December 20, 2004

The Endless Wounds of War, and a Remarkable Story of Hope

[At the conclusion of one of the earlier essays referred to below, I wrote:
When the mechanisms of denial become deeply engrained mental habits and patterns of behavior, they will encompass the enemy -- or those "lesser" people we say we are "liberating" -- and finally the members of our own military.

These are some of the additional ways in which the denial continues -- and the horrors go on.

And the corpses pile up.
The fact that stories like that of Alan Babin receive so little attention from those who support our current foreign policy is additional proof of the mechanisms of denial that I discuss in "The Roots of Horror" series.]

Two articles today speak to one of the most revealing symptoms of the depths of the denial that permeates our culture generally, and the attitude of many Americans toward the war in Iraq in particular. In several essays from my series on "The Roots of Horror," I discussed the widespread denial of the death, destruction and suffering endured by Iraq civilians. That is deplorable and unforgivable, but not altogether surprising in view of the remarkable insularity of most Americans: pain suffered by others might be more real to them if it were covered regularly in our media, especially on television. But of course, it isn't for the most part.

What is truly extraordinary is the extent to which many Americans deny the pain and suffering endured by those Americans who are actually fighting the war that the hawks and their supporters lobbied for endlessly. That the Americans who engage in this particular form of denial include Bush and many of those in the administration is much worse than deplorable; it is profoundly contemptible, and it reveals the extent to which the actual lives of individual human beings have almost no significance at all to them.

Bob Herbert discusses this in his current column, which you should read in its entirety. Some excerpts:
Greg Rund was a freshman at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 when two students shot and killed a teacher, a dozen of their fellow students and themselves. Mr. Rund survived that horror, but he wasn't able to survive the war in Iraq. The 21-year-old Marine lance corporal was killed on Dec. 11 in Falluja.

The people who were so anxious to launch the war in Iraq are a lot less enthusiastic about properly supporting the troops who are actually fighting, suffering and dying in it. Corporal Rund was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Because of severe military personnel shortages, large numbers of troops are serving multiple tours in the war zone, and many are having their military enlistments involuntarily extended.


We don't have enough troops because we are fighting the war on the cheap. The Bush administration has refused to substantially expand the volunteer military and there is no public support for a draft. So the same troops head in and out of Iraq, and then back in again, as if through a revolving door. That naturally heightens their chances of being killed or wounded.

A reckoning is coming. The Army National Guard revealed last Thursday that it had missed its recruiting goals for the past two months by 30 percent. Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, who heads the National Guard Bureau, said: "We're in a more difficult recruiting environment, period. There's no question that when you have a sustained ground combat operation going that the Guard's participating in, that makes recruiting more difficult."

Just a few days earlier, the chief of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. James Helmly, told The Dallas Morning News that recruiting was in a "precipitous decline" that, if not reversed, could lead to renewed discussions about reinstatement of the draft.


As the war in Iraq goes more and more poorly, the misery index of the men and women serving there gets higher and higher. More than 1,300 have been killed. Many thousands are coming home with agonizing wounds. Scott Shane of The Times reported last week that according to veterans' advocates and military doctors, the already hard-pressed system of health care for veterans "is facing a potential deluge of tens of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq with serious mental health problems brought on by the stress and carnage of war."

Through the end of September, nearly 900 troops had been evacuated from Iraq by the Army for psychiatric reasons, included attempts or threatened attempts at suicide. Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, an assistant secretary of defense for health affairs from 1994 to 1997, said, "I have a very strong sense that the mental health consequences are going to be the medical story of this war."
To appreciate how devastating the wounds suffered by our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan can be and how that suffering expands to include many additional people, you should read all of this article in The Washington Post. It's very difficult going but, as I have sometimes said before, attention must be paid to these issues.

The Post story tells the story of the very young Alan Babin:
Pfc. Alan Babin, like everyone else in his 41-man 82nd Airborne Division platoon, had spent the early morning hours of March 31, 2003, crouching beside an abandoned cement factory in Samawah, Iraq, watching the accruing light of day slowly sketch details of the landscape: shallow drainage ditches flanking a road, a clearing of sparse marsh grass, a bridge spanning the Euphrates River. On the other side of the river, minarets rose above the flat tops of boxy buildings. The soldiers had been forewarned that an Iraqi paramilitary group hiding among those buildings might be ready to fight. Shortly after the call to prayer blared from a mosque's loudspeaker, the tight rattle of AK-47 fire confirmed the prediction.

Alan was the platoon's lone medic, and he stayed near the center of the formation to run to anyone who might need him and his rucksack of medical supplies. Officers shouted into their radios, instructing infantrymen to adjust position in response to the sporadic influx of bullets, grenades and mortars. Pfc. Joe Heit, lying prone in a small clearing of grass, heard someone say that an enemy vehicle was approaching, and he rose to his knees to look.

Another call crackled through radio headsets: "Heit is hit!"

A bullet had shattered Heit's glasses, nicked the soft skin at the corner of his eye socket, punctured the cartilage of his ear and exited the back of his helmet. He was dazed and a little bloodied, but otherwise fine.

