Editor’s Note: The Enemy Within

| March-April 2009

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.