Published on Thursday, December 11, 2003 by the Boston Globe
The Soldiers Bush Didn't Visit on Thanksgiving
by Joan Vennochi
THANKSGIVING in Baghdad was a political success for President Bush, and more. Even if the turkey he hoisted was chosen strictly for its photogenic qualities, the event showed the president connecting in a human way with men and women, far from home, in a place where life is blown apart in a cruel instant. Watching those young faces reminded all Americans, Bush backers or not, that war puts the country's flesh and blood on the line, not just its national pride or presidential politics.
For all that it conveyed, however, the Bush Thanksgiving extravaganza showed only one tiny slice of the daily, ugly reality of war and its aftermath for thousands of US service personnel and those who care for them.
She does not want her name published. She is a nurse for the Department of the Army in Landstuhl, Germany, where casualties from the war in Iraq are treated at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. She respects the Army, and indeed, has a daughter in her third year at the US Military Academy at West Point. But the glowing reports she received from home about the Bush Thanksgiving in Baghdad prompted her to send, via e-mail from Germany, an account of her own holiday.
"My `Bush Thanksgiving' was a little different . . . I spent it at the hospital taking care of a young West Point lieutenant wounded in Iraq. He had stabilization of his injuries in Iraq and then two long surgeries here for multiple injuries; he's just now stable enough to send back to the USA. After a few bites of dinner I let him sleep, and then cried with him as he woke up from a nightmare. When he pressed his fists into his eyes and rocked his head back and forth he looked like a little boy. They all do, all 19 on the ward that day, some missing limbs, eyes, or worse.
"There are two more long wards just like this one. The ICU has been receiving soldiers for many months now, often unconscious young men on ventilators with wives and parents (our age) bending over the beds, stroking whatever part isn't bandaged, pinned, or burned. It requires a deep breath and strong heart anymore to walk through those swinging doors; I know the photo IDs outside the rooms will bear little resemblance to the men in the rooms.
"It's too bad Mr. Bush didn't add us to his holiday agenda. The men said the same, but you'll never read that in the paper. Mr. President would rather lift fake turkeys for photo ops, it seems. Maybe because my patients wouldn't make very pleasant photos . . . most don't look all that great, and the ones with facial wounds and external fixation devices look downright scary. And a heck of a lot of them can't talk, anyway, and some never will talk again. . . Well, this is probably more than you want to know, but there's no spin on this one. It's pure carnage . . . Like all wars, the "shock and awe" eventually trickles down to blood and death. But you won't see that. I do, every single day."
War is hell. That is not news. Young men and women die. Some lucky ones suffer dreadful injuries but survive. Proponents of this war say it is the cost of defending freedom, fighting terrorism, keeping power in our hands and out of our enemies'. Opponents believe the country was drawn into it by lies and misrepresentations and now stands alienated from the rest of the world with no clear way out. The arguments go around and around, on television, radio, and newspaper opinion pages.
As the country argues, Americans die, soldier by soldier; others are horribly injured, pool of blood by pool of blood. This nurse sees what we do not. She reminds us all, attention should be paid, from the top down, from the president to the people. It took physical courage for Bush to go to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day. It takes courage of another kind to look into the eyes of the soldiers described by this nurse, even more courage to look into the eyes of family members who have lost a loved one.
On Nov. 24, three days before his surprise trip to Baghdad, Bush met with families of fallen soldiers, spending, according to press accounts, close to two hours hugging and listening tearfully to survivors at Fort Carson, Colo. According to The Washington Post, it was Bush's third visit with families of fallen soldiers since the war began. He has met four times with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and has invited families and wounded soldiers to his weekly radio address.
How much of this is enough for the president of the United States? It depends whether the goal is public relations for a presidential campaign or public acknowledgment of the consequences of war -- the human consequences. They are convalescing in places like Landstuhl.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.