cover_story (2006-39)

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Josh

LIFE IN A WAR ZONE: It’s everything you’d expect and everything you wouldn’t expect.

FAMILY PORTRAIT: Jay Harris with wife, Kasi, and children Tyler and Audrey.

Jay

You Break It, You Buy It

Veterans speak out on the ongoing costs of war and Congress’s reluctance to pay up

When it comes to the war in Iraq, a lot has changed over the past two years. Today, President Bush openly admits that Iraq had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. U.S. intelligence analysts have disclosed that the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein was said to possess—the primary rationale given for the war in Iraq—do not exist. Furthermore, they deny links between Hussein and al-Qaeda. Polls reveal an American public that is losing patience with the war and losing faith in the president it re-elected in 2004.

It was in November of that year that Metro Pulse reporter Joe Tarr wrote a cover story titled “What They Saw,” outlining the experiences of two local soldiers recently returned from the combat zone in Iraq. One of them, Josh Gaither, was in Knoxville on leave and would return to the Middle East the following week. The other, Justin Harris, was home for good, uniform retired to the depths of his closet.

In this issue we return to the soldiers Tarr interviewed not quite two years ago and ask them the hard questions about what it was like to fight in, and return home from, a war that some now say shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Josh

But today, as the dark-featured 30-year-old takes pleasure in repeating, he’s a civilian. He can say whatever he wants.

“Where do you want to begin?” Gaither asks, sitting upstairs at the Downtown Grill & Brewery, where he works security. He takes a drag off his cigarette and makes eye contact with his fiancée Angela Berry, also a Brewery employee, across the room.

Their relationship, and their wedding next month, is probably the most recent major development in Gaither’s life since his return from Iraq. They met during his two-week break in 2004, just days before he was scheduled to return to duty. When he left again they kept in contact by phone and email, but the better they got to know one another, the harder it was to be apart—especially considering Gaither’s job description. It’s his responsibility, when his unit is attacked, to call in mortar fire, naval gunfire or air support.

“Think about it,” he says. “If you’re the enemy, and you’ve got a bunch of dudes shooting at you, the guy you want to shoot first is the guy with the radio.” He won’t say exactly what the survival rate is for a soldier in his position. “You don’t want to know. It’s very bad.”

Gaither didn’t want Berry worrying, though. “He basically told me not to watch TV, not to watch the news, because not all of it is true,” she recalls. “He told me, ‘It’ll just scare you to watch that kind of stuff.’”

As dangerous as Gaither’s job was, his request and the reasoning behind it was sincere. He doesn’t think the news media’s representation of the war is accurate; rather, it has a tendency to focus on negative things happening rather than the positive changes the American forces are making.

“I saw a lot of tears and blood, but it’s not fair to just show, say, 15 people died today in an IED (improvised explosive device) attack, five people died in a helicopter crash, two people were beheaded, here it is,” he says. “You just can’t do that. I mean, obviously you can, because that’s what’s happening, but you’ve got to show some of the good, too.”

Gaither opens his laptop and pulls up some digital photographs he took during his stay in Iraq. Many of them are strangely picturesque scenes of life in a third-world country, with no overtones of violence. A skinny cow standing beside the road. An Iraqi man in a business suit pedaling his bicycle. A tattered Iraqi billboard.

There are a few short videos as well. One shows Gaither and a roommate goofing off in their camp, shocking themselves repeatedly with an electric bug-swatter out of boredom and laughing hysterically. Another shows a crowd of kids behind a tangle of razor wire, arms outstretched as the American soldiers throw them candy and hand out a soccer ball. “They all want the blue soccer ball,” Gaither says, watching the screen and smiling in remembrance. “That’s the golden egg.”

He recalls watching a group of kids play soccer in a dirt field one day from the balcony of Saddam Hussein’s mother’s palace, which had been converted into a military headquarters. “They were good, man. Those kids were really playing,” he says. When the game was finished, everyone shook hands and went together to a river of open sewage that was running beside the field.

