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Combat veterans wounded in Iraq were left waiting weeks and even months for proper medical attention at military bases. According to an officer, their living conditions were so unacceptable for injured soldiers he said they "were being treated like dogs." Then the Pentagon underreported the number wounded.
The Bush administration, referring to veterans of the war in Iraq, told a House panel that they would avoid last year's "mistakes" of leaving sick and injured troops at U.S. bases to wait for months to be properly treated by doctors. Adding insult to injury, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. James B. Peake told the House panel that he "was not aware" that last fall soldiers were waiting for medical care at U.S. bases and under substandard living conditions.
Wounded "treated like dogs"
Mark Benjamin's investigative report on Oct. 20, 2003 for UPI, revealed that many wounded veterans from Iraq had to wait "weeks and months at places such as the Fort Stewart military base in Georgia, for proper medical help." They had been kept in living conditions that are "unacceptable for sick and injured soldiers." One officer characterized conditions for the wounded by saying, "They're being treated like dogs."
In January, 2004 Benjamin reported that the largest American troop rotation is now underway. Daniel Denning, assistant secretary of the Army, testified to the House Total Force Subcommittee, "We recognize that last fall, we temporarily lost sight of the situation. It is likely that during this period of force rotations, patient loads at some installations may exceed local capacity. The Army has developed a series of options to handle this surge."
Subcommittee chairman John McHugh, R-N.Y. said, "In October of last year a series of articles revealed that many mobilized Reserve and National Guard soldiers in a medical holdover status felt the Army was not treating them as equals to their active component counterparts. The articles described substandard living conditions at two Army posts in particular -- Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Knox, Ky. Many of the ill and injured soldiers interviewed at these posts reported having to wait for long periods of time -- sometimes weeks or months -- before receiving the medical care they needed."
More than 1,000 National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers at Fort Stewart and Fort Knox, including hundreds who had served in Iraq, had waited weeks or months in "medical hold" to be seen by doctors. At Fort Stewart in Georgia, they waited in hot concrete barracks with no air-conditioning or running water.
Sgt. Craig Allen LaChance, a soldier who was on medical hold at Fort Stewart, told the panel that it "took months to get appointments" with specialists while sick and injured soldiers waited in what he said were substandard barracks. "We lived in deplorable conditions," LaChance said. "We were made to feel like we had failed the Army."
Col. Keith Armstrong, garrison commander at Fort Knox, told the congressional committee "we were stretched pretty thin" last fall. Fort Stewart Garrison Commander Col. John M. Kidd said, "We recognized that we had some difficulty here. We recognized that we had a problem with medical hold." Both commanders said they had asked for help from the Army and both described it as slow in coming.
How many wounded?
Combat deaths were accurately reported, but according to an article in July, 2003 by Editor & Publisher Online and later in October by National Public Radio, the numbers of wounded, in and out of battle, were being underreported. The news media had accepted that the military high command kept the number of wounded from the American public. "There could be some inattention to [the number of injured troops]," answered Philip Bennett, assistant managing editor of the foreign desk at the Washington Post when questioned by E & P Online.
As American casualties increased during the summer of 2003, US military officials suppressed discussion of the total number wounded. Only by July 10, 2003, nearly four months after the invasion of Iraq had been launched, did CNN report that for "the first time since the start of the war in Iraq, Pentagon officials have released the number of US troops wounded from the beginning of the war through Wednesday [July 9, 2003]."
However, Seth Porges wrote in Editor & Publisher (10/23/03) that coverage of injured and wounded U.S. soldiers gets very little media attention.
"For months, the press has barely mentioned non-fatal casualties or the severity of their wounds," writes Porges. "Few newspapers routinely report injuries in Iraq, beyond references to specific incidents. Since the war began in March, 1,927 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq, many quite severely."
But newspapers neglected to report or keep a tally on the wounded, as an informal survey of some top papers has shown. This comes on the heels of reports that attacks on American troops in Iraq had increased in recent weeks from an average of 15 to 20 attacks per day to about 20 to 25 attacks a day, with a peak at about 35 attacks in one day, according to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.
Julian Borger, writing in the British Guardian last August, cited the comments of Lieut. Col. Allen DeLane, in charge of airlifting injured GIs into Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.
According to Bolger, DeLane, who had already seen thousands of wounded flown in, told National Public Radio, in regard to the sharp increase in the number of US wounded last autumn, "the official number of combat wounded alone averaged nearly 100 a week between mid-September and mid-November (lunaville.org)." This made the resistance of the military to giving out accurate figures increasingly suspicious.
As the US media began to request injury figures, the Pentagon put up as much resistance as it could. In September, 2003, the Washington Post noted, "Although Central Command keeps a running total of the wounded, it releases the number only when asked" making the combat injuries of US troops in Iraq one of the untold stories in the war.
Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had complained in September 2003 that he was unable to find out how many US soldiers had been wounded in Iraq because the administration refused to release this information.
Higher Survival Rates
Because of the higher survival rate of injured soldiers compared with previous wars, information about the seriously wounded is essential to any accurate assessment of the success of the war in Iraq.
But Lawrence F. Kaplan wrote in the October 13 New Republic: "Pentagon officials have rebuked public affairs officers who release casualty figures, and, until recently, US Central Command did not regularly publicize the injured total either."
Kaplan's report cited the condition of many injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, pointing out that modern medicine and rapid response techniques allow many wounded soldiers to survive injuries that would otherwise have killed them in previous wars. Kevlar body armor also reduced deaths. Still, many of these wounded soldiers are left with debilitating injury or loss of limbs.
