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Firsthand Journalism

October 23, 2005

Ernie Pyle was famous for front-line dispatches on U.S. troops in World War II. Edward R. Murrow was famous for his “You Are There” television program. Like most celebrated journalists, they were astute observers of other people’s experiences.

Stewart Nusbaumer ought to be celebrated for another dimension of journalism. He reports on current events through the prism of his own experiences. In the current edition of the online magazine, www.Interventionmag.com, where he is the editor and publisher (and I’m an occasional contributing editor), he takes readers on an insider’s tour of a military hospital.

“The Costs of War at Walter Reed” is not a newsroom-dispatched visitor’s awkward look at severely wounded soldiers home from Iraq. Nusbaumer spent time on military hospital wards after an explosion in Vietnam shredded a leg and other parts. He writes with raw-edged eloquence from firsthand experience.

“I see in the halls of Walter Reed hospital soldiers with leg braces and neck supports, soldiers with faces slashed by bombs and stitched up by doctors. Soldiers with legs terribly mangled, soldiers with no legs -- amputees with short stumps, with long stumps, without any stumps since entire limbs are missing. A man walks by without an arm. I suddenly travel back in time to another war, to another hospital when I was one of those young men without a limb…”

“The sergeant has been back from Iraq since January, nine months in Walter Reed, and his leg remains ugly looking. It will probably always be ugly looking. But in Walter Reed looks mean nothing, what matters is walking. I remember my obsession to walk, an obsession that overcame the pain and the blood, anything to be able to walk again. And the sergeant is walking, with crutches. But I doubt this sergeant will do much walking in his lifetime.

”Sometimes it’s best to just cut the leg off, but doctors can not always do what is best. The sergeant stands up, struggles to walk five feet, stops for a rest. He looks over his shoulder and says, ‘I’ll make it, I have to make it.’…”

Nusbaumer doesn’t just describe the struggle to walk or, in severe cases, to feed oneself again. He describes what it’s like lying in a hospital bed missing some body parts. He describes from experience what’s coming next.

“When discharged from the hospital, their tight support network disappears and the strong optimism in the wake of a close call begins to wane. There is now time and space to think, and to ask questions. Sitting alone in an apartment, probably a spartanly furnished apartment, maybe in a dingy bar with their back against the wall, the questions start. They always do, for those severely wounded. Those ‘for what’ questions: for what do I have to put on an artificial limb every morning? For what must I live with this horrible pain every day? For what did my buddy die? For what was all the horror for?”

From experience, he warns that the greatest shock is yet to come: the discovery that most Americans are too busy to bother, as they blithely go about their lives, to offer more than token rhetorical support for shattered soldiers, sacrificing nothing in a war waged in their names, tolerating “an administration that won’t fully fund veterans’ health care, while it does not properly equip our troops in war…”

“I stand up from the bench, it’s hard for me to sit for too long, and it’s hard for me to walk for very far. Instead of returning to the 5th floor, I return to my car. Driving through the gate of Walter Reed and onto Connecticut Avenue -- a cab whizzes by, a speeding van honks, a couple on the sidewalk hugs -- my head shoots back as pain rips through my stump, just as fast it leaves. But I know the pain will be back. This is for a lifetime. What's inside Walter Reed is also for a lifetime.”

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