“They walked downstream 100 yards or so to where it was clearer, and put their hands down in it and washed their faces and got all clean from the soccer game. A hundred yards up, there’s shit and piss piled up. This is hazardous material they’re splashing on their face because they don’t know any better, because their government has not provided them with the funds to change that.”

But the American troops’ everyday efforts to better the Iraqi infrastructure, by putting in sewage systems, building schools, etc., are precisely the news

On the flip side of that, though, Gaither says the media also strays away from the equal and opposite reality—one that’s too gruesome for public consumption. On Gaither’s laptop, those photos live in a file titled the “Bad Folder.” The slideshow unfolds one by one, each image more grisly than the last. Here’s an upper jawbone and a foot Gaither walked up on. Here’s an almost unrecognizable human carcass, half charred, half exploded. Here’s a head, the brains spilling out one side, in a pool of purple-black blood. “I’m sorry to put you through all this,” Gaither says quietly. “But this is reality, too.”

His voice takes on a similar tone when he speaks of his roommate and the day that the humvee he was riding in turned over, pinning him underwater in an Iraqi canal. He died some days later of brain hemorrhaging. There are lots of pictures of the canal where the accident occurred in Gaither’s photo collection. He flips through them quickly. “A picture of the canal,” he narrates. “Another picture of the canal.”

It’s hard enough for someone to make sense of his fellow soldier’s death by himself, let alone with the background noise of a country that’s growing increasingly skeptical of our presence in Iraq in the first place. Personally, Gaither feels like America is doing the right thing, even if the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan “are more about cleaning up a mess we should’ve cleaned up in the first place.”

“I feel like Desert Storm, we went in and kicked a little ass, 100 hours, and we’re out. And then, 10 years later…,” he says. “Should we have made the mess to begin with? Yes, if there was a good reason to, which I believe there was.” He speaks of visiting Kuwait and seeing its citizens’ gratitude for liberation, for making the country a safer place for their kids.

As for the war on terrorism, Gaither argues that when American troops first got to Iraq, it was probably the right place to be, but that the terrorists have since dispersed into neighboring countries. “It’s more like a presence kind of thing. Wherever terrorist activity is going on in the Middle East, at least we’re close,” he explains.

Gaither voted in the 2004 presidential election by absentee ballot from Iraq. He later found out that due to a mess-up in logistics, the votes didn’t make it to the States in time and weren’t counted, but he doesn’t really hold it against the Army. Especially since the candidate he voted for, George W. Bush, won.

When asked point-blank whether, if he could recast his vote in the 2004 election, he would vote again for Bush, Gaither quickly answers yes. He admits that Bush isn’t perfect, and maybe he’s made a few mistakes, but everybody makes mistakes. It’s the core agenda that counts, and Gaither has faith in Bush’s agenda. “I feel like we’re taking action in a part of the world that has always been trouble and will always be trouble. It’s not the perfect solution, but I feel like we’re doing good, providing some stability,” he says.

Gaither also notes that, when push comes to shove, it doesn’t really matter whether the commander-in-chief is a Democrat or a Republican. Soldiers do their job, regardless of the politics involved. “If a Democrat gets into office, as soon as they become president, I’ve got their back,” he says. “There are soldiers fighting in Iraq who don’t agree with what we’re doing there, but they’re there because they’re told to be there and that’s what you do when you’re a soldier.”

He explains that, in the same way, Americans who object to the war shouldn’t take it out on the soldiers fighting it. This country doesn’t need another Vietnam. “You can be for one and against the other,” Gaither says. “But if you don’t agree with the war, at least support the troops.”

Jay Justin Harris, or “Jay” as friends call him, picked up a few habits after he returned home from Iraq in 2004. For instance, he started sleepwalking. Late one night, his daughter Audrey caught him in the kitchen, eating a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, milk and olives. “Not something I would do voluntarily,” Harris says with a laugh.

And he started forgetting things—names, dates and miscellaneous details. “It’s not even something I really even think about coping with anymore,” he says. “It’s just one of those things: I know for a fact that if I’m not real dead-set on remembering something, and if I don’t remind myself of it a million times, I’m going to forget it.”

