When speaking of the human cost of a war, pundits tend to focus on one number: casualties. The war in Iraq has redefined this number, with more people surviving their injuries than ever before. Now the human toll has morphed into another statistic: the wounded. Burns mixed with lost limbs and decimated bones, muscles, and nerves—this is the cost that Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston assesses and treats every day. Here, senior editor Michael Hall discusses what he learned about the strength, hopes, and fears of the wounded at BAMC and how they taught him to put politics aside.
texasmonthly.com: Was it hard to get access to Brooke Army Medical Center for your story? Why or why not?
Michael Hall: The upshot is that it used to be really easy to get into Fort Sam Houston and to go inside Brooke Army Medical Center—it was an open base and hospital. Of course, everything changed after 9/11, and now you have to go through armed guards to get on the base and into the hospital. Plus, the media have to go through a couple of different PAOs (Public Affairs Officers), and when a reporter is on base, he or she has to be accompanied by a PAO at all times.
Actually, BAMC is actively seeking publicity for the new amputee center as well as all of its other facilities. They want people to know what the hospital is doing for the soldiers and what these guys are having to go through. I think there is a sense that they are not going to let happen now what happened back in the sixties and seventies, when the returning wounded were shuffled aside and made to feel unworthy, when, of course, they are, and should be treated as, returning heroes.
texasmonthly.com: In the end it didn’t hurt that you had personal ties to BAMC. Can you explain why your father’s portrait hangs on a BAMC wall?
MH: I think that once the PAOs realized that I had a personal connection to BAMC, they knew that I would be a sympathetic observer. The truth is, my father, Colonel Robert M. Hall, was an Army doctor. He served on the battlefield in World War II, in MASH units in Korea, and in a Saigon office in Vietnam. His last active duty post in the Army was at BAMC, where he was the hospital commander from 1973–1974. When I told this to Mike Dulevitz, one of the BAMC PAOs, he was shocked and took me to the wall where all the commanders’ photos hang. There was my dad. I was immensely proud, and my father, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, was pleased when I told him his photo was still there.
texasmonthly.com: Given your father’s history at BAMC, how familiar were you with the center before you began working on the story?
MH: BAMC was moved from its old building, which was built in the late thirties, to a new building in 1996—the old one is being leased to some other division of the Army, I think—so I was unfamiliar with this center, at least physically.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend at BAMC working on this article?
MH: I spent three days there, first at the ceremony, then two more days doing interviews.
texasmonthly.com: You mention in your story that you were never in the Army. Did you know what to expect going in? Had you seen these kinds of injuries before?
MH: Yeah. I used to visit my dad at the hospital, plus I was part of a church group that did volunteer work, such as singing Christmas carols on the different wards, including the burn center. I was very familiar with the order and discipline of an Army facility—the salutes, uniforms, things like that.
texasmonthly.com: How were you able to get the soldiers to open up to you about their physical and emotional pain?
MH: It was easy, especially with J.R. Martinez and Joshua Forbess. They’ve been interviewed so many times that they seem to want to open up, at least to the extent that they already have done so. I think one of the big parts of the healing process for them, psychologically, is to treat their injuries, which to us are such a big deal, as just part of their day-to-day lives now.
texasmonthly.com: Did you talk to the families of these soldiers? How are they dealing with the loss?
MH: I talked a little with J. R.’s mother and Dusty’s mom, who are both solid as rocks. J. R. and Dusty told me they wouldn’t have made it without their moms, who have stood beside them every moment they could. I don’t know if that’s a mom thing or not. I do know that some of the soldiers have not been so lucky, that they have been abandoned by wives, who say, basically (and unfortunately, truthfully), that the man they married is not the same man now.
texasmonthly.com: You open the story describing a Purple Heart ceremony. Did any of the soldiers express what the decoration meant to them?
MH: Dustin Hill told me that it meant a lot to him, that it meant that the Army recognized him and was thanking him for the sacrifice he made.
texasmonthly.com: Colonel H.D. Peterson, the former chief of the burn center’s clinical division, explained that recovery depends on a soldier’s character before the accident. What qualities would you say help people like J.R. Martinez and Joshua Forbess persevere?
MH: I think they were both confident personalities beforehand. J. R. was a popular high school kid, a good athlete, certain he was going to play pro football. Josh was secure in himself—he said he didn’t really care what people thought of him before the accident and he didn’t really care now. I think they each have the mind-set to carry on.
texasmonthly.com: You mention that one of the biggest differences between the war in Iraq and previous wars is that 91 percent of the wounded survive—up from 76 percent in the Persian Gulf War. This means that the human cost of war—disfigurement and amputation—will be much more visible to the public as these soldiers reenter civilian society. Did any of the soldiers describe their experience returning to the public sphere? Do they worry about the reaction they’ll get?
MH: They all say that when they get any kind of public thanks, whether it’s a parade in their hometown or a stranger saying “thanks” in an airport, that it means everything to them. Both J. R. and Josh told me that they were initially scared and self-conscious about showing their new faces in public. I think they have both, to a large degree, accepted their new personas, and they are a lot less self-conscious and nervous, but I imagine those things will never completely leave them.
texasmonthly.com: At one point you say that it’s easy for many people to overlook the war. This article makes the effects of war hard for the reader to ignore. What kind of dialogue are you hoping this article will produce?
MH: I don’t know. I have never supported this war or the president who started it. What I realized doing this story, though, was how unequivocally I had to leave my politics at the gate. This wasn’t about politics, this was about the foot soldiers who get ground up in war. As much as I hate this war, I walked out of that hospital loving these soldiers, in awe of their courage—not only on the battlefield in Iraq but in the battlefield of their daily lives now—and respectful of their motivations for going into the Army in the first place. I’d like to think that people who make policy will see stories like this and realize the human cost of war and find ways to not send young men into battle. But that’s naive. Supporters of the war will read the stories of Dusty, Josh, and J. R. and see brave young warriors paying the precious, worthy price of freedom. Those opposed to the war will read their stories and see brave young warriors paying the precious price, but unnecessarily, wastefully, tragically.