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Friday, October 15, 2004

Soldiers Once ... And Young

By Tai Moses, AlterNet. Posted October 12, 2004.

Iraq combat veterans offer raw, compelling testimony to the horrors of war and the anguish of returning home.

After serving a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq last year, Marine Lance Corporal Jeff Lucey returned home to his relieved family with no injuries – or at least none that were visible. “When we didn’t see him tremendously traumatized when he returned, we thought, 'Oh, thank god,'” says his father, Kevin Lucey. “And then it exploded.”

For months the 23-year-old battled his wartime demons; nightmares, bouts of depression and anxiety, and crushing guilt – classic symptoms of acute post-traumatic stress.

“He told me he was a murderer,” says Jeff’s sister, Debra. “He said, 'Don’t you understand? Your brother’s a murderer.’”

On June 22, 2004, Jeff Lucey lost his battle. He hanged himself from a rafter in the cellar of his family home.

“He did something, or he saw something, that destroyed him,” ventures his mother, Joyce. “So that when he came back, he took his own life.”

The story of Jeff Lucey is the emotional centerpiece of Patricia Foulkrod’s short documentary, “The Ground Truth: The Human Cost of War,” a collection of interviews with Iraq combat veterans whose experiences have, up until now, remained largely invisible to the American public. Producer/director Foulkrod lets her subjects tell their stories without interruption or prompting, and the effect is nothing less than devastating.

Like most of the young vets in "Ground Truth," Rob Sarra went to Iraq trusting in the rightness of his mission. Today he is a tormented man, haunted by a memory.

Sarra’s unit had just been in a firefight when he saw an elderly burkha-clad woman carrying a bag on her arm walking toward a nearby armored vehicle. The soldiers raised their weapons and began yelling at her to stop. Sarra, a Marine sergeant, then made an instantaneous and fatal assumption: if the woman did not respond, she must be carrying a bomb.

She did not stop.

Sarra had a clear shot and he took it. As soon as he fired his second shot, his fellow soldiers opened fire and cut her down.

“She fell to the dirt and as she fell she had a white flag in her hand, that she had pulled out of her bag," says Sarra, staring past the camera into the distance. "At that moment right there I lost it, I threw my weapon down on the deck of the vehicle, I was crying, I was like, Oh my god what are we doing here."

Pressure Trap

One of the most treacherous aspects of battling the insurgency is that much of the combat takes place in the streets, intersections and marketplaces of urban neighborhoods – places that are often crowded with innocent Iraqi civilians.

“There are no clear enemy lines," says Steve Robinson, the film’s narrator and executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center. "The battlefield completely surrounds the soldier: it’s above you, it’s below you, it’s to the left, it’s to the right. It’s 360 degrees you don’t know where the enemy is. That is an incredible amount of pressure to operate under." Robinson believes that post-traumatic stress disorder will be this war’s most destructive legacy, just as Agent Orange afflicted Vietnam veterans for decades, and Gulf War Syndrome still sickens soldiers who served during the first Iraq war.

Having lost their son, the Luceys worry about what other veterans and military families may be going through. “We’re just wondering,” Kevin Lucey says, “to what extent are so many young men and women coming back [unable to] deal with the experience of being over there?”

Denver Jones, a specialist in the National Guard whose spine was shattered in a truck accident in Iraq, describes seeing a soldier drive over an Iraqi child who had walked into the roadway. “But the Army told us,” Jones says sadly, “if someone got in front of the truck, to run over them.”

U.S. Army Sergeant Terry Atchison confirms the directive: “If someone jumps out in front of your vehicle, regardless adult or child, then … just run ‘em over. When you value life, you don’t really want to do it. But then again, if you value your life enough, you’ll do it. It’s a very hard decision. I’m glad I never had to face that decision.”

“This war just emotionally destroyed me in a lot of ways,” says Marine Lance Corporal Michael Hoffman. “I just break down some nights knowing that I took part in something like this; that I took the lives of people. I see pictures of Iraqi children in hospital beds, and I can’t help but wonder – was it my unit that did this? Was I part of this?”

Yet the same military that trains these soldiers to be killers, gives them little support when they return bearing the scars of psychological wounds.

National Guardsman Paul Rieckhoff, who came home in February, kept hearing from guys in his unit who had suffered injuries over the course of a year of combat and were fighting to get adequate medical treatment, disability pay or benefits from the Army. So the fiery, articulate lieutenant founded Operation Truth, to help his fellow servicemen and to educate the public. Rieckhoff – who is still on active duty and could be sent back to Iraq – is appalled at the shoddy treatment that wounded veterans are receiving from their government, especially National Guardsmen and reservists.


“You come home and you have to deal with the nightmare that is the Army’s bureaucracy,” Rieckhoff says. “They’ve got to battle, bite, beg and steal to get taken care of or even to get looked at by the VA. And that’s just unconscionable.”

Blood Memories

At 18, Robert Acosta didn’t think his future in Santa Ana, Calif. looked too bright, so he was an easy mark for Army recruiters and their promises of excitement and adventure. After being deployed to Iraq, Acosta lost his hand and the use of his left leg when a grenade thrown into his vehicle exploded before he could toss it back out the window.

Acosta believes that the American public does not understand the enormity of this war’s toll. “People hear ‘injured’ … but they don’t realize that ‘injured’ is missing both his hands, or his legs, or whatever,” he says.

Double amputations, crushed spines, and severely disfiguring burns were some of the physical trauma Dr. Gene Bolles saw on a daily basis as the chief neurosurgeon at Landstuhl Hospital in Germany. The average age of the soldiers he treated was 19 and a half – just kids, he says, who put their lives on the line not for abstract concepts of patriotism, but for the powerful bonds of camaraderie.

“Kids don’t go to war and put themselves in danger for the good of the country, or anything else,” says Bolles, a civilian doctor who is also a Vietnam veteran. "They go there because they’ve learned to love their buddies … And when they get hurt, they feel guilty because they’re hurt and they can’t be there for their unit. It’s an intense training process. And all of a sudden, it’s over. They’re hurt, they’re wounded, they’re out of the service and it’s over. And that, in and of itself, is very traumatic.”

Brokenhearted War Story

Even at just 30 minutes long, “The Ground Truth” packs a powerful cumulative punch. This is documentary filmmaking that has no need for showy cinematic tricks or grandstanding; the narratives are eloquent, raw, and unforgettable just as they are. Says Foulkrod, who is working on a feature-length version of the film, “I don’t want you to ever look at a veteran again, from any war, in the same way.”

She’s right; you won’t.

“These guys are brokenhearted because they really love their country and they really thought this was going to be a good experience,” Foulkrod continues. “You can play hardball and say, well, what did they expect? And that’s a good question: what should they expect?”

U.S. Army Reserve Specialist Rebekah Roberts didn't expect much of anything – she wanted to serve her country. She joined up during the invasion of Afghanistan, convinced she was doing the right thing, “because of what happened on Sept. 11.”

If Roberts was a true believer in the cause when she left for Iraq, she harbored few illusions by the time she returned home. President Bush’s dogged assertions that the war is going well are a slap in the face to soldiers like Roberts who know firsthand that we are losing ground every day; that the military is overdeployed and weakened by rising numbers of casualties; and that Iraq has become a quagmire of ruinous proportions.

Roberts, who appears in the documentary at an anti-war demonstration marching in her battle fatigues, agonizes both for the troops still fighting in Iraq and for the Iraqis.

“I just believe in my heart I was lied to by somebody,” she says, her voice choked with emotion and anger. “There’s people over there dying now, in the heat of battle, getting shot at. The last thought maybe in their head is, Why? What’s the whole purpose?”

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