A doctor diagnosed his condition as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it hasn’t improved much since he first mentioned it during his interview with MP two years ago. But Harris isn’t alone: PTSD affects an estimated 18 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq War and an estimated 11 percent of those who served in the Afghanistan mission, according to a comprehensive study performed in 2004 (Hoge et al.).

In comparison to previous wars, these are alarmingly high rates. The National Center for PTSD suggests that this is due to the unprecedented stressors and traumas associated with the new type of war that is being fought. The risk of developing PTSD increases with exposure to intense combat situations, including receiving fire (experienced by 94 percent of soldiers in Iraq); knowing someone who was seriously injured or killed (84 percent); seeing dead or seriously injured Americans (68 percent); and handling or uncovering human remains (51 percent). Other stressors include being responsible for the death of enemy combatants (48 percent) or noncombatants (28 percent). 

Types of therapy are available to aid PTSD sufferers, but Harris doesn’t intend to go that route. “I’m sure there’s something I can do, but I’ve spent a lot of time kind of in denial about whether or not I do actually have a problem with my memory,” he says. “I mean, obviously I know I do, but when it comes down to ‘Maybe you should do something about that,’—‘Ah no, I’ll be fine.’ It’s kind of hard to bring it to life and admit it.”

On other fronts, life’s good. This evening he’s at the Smoky Mountain Skate Center, preparing the rink for the Hard Knox Roller Girls’ first home match. Getting a roller-derby team off the ground is one of a couple projects that Harris has been devoting his energy to of late, in addition to taking time out to just be a dad. His 9-year-old son Tyler keeps clomping up to Harris in heavy roller skates during the interview, looking equal parts inquisitive and impatient behind Harry Potter-esque wire-rimmed glasses.

“As soon as I got back, I took six months off and didn’t do anything, just got reacquainted with my family,” Harris recalls. He says he had the opportunity to go back to Iraq a couple months ago for an 18-month rotation, but declined. “Probably, if it wasn’t for my kids, I would have in a heartbeat, but you miss so much in 18 months. Plus, I’ve got like 36 adopted daughters now [the Roller Girls]. I’ve built myself more responsibility at home so I don’t wander away from home again. I don’t regret it, but I’m done with it.”

Harris, an honorably discharged Army soldier, was motivated to rejoin the Army Reserves after Sept. 11. When the order came for Iraq in 2003, he volunteered to go. He was to serve as a combat photographer, whose job it was to take pictures of battlefield occurrences. The images were then sent back to the Pentagon and analyzed. “I didn’t have a choice in what I was going to document,” he says. “I just had to make sure that when I was taking a picture of something, it was the most accurate portrayal of what was happening. I never tried to do framing or selective editing to make the situation seem different than how it actually occurred.”

It’s a philosophy that the news media would do well to take to heart, Harris suggests. For the first couple weeks after Harris returned from Iraq, he says he watched the news constantly. But he quickly grew disillusioned with the picture it was painting of the war and eventually quit watching the news altogether. “It was kind of like everything I saw on TV was packaged, you know? It was put in a nice little package with a bow on it, ready for sale to the general public. They were showing whatever would sell.”

The sensational, it seems, is what sells. “If something out of the ordinary or strange or unusual or something bad happened, that was huge news. Those events happened every so often, but on a daily basis there were school openings when we rebuilt a school, or rebuilt a bridge, or put in a water tower and water purification system…. But I never saw a single story on that stuff over here, ever.”

As far as public opinion about the war is concerned, Harris says he wasn’t too worried about it while he was in Iraq. “They can think whatever they want,” he says. “I did the job I was supposed to do and never felt bad about it.” Like Gaither, Harris notes that support of the troops and support of the cause can operate as independent entities; even when support of the cause dwindled, he never felt like the American public was taking its frustrations out on the soldiers.

Harris doesn’t consider himself a political person and says he didn’t see a lot of really strong political views in the Army. “As soldiers, you don’t really care. It doesn’t matter which party is in charge. If the president says jump, you jump. I doubt that any of it was politically charged; it was more of an opportunity to do what you’re supposed to do.”

