Who is a Hero?

Lori Piestawa

Since we have short memories, let us return to 2003, a time when pundits wondered how many American troops might die in the Iraq War before the public rose up in protest. No one imagined that nearly 4,500 Americans would die in the course of the war, or that it would last so long.

One of the early casualties was Pfc. Lori Piestawa.

An hour before the ambush, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa knew something was wrong. It was just before dawn, only three days into the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and her unit’s slow-moving convoy was approaching a bridge over the Euphrates River. That’s when Piestewa saw it: the heavily fortified town of Nasiriyah, rising out of the sands like a mirage. She stared in disbelief through the dusty windshield of the Humvee she was driving. A city? Shouldn’t they be in the desert?

At the far end of the bridge, Piestewa spotted an Iraqi military checkpoint. She braced for the worst. But as the column lumbered by, the Iraqi soldiers inside waved, beckoning the Americans deeper into the city.

Piestewa turned to her best friend, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was riding in back of the Humvee. They were both thinking the same thing: We’re not supposed to be here.

It was a small error, but a fatal one. The 507th Army Maintenance Company – a support unit of clerks, repairmen and cooks – had taken a wrong turn in the desert, stumbling into Nasiriyah by mistake. Without warning, the company suddenly found itself surrounded, an easy target for Iraqi soldiers and fedayeen paramilitary forces armed with AK-47s, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The ensuing attack proved to be the Army’s bloodiest day of the ground war – and the first hint of the deadly quagmire that Iraq would soon become. Eleven American soldiers were killed and nine were wounded when the 507th came under what the military later described as a “torrent of fire” in Nasiriyah.

The attack made Jessica Lynch famous. U.S. Special Forces later plucked her from an Iraqi hospital and rushed her to safety, and the media seized on the daring rescue to create a tale of American heroism and valor. But the real story of what happened in Nasiriyah that day – and the clear warning it offered of things to come – involves a different soldier, one who gave her life to protect her friends. Lori Piestewa, born and raised a Hopi on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, became the first American woman to die in the war, and the first Native American woman ever to die in combat on foreign soil. Only twenty-three years old, Piestewa saw herself as a Hopi warrior, part of a centuries-old tradition developed by a people who once resisted an invasion and occupation by the U.S. military – much as the Iraqis are today. She went to war, but she believed above all in peace, in doing no harm to others. “I’m not trying to be a hero,” she told a friend just before the invasion. “I just want to get through this crap and go home.”

After a dramatic rescue, Pvt. Jessica Lynch returned home to a media blitz. She was pressured to be the public face of the American soldier going down with guns blazing. Jessica Lynch turned down a chance to be a war celebrity, because she was accountable to her fellow soldiers, and to the truth. She served the American people with her integrity, as much as she did while in uniform.

Lynch was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed in Iraq in 2003. She was later rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital, and the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of her heroic resistance.

“It meant a lot, really, it did, especially to come out for the Tillman family,” Lynch told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. “They really need answers. And, you know, they have tons and tons of questions that are just unanswered. And they need that.”

At the hearing, the chairman of the House panel, Henry Waxman, accused the government of inventing “sensational details and stories” about Tillman’s death and Lynch rescue. After she arrived home, Lynch set the record straight in a book called “I Am a Soldier, Too.”

“At first I didn’t even realize … the stories that were being told,” she said. “It was quite a while afterwards, and then I found out. It was a little disappointing. And I knew that I had to get the truth out there because, one, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself … knowing that these stories were portraying me to do something that I didn’t.”

Although Lynch was injured severely, she didn’t suffer any gunshot wounds. Still, recovery is a long process and she said the healing is slow.

Lynch, whose brother also serves in the Army, isn’t sure why the stories were made up because her capture occurred so early in the war. But she was the first POW rescue since World War II, which was big news. She wants America to understand that the real heroes were those who died in the fight and those who risked everything to save her.

“Definitely my friend Laurie, for trying to get us to safety,” Lynch said. “But, you know, she was killed in combat so — but the ones who came in and rescued me, the ones who were in my unit fighting to death, you know, those are my real heroes.”

