Saturday, December 29, 2007

There's No Holiday From War

December 28, 2007
Ken Bode

For the holiday season, the American media suspended most of the bad news from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we're given reports on refugees returning, Christmas at Camp Liberty and Baghdad churches crowded for the holiday. In the presidential campaign, the candidates in both parties now tailor their themes to new polls showing that immigration, health care, taxes, foreclosures, even toys from China top the public's concerns. America seems ready to give the war in Iraq a rest.

John Rutherford toils in a different precinct. Rutherford is a Vietnam vet, wounded in that war and decorated for his service. Now he is an NBC News producer who writes a blog each Friday on, in which he tracks the casualties still rolling in from the war in Iraq. After his regular reporting duties for the network, Rutherford examines official reports from the Pentagon and scours hometown newspaper accounts about soldiers who have died in the war to build profiles for his blog, which is called "Fallen But Not Forgotten."

Last week he reported on Army Spc. Jonathan Lahmann, 21, of Richmond, Ind., who was killed 15 days before Christmas in a roadside bombing in Bayji, Iraq. Among other things, back home Lahmann mowed his neighbor's lawn. Little details enrich Rutherford's reviews. The dead are mostly young. This one loved skateboarding and paint ball; another loved to hunt and fish; one dreamed of pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Rutherford reported on Army Staff Sgt. Michael Gabel, from Crawley, La., who once told a newspaper that some guys think that being in Iraq is like sitting at a PlayStation, only for real. "But the thing about a PlayStation is, when you die, you can hit the reset button," Gabel said. Sgt. Gabel died on Dec. 12, in the lead vehicle of a convoy, when a roadside bomb exploded, destroying his truck.

A year ago this Christmas, support for the war was so low that President Bush finally said he would seek a new Iraq plan. At that time, 21 percent approved of the way he was handling the war. The last time he had majority support was just at the turn of the year in 2004.
Reports on the changed security situation in Iraq may have driven the war out of the headlines and off the top of the presidential candidates' campaign agendas, but there is much to remember and think about as we turn our calendars to 2008.

Our Army is suffering. When the scandals erupted at Walter Reed, more than 50,000 soldiers had returned from Iraq with serious injuries. It wasn't until March of this year that President Bush bestirred himself even to name a bipartisan commission to look into the problems of military and veterans hospitals. Five years into this war, he has used his bully pulpit to advertise his concern but none of his political capital to fix the problem.

Recruitment to the all-volunteer army is a constant problem. The Army is offering bonuses of $20,000 to enlist, $35,000 and higher for junior officers to re-up, and still it is hemorrhaging captains. It is accepting more recruits without high school diplomas, and more with waivers for criminal offenses.

The war may be going well in the American media, but nearly 5,000 American soldiers defected in 2007, a 42 percent increase from 2006. Then there is the stress on soldiers and their families. Increasing combat tours to 15 months, and then repeating them two and three times, has caused a serious lapse in morale, especially in the lower ranks.

National Public Radio recently reported on Pentagon statistics showing that among those in their third deployment, only 15 percent say their morale is high. One-third of privates and corporals say they intend to divorce.

Soldiers with mental health problems are often considered by their superiors to be laggards, and reports abound of the Army ignoring and punishing the mental anguish that comes with extended combat tours. Returning veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome are underserved and often forgotten.

This week, NBC's Rutherford reported that Army Sgt. Austin Pratt, 22, of Cadet, Mo., died in a noncombat incident. The Army assured his family that Pratt did not take his own life. But many have, and many others think about it. Suicide is on the rise, to the point that the Army is now sending suicide prevention teams to Iraq.

It is a troubled Army that celebrated Christmas at Camp Liberty. John Rutherford helps us remember. Mr Bode, a former senior political analyst for CNN, is the Pulliam professor of journalism at DePauw University.

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