Here is a rough draft of a speech I gave on Sunday, June 25 at the Army-Air National Guard Surgeons Conference in the Twin Cities.
Congratulations. You survived Iraq.
There must be something wrong with you.
You laugh, but it’s part of an anti-war, anti-U.S., anti-military message that the media is sending to our men and women in uniform every day. It’s a message that’s been trumpeted on the front pages of our daily newspapers and led the evening newscasts since just after the Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York. The U.S. is bad; we must have done something to provoke this; you’d do the same thing if you were simply a devout follower of Islam trying to live a pure life in a world polluted by MTV, Xbox and McDonalds.
Of course, if your worldview goes beyond the myopic 24-hour news cycle by which these reporters, editors and newscasters live, then you know Sept. 11 was just the latest salvo in a global campaign of bloody, unmitigated terrorism that’s been waged by fundamentalist barbarians for at least 30 years. The Achille Lauro, Khobar Towers, Mogadishu, the African embassies, the USS Cole are just a few of the names that will be recited in American History 101 in 100 years, the way Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, Bastonge and Normandy are today.
But as you prepared to go into the latest battle in this truly global war of terror, the message was clear:
Saddam was no threat to us.
Iraq was not a safe-have for terrorists.
There were no weapons of mass destruction.
Bush is a cowboy.
This war was planned before he was even elected.
Dick Cheney’s behind it, just to boost his Halliburton stock.
But we support our troops.
Once the invasion began, you were told that this would be no “mop-up operation” like the first Gulf War.
We were up against the “elite” Republican Guard, part of the fourth-largest Army in the world.
These were crack troops, battle-hardened by the eight-year war against Iran (never mind that that was 20 years ago and some of them had been killed in a chemical gas attack that Saddam knew would kill some of his own troops).
U.S. bodies will litter a new “Highway of Death.” The media, paraphrasing Col. Troutman in “Rambo,” warned us: “Be sure and bring plenty of body bags.”
But we support our troops.
Once you entered Baghdad, you were told that it would be another Mogadishu. In fact, I think some HOPED it would be another Mogadishu.
As images of the Saddam statue being toppled were broadcast around the world by CNN, FoxNews and MSNBC, you were told that you would not be welcomed as liberators. These people beating the statue with their sandals, a sign of disrespect in Arab culture, were just a small faction of the population. The vast majority of Iraqis hated your guts. Yes, you’ve taken Baghdad, but now try to hold it.
But we support our troops.
Once you secured Baghdad, the media seemed to relish almost every car bombing, beheading and market attack, leaving the safety of the Green Zone just long enough to get their pictures and an incriminating quote from a bereaved loved one wracked by grief. Lost on most of them was that fact that they could return to the safety of the Green Zone only because of the presence and professionalism of U.S. troops.
Rarely did the news accounts look beyond the manipulative power of emotional grief and raw carnage to mention the body count of innocent Iraqi civilians that had been killed, a number that’s in the TENS OF THOUSANDS and dwarfs the number of U.S. casualties. But stop the average American on the street and they could probably tell you within a 100 or so how many Americans had been killed in Iraq. Forget that today, three years later, we still haven’t lost as many people in Iraq and Afghanistan as were lost on Sept. 11.
As you rebuilt the country that was mostly destroyed or neglected by Saddam during a 30-year terror campaign and only partially by your efforts to unseat one of the most brutal dictators since Hitler, you were told that you weren’t doing enough. Yes, there were days when the lights were on less frequently and the water ran a little slower in Baghdad than when Saddam’s secret police ran the place. What the media fails to report is that you’re building infrastructure in parts of the country that never had it. Saddam channeled all of his power, all of his water, all of his infrastructure to Baghdad, so that when U.N. inspectors came in to scold him for his 19th violation of the 1991 peace accord, they could have air conditioning and hot running water in their hotel and report that, indeed, all was well in Baghdad. Never mind that the rest of the country was, under Saddam, in the dark, starving and dying of thirst.
But we support our troops.
