I met him in 1985, back when I was still a pop music critic. A guy named Paul Hardcastle had a hit that year called “19,” all about the toll the war in Vietnam exacted on a generation of American soldiers. It inspired me to visit a vet center and interview some soldiers, one of whom was Greg.
He was a black man with a whispery voice and a leg that scraped uselessly behind him, an unwanted souvenir of his time in Southeast Asia. Doctors wanted to amputate the leg, but he refused to let them.
That limb may have been the only thing he could bring himself to struggle for. I’ve never known a man so deeply depressed, so bereft of fight. It wasn’t just his physical injury that had taken it out of him, it was also the mental wounds: Memories of cutting the ears from enemy corpses, of skin rotting off his feet from disease, of little Vietnamese children running toward him, rigged to explode. And it was the fact that he’d never quite made it back home, that a helicopter, a backfiring car, an Asian face, was enough to return him to war.
Greg said there was only one reason he had not committed suicide. It takes a lot of courage to kill yourself, he told me in that soft, haunted voice. He didn’t have the courage yet.
I stayed in touch with Greg for a few years but eventually, we lost track of each other.
He is brought back to mind by some e-mails I received about a recent column. In it, I put the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq at 9,100. A dozen or more people asked if that was a typo. Only 1,100 Americans have been killed in Iraq, they said.
The confusion was easy to clear up: A “casualty” is defined as any combat-related death or “injury.” But, I got the sense that explanation caught at least some people off guard. They seemed ... unused to the idea of considering the wounded when we total the cost of war.
I’m not saying people don’t care. Rather, I suspect, people don’t understand, maybe they find it emotionally easier not to understand, what “wounded” means. So you see the death count and you drop your head, but you see the injury count and you say, “Thank God, they were only wounded.”
I’m as guilty as anyone. Maybe it’s a legacy of too many action movies where the hero takes a bullet in the shoulder and shrugs it off. It’s just a scratch, he says. “I’m only wounded.”
Wounded is nothing, or so we seem to subconsciously believe. But of 8,150 U.S. personnel wounded in Iraq at the time of this writing, 4,361 were too badly hurt to return to duty.
So it’s more than nothing.
And what happens to them afterward? ABC News offered an appalling glimpse in a report two weeks ago. A critically injured soldier spoke of being sent a collection notice from the Pentagon while he was recuperating at a military hospital. The Pentagon was demanding the return of a $2,700 bonus because the soldier – who now lives in his car – could not fulfill his three-year tour of duty. A National Guardsman with a leg injury said he’ll have to sell his home to pay his bills. A double amputee complained of getting the run-around from the Pentagon while financial ruin closes in like the shadows of twilight.
For at least some soldiers, this is what “wounded” means.
Death is cleaner in a way. We mourn, we memorialize, we move on.
But the living challenge us in ways the dead do not, bring us face to face with the costs of war in a way the dead cannot. You don’t have to go to a cemetery or a wall to find them. A soldier stumps past you on a single leg, holds a child with prosthetic arms, tells you he’d like to muster the “courage” for suicide, and you are forced to ponder painful truths that perhaps you’d rather not.
So it’s no surprise we seem not to know what to do with them or even how we should think about them. But we have a moral obligation to decide and to do it now.
Let’s begin with a simple fact:
There’s no such thing as “only wounded.”
Leonard Pitts can be reached at One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.