Maimed but not mute

A politically diverse group of Iraq vets say it's time for Americans to face the ugly truths about the war.

By Mary Jacoby

Published October 13, 2004 6:23PM (EDT)

It's the obvious political ad that has just been waiting to be made -- a young Iraq war veteran, missing a body part, talking simply and directly to the camera about the sacrifice he made in the service of official lies. The idea didn't come from the Democratic Party, or, or the Kerry campaign. The new ad is the creation of a group of Iraq war veterans, most in their 20s, operating on a shoestring budget. Their organization, Operation Truth, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group of 150 members, is dedicated to elevating the perspective of soldiers and holding elected officials accountable for their policy decisions.

"I was called to serve in Iraq because the government said there were weapons of mass destruction -- but they weren't there," Spc. Robert Acosta, 21, who was an ammunitions specialist with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq, says in the thought-provoking ad. "They said Iraq had something to do with 9/11 -- but the connection wasn't there ... So when people ask me where my arm went, I try to find the words, but they're not there." The ad ends with a shot of Acosta removing his prosthesis, revealing a stub where his right hand should be.

In Washington on Tuesday, Acosta, Operation Truth founder Paul Rieckhoff, 29, and Operation Truth board member David Chasteen, 25, made the media rounds to promote the ad and their group. After a morning news conference at the National Press Club, they were at CNN's studios, talking on camera with Wolf Blitzer, and then trucked back to the Press Club for more interviews, including one with Salon.

The ad "is meant to wake people up," Rieckhoff told me. "And if people are uncomfortable [with the image of Acosta's missing hand] for a few seconds, I'm OK with that. Because Robert's going to be uncomfortable for the rest of his life."

Rieckhoff declined to say how much money Operation Truth has raised for the ad campaign but said it was less than $100,000. Most of the donations come in amounts of $25 or less over the Internet, he said. The major goal of Tuesday's publicity swing was to raise more money to broadcast the ads, which the group plans to air on cable television in swing states.

"We needed a splash. That's the only way to get attention like this," Rieckhoff said, citing as a kind of role model the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry's record. "But we don't have millions of dollars, like they did," he said, laughing.

Rieckhoff, a political independent, looks like the former football player that he is: 6 feet 2 inches, and 250 pounds. His head is shaved bald. At Amherst College he played tight end, and after graduating in 1998, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. Later, while working for J.P. Morgan, he transferred to the New York Army National Guard. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in his Manhattan apartment when the first plane hit the World Trade Center; he rushed to ground zero to join volunteer rescue efforts. His Guard unit was formally activated that evening.

In January 2003, Rieckhoff went to Iraq, where he was assigned to lead the 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3/124th INF (Air Assault) FLNG. For the next 10 months, he conducted combat operations in the Adamiyah section of Baghdad on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. He was released from active duty in March. Returning to the United States, he was struck by what he calls the "disconnect" between how most Americans viewed Iraq and veterans issues and how the soldiers felt.

"All you ever see on TV here is the burning Humvees. People aren't hearing about the [Department of Veterans Affairs funding] cuts, the overextension of the military. They weren't hearing soldiers' voices, or learning about the gray areas that we live in every day. Like what do you do if you see a child in an alley and you think he's armed? Now that we're off active duty, we can voice our opinions," Rieckhoff said.

Operation Truth's mission is to get that point of view out, but its members span the spectrum politically. Acosta, a soft-spoken young man with a goatee and a metal hook in place of his right hand, is so discouraged by the political process that he doesn't even plan to vote in November. Rieckhoff, a political independent, believes the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein was worthy, but he argues that the postwar planning was a disaster. Operation Truth board member Chasteen, a financial advisor in Washington who was a chemical weapons specialist in Iraq, is a registered Republican and evangelical Christian who says he is "leaning" toward Kerry because he believes George W. Bush's policies have severely damaged national security.

The issues upon which all Operation Truth members agree, the three men said, are that the politicians in Washington should not send troops to war without outlining a clear mission and equipping them properly. And when soldiers come home, the politicians should adequately fund veterans' services, they said. Rieckhoff was once asked in an interview if it wasn't just an "urban myth" that some troops didn't have body armor. "I can tell you it's not. I was there." Acosta said he has been forced to navigate a confusing bureaucracy to obtain healthcare services. And Chasteen said he wants Americans to know that failure to plan for postwar Iraq has brought such chaos that the effort to build a democracy may be beyond salvation.

Before the invasion, Chasteen said, he reviewed a stack of documents a foot thick describing the combat plan. "No part of the order told us what to do afterward," he said. Troops kept asking about the post-combat orders. "When they finally came, they were this thick," he said, squishing his fingers together to indicate a thin stack of paper. "I thought, You've got to be kidding."

Chasteen's specialty is chemical weapons, and he recalled the moment he realized that Saddam didn't have any. It was when he crossed the Euphrates River. He had his bubble suit on, to protect against a chemical or biological attack. He held his chemical-detecting instrument in the air, watching to see if anything registered. "There was nothing. We knew that Saddam wanted more than anything to hold on to power, and so if he had the weapons, he would have used them then. But there was nothing." And yet, he noted, it was only last week that Iraq weapons investigator Charles Duelfer officially notified Congress that Saddam had no WMD.

Acosta is less steeped in the policy nuances; his contribution to Operation Truth is sharing the emotional and physical toll of combat. He was injured in July 2003, when an insurgent tossed a grenade into the Humvee in which he was a passenger. Acosta and the driver had left their base at Baghdad International Airport to purchase ice from a roadside stand; Acosta saved the driver's life by grabbing the grenade and tossing it out of the vehicle. It exploded in his hand.

The strange thing about getting your hand blown off, Acosta said, was that it doesn't hurt. "As soon as the grenade flew, the adrenaline started pumping, and it was like that adrenaline took over. Then there was just like a tingly feeling, like my hand had fallen asleep. But I knew it was gone right away. I saw my hand gone, I saw my bones coming out. I looked down at my foot, and my foot was turned completely backwards. I knew my legs were hurt. I didn't know if I was going to keep my leg. I knew my hand was gone, no matter what. And I said to myself, 'OK, my hand's gone. What next?' I tried to grab my rifle, but it fell apart."

Acosta added, "So I'm sitting there thinking, My hand's gone. My leg -- I don't know. And I'm looking down at the ground, at asphalt, because there's no more bottom to the Humvee. I was thinking, We're not going to make it, and I told my buddy, 'Just tell my parents that I love them.' And he cussed me out, telling me I was going to be OK. He was saying, 'Don't worry, I'm going to get you back.' And he got me back. I don't know how, but he did. He just drove."

A few months ago, Acosta heard Rieckhoff interviewed on a California radio station, and he contacted Operation Truth. He said he agreed to appear in the ad "to raise awareness, to let people know what's really going on. You see on the news that one solider got injured, two soldiers got injured, and you think, OK, it will be all right. But the reality is they come back missing limbs or their eyesight, and they've got families and their parents, people that care about them. People should know how these soldiers are affected physically and mentally."

Operation Truth has found that some conservative media outlets don't appreciate its point of view. Rieckhoff said he has appeared only once on Sean Hannity's Fox News show and only once on Laura Ingraham's talk radio show. "They were happy to have us when they thought we were just some dumb soldiers," Rieckhoff said. "But when they realized that we could talk and we were educated, that we'd been on the ground in Iraq, and that it was hard to challenge us, they didn't ask us back."

Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Mary Jacoby

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Iraq War