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Colorado Springs Independent July 28-August 3, 2005

Paying the price

As soldiers are buried, America tunes out

By Michael de Yoanna

Thunder rumbles over Fort Carson as Pamela Knott weeps inside the Army base's chapel. Minutes later, she tells television and newspaper reporters that the pouring rain soothed her during the memorial service for her son, Pfc. Joseph Knott, who was killed by a remote-controlled explosive device while on patrol in Iraq. Journalists hover, adjusting cameras and scrawling in notebooks, asking the same questions and getting the same sorrowful responses, again and again and again. With the war unofficially entering its 29th month -- though President George W. Bush was seen under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" more than 26 months ago -- almost 1,780 American troops have been killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Of those, 121 have been memorialized on the base in southeastern Colorado Springs. The Knotts, whose son was memorialized with three other soldiers on May 24, say Joseph's death is part of the big price Americans must pay to bring freedom to a people oppressed by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Pamela Knott says her son helped make the United States safer. Not everyone feels this way. A June Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans think the war isn't worthwhile. It's the lowest level of support since the war's start in March 2003. In another poll, 52 percent of respondents said they believe the world has become less secure because of the war, which Bush maintains is a major and inexorable component of the nation's broader fight against terrorism. Embedded deep in such polls is an indefinable malaise, where Americans somehow have become numb to the great human suffering taking place in Iraq, says Robert Schulzinger, professor of history and director of international affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I'm only speculating, but I wonder if people are not talking much about the war out of some kind of embarrassment for thinking they were wrong," he says. "They're now changing their minds. They're now thinking it wasn't worth it. They're now discouraged."

Perceptions of war

In the past, soldier memorials were limited to foreign battlefields and bases. In Vietnam, they came to include a downturned rifle and a helmet balanced on the rifle's end. The tradition began on the battlefield, as a tribute from one soldier to another.

Today, one might see a similar display in a formal service at a U.S. base such as Fort Carson. Holding a domestic memorial represents a change for the Army, one made when the bodies started coming back from Iraq. "The change is basically on the basis of compassion for the families," says Fort Carson chaplain Col. James Ellison. "The families are here and they are concerned. The other families, whose husbands are deployed, they're concerned and they're grieving, too ... Other posts are doing somewhat the same." John Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., nonprofit that tracks the military, says the ceremonies also help shape perceptions about the war in an era when the military is extremely media-savvy. "I think everybody understands we did not lose Vietnam in Vietnam. We lost it in America," Pike says, alluding to the loss of public support. Devastating photographs of tearful mothers clutching their sons' dog tags, trumpets playing taps and troops lining up to pay their respects -- these are the images the public is given, and they cement a perception that the nation must stay the course, Pike says. The sense is that ultimate sacrifices shouldn't be in vain, and winning the war is the best way to ensure they won't be. Stunned, grieving family members rarely talk about controversial aspects of the war. Lt. Justin Journeay, a press officer for Fort Carson, remembers just one situation where a father told the press he didn't approve of his son's choice of a career in the military. Karen Fallahi, a counselor with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Colorado Springs, says family members, coming to grips with their loss, may feel they are in a whirlwind from the moment they get the news of the death to the time the Army transports them to the service. "What do you expect a family to do?" she asks. "They just lost someone. They may feel numb for a long time."

Paul Rieckhoff, who led a combat platoon in Baghdad in early 2004 and now heads Operation Truth, a New York City-based soldiers' advocacy group, says he feels for families. He blames the press for telling the same story over and over again. He says people need to hear more about the unseen and unforeseen costs of the war.

"The human costs of this war have largely been hidden," he says. "People are becoming desensitized to a large extent." For the troops, war is hell -- a hell often unseen by the American public, he adds.

The hell of war One of the most difficult decisions newspaper editors face when deciding how to present war coverage is whether to publish graphic photographs of soldiers injured or killed on the battlefield. Rieckhoff understands editors don't necessarily want to publish gory images, but says they are instrumental in telling the stories of the soldiers who lose their lives nearly every day on Iraq's dangerous streets. "Those images help show people what's really going on," he says. The Los Angeles Times recently tracked six large U.S. newspapers, including itself, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and two magazines, Newsweek and Time, to determine how often graphic photographs were published. The newspaper found that during a six-month period when 599 Americans and Western allies lost their lives, only the Seattle Times printed a single photo of an American who had been killed in action.

The photo was that of Army Spc. Travis Babbitt.