Of course, just when you thought the media coverage couldn’t get any worse, it did. The greatest disservice – the greatest insult – to our troops during this war has been the way in which the media has blindly – and vigorously – embraced the allegations to come out of Haditha. Seven Marines and a Navy Corpsman have been accused of murdering innocent civilians. Rather than wait for the outcome of the fair trial that these men clearly deserve, the media and some of our politicians have already convicted them in the court of public opinion. Adding insult to injury, the media and their allies at the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and other left-leaning groups have failed to accord to these soldiers the very human and constitutional rights that they’ve demanded for our enemies. Blast Madonna or Eminem into the cells at Guantanamo and there are cries of abuse. Behead two of our soldiers or blow up a market full of people innocently shopping for their dinner and the response is “What did you expect? We invaded a country that never posed a threat to us.”
For three years, the media had screamed “Why can’t we get Zarqowi? Where is he? One man in a mud hut is making a fool of the world’s last great super power.”
When we finally killed him, thanks to a coordinated intelligence-gathering effort between U.S. and Iraqi troops, the same Iraqi troops that are portrayed as incompetent, the response from the talking heads was a ho-hum “So what? You think this ends it (No one ever said you did). His death will just fill the ranks of the jihadists.”
But they support our troops.
I think you get my point. Moreover, many of you have seen all of this first hand. Many of you have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, come back, read the newspapers, watched the newscasts, read the blogs and scratched your head and said, “That’s not what I saw.” Unfortunately, that’s what’s presented to the vast majority of Americans – and, indeed, the world. But you and I know the real story.
Yes, Iraq is a place that’s incredibly dangerous. It is Ground Zero – an appropriate term – for a small but very smart faction of fundamentalist fanatics whose sole goals is to do great harm to us, our allies and the people of Iraq in the most barbaric ways possible. All to further a 9th-century agenda that seems not to bother the 21st-century progressives in the media.
All of this is a daily fact of life in Iraq. But as you know, for all the human carnage and destruction, there are wonderful things going on in Iraq.
Yes, the enemy is inflicting horrific casualties on our troops and the civilian population. But thanks to a revolution in combat medicine that has gone largely unreported in the media, soldiers who just five years ago would have been killed are coming home and going on to lead prosperous lives. Some are even returning to active duty. Let me read to you from an article, “Second Chances at Life,” that I wrote for the February edition of The American Spectator:
“Soldiers are walking on prostheses that wouldn't have lived before," said Lieutenant Colonel Clark Searle, an Army orthopedic surgeon who served in Iraq in 2003 with the 86th and 21st Combat Support Hospitals. "People are keeping limbs that ten years ago they would have lost."One reason is that the U.S. military has started giving basic first-aid instruction to as many soldiers as possible -- not just medics and corpsmen -- through a program called Combat Lifesavers. "We've made great strides in teaching a lot of soldiers first-aid skills," said Lieutenant Colonel Mike Place, deputy commander at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He was a division surgeon with the 101st Airborne in Iraq in 2003 and 2004."That training is one of the reasons why more soldiers are surviving after being wounded," he said.Indeed, bleeding is the number one preventable cause of death in combat. If your buddy next to you knows what to do if you're hit, your chances of survival go way up. As a result, combat medicine used to refer to "the golden hour" to describe the all-important initial care that a soldier receives after being wounded. Today, thanks to Combat Lifesavers and some of the new medical technology, the talk is about "the platinum five minutes.""A major arterial bleed will cause you to die within five minutes," said Major Lisa Maxwell, a general surgeon who deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the 86th Combat Support Hospital. "What we're trying to do is focus more on point-of-injury care to stop the initial bleeding, and then use transportation to get them to a hospital."
Another advancement in combat medicine is a bandage made of chitosan, a biodegradable carbohydrate found in shrimp and lobster shells that bonds with blood cells and helps form a clot. There's another new bandage that contains fibrinogen and thrombin, clotting proteins that can reduce blood loss by up to 85 percent."Both products have been highly effective and there are many reports from the field where they have been able to stop bleeding that normal bandages have not been able to control," according to Army literature.
