Soldiers recently returned from Iraq gave an unfiltered and unflattering assessment of the war's human toll as they detailed their war experiences to a crowd of Oakton Community College students and faculty Wednesday in Des Plaines.
One officer lost more than 38 pounds in the Iraqi desert when his unit ran low on food and water. Another was sent to the front lines without body armor. They witnessed soldiers blown to bits and mourned the loss of others who killed themselves when they returned home -- often excluded from the government's official body count.
And they've been frustrated with buddies who have had to wait months for medical services or for their claims to be decided by the Veterans Affairs Department.
'People are unaware'
"There's a tremendous human cost of this war, and America isn't prepared for it," said Paul Rieckhoff, a former Army infantry platoon leader from New York and founder of Operation Truth, a national soldier organization that is touring college campuses to present an alternative view of the war.
Rieckhoff criticized the military for not releasing the entire number of those killed or injured in Iraq, a figure he said is far greater than the 1,416 listed as killed and 10,622 listed as wounded by the Defense Department.
"It takes guys like us to embarrass [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld before things get changed," he said. "The military is being run into the ground, and the American people are unaware of what's really going on."
The group showed a documentary in which former soldiers from Iraq -- many of them amputees -- were angry about how the government treated them once they returned, complaining they were met with a "nightmare of paperwork" to get medical and disability benefits.
"Once you've served your purpose," one young soldier told the camera, "you're no longer of use to the U.S. government."
The soldiers' group is advocating legislation that would provide the VA with more funding and stop a proposed budget cut, give better counseling and treatment for the estimated thousands of troops returning with psychological problems and train and equip National Guard and reservists on par with their active duty counterparts. It also wants the military to end its stop-loss policy, which prevents many soldiers from leaving the military when their term ends.
'It's very scary'
"We need the support of the American people to do more than put a bumper sticker on their car," said Chris Lawrence of Chicago, who served in the Army for 12 years and received a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. He encouraged members of the audience to write their congressmen in support of pending legislation.
Several students said they were outraged by what they heard.
"How is it that soldiers can be fighting in Iraq with no body armor, and Bush is having a $40 million inauguration party?" one student asked the panel of soldiers.
The soldiers sidestepped political issues, insisting they were not anti-war but wanted to get the word out about the needs of soldiers and their families.
"We're not foreign policy experts. We're just soldiers," Rieckhoff said.
Freshman A. J. Lebeau, 19, of Park Ridge said the film and talk opened his mind.
"I was rather shocked," he said. "I had no idea all that -- the lack of supplies -- was going on over there. It's been kind of an enlightenment."
Another student, sophomore Colleen Morse, 20, called the soldiers' accounts "sad and appalling. Apparently we haven't learned from Vietnam. It's very scary."
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