistan just three and a half months that day in September 2009. The Stryker, an eight-wheeled armored combat vehicle equipped with machine guns and a grenade launcher, is difficult to maneuver through Afghanistan’s narrow mountain passes, a situation the Taliban exploits when planting IEDs.

“We were rolling toward a village in Zabul province when we hit a choke point, a kind of bottleneck,” Tuohy recalls. “I was in the first vehicle, in the airguard hatch, on the machine gun, half in and half out of the vehicle. The bomb went off right underneath me, direct impact. It split the chassis in half, filleted it like a tuna.” He laughs. “We hit a pressure plate. We didn’t even take contact. It’s a pretty unimpressive story in my opinion.”

Tuohy is sitting in my office at Georgetown University, where he is beginning coursework in the School of Continuing Studies. He is upbeat and optimistic. Pointing to his prosthesis, he tells me that he does not want it to define who he is. “I want people to see my ability, not my disability.” Things could have been worse, he says. “As injuries go, an amputation is kind of glamorous. It’s the face of the war, a sexy injury.”

Such individual courage notwithstanding, we as a nation are little prepared to face the horrors of battle. “Though we may feast our eyes on Hollywood’s depictions of violence,” Nancy Sherman writes in The Untold War, “we have a far lower tolerance for real war’s detritus.” And the current wars have produced enormous damage. According to the Department of Defense, 41,829 U.S. soldiers had been seriously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan as of December 20, 2010, with the most common injury being the loss of a leg. But while the media routinely report war fatalities, the huge numbers of wounded usually go unmentioned.

Advances in medical technology today save many seriously wounded soldiers who in earlier times would have died. Battlefield injuries that prove fatal have been reduced by 40 percent since Vietnam—but at an enormous price. According to U.S. Medicine, economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz estimate that lifetime care for the wounded of our current wars will cost taxpayers between $4 and $6 trillion. And the human cost is beyond reckoning: a cohort of many thousands of disabled veterans—young Americans whose recovery in many cases has been even harder than Joshua Tuohy’s. These soldiers, noted a New York Times editorial on January 2, “are bringing some of the anguish home with them.”

One particularly poignant example is thirty-one-year-old Marine corporal Michael Jernigan, who was on patrol near Baghdad in August 2004 when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. Jernigan, one of several veterans I interviewed for this article, suffered a shattered hand, the total loss of his sight, and perhaps most damaging of all, a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Injuries to the prefrontal cortex can trigger changes in personality and social behavior. Once home from Iraq, Jernigan sank into depression and started drinking heavily. “I became aggressive and angry,” he says. “I was socially inept, and relationships fell apart.”

Jernigan’s struggle to reorient himself in American life typifies the way in which wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are being assisted through new initiatives undertaken by a broad range of organizations. Jernigan’s recuperation was facilitated by an innovative program that uses theater to empower the disabled. After undergoing treatment at a rehabilitation center for the blind, he attended the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped, a nonprofit institution in Belfast, Maine, founded by Richard Curry, SJ. The workshop provides an isolated, safe, supportive environment in which disabled veterans can explore their own stories by writing and performing dramatic dialogues. Under Curry’s guidance, Jernigan learned more productive ways to express his anger, which helped boost his recovery. He is now studying history at the University of South Florida, where he gets around with the help of his guide dog, Brittani. To do his assignments, he uses audio books and a computer access program supplied by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although the new technology has opened up opportunities for him, Jernigan still struggles with the challenges of everyday living. In particular, he feels frustrated by his inability to perform tasks, such as driving, that used to be routine.

In addition to enemy fire and IEDs, soldiers in a war zone face occupational hazards like malfunctioning equipment. Jack Smith (a pseudonym required because he is still on active duty) is a twenty-three-year-old Army specialist who was injured when his parachute got damaged during a combat jump in Afghanistan. In addition to TBI, he suffered a dislocated shoulder and hip, and a broken collarbone, wrist, and ankle. His brain damage resulted in diplopia—a condition in which the eyes fail to line up properly, causing double vision and involuntary eye movement, and vestibular nerve damage, which results in vertigo. Smith had to relearn basic skills, such as walking, talking, and even swallowing. “It sounds crazy to say I had to practice drinking water, but that’s how it was,” he explains.

Magnifying the trauma of Smith’s injury was the loss of two of his best friends, who were killed while trying to protect his crumpled body from enemy capture. Their deaths plunged him into survivor guilt, a syndrome widespread among soldiers, who sometimes see their own survival as a betrayal of those who died, even when they are in no way responsible for the tragedy. Many, like Smith, become depressed and begin drinking.

