Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 18,000 military personnel have passed through the hospital from what staff refer to as “down range”: Iraq and Afghanistan. Of those, nearly 16,000 have come from Iraq.
Last month, 23 percent of those were casualties from combat, slightly higher than most months; the rest had either accidental or disease-related complaints.
Thirteen have died at the hospital.
Each day, an average of 30 to 35 patients arrive on flights from Iraq. The most on a single day was 168.
More than 200 personnel have come in with either lost eyes or eye injuries that could result in sight loss or blindness.
About 160 soldiers have had limbs amputated, most of them passing through the hospital on their way home to more surgery.
And it’s not just their bodies that come in needing fixing. More than 1,400 physically fit personnel have been admitted with mental health problems.
Then there are the Pentagon’s figures that touch on all casualties from the war in Iraq: 1,042 dead; 7,413 injured in action, including 4,026 whose injuries have prevented them from returning to duty. In Afghanistan, there have been 366 injuries and 138 deaths.
A month ago, [70 -year-old surgeon Col. Earl] Hecker took four days off to fly home to see his family. He needed a break. They went out for dinner at a nice restaurant. Hecker realized during dinner that he was suddenly seeing the world differently. He looked around at the chattering people, eating their fine food, drinking good wine and he thought to himself: “They have no idea what’s going on here. Absolutely none.”
He doesn’t think people want to see it. He thinks the nation is still scarred by Vietnam and would prefer not to see the thousands of injured young men coming home from Iraq.
“I just want people to understand — war is bad, life is difficult,” he said.
Maybe it was the stress, maybe it’s because Hecker has no military career to mess up by speaking out of line, but it just came out: “George Bush is an idiot,” he said, quickly saying he regretted the comment. But then he continued, criticizing Bush as a rich kid who hasn’t seen enough of the world. “He’s very rich, you’d think he’d get some education,” Hecker said.
“He’s my president. I’ll follow him in what he wants to do,” he continued, “but I’m here for him.” Hecker leaned forward and pointed through the glass at the unconscious soldier fighting for his life 2 yards away.
“It’s not right,” said Maj. Cathy Martin, 40, head nurse of the ICU, when asked how she felt seeing so many soldiers pass through her unit. She paused. “It’s just not right.”
She declined to elaborate on what exactly she meant. Comments such as Hecker’s about the president can lead to severe consequences for those with careers ahead of them. But Martin did add: “People need to vote for the right people to be in office and they need to be empowered to influence change.”
[Cheryl Daniels, wife of wounded soldier Army Sgt. 1st Class Larry Daniels,] supported the war and voted for Bush. Now, she says, she wants to pull the troops out of Iraq. “I will vote for Kerry. Not because I prefer Kerry over Bush but because I don’t want Bush back in office.”
Her 12-year-old son has been saying he wants to go to West Point. Her 8-year-old daughter wants to be a military veterinarian. She’s stopped encouraging those ambitions.
Speaking alone, without her husband, she said she knew that the Army wasn’t going to like what she had to say. Like Hecker, she hasn’t got much to lose by speaking her mind, which she did, calmly and thoughtfully.
“I don’t feel we have any business being there,” she said Friday. “I think this is an area of the world that has been fighting for thousands of years, and I don’t think our presence will change anything. If anything, we’ve given them a common target to focus on. Rather than fight each other, they’re fighting us. I don’t see why my husband has to lose two soldiers or question why he’s here or see his other guys that are hurt. The minute we pull out, things will go back to the culture that is established.
She doesn’t feel that her country, her military, is giving her enough support. She had to pay her own way to Germany and her own way back. The Army was doing almost nothing for her, she said.
“I feel like we’ve paid our dues,” she said. “And I’m done.”