American Soldiers Returning From Iraq Are Heroes and Victims

Charleston City Paper | January 4, 2005
Editor’s Note: The Air Force Reserve airlift wing based at the Charleston Air Force Base, the 315th, invited Charleston City Paper Assistant Editor Bill Davis to spend a week in Germany visiting U.S. troops involved in the second Iraq War and get a feeling for what reservists go through in times of war. What follows is his first in a series of stories.

FRANKFURT, GERMANY -- A moment comes when everything you might have felt about the second Iraq War, or President Bush’s “reasons” for starting it, melts away.

And that moment comes precisely when a Marine, big as a house, emerges from a medical bus parked on the Ramstein Air Base flight line and hobbles to a waiting C-141 Starlifter that will carry him and his broken body back to the States for more medical attention.

His back is broad, his arm juts out from his side, held in the air by a brace. He wears sandy brown fatigues and has his blood type printed on his sleeve. To keep him warm on the coldest day in two weeks, some Army hospital staffer has slung a thin, unzipped warm-up jacket over his massive shoulders.

A cold front has moved in quickly, and the wind has frozen the morning dew to metal signs, planes, grass. One officer jokes that “Schwarzenegger would be cold in this.”

The big Marine is not a man accustomed to using a cane to get around, as he gingerly takes step after step into the open back deck of a plane, stuffed nearly full with suffering soldiers.

The injured Marine’s comrades are also wearing anything they could get their hands on to shield them from the biting cold. Some don forest green camouflage flak jackets in a vain attempt to keep warm. It’s 22 degrees Fahrenheit with increasing winds and falling snow.

If there’s a headwind, the Marine’s flight back to North America could take more than 10 hours on the cramped, cushionless C-141. Ten hours trapped in a dark, oxygen-poor, windowless, dirty plane, with injured men hanging from the ceiling in stretchers 18 inches below the guy on top of them.

“All in all, a pretty benign mission,” says Maj. Lamar E. Knudsen, an activated Lowcountry Air Force reservist who makes sure the guys are loaded onto the plane. Back home, he runs a contract nursing business.

Knudsen says it’s a “good” day for the boys being carried onto the plane on litters, as well as for the “ambulatory” patients able to make it under their own steam. “They’re going home.”

“Home” usually means Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, around the corner from Walter Reed Medical Center, or it could mean the military’s advanced burn unit at a San Antonio-area military facility.

The 100 days Knudsen’s been deployed have obviously changed how he defines words like “benign” and “good.” One of the soldiers has been shot in the chest. As he is carried into the plane, the tube snaking out from his chest, where it’s draining off fluid, is clearly visible. A stubborn gunshot hole in his chest won’t close.


“Yeah, for what we see here it is,” he says. “We’ve seen some really, really sick people here.” No one on this trip is on a ventilator. No one is being loaded into a miniature intensive care unit. No critical care teams are clambering aboard. “This flight is the exception to the rule,” he says, wearing only a thin flight suit, inured to the cold.

The really sick ones are loaded last. “Last on, first off,” explains Knudsen.

One of the wounded on the flight this day is classified as a “special person,” accompanied by a black-bereted escort. A member of the fueling crew says it could be a ranking U.S. officer, or maybe a pro-American Iraqi official. There’s no telling at 200 feet, the distance to which the press has been relegated as the special person is loaded.

Lt. Wayne Capps, a public affairs officer from the 315th, an Air Force Reserve wing based at the Charleston Air Force Base, orders cameras down and no filming in order to keep the person’s identity a secret.

Knudsen can’t wait for the day when the C-141 is retired from medical evacuation service. He says the belly of the plane is a “hostile environment” for its injured cargo. Knudsen thinks the C-17 is a better med-evac plane. Comparatively well-lit, the C-17 Globemaster III, second only in the Air Force to the massive C-5 in size, can accommodate two semis parked side by side and has insides that could have inspired the lair in the Alien movies. Everything is exposed: cooling coils, a miasma of wires, and the grey insulation pads keeping most of the cold out at 33,000 feet up and 350 miles per hour.