While in Iraq, he sensed the support of Iraqi civilians—“The people there want democracy, they’ll tell you that”—but explains that it’s still a foreign concept to them. “So you have these aliens coming in, running this alien thing they’ve asked for. It’s a very precarious situation,” he says.

Harris cautions against the suggestion of pulling troops out from Iraq completely. Doing so, he says, would leave the country in a destabilized state: “Basically, you’re leaving it for ruin, and we’d just end up going back over there in a few years and fixing what we didn’t finish the first time.” Rather, he encourages Americans to be patient with the troops’ slow, steady process, which is the best path for long-term improvements, anyway. “We’re a McDonald’s nation. We want it fast, we want it cheap, and we want it good. We want it the way we want it. But the whole world doesn’t work that way,” he says.

Recovering from his experience in Iraq will be a slow, steady process for Harris as well. There are still issues, posed to him during the first MP interview, that he doesn’t wish to address. One of them is the validity of the Iraq War itself. “I refuse to get into a discussion about whether we should’ve been there in the first place or not. I just won’t do it. The fact is, we’re there,” he says. “History will teach us all kinds of things and that’s great, but I don’t think history a year ago is necessarily the best way to look at things.”

For now, Harris says he’s ready to move on with his life here in Tennessee, though he expects the ghost of Iraq to haunt him for years to come. In contrast to those details of everyday life that he’s become so prone to forgetting, the war in Iraq is something he couldn’t erase from his memory if he tried. “I can honestly say I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about that experience, at least once a day, for one reason or another be it good or bad,” he says. “It doesn’t leave you. At least I don’t think it does. It might eventually. It hasn’t yet.”

Check out the Nov. 11, 2004 story, “What They Saw” by Joe Tarr, here .

You Break It, You Buy It Veterans speak out on the ongoing costs of war and Congress’s reluctance to pay up

Although the rain has been coming down in sheets for hours, the parking lot outside a windowless cinderblock building on N. Fourth Avenue is steadily filling up. Most of the vehicles belong to war veterans, their bumpers canvassed with stickers bearing flags and patriotic slogans. Inside, ball-capped men are gathered in twos and threes at the bar or in front of the college football game that’s playing on a big-screen television. Red, white and blue streamers hang from the ceiling, and a giant American flag covers one wall. “Veterans of Foreign Wars,” a mural announces in somber block letters. “Post 1733.”

This is a gathering place for locals who have served in wartime conflict and the home of a veterans’ service association, V.F.W., created in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War and the 1899-1902 Philippine Insurrection. Worldwide, V.F.W. boasts 2.5 million members and 9,000 posts. The Knoxville post, founded in 1929, has 400 members, comprised of veterans from all branches of the military. They’ve served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, and now that veterans are beginning to return home from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, due to the latter, the post saw a 60-veteran jump in membership.

But Post 1733 Commander Harry Carroll says he’s observed a disturbing trend amongst our country’s newest wave of returning troops. “There are more handicapped veterans than ever returning from Iraq,” he says. “This war is causing more loss of limbs than any other war. There are more brain injuries due to the types of weapons being used, the IEDs and the hidden explosives.”

The reasoning for this, he explains, is that in previous wars, medical technology was not yet advanced to the point that such life-threatening injuries could be stabilized. “Before, these injuries would have killed you,” Carroll says. “Now they can put you back together and keep you alive, but you’re not 100 percent. When you come back, you may not be the same person you were when you went over there.”

Between January ’03 and July of this year, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reports that 1,360 Iraq veterans have been treated in DVBIC locations across the country, although most mild brain injuries go unreported, says DVBIC spokesperson Chuck Dasey. “A fairly large number of concussion-type traumas have not been treated,” Dasey says. “A mild traumatic brain injury is comparable to a football player getting a concussion in a game, to where he has to sit out for a game or two.”