And we’re using this great medical technology to save the lives of Iraqis as well as our own soldiers.
"The military medical facilities take care of three groups," Colonel Place said. "Coalition forces, Iraqi civilians, and Iraqi detainees."
It is U.S. policy that Iraqi civilians stay in U.S. military hospitals until they're ready to be released or can be transferred to an Iraqi civilian hospital that can adequately care for them. Afghanistan is much the same way."Coalition hospitals are often all that's available," Colonel Place said. Indeed, many of the doctors who served in Iraq or Afghanistan said that upwards of half the patients in U.S. hospitals were civilians.
In addition to treating Iraqi civilian trauma patients, the U.S. and its allies have also set up local medical clinics where Iraqis can go to get treatment for everyday maladies."We've set up literally hundreds of public health clinics over there," Colonel Searle said. "It's a great story."
Not only do our soldiers and Iraqi civilians get cutting-edge trauma treatment when they first come into U.S. medical facilities, they also receive great long-term care. "Once we developed a fixed facility, we had ICUs, some very high-tech ventilators that saved a lot of lives, and we had intensive care physicians on the ground," Major Maxwell said. "Once we get past the golden hour, we have personnel to make sure they survive the next 24 hours. "To have an ICU in a Third World country is amazing," she said.
Of course, little of this is reported in the media, even after this outstanding emergency care network saved the life of a CBS News correspondent. The focus of most news reports on wounded soldiers is on the tragedy, not the triumph.
The same is true for reports on the very important work many of you are doing here at home, helping the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who may not have been physically wounded, but carry emotional scars from their tour of duty. In short, you’re doing an incredible job of taking care of our troops once they come home. That is the primary focus of this conference and you’ve already heard first hand from people like Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Keith Huff, Chaplain Morris and General Shellito about the incredible success of “Reintegration: Beyond Reunion,” the first-of-its-kind program that has been put in place for our returning National Guard troops. The program is such a resounding success that other states – as well as the Department of Defense – are looking to copy it. It’s truly one of the most positive things to come out of this war and something that everyone involved should be proud of.
Of course, that’s not the story that’s being told in the media. I wasn’t joking at the opening of this presentation. The focus and attitude of the media can basically be summed up in two sentences. “You’ve survived. What’s wrong with you?”
This statement reveals the pathology that drives the media coverage of Iraq. This was a misguided, unjust, poorly executed war run by a cowboy administration that’s being fought by a bunch of misguided, illiterate 19 year olds who couldn’t find anything better in the disastrous Bush economy. Again, like media reports on the advances in combat medicine, the focus is mostly on the negative, not the positive. You’re all just ticking time bombs, broken human beings hiding behind a steely façade that’s cracking. You’re all just waiting to explode. And it’s inevitable that you will, in some way or other. But you and I know that the true story is much different. There is much to celebrate here.
The Minnesota program is comprehensive. It brings together the diverse fields of mental health, spirituality, psychology, job placement and training, family counseling, and education to offer a truly broad array of support services for our returning troops. Thanks to Sgt. Huff, Chaplain Morris and countless unnamed others, the program is helping families and communities across the state.
Andy Davis, a former Army Ranger, is literally transforming the state’s college campuses. The St. Peter native came home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – including a 13-day firefight in Haditha in which three of his buddies were killed by a pregnant woman who was packed with explosives. He came home to the University of Minnesota to find not just a student body but an administration that was openly hostile to veterans. Through his tireless efforts, he shamed the university into giving space for a Veteran’s Transition Center that has literally changed the college experience for our returning vets. He has also helped a very supportive Gov. Tim Pawlenty craft legislation that is helping vets make the transition from combat to campus. Instead of feeling isolated and ostracized, vets now have a place – and a family – that makes them feel welcome. Davis also convinced the Veteran’s Administration to regularly send caseworkers to campus to help vets process their educational benefits claims, something that previously had resulted in high drop out rates among our returning vets.