Such heartrending stories of war’s damaged survivors reveal how intricately physical and psychological disability are intertwined. Body image is fundamental to our identity and our self-confidence, defining how we see ourselves and interact with others. In The Untold War, Nancy Sherman explains that after a serious injury, body image “has to be reconfigured, replaced with a new representation,” even as the injured person must learn “a host of new instrumental and technical skills required to make prosthetics and remaining limbs perform basic functions.” For soldiers accustomed to physically demanding military jobs, the sudden loss of physical prowess can lead to depression and other psychological illnesses.

For many of them, a return to sports proves fundamental to the healing process. Army Captain Nathan Wayne Waldon lost his leg when his vehicle hit an IED in Iraq on July 11, 2007. Though he regained mobility with the use of a prosthesis, he laments no longer being able to play tennis. For men like Waldon, sports are not just a pastime, but an important part of their recuperation. Nearly all the veterans I interviewed yearned to run, snowboard, play baseball, or swim. For them, playing sports is a way of recapturing their sense of self.

But their greatest concern is work. Without exception, the men I spoke with stressed the need for meaningful employment and the fear of being a burden to their families and society. Waldon, currently pursuing an MBA at Georgetown, works for General Dynamics Information Technology in the Army Solutions division, and is effusive in his praise for the company. “I have the opportunity to grow here,” he told me. “They look at my grad school as an investment, not as a waste of time and money, and I want to reward them for their faith in me.” Yet some are apprehensive about entering the workforce. Dillon Behr, thirty, was a staff sergeant in the elite Special Forces (Green Berets) when he was shot in the hip in northeastern Afghanistan. After being fitted for a prosthetic hip at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Behr finished his undergraduate degree and began graduate work at Georgetown. Though initially he had wanted to go back into the Army, he scrapped the plan out of concern that he would be an encumbrance to his men. But entering the workforce was daunting. “I was worried about transferring to a different environment, because all I’ve ever done is serve in the military,” he says.

Prompted by the physical and psychological challenges faced by these veterans, retired General Thomas S. Jones, USMC, founded a program for disabled Marines on the grounds of Outdoor Odyssey, a nonprofit camp for at-risk youth he set up a dozen years ago in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. To help wounded warriors make the transition into civilian life, Jones favors a holistic approach. The program’s outdoor setting helps stimulate physical activity and speed the recovery process, he explains, but the most significant component is the support of committed volunteers. For each weeklong session Jones brings in veterans who have achieved success in diverse fields to provide guidance and practical training, as well as local business professionals and professors from the University of Pittsburgh, who offer classes. Jones encourages attendees to make a “plan for life,” a strategy to reach long-term goals. Mentors continue to work with the men after they return home, helping them build a support base in their communities. Jones’s objective is to make disabled Marines realize that they have a great deal to offer and can, with effort, become highly marketable.

Wounded veterans sometimes resist help, Jones notes; the warrior stoicism that serves them well in battle can be an obstacle to recovery. “Men have long found it difficult to admit any issue that could be perceived as a weakness,” he says. His volunteers work hard to assure injured Marines that “it’s OK not to be OK.” Wounded veterans themselves corroborate Jones’s observations. Army Captain Robert Clayton Hinchman remarks that while the stoic outlook helped him get through his injuries, it also made him insensitive to the struggles of others. Hinchman and his team were searching for a terrorist training camp near Baghdad when a pressure-wire IED blew off his right leg above the knee and destroyed his eardrums. After numerous surgeries and extensive physical therapy, Hinchman forced himself to confront his new, altered appearance, standing undressed in front of the mirror and making himself look at his scarred and damaged body. “I had to remind myself, never act like a victim,” says Hinchman, a blunt, tough Texan and West Point graduate. “Being a leader, you have to show other people what right is.” Yet he realizes that this stoicism robbed him of compassion. At Walter Reed he met people who were unable to deal with their disabilities, who were overwhelmed by emotional problems. “One of the hardest things for me was accepting other people’s weaknesses,” he admits. “But now I understand that everybody heals differently.”

Hinchman and the others I interviewed believe that their injuries have made them better people—more considerate, perceptive, strong, and appreciative of what they have. Nearly all say they would join the military again. (“Of course I’d go back,” says Hinchman. “I love my country. I love who I am, what I represent, and the example I understand that I can be.”)

And all want to further their education. The VA Vocational Rehabilitation program guarantees full tuition to any soldier with a disability of 20 percent. But the application process can be bewildering. Heather Bernard, academic adviser in the military division of the American Council of Education, works at Walter Reed and Bethesda military hospitals to assist wounded veterans in applying to colleges, universities, or occupational training schools. She counsels them on benefits, acts as liaison with the VA, suggests educational options, and supports them through the application process. Bernard says that those she has counseled “have been, without exception, extraordinarily successful.” Military men and women are adventurous, creative, disciplined, and focused, she notes, and they contribute their experience to the learning communities they join.

