Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Published on Monday, December 4, 2006 by the Boston Globe

Mourning the Hidden Tragedy in Iraq
by Beverly Beckham

Adam is my prism. I look at life through his eyes. He is 20 months old, and everything is new to him. And so far, everything is good. He's loved. He's healthy. He sees the world as a safe place. I know the world isn't safe. And it scares me sometimes, the difference between what he sees and what I know.

Life is fragile. It's why we swaddle infants, and put bumper pads in cribs and seat belts in cars and inoculate against disease. It's why parents don't sleep some nights, many nights, worrying about all that can go wrong.
Adam is my youngest daughter's child, a happy little boy. In 16 years, I wonder, will he be a soldier fighting a war in some far-off place most of us can't find on a map? Will he be ducking bullets and bombs in a town we can't pronounce? Will he lose the legs he runs on, the hands that build Lego towers, the arms he wraps around his mother's neck? I rock him to sleep some nights and tell him happy stories. Am I lying to him by weaving tales?

My best friend's son is fighting in Iraq. He is her baby. Another friend's two sons are in Iraq. They are her babies. Everyone is someone's baby. It takes a lifetime to grow them and only seconds to lose them. And we're losing them while we're shopping, while we're watching TV, while we're listening to the radio and planning our day.

Earl T. Hecker is a trauma surgeon who was stationed in Landstuhl, Germany. He's one of 29 American servicemen who speak about the war in a new book: "What Was Asked of Us -- An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It," compiled by Canadian journalist Trish Wood. Hecker talks about the 30,000 injured Americans. "I've been to Normandy. I've been to Flanders Fields. I've been to all these places. The soldiers are dead. They're dead. But this is an injury war. . . . Soldiers in Iraq are surviving horrific injuries. . . . Right now it's absolutely hidden. I don't think most people think about these kids at all. Out of sight, out of mind."

The Iraq war has been out of sight. It's like an art house movie. You have to make an effort to see it, and it's mainly been the participant s' families and friends who've been watching. America's preoccupation has not been the war. It's been the latest action-packed adventure -- James Bond this week, somebody else next week -- because war is grim, Sunnis and Shiites are confusing, and no one likes reading subtitles.

"Who's the prime minister of Iraq? Who's the president of Iraq? When did we assault Fallujah? A lot of people died during those times." People should know these things. This is what Benjamin Flanders, New Hampshire Army National Guard, says in this book that should be a bestseller but isn't because we're not lining up to read about the war, either.

The veterans who sat down and talked to Wood are only a handful of the roughly 1 million soldiers who've served in Iraq. They talked individually in "long, emotional interviews" about their lack of knowledge: "We were handed a book about as thick as a wallet, a little green book on Iraq, and that was our knowledge of the country we were about to enter."

They talked about trust gained and then lost: "November '03 was about the six-month period for us, and we hadn't yet provided adequate water, sewerage, and electricity to the Iraqis. So all of a sudden, we were no longer 'America the liberator.' Now we're the invaders who can't supply what we're supposed to be giving them."

They talked about shooting the enemy: "Normally we aim for an area called the triangle of death. It's an area around the mouth region in the chin where a shot is designed to separate your spine from your head, rendering the person completely paralyzed."

They talked about their lack of equipment: "We should have had way more armor on the Humvees." They talked about Iraq's dirt. If an explosion is close enough, "it cuts you off from the rest of your guys, so you don't know if they got hit or not because there's a big dust cloud." And they talked about the heat, the fear, the bureaucracy, the camaraderie, and how the war changed them. "When I got wounded, I was on my second tour of Iraq. I was hit by an IED" -- an improvised explosive device -- "and ended up losing both my legs."

Adam is my prism. I see him in every soldier. I wish I didn't.

"I think that the loss of life that we've had is tragic. The loss of the Iraqi people is tragic. But I'm going to look back to the good that we were able to do when we were there. . . . We had a program called Operation Adopt an Iraqi Village. We had thousands of boxes of stuff come over from all over the country. . . . We were able to make some people pretty happy, and some children very happy."

I watch Adam play and think about the man he will become. And I hope that war isn't in his future.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at bbeckham@globe.com.


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