A few days before Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was driving home from a business trip when two roadside signs, separated by a few short miles of four-lane interstate and rolling farmland, sent me into a fit.
The first was an LED billboard, several stories high, featuring an animated American flag, waving in the digital wind above the phrase “Support Our Troops.” Like the bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing that same slogan, the billboard begs for specificity. But there’s never anything beyond those three ubiquitous words, long ago usurped by hawkish pundits and assumed to be synonymous with support the war(s). There is no phone number for distressed soldiers, no web address for burdened families, and no call for political action.
The next road marker, standard Department of Transportation green and no bigger than a stop sign, was rendered nearly invisible by a directory of fast food chains. It simply marked the exit for a local Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. No blinking stars. No gallant stripes. And no reason to give it another thought.
The juxtaposition of these two visuals wouldn’t ordinarily catch in my throat. Political propaganda litters the Midwestern countryside, after all—as do warnings of damnation and promises of salvation—and I’ve no doubt driven past many VA hospitals. On this morning, though, I had just read “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce,” a true American tragedy written by war photographer and author Ashley Gilbertson for the Fall 2008 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review (excerpted on p. 56).
I could not shake the horror of U.S. Army Specialist Noah Pierce’s combat tours in Iraq. I could not comprehend what it must be like to return from an urban war zone crippled by guilt, rabid with fear. And, driving past those signs, I could not forgive the fundamental disconnection between what this country’s “patriots” and politicians claim to want for returning soldiers and the support and services the government actually provides.
I have since revisited the intense blaze of media coverage and speechifying that took place in early 2007 after the Washington Post exposed the substandard care and inexcusable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Bush administration expressed outrage, even though, as Aaron Glantz points out in his new book The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans (University of California), the president’s Pentagon appointees not only were aware of this health care crisis in 2005, they had been lobbying Congress “against funding military pensions, health insurance, and benefits for widows of retirees,” arguing that “money spent caring for wounded soldiers and their families could be better spent on new, state-of-the-art military hardware or enticing new recruits to join the force.”
Shamefully, but not surprisingly, nothing lasting or truly meaningful has been done since the scandal to address the systemic problems at Walter Reed, Glantz reports, or to aid countless other understaffed and underfunded Pentagon and VA hospitals.
Things could change for the better over the next four years. Obama received high marks from the Disabled American Veterans prior to the election, in part because he cosponsored the 2008 GI Bill, and he has already reached out to advocate groups to ask who they would like to see serve in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But the new administration has also promised to “take the fight” against terror to Afghanistan, which will be no less bloody or demanding on an active army that, as Colin Powell told CBS’s Face the Nation in 2006, “is about broken.”
That troops will be redeployed to fight against another loose coalition of guerrilla insurgents is especially troubling given the emotional toll this particular brand of warfare exacts. In September Mother Jones reported that “20 percent of soldiers and 42 percent of reservists have returned from Iraq with some kind of psychological problem. Army suicides have more than doubled since 2001, hitting a 27-year high.”
Noah Pierce was one of those suicides. And, as his mother has been trying to convince Congress, if medical personnel were better trained and returning soldiers were more effectively screened and treated, he and thousands of others might still be with us.
Noah’s harrowing story is upsetting. It’s also one of the most powerful and important pieces this magazine will publish in 2009. I implore you to read it. I dare you not to be moved. And I urge you to stand up and demand that we no longer relegate the idea of supporting our troops to the side of the road.