For all the loud noise about how proud we are of our servicemen and women and how thankful we are for their sacrifice, there are scant images of those...

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“Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq”

Photos and interviews

by Nina Berman

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For all the loud noise about how proud we are of our servicemen and women and how thankful we are for their sacrifice, there are scant images of those who’ve sacrificed the most, with their lives or limbs or sanity.

Some Iraq-war advocates have successfully bullied the news media into withholding images of the dead and injured, arguing that showing these photos is akin to an anti-war statement. But isn’t concealing images of the carnage also an act of propaganda?

Thankfully, in “Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq,” Nina Berman has given us powerful photographs and the unvarnished words of the injured to help us understand who they are and what they are now undergoing. The book resembles something you’d put on your coffee table, though you probably don’t want it on your coffee table. You should, however, show it to anyone who will look, especially children of an appropriate age.

We should all take a good look at the skin grafts, prosthetic limbs, scar tissue, unusable eyes. For, however painful it may be to look at these images, surely it’s nothing compared with the chronic pain the veterans will feel for the rest of their lives. Due to improved battlefield medical care, the wounded-to-killed ratio is much higher in this war than in previous ones, meaning that for every dead soldier you read or hear about, there are at least five or so wounded, not counting the psychologically damaged.

The photos offer a partial portrait of today’s U.S. armed forces. All but one are men. They are nearly all young and enlisted. For the most part, they’re proud of their mission but apolitical. Some say they signed up because they had no other real options; some grew up in violent and drug-riddled neighborhoods.

“I had a friend killed when I was six years old. His name was Charles and he got killed. He was shot in the head. I think it was a stray bullet. My oldest sister was killed by a stray bullet. I was just a few months old. And my father was killed when I was seven,” says Pfc. Alan Jermaine Lewis, who lost both legs, broke his left arm in six places and had his face burned when his vehicle hit a mine.

A few are angry at the military or the government, though not as many as might be expected given the collapse of the main rationale for the war and the apparent shoddy planning that went into it. Many of the injured say they want to return to the military, though their injuries will make that impossible. They miss their buddies, the identities they forged, the adrenaline. Many say they’re bored in civilian life.

“I wouldn’t have given it up for the world. I just fell in love with it. I think about it everyday. Nothing excites me anymore. I almost feel like I was cheated. I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that nothing will compare. It all seems pretty mediocre,” says Pfc. Tristan Wyatt, who lost a leg in a firefight in Fallujah.

Hooding our eyes from looking at the injured won’t make them go away. But looking closely at them may help us be absolutely sure we know what we’re doing next time.

J. Patrick Coolican, a former Seattle

Times reporter, is studying post-traumatic stress disorder in Iraq veterans as part
of a Kiplinger fellowship at Ohio State University.