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A dying veteran’s assessment of the Iraq War

by Cesar Chelala

Ten years later we are all aware of the damage caused in Iraq by the war: the thousands of civilians killed including women and children, the destruction of infrastructure, the millions now living in poverty, the high levels of corruption.

Less known or acknowledged are the terrible effects of the war on American soldiers: those now lacking access to medical services, those traumatized by war for life or left with incapacitating sequela.

A letter sent to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney by Thomas Young, a 33-year-old American soldier who participated in the war, and who was initially featured in the movie documentary “Body of War,” is one of the most damning criticisms of a war that has destroyed so much and created so little.

April 4, 2004, was a fateful day for Young. As he sat in the back of a 2½-ton U.S. Army truck with 20 other soldiers in Sadr City, Iraq, insurgents attacked the truck and opened fire on the soldiers.

Two bullets reached him: one, from an AK-47, cut his spinal column; the second one destroyed his knee. He felt dizzy but tried anyway to pick up his M16. When he couldn’t, he realized that something had gone terribly wrong.

In a talk with Chris Hedges, Young gave details of his situation:

Knowing that he was going to be paralyzed, he wanted to ask somebody to shoot him. But no words came out of his mouth because his lungs had collapsed.

Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger, his squad leader, bent over him and told him that he would be all right — words that Miltenberger would recount later with anguish.

Young was sent first to an Army hospital in Kuwait, and then to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Later he was transferred to the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C. His situation deteriorated over the years.

Now, close to dying, he has written a letter to the former president and his vice president, which reads in part:

“I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives.

“I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

“I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded.

“I write this letter on behalf of us all — the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

“I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power.

“I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done.

“You may evade justice, but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans — my fellow veterans — whose future you stole.

“Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character.

“You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard duty. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago.

“You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

“My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope that you will be put on trial. But mostly, I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live.

“I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.”

When asked recently about the Iraq War, former Vice President Cheney said that he would do it all over again.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.