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Iraq, in their own words

The ambivalence of wounded troops isn't always heard.

By ELENA LESLEY
Published November 11, 2006


Charles Atkins, 22, of Yukon, Oklahoma was injured by a suicide bomber while serving in Iraq.

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TAMPA

Charles Atkins chews a ham sandwich, his seared hands and shrapnel-gouged head encased in protective gear. A slip of a 22-year-old, he talks about war like it is a football game or a trip to the mall. "I just sorta did it," he says of his decision to go to Iraq. "I always liked the GI Joe cartoon."

During his 3½ months in Iraq, the Oklahoma native survived a suicide bomber's attack. Now a patient at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Atkins is preparing for a skull replacement and recovering from burns on 30 percent of his body.

Like many wounded troops returning from Iraq, Atkins has mixed feelings about a war that has forever altered his life. "It's demoralizing over there, but someone's got to do it," he says and pauses. "It (stinks) for the people that do."

Despite divergent opinions, many wounded troops interviewed also shared one conviction: If the United States withdraws now, Iraq will plunge into greater chaos.

The war itself was a central issue in the election Tuesday, but wounded troops were largely absent on both sides.

About 3,182 troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense, while more than 22,600 troops have been wounded. Advances in medical technology have resulted in many more lives saved. But it also has meant troops coming home with more severe injuries.

The reaction among troops about the war is complicated and doesn't fit neatly with any political ideology.

Pete Herrick, 39, who was paralyzed from the neck down after three weeks in Iraq, says many members of the media won't talk to him because of their liberal slant, which doesn't mesh with his views.

"When they find out I don't want to bash the president," says Herrick, who lives in Fort White, "the interview's over."

A political and military junkie, Herrick believes that years of sectarian religious violence would have continued in the region without U.S. intervention.

Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, blames the White House for the lack of publicity about wounded troops.

"The Bush administration has worked hard to keep the president away from within photo-op range of the seriously wounded," Solomon says. "War enthusiasm thrives on abstraction. The wounded have become almost apparitions."

Some troops are reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their benefits or not getting a promotion, while others say it's not their place to comment on policy.

"I'm a soldier," says Christopher Malone, 21, a Texas native wounded by a rocket. "I take orders."

Malone wants to return to Iraq, chiefly to help his buddies still there. But he also believes the United States is "on the right course."

Ilona Meagher has talked to service members and their families about the war as part of research for a book on post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Just like in the civilian population, a disagreement exists in the military," says Meagher, who also runs a blog on post-traumautic stress disorder and advocates for more psychological services to help returning troops.

Many of the troops interviewed shared ambivalent feelings about the war.

Mike McKeown of Zephyrhills returned from Iraq last year with severe hearing loss.

"If we pull out, someone like Saddam will just take over again and all those people would have been wounded and killed for no reason," says McKeown, referring to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

But "there's also a part of me that wants to bring the troops home," says McKeown, 46. "My friends have died over there."

Part of the uncertainty stems from the troops' inability to gauge whether Iraqis actually want them there and who exactly they're fighting.

"It's hard when they shoot," says Mike Delancey, 21, a Pinellas Park resident recovering from a gunshot wound at Haley. "It's like fighting ghosts. You hear it, see it, but don't see the guy shooting at you."

Some troops hesitate when asked how regular Iraqis feel about having U.S. troops around.

"Um, they're grateful" is a common response.

Others are more direct.

"They really hate us," says Alba Tanner, 21, a Louisiana native who was wounded by a roadside bomb. "Little kids threw rocks at us, and they had to learn that from somewhere."

Delancey says sometimes it was hard to distinguish welcoming Iraqis from those who might want to harm American troops.

"Iraqis are friendly, all of them," he says. "They'll invite you in for chai (tea) and feed you like kings, and then later you'll find out they're an enemy. You don't know who's good and who's bad."

This kind of confusion can lead to atrocities, says Camilo Mejia, 31, of Miami, who made national headlines in 2004 when he refused to return to Iraq midway through his tour of duty. Mejia thinks the United States should immediately withdraw troops from Iraq.

"You have good wars in mind when you go into the military, that you're going to fight the next Hitler," he says. "But in Iraq with the hit-and-run tactics, civilians are killed left and right. It messes people up in the head."

Some veterans, like Herrick, couldn't disagree more. The father of two decided to enlist before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - part of an "early midlife crisis" he jokes - and remains committed to the war in Iraq.

"It fills me with pride to know my injury was in defense of someone's freedom," says Herrick, who moves his wheelchair using a mouth-controlled joystick. "I get chills."

As public opinion about the war has shifted over the last two years, he said he has noticed a difference in the way people perceive his injuries.

"I used to have a lot of people saying I was a hero," Herrick says. "Now I sense that people look at me like a victim."

Ray Raphael, 83, a World War II veteran from Beverly Hills, Fla., is unsettled by his numerous conversations at Gainesville's VA hospital with troops who served in Iraq.

"We're sending our children over there to be slaughtered," he says. "And for no good reason."

Delancey says he decided to join the army because it was a good way to save for college and plan a future.

"Where I grew up, a lot of guys just had dead-end jobs," says Delancey, tossing a mini foam football in his hospital bed. "The guys who were doing well for themselves, who had nice houses and all, were prior military."

But now that he's struggling to regain the use of his legs at Haley, Delancey can't help but second-guess the war.

"Sometimes I think that we should pull out because there's not enough change and no reason to be there," he says. "But when I think of the faces of people I saw there, I don't want to abandon them."

Even after the attack left him with severe hearing loss, McKeown decided to stay and finish his last nine months in Iraq.

"It was my job," he said. "My being there kept people alive."

A good troop takes orders and helps his brothers, he says, even if he's not sure why they're fighting.

"The people over there have been killing each other forever," McKeown says, sighing. "I don't know what the answer is. Wish I did."

Times staff writer Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or (352) 564-3627.

[Last modified November 11, 2006, 01:33:34]


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