Pat Tillman was a pro football player who gave up his career to serve in Iraq. He was killed by ‘friendly fire’ in the confusion of war. The truth about his death was only disclosed because his bereaved family would not give up.

Pat Tillman’s younger brother, Richard, lashed back at politicians who said his dead brother was with God. Pat Tillman wasn’t religious, and piety did not console the family.

A tribute to Lori Piestawa is here. She leaves a son and a daughter.

The war continues in Afghanistan. It is being fought by ordinary men and women, our volunteer army. The people of Afghanistan have no choice to opt out as the war is on their own soil. There are heroes, there are survivors, there are cowards and liars in the fog of war.

Unquestionably, we are asking great sacrifice of some Americans while the rest of us can forget altogether, except on days such as Memorial Day. If we are to support our troops we must recognize our service men and women and their families by supporting them in peace, even if that debt takes a generation to pay. When the war is over, we must not fail to include our veterans in the opportunity they so justly earned.

Support Our Troops

Facebook friend Vicki posted this. It reminds me of a short story by George Saunders, a writer I greatly admire–‘Home’, published in the New Yorker 6/13/2011. The protagonist, a returning veteran, has arrived home just in time to see his mother evicted…

Ma was on the front lawn screaming at this low-slung fat guy. Harris was looming in the background, now and then hitting or kicking something to show how scary he could get when he was enraged.
“This is my son,” Ma said, “who served. Who just came home. And this is how you do us?”
“I’m grateful for your service.” the man said to me.

If you know George Saunders, you will know that he writes not tragedy, but the darkest comedy. Mikey, the narrator in this story has returned to a fractured family, a society with a huge wealth disparity and a sense of suppressed fear– you might be the next poor loser to fall out of the middle-class. And everyone who screws him over says “thank you for your service.” George Saunders is a surrealist.

I wish I could link to this, but due to his not having a day job, Saunders is not giving it away for free, and neither is the New Yorker. Here’s where it is, if you’re not a cheapskate.

If you are a liberal, like me, and recognize there are many ways of serving our country besides the military, you will put a high priority on services to veterans. Veterans are on the front lines in peace as well as in war. The VA provides comprehensive medical care across class lines and generations, but housing, jobs and community are unmet needs. Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is way of life built on courage, cooperation and sacrifice. Our veterans can teach us some things about that.

Memorial Day, Remembering

Sgt. Jason Ross by artist Victor JuhaszMichael D. Fay of the New York Times keeps faith…

We introduce ourselves simply. We’re war artists and have been out in the fight multiple times with you guys; living under the same conditions and capturing your combat experiences in art. We then give them our basic vision of why we’re here: You guys are still in the fight and what you do every day to recover and make the absolute best of your new reality is important to your fellow Americans. The wounded Marines get it.

The three Marines we’ll draw over these two days will allow us to observe and record them in what most would consider the worst possible conditions. One is paralyzed from the waist down; one has had 30 surgeries in the last nine weeks to put his face back together; and one has lost both legs mid-thigh and his right hand is virtually unusable. But, we know these Marines are consummate warriors, and we watch them attacking their disabilities and wounds with the same dogged determination they used every day humping the hills and fields of Afghanistan.

It’s a reminder that every day of the war in Afghanistan, every day our soldiers are in harm’s way anywhere in the world, carries a cost that they and their families will live with for the rest of their lives. Once a war is started, there is no telling the outcome or the consequences. We were too long getting our troops out of Iraq, too long in Afghanistan. May each Memorial Day remind us of the sacrifices of our veterans, and let us never again enter a war of choice.

The Joe Bonham Project is a year-and-a-half-old group dedicated to documenting the experiences of wounded service members. see the artist’s work here.

The drawing above is of Sgt.Jason Ross by artist Victor Juhasz.

Ending the War in Iraq?

Dear Readers,
Kmareka welcomes our new Mideast expert, Kevin De Jesus,PhD, who sends us this post on the consequences of war and the long road for survivors, both in the US and Iraq. Thank you, Kevin, for looking beyond our war-weariness to confront the reality our veterans and their families face…

Ending the War in Iraq?