How much of this has been reported by the Twin Cities media? Very little. Again, it goes against their widespread and long-held view that the war produces nothing but human suffering and misery. Nothing good could possibly come out of it. To admit as much would be to challenge their entire world view of the military and the people who are dumb enough to put on the uniform.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is the success of “Reintegration: Beyond Reunion” going beyond state boundaries, it is reaching across generational boundaries, as well.
If the media has gotten one thing right in the past 30 years it is that Vietnam Vets are the true black mark on this country’s military record, but not for the false, hyperbolic reasons that the media – especially Hollywood – has perpetuated for the past 30 years. These soldiers were literally abandoned by this country. We deserted them, plain and simple, and left them to struggle with physical and emotional scars that most of us can’t imagine. As a nation, we should truly be ashamed.
But thanks to “Reintegration: Beyond Reunion,” we are reaching out to them, and in a small way making up for our past transgressions. In April, as part of my Pioneer Press column series, “The Home Front,” I wrote about Mike Clark, a St. Cloud native who spent a year in the Mekong Delta.
“There was no thanks, no respect," said the 59-year-old former Army medic who served nine months in Vietnam. "Nobody wanted to understand the experiences that we went through."Indeed, many Vietnam veterans came home to a country that was not just against the war, but also against them."I saw demonstrations with people carrying signs that said 'Ho Chi Minh will win,' " said Clark, whose legs were mangled by a grenade. "For Americans to be cheering on the enemy we were fighting and who were killing and wounding members of my platoon and other Americans was astounding."And sometimes hard to process."Every Vietnam vet felt the enormous social pressure," Clark said. "We were in a supposedly worthless war."Once the war was over, it didn't let up. Vietnam vets became a stereotype on television and in movies."They always had a Vietnam vet who was the psychotic villain of the week," he said.Clark spent the next 25 years as a public schoolteacher, but, like Maj. Gen. Shellito, quietly vowed, "Never again."Indeed, the two Vietnam vets have never met, but their shared experience speaks to the breadth and depth of "Reintegration: Beyond Reunion," the Minnesota Guard's program for returning Iraq vets. It is not only helping returning vets today, but also helping Vietnam vets like Clark and Shellito, who have been trying to come to peace with their war and themselves for more than 30 years."The experience was life-altering," Clark said of Vietnam specifically and combat in general. "It marks you; it makes you feel different than your peers."While their war ended 30 years ago, in many ways it never ended for some vets."I still suffer from my physical wounds as well as the invisible wounds that are called PTSD" (post-traumatic stress disorder), Clark said.But thanks to public awareness of the Guard program, some vets are opening age-old emotional wounds and re-examining how they dealt with their post-combat stress."PTSD doesn't mean you're crazy," said Clark, echoing the most important message the Guard is sending to its combat vets today. "It's just the trauma of the events you've experienced."
That is indeed a message that the Guard is sending to our returning troops today. I hope they’re listening, because it’s the most important message of the program. Anxiety, feelings of loss, disorientation, feeling like you don’t fit in. These things are all normal for someone who has experienced combat, something that is by all means not normal. I truly hope that message is being heard – and understood – in the community. Because the last thing we want to do is abandon another generation of Mike Clarks.
So let me close with this: You’re not crazy. The mission you’re doing is noble. You’re doing it with pride and professionalism in some of the most challenging conditions soldiers have ever faced. And, regardless of what the media says, you’re winning.
You may not be widely revered as heroes today, but I have no doubt that you will be fairly judged by history. But if you ever doubt that what you’ve done is honorable and just, I’d tell you to heed another piece of advice repeated often in Minnesota’s reintegration program. Call your bunker buddy. Call the person who watched your back for a year. The one you trusted with your life like no other. The one with whom you built a bond that, in many ways, is stronger than the one you have with your spouse or your children. Call them and ask if you did the right thing. Ask if you truly made a difference. I doubt you’ll even have to ask the question. Just hearing them say “hello” will be enough.