Alan had no way of knowing the injury was minor. ...

Alan ran about 15 feet across the clearing toward Heit before he himself was hit. The bullet cored him, blowing a hole in his gut roughly the size and shape of a football. It grazed his liver, caught the spleen, destroyed 90 percent of his stomach, nipped the pancreas and bored numerous holes in the coils of his small intestine. He spun on his heels and fell onto the seat of his pants, his legs stretched straight out in front of him. His back was propped against his rucksack, and his helmet slipped over his eyes. To some of the other soldiers catching a glimpse of him there, he appeared as a figure in casual repose, a catnapper with a dark stain spreading under his shirt.
In a series of events which is close to miraculous given his injuries and also a testament to the great advances in medical technology, Babin survived. But the ordeal he and his family have been through was agonizing, and it continues to be, every single day:
Of the more than 3,500 U.S. military casualties from Iraq treated at Walter Reed, none has spent more time there than Alan. In seven months, he underwent more than 70 surgeries that related to his still-gaping abdomen, his tracheotomy, the drainage shunt that ran from his brain down his neck and felt like a stiff vein to the touch. He fell under the spell of aggressive infections from a fugitive strain of bacteria that kept skipping from one bodily system to another. The burns on his arms and legs required a series of skin grafts. His compromised immune system opened the door to meningitis and a stroke.

The doctors in the surgical intensive care unit kept saying they hoped for reconstructive abdominal surgery and a full recovery -- walking, talking, eating. Then they'd add it was too early for definite answers.
It should also be noted that, in addition to the horrific physical and emotional costs, the financial demands imposed on families like Alan Babin's are incomprehensibly enormous. In the Babins' case, those expenses were offset in an amazing manner by the generosity of their friends and neighbors:
On this day, several of the friends waiting with Al Sr. at the Air Force base were the same ones who had spurred a fundraising effort that helped Al and Christy afford to travel to and from Washington on his policeman's salary. The town held carwashes and golf tournaments, appealing to Round Rock's patriotic instinct to help a kid everyone was calling a local hero. The regional home builders' association went so far as to build an addition onto the Babins' house -- a customized, wheelchair-accessible downstairs bedroom and bathroom that Alan could use as he gained the strength to walk on his own. They furnished it with a flat-screen TV and a SurroundSound stereo system. Not only did they install hardwood flooring in that room, but they extended it throughout the rest of the ground floor. When Al Sr. called Rosie in Washington to tell her about that surprise, his voice was choked with tears.
Even some very well-known people involved themselves in Alan's story:
People all over central Texas had heard about Alan through periodic local news reports and word of mouth, which spread mostly through the civic organizations such as the Lions Club, which Rosie had been deeply involved in before Alan's injury. In March, Rosie found herself on the phone with a familiar male voice: high-pitched, with a Texas twang that seemed to come straight from the nose.

"This is Ross Perot . . ." He had gotten the Babins' number through someone in the Texas governor's office who'd heard about Alan, and within days had arranged for Alan to see his doctors for a new CAT scan and MRIs. He then surprised the Babins with a customized van: a 2004 Ford Econoline with 57-inch raised side doors and a wheelchair lift. Soon, they negotiated a deal with the rehab center that let them take Alan home on weekends to try out the new bedroom that had been added onto the side of the house. Al Sr. would sleep outside the bedroom door on an inflatable mattress, so he'd be close in case anything went wrong. He and Rosie sometimes likened their lives to those of the parents of a newborn.

"It's not that bad," Al Sr. said after he had rolled off the mattress one morning.

He put a pot of coffee on in the kitchen before getting Alan ready for the day -- a body wash, a clean shave, a change of clothes. Things had settled into a routine. The scans performed by the doctors provided by Perot reconfirmed that the ventricles that carry cerebrospinal fluid in the brain were swollen, but the swelling didn't appear as significant as had been feared, and its effect on Alan's brain was unclear. The scans didn't rule out brain damage, but by the summer Alan was dispelling the worst of the family's fears on his own.

By early September, Alan was responding in his physical therapy sessions more quickly and was able to lift his fingers more easily on command, even though the effort still wiped him out. His lips, if he concentrated, began to form words, and he was almost to the point where he could push enough air through his throat to vocalize -- but not quite. Very slowly, he was becoming himself again.
I urge you to read the entire article -- and marvel at the ability of people of incredible strength and determination to withstand the most unimaginable suffering, and still survive. I doubt you will be able to read the Babins' story without at least a few tears coming to your eyes; I certainly couldn't.

And then wonder about the studied refusal of our leaders and of many hawks ever to discuss, or even to note, stories like this one. I could offer my own judgment of such people, but it would hardly be polite. Besides, I am certain you can draw the appropriate conclusions yourself -- as I am sure you will.

So read it. It would seem to be the very least we can do -- those of us who can walk, and talk, and pursue our dreams without requiring others to bathe us every day, and without needing others to be able to do...anything at all.

In the end, and despite all the suffering he has endured, the story of Alan Babin and his family is one of hope, and a testament to the ability of people to endure and struggle for more life, even when most people would have given up long ago. And such a story seems particularly appropriate for this time of year.