Jesse Lee Hicks, a trustee and lifetime member of Post 1733 who now lives in Halls, compares the IEDs troops face today with the landmines he encountered while fighting in WWII—a tactic that perhaps introduced the modern wartime concept of the enemy being everywhere and nowhere, perpetuating a climate of constant fear.

“It’s a miracle, in a way, that we’ve only lost 2,500 (2,697 Americans at press time according to the U.S. Department of Defense) of them,” he says. “It’s really a different kind of war we’re having now. In all other wars, we knew who the enemy was—they were wearing uniforms and shooting at us.” Carroll adds, “There’s no front or rear. In Iraq it’s all out in the open. There’s no safe zone.”

Hicks says the American public’s attitude toward war has changed since his days in the military as well. He remembers coming home from WWII to parades and parties, a far different homecoming than the one experienced by Vietnam troops. “I didn’t see it happen myself, but some of them were even spit on,” he says. Hicks fears the same attitude will be applied to troops returning home from Iraq if the nation remains deeply divided in its support of the war. “We need to get this country united so when the soldiers come back, they’re greeted with honor.”

Even the government, both Carroll and Hicks note, seems to be giving troops returning from Iraq only a lukewarm welcome. As of press time, just four days prior to the government’s new fiscal year, Congress had not yet passed a VA budget for 2006-07. When one is passed, many fear it won’t be adequate to cover the growing healthcare needs of returning troops. And with the end of the war still nowhere in sight, the shortcomings of today will likely bleed into and exacerbate the shortcomings of tomorrow. V.F.W. National Commander Gary Kurpius testified as much before the House Veteran Affairs Committee last week.

“We’re not asking for more than postmen or firemen,” Carroll says. “We’re just asking for things that were promised to us that have been taken away or have not been fulfilled.”

For instance, the increasing number of troops experiencing brain trauma—dubbed the “signature wound” of the Iraq war—seems at odds with the House and Senate’s proposal in August to cut defense appropriations funding for traumatic brain injury research and treatment by half. “We’re asking Congress to please fund these brain injury centers,” Carroll says. “We will not leave another generation of veterans behind.”

Other issues on the table include a Senate bill, the Veterans Choice of Representation Act (S. 2694), which would allow veterans to hire lawyers in the initial claims stage—an allowance that the V.F.W. argues isn’t fair to those who choose not to or can’t afford a lawyer and would furthermore result in a less timely service of claims. Already, there is a backlog of over 800,000 VA claims that have not yet been addressed, a number that the House VA Committee has exhibited no concrete plans for reducing.

Carroll and other members of the V.F.W. argue that the GI Bill is also in dire need of updating. “The cost of living has changed,” he says. “Tuitions have gone sky high. The GI Bill was designed for someone going to school in 1955.” Hicks agrees; after returning from WWII, he was one of many who took advantage of the bill, attending the University of Tennessee and graduating with a degree in engineering. Veterans who come home today expecting to receive a college education out of the government’s pocket are unlikely to encounter such an opportunity, Carroll says.

The VA has also come under fire of late for a series of data security breaches earlier this year, when a laptop computer containing the personal data of almost 27 million veterans and service members was stolen from a VA employee’s home in Maryland. The incident was followed by another laptop theft from a VA subcontractor containing the personal data of approximately 38,000 veterans. After the latter incident, the VA announced that it would upgrade all its agencies’ computers with new encryption technology and provide veterans whose personal data may have been compromised with a free one-year credit-monitoring program. The credit-monitoring program was later pulled, angering veterans nationwide. 

As Iraq veterans continue their slow trickle into Post 1733, the problematic transition between soldier and civilian only stands to grow more glaring. On its end, Post 1733 will continue to offer what it can, simultaneously functioning as an information center, a place to talk things out over a cold beer, and a voice speaking out for the veterans it represents. 

“We’re asking Congress, are you in touch with the reality of what this war is doing?” Carroll says. “We will always back our commander-in-chief because we took that oath, but what we’re saying is you have to expect what’s coming back if you’re going to send us over there. You’ve got to have the benefits and the facilities to support us when we return.” — L.W.

© 2006 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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