Behind a contingent of Charleston-area journalists making a recent trip over to Germany sits some of the Humvee armor Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld promised the troops in a town hall meeting the night before. Like the cold metal floor, or the flop-down jump seats lining the sides of the aircraft, the pallets of Kevlar offer little purchase for sleeping.

Last April, a C-17 was used to bring back the burned and charred bodies of the three security contractors who had been dragged through the streets of Fallujah and hung from the supports of a bridge spanning the Euphrates River. Their bodies were packed in ice in standard-sized coffins and laid out down the middle of the plane where anyone of the passengers taking a “hop” — including some children on their way home — could see.

When asked if he finds it ironic that the military uses the $250 million flying warehouse to ferry guns, bombs, and weapons down range to Iraq but uses aged planes like the C-141 to transport injured warriors, Knudsen declines comment.

Soldiers hit in Fallujah or Afghanistan, or as the military calls it, “down range in the AOR — Area of Responsibility,” receive medical attention in the field, then travel by chopper or Humvee to a field hospital, then arrive at an airstrip from where they are flown to Germany where they are simply stabilized at the nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center before being returned to the States.

Maj. Bob Ruminiski, the chief aeromedical evacuation nurse at Ramstein, says there was a “spike” in wounded following the second Fallujah assault by coalition forces in early November.

These days, he says, the med-evac teams are more likely to see blast wounds than bullet wounds. Iraqi insurgents, hopelessly outclassed in armament, have resorted to using “IEDs” — improvised explosive devices — dropped into or exploded alongside U.S. trucks, Humvees, and caravans.

Body armor does a good job protecting the major organs of soldiers taking part in OEF and OIF — Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, respectively. But that leaves soldiers’ legs, arms, and necks exposed.

Ruminiski says a lot of attention is given to stopping the men's bleeding and pain. Because of the sheer numbers of wounded, the severity of their wounds, and the availability of medical expertise stateside, Landstuhl's mission is kept pretty simple.

At the full-service hospital that serves all of the U.S. bases and posts west of China, Iraq battle wounds generally are left open and rewrapped as needed. Debris is taken out of their wounds on a regular basis.

That doesn’t feel good, but morphine is not in short supply. Injured soldiers able to walk, or turn the wheels of their wheelchairs, traverse the halls. Bones broken, skin pierced, they maintain military custom and call you “sir” as they roll and walk by.

It’s probably the morphine that’s affecting Joe Smith this day, an Army cook who once boxed professionally as “Indian” Joe Smith and wore a feathered headdress when entering the ring. Shuffling down a scentless hall at Landstuhl, there’s a plastic bag of Red Baron microwavable pizzas in his right hand and a cane in his left.

A hospital administrator chastises the Greenville native for carrying so much weight so soon after spinal surgery. Smith’s not sure when exactly surgeons cut his back open, but it was last week sometime.

Injured in Afghanistan by locals mishandling some kitchen equipment, Smith is hoping for a medical discharge from active duty. His eyes look dilated as he promises the same administrator to return to his bed.

Unlike Smith’s mottled pupils, Lance Cpl. Jason Lueck’s eyes are clear but tired when you meet him minutes before U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) presents the Marine with an American flag that flew over the nation’s Capitol Building.

At 20, Lueck, a native of Princeton, Minn., has done more living than most men twice his age. Back in October of 2003, Lueck told his hometown paper that he wasn’t eager to return to Iraq, not because of the war raging there, but because of the heat and the stench of rotting garbage in the streets.

He can now add bullets — four of them — to his heat and garbage list.

Redeployed to Iraq for the previous six weeks with the Marines’ 1st Division, Lueck was part of an assault unit that went door-to-door in Fallujah, sweeping homes for insurgents.

Despite being in a hospital bed, the knuckles and fingernails of both his hands are still encrusted with the dusty dirt of the second deadliest city in Iraq. A hospital spokesperson says it’s near impossible to give some of these kids showers because of their open wounds .

