The invisible wounded

Injured soldiers evacuated to the U.S. never arrive in the light of day -- and the Pentagon has yet to offer a satisfactory explanation why.

Topics: Iraq war, Pentagon,

The invisible wounded

In January 2000, then Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Henry Shelton told an audience at Harvard that before committing troops, politicians should make sure a war can pass what he called the “Dover test,” so named for the Air Force base in Delaware where fallen soldiers’ coffins return. Shelton said politicians must weigh military actions against whether the public is “prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets.”

It’s widely known that on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003, the Bush administration moved to defy the math and enforced a ban on photographs of the caskets arriving at Dover, or at any other military bases. But few realize that it seems to be pursuing the same strategy with the wounded, who are far more numerous. Since 9/11, the Pentagon’s Transportation Command has medevaced 24,772 patients from battlefields, mostly from Iraq. But two years after the invasion of Iraq, images of wounded troops arriving in the United States are almost as hard to find as pictures of caskets from Dover. That’s because all the transport is done literally in the dark, and in most cases, photos are banned.

Ralph Begleiter, a journalism professor at the University of Delaware and a former CNN world affairs correspondent who has filed a suit to force the Pentagon to release photographs and video of the caskets arriving at Dover, said news images of wounded American soldiers have been “extremely scarce.” Wounded soldiers, like caskets, mostly show up in the news only after they arrive back in their hometowns. Begleiter said the Pentagon has tried to minimize public access to images and information that might drain Americans’ tolerance for the war. “I think the Pentagon is taking steps to minimize the exposure of the costs of war,” said Begleiter. “Of course they are.”

A Salon investigation has found that flights carrying the wounded arrive in the United States only at night. And the military is hard-pressed to explain why. In a series of interviews, officials at the Pentagon’s Air Mobility Command, which manages all the evacuations, refused to talk on the record to explain the nighttime flights, or to clarify discrepancies in their off-the-record explanations of why the flights arrive when they do. In a written statement, the command said that “operational restrictions” at a runway near the military’s main hospital in Germany, where wounded from Iraq are brought first, affect the timing of flights. The command also attempted to explain the flight schedule by saying doctors in Germany need plenty of time to stabilize patients before they fly to the United States.



From Germany, the military flies the wounded into Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Troops with some of the worst injuries are delivered from there to the military’s top hospitals nearby, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. But both hospitals bar the press from seeing or photographing incoming patients, ostensibly to protect their privacy. Other patients flown from Germany are held at a medical staging facility at Andrews until they are transported to other military hospitals.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Operation Truth, an advocacy group for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, said the nighttime-only arrivals of wounded, along with the restrictions on coffin photos and other P.R. tactics, are designed to hide from the public the daily flow of wounded and dead. “They do it so nobody sees [the wounded],” Rieckhoff said. “In their mind-set, this is going to demoralize the American people. The overall cost of this war has been  continuously hidden throughout. As the costs get higher, their efforts to conceal those costs also increase.”

But the Pentagon says it’s not trying to hide the wounded from anyone. (Pentagon officials have also denied that banning photographs of coffins at Dover was a P.R. decision.) Capt. Herbert McConnell, a spokesman for Andrews Air Force Base, said that while it’s true the flights of wounded arrive only at night, the schedule is not designed to minimize images of wounded soldiers. “There is no conspiracy, I can tell you that. I am absolutely sure there is no effort to bring them in under the darkness of night,” McConnell said. “There is nothing shady going on here.”

From Andrews, some of the most seriously wounded are driven to Walter Reed or Bethesda Naval Medical Center in buses, ambulances or unmarked black vans. Photos of the arrivals at the hospitals are prohibited. (Salon obtained the images of wounded arriving at Walter Reed at night despite the ban. The images do not show the identities of the patients.)

Nearly 4,000 soldiers hurt in Iraq have been bused from Andrews Air Force Base to Walter Reed, according to the hospital. Because the planes come in late at Andrews, patients arrive at Walter Reed after dark and after the hospital’s clinics are closed. The wounded are unloaded into hallways empty of the patients, families and media who typically are present during the day. They are not unloaded into the common entrance closest to the emergency room.

On one recent night at Walter Reed, about 10 hospital medical officials wearing green camouflage lined up gurneys in the empty hospital lobby just before 10. At around 9:45 p.m., someone announced that the “buses are here,” and staff began putting on light blue rubber gloves. White school buses converted into ambulances and marked “Walter Reed” pulled up. Two unmarked black vans did too. The convoy did not go through the main circular drive to a covered entrance close to the emergency room and pharmacy, where most patients go in and out. The vehicles instead pulled into a raised drive above that entrance and unloaded the wounded under the open, dark sky.

The medical officials slowly unloaded the wounded who were on stretchers. Others entered in wheelchairs, hobbled in on crutches or walked. Two soldiers brought in on wheeled gurneys were swollen-looking, appeared unconscious and were fully intubated with large ventilators strapped across their beds. A bag of what could have been bloody urine hung off the side of one gurney.

