Whitley and I just had one of the most profoundly moving experiences of our lives, one which was also a real privilege to be part of. It was also one of the most painful experiences we’ve ever had.
It made me remember that old folk tune “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier,” in which the singer laments, “Here I sit on Buttermilk Hill, Who can blame me cryin’ my fill, And ev’ry tear would turn a mill, Johnny has gone for a soldier.”
Whitley’s publisher, TOR books, arranged a book signing for injured American Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan at Brooks Medical Center (“Bam-Cee”) in San Antonio, Texas. Whitley signed over 700 books over a five hour period of time, mostly in the Intrepid Center, a rehab unit built with private funds, then given to the military to run.
TOR gave away hundreds of books to soldiers and the authors all sat at a long table and signed them, greeting and chatting with each soldier and personalizing their books for them. These were mostly men, the amputees in wheelchairs or walking tentatively along on artificial legs. I saw soldiers with one leg missing, two legs missing, a hand or arm missing. I also saw soldiers who had been hideously burned.
TOR was the perfect publisher to do this, because they publish a lot of what might be called “guy” books: thrillers, military action novels, westerns and science fiction. Since most hardcover book buyers are women, male-oriented fiction of this kind is hard to find.
Seeing all of this injured humanity struggling so bravely to continue their lives was an extremely emotional experience. The Intrepid Center is totally upbeat however (as it should be). There is no pity, only pride (referring to their patients as “Warriors” and “heroes,” which they truly are).
The very creation of this center is a heroic story, since the hundreds of thousands of dollars that went into building it and stocking it with state-of-the-art equipment was all privately funded. The guide told us that the radio personality Don Imus singlehandedly brought in $400,000. Since Imus has gotten in hot water for some of his remarks recently, it was yet another reminder to me that deeds count so much more than words.
But as I talked with some of these soldiers, a feeling of anger began welling up inside of me. Their injuries were all caused by IEDs (improvised explosive devices), ie. roadside bombs. In order to keep the war costs down and thus avoid taxpayer protest, Donald Rumsfeld refused to reinforce the floors of the Humvees used by these soldiers, with the resulting loss of limbs that I saw all around me. Then another song started going through my brain: the Australian song “And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda,'” sung by a soldier who comes home from war with no arms and no legs.
I began to reflect even more on the wasted lives I saw all around me. It has now been pretty well acknowledged by both sides that Saddam Hussein had NO weapons of mass destruction, although we know he did have some nasty nerve gas that he used again our soldiers in the first Gulf War (ironically, we know this because we sold it to him).
While there have been rumors that Saddam’s WMDs were hustled over the border into Syria, and some folks say that trying to create a democracy in Iraq is worthwhile (which was the original justification for the invasion, 911 was just the EXCUSE), other experts say that much of the Middle East sees the Iraq war as an invasion by the West against the East (even Christians against Muslims, in a replay of the Crusades), rather than a release from a nasty dictator. Many people who have studied the situation think it has actually inflamed anti-US feelings, especially since the invasion destroyed a lot of the Iraqi infrastructure, most of which has not yet been rebuilt.
All this adds up to one dark thought that keeps tapping me on the shoulder and just won’t leave me alone: these poor soldiers were maimed and had their futures seriously compromised for NOTHING except some unproven, pie-in-the- sky dogma from “experts” who couldn’t even be bothered to ask the REAL experts right here in the US who have studied the history of Iraq (and there are plenty of them) about what the consequences might be and thus knew NOTHING about the inevitability of the ensuing civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
While I am as glad (and most of the time just as proud) to be an American as anybody else, for some reason, none of the classic patriotic songs I know entered my head during the book signing. I just felt that it was an honor to be there, and I couldn’t think of any songs to express that.
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