Lueck recounts his brutal experience. “Real briefly, we were clearing houses in Fallujah and there was a team of Marines I was a part of that went into to clear a house,” says Lueck while morphine drips into one arm and exposed metal rods hold his other in place. “We walked up to the front door to clear the building when all of a sudden we started taking fire, firing out at us from inside.”

“I got hit in the arm, the arm I hold my weapon with, so my weapon dropped and I was kind of useless.” When Lueck says he was “kind of useless,” you can tell it eats at him, like he felt completely useless, unable to help his buddies in the fire-fight.

Running outside, he took cover. “But then they started throwing grenades at us, so I had to get up and run for cover further away.”

“I knew immediately I’d been hit. I didn’t know exactly by what, but I was sure it was small arms fire, like an AK-47.”

“I’ve got a fractured wrist and elbow. I was shot four times; once in the wrist, two in the forearm and elbow, and one grazing wound to the shoulder that barely hit me — it was like getting a piece of rock thrown at you that just splits your skin.”

He declines comment when asked how many others from his unit didn’t make it back that night.

Lueck has been able to speak with his worried family and calm them. While part of him would like to be back fighting with his buddies, he’ll decide whether or not to return to Iraq once he heals and after he discusses it with his wife of six months.

Lueck tells the television camera stuffed into the tight room that he’s grateful for the outpouring of support from home. “It’s not taken for granted, I can tell you.”

Some of that support is found on handmade signs inside a gate at Ramstein Air Base where troops returning from R&R in the States wait to board a plane headed down range.

One sign, hanging a good 15 feet from the ceiling, has the ubiquitous slogan “The Power of Pride” printed at its top; scrawled below are messages exhorting the troops, like “We got Him,” “Here’s 1 Canadian that’s proud of the U.S.A.!” and “We love you and your courage to stand tall.”

The several hundred men look noticeably grim, as they anticipate returning to battle. Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD for short, don’t begin to manifest for at least two weeks — the exact amount of time these guys have been on leave. So these soldiers, with big, red 1’s and Old Ironsides patches on their shoulders, may be in acute mental distress.

But not one of them says a word when invited to speak with Sgt. Robert Monzon, a mental health specialist from Oxnard, Calif.

A noncommissioned officer in charge of a nearby mental health clinic, Monzon, 30, says there’s still a stigma in the armed forces for seeking out psychiatric help in a war zone. “Sometimes, they won’t get help until their post commander says, ‘You need help.’ Job performance drops and alcohol abuse increases, they get in fights.”

“You can tell the guys who come in from down range that are still in that mindset. They don’t say what they’re feeling, but it’s very stressful back home where they have to slow down and deal with everyday things like a wife or a job or just being with their kids. They easily can get feelings of being overwhelmed.”

It’s tough on the psyche, says Joey Marcus, a 42-year-old chief warrant officer on his second deployment. The Greenville resident is the officer in charge of a quick reaction force that responds to everything from a sniper firing on a supply caravan to distributing food to Iraqi children.

When Marcus is out on patrol in Tallil, where he is presently deployed, villagers who greeted him warmly one week will distance themselves the next, sometimes a sure sign that insurgents have come to town and intimidated the locals into steering clear of U.S.-led coalition forces.

In Vietnam, not knowing exactly who the enemy was took a toll on U.S. soldiers. Part of the collateral damage from that war was the surge in this country’s homeless population as returning vets found it difficult to readjust to civilian life.

Several soldiers interviewed for this story worry that the federal government is considering wholesale cuts to Veterans Administration hospitals’ mental health programs, especially due to the brutal aspect of this war’s door-to-door urban guerrilla warfare.

“Haven’t we learned anything (since Vietnam)?” asks one officer who chose not to be identified.

Apparently America has.

Even protesters back in America are making dual calls for ending the war and supporting the troops. To everyone back home, these men fighting in the streets of the Middle East are heroes; but many think they are victims, too.

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