Because they are older than the general student population, have been out of school for years, and are coping with disabilities, wounded veterans often have difficulty finding their niche in the academic environment. Some struggle to support families, studying while holding down full-time jobs. Blind veterans complain of a lack of materials in Braille; those with prostheses mention impediments to their mobility (stairs, cobblestone streets). Student Veterans of America (SVA), a national organization dedicated to helping veterans enter academic life, addresses these issues. Founded and staffed largely by student veterans, the SVA sends representatives to military hospitals to assist wounded veterans hoping to continue their studies. “We always try to look out for our own,” one member told me.

“Looking out for our own” is a leitmotif in these men’s stories. In fall 2009, Major Erik Brine, thirty-four, organized the Georgetown University chapter of the SVA in an effort to provide his fellow student veterans with information and fellowship. An Air Force pilot, Brine was on a mission to Afghanistan in 2005 when he developed a serious eye ailment. Repeatedly misdiagnosed by military doctors, the condition threatened his sight and eventually forced him to stop flying. Brine, who is married and has three children, currently works in the Office of the Undersecretary of the Air Force for International Affairs and pursues graduate studies at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. As president of the GUSVA, he uses his expertise to help disabled veterans navigate the VA benefits system. Brine urges employers to give wounded veterans a chance. “They’re versatile and flexible,” he says, “and they learn fast.”

The veterans I have mentioned are the relatively lucky ones; they are looking ahead toward the future. But Walter Reed is filled with others too damaged even to talk to me: double, triple, or even quadruple amputees; brain-injured soldiers suffering from countless neurological ailments; profoundly traumatized victims of PTSD. Overall, the picture for veterans is in many respects grim. The suicide rate among returning veterans is four times that of the general public. The unemployment rate for veterans is more than 11 percent. Veterans Helping Veterans Now reports that one out of every four homeless people is a veteran. Substance abuse is higher among veterans than in the rest of the population. So is divorce. Programs designed to help disabled soldiers and their families are often slow getting off the ground. The Washington Post reported on February 14, 2011, that nine months after President Barack Obama authorized an expansion of benefits for those caring for wounded veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to implement the plan, “leaving the families of wounded troops to wonder when the promised help will arrive.”

So what is the moral of this story? In his book The Things They Carried, a collection of fiction about Vietnam, Tim O’Brien remarks that a true war story is never moral and has no moral. I’m sure that opponents of the current wars will find arguments in the tales of harm and horror recounted here to bolster their position, while supporters will conclude that suffering and loss are the price we must pay for our freedom. But no matter what one’s viewpoint, it is essential that we not look away. The veterans I have interviewed say that many people do just that; they pretend not to see the young man struggling with his prosthesis on a cobblestone street or working his way laboriously up the stairs with a cane.

Certainly, the horror of war is not a new story. Authors since antiquity have lamented the grief suffered by soldiers and their loved ones. Sophocles’ Ajax depicts not only the ravages of war but also the toll war can take on the warrior’s psyche. Still, many Americans remain oblivious to the struggles of our returning troops. During the World Wars and Vietnam, large numbers of American families had loved ones in combat. But today’s wars have touched relatively few of us. According to the Census Bureau, only 9 percent of our population has served in the military, and less than 1 percent has fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. For the most part, neither we nor our leaders have firsthand experience of war: none of our three most recent presidents fought in an armed conflict, while in our last Congress, only seven senators and fourteen members of the House of Representatives were combat veterans, and very few of them have sent their own sons or daughters into battle. The same Congress, as the New York Times noted in January, rejected a bill to give the VA an additional $50 million to address homelessness among veterans. Right before Christmas, however, it did pass overwhelmingly the GI Bill 2.0, which, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, increases educational benefits for some 394,000 veterans and their families. (The Senate vote was unanimous; the House vote was 409 to 3.)

Precisely because so many of us are so removed from war, it is essential that we listen to our veterans, and especially to the wounded among them. Before we allow our policymakers to send our young men and women into battle, we must be sure they have a morally justifiable reason, and that both we and they are fully cognizant of the consequences. Only by facing the true human costs of war can we ever, in good conscience, dispatch our soldiers to fight.

Photo 1: Joshua Tuohy on patrol in Afghanistan

Photo 2: Tuohy being fitted for his prosthesis at Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Photo 3: Tuohy resting during a bike outing


Related: Boots, by Brian Doyle
Tours of Duty, by Barbara Mujica
Still Counting, by Ronald Osborn

Other resources: Student Veterans of America, Outdoor Odyssey Wounded Warrior Program, National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped

Published in the 2011-03-25 issue: 

Barbara Mujica, professor of Spanish at Georgetown University, is the author of Sister Teresa (2007) and Teresa de Ávila, Lettered Woman (2009), among many other books. She is faculty adviser of the Student Veterans of America chapter at Georgetown and associate facilitator of the GU Veterans Support Team.

Also by this author
Tours of Duty

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