Sixteen years ago, President George W. Bush created the President’s Commission on Care for Americans Returning Wounded Warriors, also known as the Dole-Shalala Commission, which assessed the quality of care our injured military personnel received once they came back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The commission wanted to assign an advocate for the wounded warriors and their families, to help them navigate cumbersome bureaucracy.
One of their recommendations was to establish a corps of Recovery Care Coordinators (RCCs), and I wanted to get involved. I yearned to partake in what I considered the most patriotic duty, second to serving: advocating for our war-wounded and their families.
My time with the wounded warriors allowed me to witness firsthand what our combat heroes went through in Iraq.
I watched, heartbroken, as a grief-stricken mom walked away from her son’s hospital bed in anguish because she had prayed the night before that she would go into his room the next morning and his face, disfigured from an explosive blast, would be healed.
I cried with a triple amputee who told me how devastated he was that he wouldn’t be able to cradle his newborn baby with his own arms.
Contrary to what the hawks circling Bush’s Cabinet claimed, Saddam Hussein posed no threat to the United States. The Iraq War wasn’t an honest mistake. It was a calculated effort executed to fulfill a political agenda.
And while those hawks were able to return to their easy lives after the war, our wounded warriors enjoyed no such luxury. Not only did they come back battered and bewildered, they were also treated as second-class citizens, dismissed as mere “boots on the ground” by the powers-that-be.
Our service members are not boots on the ground; they are valued human beings. More than 4,500 made the ultimate sacrifice, and 100,000 have been wounded for life.
On Oct. 13, 2006, two years before I was hired at Walter Reed, I observed a group of wounded warriors on a tour of the Pentagon. Among them was a melancholy young man in a wheelchair who looked as though he may have just turned 18. One of his legs was amputated, and he wore a patch over one of his eyes. I went over to him, said hello, and asked him how he was doing. He responded with a gloomy, “OK,” and went about his way. Then I saw an Air Force sergeant painfully walking with a limp, his entire face badly burned.
Tears welled up in my eyes. At that moment, it hit me that those valiant souls had no idea why their sacrifice was made.
I decided right then and there to start asking service members if they knew why they were sent to Iraq, considering no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found. One of these conversations, with decorated war veteran Lt. Col. Greg Harbin, has stayed with me.
“Why do you think we were asked to pull up stakes in Afghanistan and head off to Iraq?” I asked Harbin.
“Chief,” he responded, “I wear this patch over my eye because of the war, and left part of my brain over there due to a traumatic brain injury, and to this day, I still don’t know why I was asked to go.”
He then added, “I never felt it was about WMD.”
March 20, 2023, was the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. It also marks 20 years of hell for countless veterans and their families, who continue to struggle with the devastating effects of this senseless conflict: opioid addiction, homelessness, PTSD. These and other issues have led to the high suicide rate among our veterans.
If you happen to cross paths with an Iraq War veteran on March 20, don’t just thank them for their service—apologize to them on behalf of our country, for their sacrifice was based on lies and deceit. Our troops were pawns of our imperialistic foreign policy. All Americans should be outraged. We should never let this happen again.