The Untold Story of American Soldiers Wounded in Afghanistan
Journalist Ann Jones discusses her new book: “How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – The Untold Story”
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
On this Veterans Day, the day America honors those who have served, we speak with the author of a newly released book that documents the toll that war takes on American soldiers. They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars–The Untold Story is a harrowing firsthand account from the trenches and mountains of Afghanistan, the culmination of over a decade of reporting from the front lines of America’s longest war.
Now joining us is the book’s author, Ann Jones. She’s a journalist, photographer, the author of eight books, including Women Who Kill and Kabul in Winter.
Thank you so much for joining us, Ann.
ANN JONES, JOURNALIST, PHOTOGRAPHER, AUTHOR: Thank you for inviting me.
NOOR: So, Ann, the war in Afghanistan’s gone on for for over a decade now. It’s winding down. It’s sort of out of sight, out of mind for perhaps most Americans. Why did you choose to write this book now?
JONES: I had been in Afghanistan off and on since 2002, reporting from there and working with Afghan women. And over the course of time working with civilians there, I had to deal with people in the American military. And as the war went on and on and on and I realized how clueless the military really was about Afghanistan and what the country and the culture was all about, I became more and more interested in what the experience of being in that war must must be doing to the soldiers.
And when I went to a forward base to cover the formation of what the military called a female engagement team because of my longstanding interest in women, I was thrust into a whole battalion of soldiers. And I could see them kind of disintegrating on the spot, and many were killed and wounded while I was there. And that’s when I decided I needed to follow that story and find out what happened to them, because they just–they would go off in a medical evacuation helicopter and never be seen again on the base, and much later in the U.S. papers we would read these stories of soldiers who had made this miraculous recovery and were out skiing on their prosthetic legs, and it made it all sound so simple and like such a relatively small sacrifice to have made to be engaged in a thoroughly pointless war. And I was sure there was more to the story than that. And indeed there is.
NOOR: So, Ann, you open your book with a harrowing account of your experience being embedded with a medevac unit. Can you talk a little more about that and the little-known division of the military known as Mortuary Affairs? How and why are the dead being kept hidden from both the public as well as other soldiers?
JONES: Well, it’s very important, of course, to keep the dead from the other soldiers, who have to get up the next morning or the next night and go out and go through the same routines again that they were doing when their dead colleagues put a foot in the wrong place. So every unit or every squad has a Mortuary Affairs unit attached to it, every battalion. And that’s a group of usually very young people. Many of the soldiers assigned to work in Mortuary Affairs are kids right out of high school. And their job is to pick up the remains of the dead. And, of course, in Afghanistan, where we’re engaged in a war of explosive devices, many of the dead are no longer in one piece. Many are in multiple pieces. Many have been vaporized. It’s the responsibility of the Mortuary Affairs kids to go out there and gather up these fallen soldiers and try to put them back together, or at least get the pieces into the same box to be flag-draped and shipped home to the families. And the Mortuary Affairs people are also responsible for getting together the property of the dead soldier, sorting through that, packing that up nicely, and sending it back to mom and dad or to the wife at home. This is a very, very grim job, and also a very isolating one, because other soldiers who know what members of the unit do don’t want to have much of anything to do with them. And, in fact, as those who work in Mortuary Affairs will tell you themselves, they start to smell like the dead they work with. And nobody wants them around. The aftereffects on the members of these units are terrible–terrible.
NOOR: And you actually tracked what happens to soldiers after they get injured. It’s just the beginning of a much longer process. Can you describe what you saw in Afghanistan?
JONES: Well, the process of getting a wounded soldier from Afghanistan back to the United States is a series of medevac flights from one hospital to the next, each to a higher level of trauma care. And surgeries are performed on an ongoing basis. It’s called damage-control surgery. And this is applied to the most severely wounded soldiers, those who have lost limbs and been otherwise severely damaged. And they are taken from field stations, medevaced again in Afghanistan to Heathe Hospital at Bagram Airbase, the main base in Afghanistan. And at that hospital, the surgeries begin to try to clean up the wounds, prevent infection, stabilize the system of the wounded soldier sufficiently, so that he or she can be shipped on to the next level of care, which is at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, which is the largest American hospital outside the United States. And there the same processes continue, a continuing series of operations to clean and disinfect wounds, while at the same time saving as much of the soldier as they can, so that the doctors higher up the line have as much as possible to work with. One soldier is stabilized in Landstuhl, which could take from 24 hours to two or three days, the soldier is taken off on another medevac plane, always with a team of critical care doctors and nurses surrounding them, and delivered to Dover airbase in Dover, Delaware, and from there transported by ambulance to Walter Reed, which at the time I did this story in 2011 was still in Washington, D.C., but is now part of the larger facility at Bethesda. And some of those medical evacuation flights also go to Brooke army medical center in Texas. These final destinations are the highest level of trauma care that exists, and the processes still continue for months or years while a soldier becomes well enough to begin the process of rehabilitation. That’s a long process involving the fitting of prosthetic devices and the practice, the excruciatingly painful practice of the veterans in trying to learn to use the prosthetic devices that will be with them for the rest of their lives. And that can go on for a couple of years at the hospital, or longer in the case of many soldiers who have lost three or four limbs, triple or quadruple amputees, of whom there are many.
NOOR: So, Ann, we’re going to continue this discussion in part two. But before we end part one, you know, throughout your book and as you share your own experiences and the experiences of other soldiers, you write a compelling case to oppose war, especially the war in Afghanistan. But how do you respond to critics that say that these soldiers signed up for war, they knew what they were getting into, and that an active military in the United States is necessary to protect our freedoms? How would you respond to critics that make those type of arguments?
JONES: Well, first of all let me say that I don’t make a case against the war in my book. I am simply observing. I’m trying to be a witness to the scenes of what happens to these soldiers, because that has not been witnessed by Americans. We haven’t been allowed to see that.
But when you read the book, it comes out as a case against war, because nobody can bear for very long to look at the kinds of things that I’ve seen.
But as to the question of well, they signed up for it, many signed up for it because they come from a family history of soldiering. It’s the family occupation, and they feel obliged to carry it on. Others, of course, are, as we know from some of the poorest families and circumstances in the country, they’re kids who basically see very little other opportunity to change their future and to become–to fulfill ambitions that they have to be more than they can be in their own hometown.
And in any case, the military, the Pentagon, employs so many highly skilled public relations agencies to churn out the message of how wonderful and glorious it is to be a soldier and to make this heroic sacrifice for the nation that kids, from the time they’re very little kids, are playing with guns, are seeing the soldier stories, are aspiring to be soldiers. I have just heard from someone who’s going to–who has written me, a veteran of the Gulf War, whose kids, two boys, want to grow up to be soldiers. And no matter how much he tries to tell them that they shouldn’t do that, they don’t believe their dad. They believe the public relations. It’s everywhere in this country. And it’s a deceit. It is a real deceit. And the soldiers, no matter what they do when they enlist, do not get the full story from the recruiters by any means. So they drink the recruiters’ Kool-Aid, and it turns out to be a poisonous brew. And when they get into the field, they see that. But by that time there isn’t any way for them to get out of it. I give them a lot of credit for trying to make the best of what they’ve gotten into, but there are plenty of them who know that it was a big mistake.
NOOR: Ann Jones, thank you so much for joining us for the first part of this discussion.
JONES: Thank you.
NOOR: Go to TheRealNews.com for part two of this discussion. Thank you so much for joining us.
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