The walking wounded were handed white bags from the Red Cross off a cart outside. A handful of civilians came in at the same time and walked solemnly through the empty hallways to the hospital’s Family Assistance Center with suitcases in tow. I witnessed two other arrivals like that on cold winter nights. Soldiers I know at Walter Reed have seen many more.

Walter Reed bars any media coverage of incoming wounded, ostensibly to protect their privacy. But the photos obtained by Salon prove how easy it is to photograph the arrival of patients at Walter Reed without violating privacy rights.

Nothing I uncovered in my reporting ever suggested that troops with serious physical wounds — amputees or gunshot victims — were getting anything less than the care and attention they deserve. Indeed, the Pentagon and Walter Reed have allowed reporters and photographers to cover amputees recuperating at Walter Reed and Army doctors pulling out all the stops to save critically wounded troops on the sandy battlefields of Iraq. By all accounts, these are the things the Army does well. They represent “good news” stories for the Pentagon, showing the great lengths the military goes to care for downed soldiers.

But reporting on the size, scope or mounting cost of the war — like pictures of incoming caskets or the seemingly endless stream of stretchers arriving at Walter Reed — is almost impossible because of Pentagon restrictions.

In a strange twist, Andrews Air Force Base last month did let me videotape a plane of wounded being unloaded in the dark. Andrews officials said the press can watch the wounded arriving, but few reporters ever ask to visit the acres of flat asphalt on the “flight line” there. McConnell, the Andrews spokesman, said that allowing me to videotape the wounded from a distance would let me “see there is no conspiracy going on here.”

With my military public affairs escort, I walked around half a mile away from the passenger terminal at Andrews down the flight line. While flight times seem to vary from evening until late at night, the giant gray C-141 Starlifter from Germany that I saw landed just before 6 p.m. (an early arrival, according to my Army sources). Two white buses marked “Walter Reed” backed up to the rear ramp of the plane, followed later by two green buses marked with a red cross.

There was still some daylight when the Starlifter’s wheels hit the ground, but it was dark when soldiers carrying stretchers began to descend from the plane. One by one, about 10 stretchers were slowly carried down the ramp and loaded into racks in the buses. It was hard to see the condition of the wounded. A soldier in a wheelchair followed. Then came the walking wounded.

It’s easy to imagine any number of reasons for taking off from Germany late in the day, which, in turn, would result in evacuations arriving in the United States at night. The flight from Germany in a C-141 can take up to 10 hours, and there is a six-hour time difference with the United States. The Air Mobility Command’s off-the-record explanation did not, however, account for the consistent arrivals of nighttime flights. And its written response was vague: “Missions are scheduled to depart [Germany] in compliance with airfield operational restrictions, allowing patients a restful night before the long trans-Atlantic flight, and giving medical personnel sufficient processing time for those patients who may require special handling/treatment.”

John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense information Web site, has spent a great deal of time trying to tease out the difference between facts and Pentagon spin. He said it is odd that the Pentagon hasn’t done a good job of explaining the late-night flights. “It is puzzling because there are perfectly sensible explanations for this, but those are not the explanations being offered,” Pike said. “And the explanation being offered makes no sense. It makes no sense.”

Pike and veterans’ advocate Rieckhoff both said the Pentagon has employed a raft of techniques to manage domestic perceptions of the war. The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines “perception management” as “actions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators” to influence “emotions, motives, and objective reasoning.” Although the dictionary describes such techniques only as they apply to foreign audiences, the Pentagon has come under fire for employing some pretty aggressive techniques at home, too.

President Bush himself has garnered some criticism for deciding not to attend the funerals of fallen soldiers, opting for private meetings with their families instead.

Some critics, including the American Legion, have blamed the Pentagon for tinkering with even the most basic data on the war. Pentagon “casualty reports,” for example, only reflect troops hurt by the bullets and bombs of the enemy — excluding over 20,432 troops evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan for injuries or illnesses the Pentagon deems not caused directly by combat, like Humvee accidents or mental trauma.

The Pentagon in 2002 closed its Office of Strategic Influence after harsh criticism followed reports that the office intended to plant fake news stories in the foreign press. Some press reports, however, assert that the mission of the Office of Strategic Influence lives on somewhere else in the Pentagon.

Last fall, military commanders in Iraq combined the public affairs and psychological warfare offices there, according to the Los Angeles Times. One office is supposed to get accurate information to the public, the other to bedevil the enemy by using information as a weapon. The decision to combine them prompted Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to warn the joint chiefs in a memo that “such organizational constructs have the potential to compromise the commander’s credibility with the media and the public.” And in an obvious effort to control some of the news, the Pentagon now has its own news channel. The Dish Network will soon carry the Pentagon Channel, beaming its version of the truth to 11 million viewers worldwide.

But the Pentagon’s critics say it is not doing the American public any favors by restricting and controlling images of war as it has. Begleiter, the University of Delaware journalism professor, said the American people deserve to get a clear picture of war, even when that picture might be disturbing. “The American people have a right to see what the military is doing in their name,” he said.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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