Babbitt's mother, Kathy Hernandez, of Uvalde, Texas, is disappointed the photo ran prior to her son's funeral, but nonetheless told the LA Times she appreciated the point of printing such images. "I do think it's an important thing for people to see what goes on over there," she says. "It throws reality more in your face. And sometimes we can't help reality." Rieckhoff also says there are too few stories about injured troops or soldiers suffering with stress disorders or other psychological problems after they return. He points to a study by The New England Journal of Medicine, which last year reported that troops who had been to Iraq had 15 to 17 percent higher rates of major depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder than troops who had not been to the war zone. When Rieckhoff's "guys" returned, they were still fighting the war, in the forms of depression, divorce, suicide, alcohol abuse and combat stress. "When you come home, you don't just put away the uniform and everything's all right," he says, noting the continuing battle for benefits and quality medical care. According to the Pentagon, more than 6,550 soldiers have been wounded in action and have been unable to return to the front lines. Another 7,000 have been wounded but able to return to duty within 72 hours.

Lies and miscalculations

Back in April 2003, a Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans supported invading Iraq.

Little more than two years later, only 42 percent of Americans say the war is worth it. If the polls can be trusted, support obviously has waned, says Schulzinger. Spc. Brian Wozny, a Bradley tank driver who remembered his friend, Sgt. Jacob Simpson, at a June 21 memorial at Fort Carson, appears shocked and seems to take it personally, when asked about such popular opinion polls. "It's their opinion," says Wozny, who also served in Iraq. "If they don't want to like the war, it's cool with me -- as long as they have that right to choose." The war isn't really the hectic fighting often portrayed in news reports, he adds. "Bullets aren't flying every five minutes -- things aren't blowing up on you every two seconds. It's like this," he says, referencing the tranquility outside the chapel following the memorial for his friend. "And when it happens, it happens out of nowhere and it's done in five minutes or less." Wozny maintains the United States is winning the war, that Iraq slowly is becoming safer. Still, some leading lawmakers are calling for a pullout. Among them is Congressman Walter Jones, R-N.C. , the same man who led the charge to rename french fries "freedom fries" in the month the war began.

The failure to locate weapons of mass destruction and the leak of Britain's Downing Street memo, which alleges that intelligence was fixed to rally support for going to war in Iraq, were among developments that led 122 members of Congress to gather in the basement of the Capitol in mid-June to ask Bush to explain his actions.

"We are here because many of us find it unacceptable for any administration, be it Democratic or Republican, to put our troops in harm's way based on false information," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in a statement. "The fact that our intelligence turned out to be flawed in no way absolves those who would intentionally mislead our nation or its allies." Bush didn't specifically address the points raised by these members of Congress, but continues to defend the rationale that led the nation to war. Schulzinger says tremors like these shake up American support for the war. "There's this cumulative evidence about the misstatements, the lies, the miscalculations before the war," he says. "Now there's a sense that Bush doesn't know what he's doing and can't solve the problem. We just had an election, so now there's not an alternative."

25,000 Iraqis dead George Esper, a 44-year veteran of the Associated Press who spent 10 years covering the Vietnam War, bemoans the many stories going untold, especially those about how the war has affected the people of Iraq. "The big story I don't think is being told is civilian casualties," he says. "The U.S. has covered those up. How many civilians have died there?"

Exasperated by the Bush administration's reluctance to produce the number of Iraqi civilians who have perished since the war began, a British research group formed Iraq Body Count. Earlier this month, the group released a report concluding that an estimated 25,000 Iraqis lost their lives between March 2003 and March 2005.

About 5,000 of the dead were women and children. And roughly 42,500 Iraqi civilians have been injured in the same period, according to the group. Meanwhile, in the United States the popular media has presented in excruciating detail stories such as the Michael Jackson molestation trial and the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba. The focus, Schulzinger says, seems like a good starting point for a sociological study. Perhaps, he says, people don't connect to the war in personal ways that transcend the predictable platitudes of their ideology simply because they don't know anybody who is serving. Maybe they haven't had to consider the option themselves, he adds. "I think the most obvious difference between the Iraq war and the Vietnam War is that there is not now a draft," Schulzinger says. "So for people who do not have loved ones in the military -- in Iraq -- they don't talk about it. They try to put it out of their minds because things are not going well. It's not a personal matter for them." Fort Carson Chaplain Ellison sees it like this: "We live in blissful peace here because of the sacrifice and dedication of our soldiers." For Chuck Goldberg, the loss of his son, David J. Goldberg, is deeply personal. The 20-year-old died in the war in December 2003, only days after getting married. He was memorialized the following month at Fort Carson.

A neighbor near Goldberg's home in Layton, Utah, keeps a daily tally of the troops that are killed.

Some think the display is unpatriotic, Goldberg says. But he doesn't.

"The last time I went by there, it's at 1,703-something," he says. "My first thought was, 'What will it be like when it reaches 2,000?'"


Copyright 2005, Colorado Springs Independent