Not so simple, as war’s legacies endure through the family.

Media outlets across the globe have reported that President Obama has declared that “America’s war in Iraq will be over by the end of the year”. This is not the first time the Iraq war has been declared “over”. Recall President Bush announced on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln that the war in Iraq had ended, in fact some nine years before this war will foreclose by virtue of a full troop withdrawal.

I believe we must rebuff the notion that the Iraq War will in fact be so neatly over – it is indeed this type of mythic conception of war that leads us to be deluded into thinking war, partly due to our ability to fight at such a high-tech capacity from great distances, is so precisely so simple. I argue, rather, that many battles will continue between here and the Euphrates, battles which will be waged through the legacies of war’s reverberations through families, across their everyday social, emotional and relational lives. Can we argue therefore that an ethically-committed politics, particularly among those of us who opposed the war in Iraq here in the US and across the globe, ought to drive a sense of urgency to remain focused on easing and supporting the lives of those whose life will be continually encroached by the long-reach of the hauntings of political violence that share a different sense of time than President Obama, or for that matter of Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki.

Let us consider some of the evidence for this argument I make. MIT’s Dr. John Tirman’s informative blog, “Iraq: the Human Cost” reveals an array of threats to human well-being across the duration of the war, and in particular, as in the case of many of the displaced, the long-term impoverishment, dislocation and erosion of rights and protections, that are long-standing in effect. Tirman notes that other threats, lethal and devastating in terms of human impact includes the exposure of children to landmines and cluster bombs used in Iraq by both US and non-US military and para-military actors. Fortunately, Iraq has joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2009 , however, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor (2011), Iraq remains “massively contaminated” with explosive remnants of war, due to the succession of violent conflicts which have embroiled Iraq for decades, including the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War and the 2003 US-led invasion. {For the full report, link here. }

What role will the US and other coalition partners play in clearing these munitions, particularly that according to UNICEF and UNDP decades are likely needed to clean up the terrain of Iraq .

How will families of cluster munition injuries secure the resources needed to rebuild their family life, meet the cost of disability, and heal social-psychological wounds, as a part of the Obama-Maliki plan to end the Iraq war? Is, in fact, such a matter of the human legacy of war also legitimate part of ending war?

Central to the family is the matter of the disappeared. According to a recent NPR report (July 20, 2011), Iraqi family members of disappeared persons gather each Friday to alert the world to their plight. It is claimed by NPR that since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “tens of thousands” of new missing/disappeared persons have been reported, with a particular increase in 2006 and 2007. How will Obama and Maliki deal with the matter of secret prisons, enforced disappearances, and the families of the disappeared who live the war in a particular way, day after day?

For American families who have endured the Iraq War vicariously, through their deployed loved one, the risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be higher than in veterans themselves, one clinician has found. The military family advocacy organization “The Sanctuary for Veterans and Families” details an array of threats to the well-being of veterans from Iraq and their families, including homelessness, supports for women veterans, resources for the children of veterans and the development of community-based psychological supports for veterans and their families. Top on the agenda of The Sanctuary for Veterans and Families is legislative advocacy.

Perhaps an ethically-committed politics can begin with taking the lead from The Sanctuary. Recognizing that for so many the war will not be over by the close of the new year, can those of us who were so ardently opposed to the Iraq War, continue to actively engage to ensure that the resources vitally needed to continue to ameliorate the effects of the war on families from both the Iraq and the US, be delivered?

Politics

Happy Veterans Day to all who served, all their families and friends. May we find the way to peace. Happy Veterans Day to my Dad and Father in Law, and all the people I meet in elder care who have stories to tell.

It’s off to work today. I’m watching the health care bill move through Congress with one eye closed and my hands over my face. It’s looking less like sausage making than sausage digestion. But I have to hope that we will make things better. Remember that the Veterans need to come back to a home where there are jobs and where their families will not be dumped in some emergency room for lack of anyone who values the health of working people.

We’re all connected. We all serve. We are all needed.