Kaplan wrote: "The near-invisibility of the wounded has several sources. The media has always treated combat deaths as the most reliable measure of battlefield progress, while for its part the administration has been reluctant to divulge the full number of wounded."
Last December, Congressman Gene Taylor (Dem.-Mississippi) complained that the Pentagon deliberately undercounted combat casualties. He cited the case of five members in the Mississippi National Guard who had been wounded in a booby-trap bomb explosion. Incredibly, their injuries were listed by the military as "non combat." The truth emerged only because Taylor spoke face to face with the most seriously injured of the five at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. Taylor sent a memo to the other members of Congress to "ask if anyone has had a similar incident."
On October 3rd UPI reported that 4,000 soldiers had been medically evacuated from Iraq for non-combat reasons. As for the tally of total deaths in Iraq, most of the media continue to cite only those killed in hostile action. The administration's numbers game of "combat" and "non combat" injuries, however, is far from the whole story. That still leaves out the thousands who have become physically or mentally ill in Iraq not resulting from bombs and bullets. Estimates of the real number of US servicemen and women evacuated for medical reasons from Iraq by the end of 2003 vary widely.
Last January 7, National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling reported on the difficulties in finding out the truth about US casualties in Iraq. He said few Americans are aware of the surprisingly large number of US wounded in Iraq. Questioning several dozen people on the street about the total number of American soldiers who had died in Iraq, he had found that most could answer correctly. But when the NPR reporter asked about the number of US military personnel that had been wounded, no one came close to the actual figure. The answers ranged from a few hundred to a thousand.
The actual estimates are between 11,000 and 22,000 for the number of US soldiers, sailors and Marines medically evacuated from Iraq by the end of 2003 because of battlefield wounds, illness or other battlefield reasons.
Trying to get more accurate casualty figures, Zwerdling said he contacted Sen. Chuck Hagel (Rep.-Nebraska), a Vietnam veteran and former deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. Hagel had tried to obtain the "total number of American battlefield casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq" from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The senator had also tried to find out: "What is the official Pentagon definition of wounded in action? What is the procedure for releasing this information in a timely way to the public and the criteria for awarding a Purple Heart [awarded to those wounded in combat or posthumously to the next of kin of those killed or those who die of wounds received in action]?"
Hagel had been seeking an accurate, updated count on the number of Purple Hearts and the dates they were awarded to US military personnel in Iraq. That number is significant because it is an official record of the total number of battlefield casualties. After six weeks, the reply Hagel received was, "the Department of Defense does not have the requested information."
Stars and Stripes (November 5, 2003 European edition) noted that the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany had "treated more than 7,000 injured and ill service members from Iraq." But at the same time, the military had recorded some 2,000 combat casualties. This discrepancy is 3.5-times (350%) between the number of wounded in combat listed by the military and the number of service personnel medically evacuated from Iraq for treatment in Germany!
The Landstuhl facility, located near the huge US air base at Ramstein Germany, reported on January 23, 2004 that the total US medical evacuations from Iraq to Germany by the end of 2003 was 9,433. The number of hostile and "non-hostile" wounded listed by the Army at that point was approximately 2,750. The under reporting of wounded continues.
Figures don't lie, but . . .
Clearly, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld don't really care about the US servicemen and women casualties from their war on Iraq. They rarely acknowledge it publicly.
But why did the Bush administration knock itself out to conceal the number of combat veterans injured in Iraq? Answer: To avoid the appearance of a Vietnam quagmire. The seemingly low, "acceptable" number for American loss of life in Iraq looks much better than Vietnam, but the injury figures are much worse. That's why.
The Bush administration claims an overwhelmingly popular support for its war on Iraq. But the political and media establishment can see that the public's opposition to the war is constantly growing. Like the sensation caused by recent revelations of Bush being AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard in 1972-73 during the Vietnam war, the tide of public opinion would further turn if the true picture entered the public mind of the war's real effects on American troops. But how can the "success" of Bush's war be measured?
Comparing the war in Iraq with that in Vietnam, the total number of combat troops in Vietnam was 550,000. As many as 155,000 of them were wounded while 10.7% were killed during 10 years. In Iraq, so far, the total number of combat troops total 150,000 and between 11,000 and 22,000 of them have been wounded during nine months. Thus 28.2% of combat troops were wounded in Vietnam while in Iraq "only" 0.3% died in combat, so far, and as many as 14.7% had been wounded in combat.
At first glance, Bush's war in Iraq seems to be much more "successful" than the war in Vietnam -- especially when the number of wounded are eliminated from the equation. The proportion of combat troops killed in Vietnam appears to be 35-times more than in Iraq. By contrast, the proportion of Vietnam wounded is only two-times that sustained in Iraq. That's getting pretty close.
A fairer comparison of casualties in the Vietnam war, lasting ten long years, and Iraq, now less than one year old, should include how long each of the two wars has lasted. While the war in Vietnam has been over for more than three decades, American soldiers in Iraq are still being killed and wounded on a daily basis. The casualty figures in Iraq are still rising -- and there's no end in sight.
Clearly, if Bush's war continues for another two to five years, according to most estimates, the casualty figures from the Vietnam debacle could make it look even more "successful" than Bush's war!
With the specter of the Vietnam quagmire hanging over them, Bush and Rumsfeld can only talk about a "successful" war by emphasizing the relatively low number of Americans killed in Iraq, and hiding the extraordinarily high number of wounded. But for those who had sacrificed their lives and limbs to preemptively protect the U.S. against Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Bush's war has been a complete failure.
Frederick Sweet is Professor of Reproductive Biology in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
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