WASHINGTON — Every day, Staff Sgt. Eugene Simpson is back in the pocket, looking for the open receiver downfield.
In his mind, he’s there again, reliving his days as a high school football quarterback, a junior college cornerback and a point guard on the basketball team.
He can’t suppress a grin, and that’s the incongruous moment in his story, because this 29-year-old father of four with the upper body physique of the athlete he once was is sitting in his wheelchair in Washington’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital, paralyzed from the waist down, a graduate of the Iraq war, Class of 2004.
“I can’t let this beat me,” he says. “It’s a competition, it’s that competition left over from my days in sports.”
Almost on the other side of the country, Sgt. Michael Sarro, Iraq war, Class of 2005, is lying in a hospital bed in Texas, his 10th or 11th time back there — he’s lost count — talking about the nights, when darkness rolls in, and you’re all alone, with nothing but time to think, about yourself, about what happened, about why it happened.
“Some of those things I’ve thought or felt, I’m not sure I want the guys I know to read about,” he says. “You know, the military, it’s really the biggest tough guy convention you’ll find … you have to keep that tough guy outlook.”
No one could ever question the toughness of Simpson or Sarro, two of the more than 17,000 injured Iraq war veterans, many battling back from horrific injuries in this country as it marks the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
But as the fight drags on, there are questions about the cost of this war to a generation of young men and women.
There are even larger questions about the psychological cost to those who have returned and the tens of thousands who will someday return to try to reintegrate into everyday life here.
By some estimates, a U.S. Senate committee was recently told, one in three of the homeless in America are veterans, and more and more they are young veterans of Afghanistan or the two Iraq campaigns.
A study published in the Journal of American Medicine last month concluded about one-third of Iraq war veterans seek mental health help upon their return. The study of 222,620 veterans found the risk for serious mental problems was much higher in Iraq veterans than those returned from Afghanistan or other conflicts.
The study found 80 per cent of those who were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reported witnessing persons being wounded or killed or being involved in combat in which they fired their weapons.
“For those who survive, they return home having seen hellish things,” says Dave Uchic, a spokesperson for Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“They are serving in a constant state of stress. There is no front. It is urban warfare. What if Iraq tips to civil war? They could witness massacres or huge waves of suicide bombings.
“This is a terrible thing they have to deal with over there. But this could get much worse when more and more start coming home.”
Canada now has about 2,200 troops stationed in Afghanistan and is starting to suffer casualties. The U.S. experience may serve as a precursor to the types of problems Canadian veterans could face when they return home.
Tom Cray of the U.S. National Coalition for Homeless Veterans told a congressional committee that there are 200,000 veterans living on American streets on any given night, but his network is seeing more and more veterans from this Iraq war, many of them suffering PTSD, on the streets.
To deal with the escalating needs of veterans, U.S. President George W. Bush is asking Congress to approve a Veterans Affairs budget of $80.6 billion (U.S.) for the coming year, including $34.3 billion for medical care, an 11 per cent increase.
Of the medical component, Veterans Affairs is prepared to spend $3.2 billion on mental health services.
Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson says the department is reaching out to veterans to try to reassure them there is no stigma attached to seeking help for PTSD.
“We’re emphasizing the symptoms of PTSD for obvious reasons, although it hasn’t been done before,” he told a Senate committee. “When they have the kind of encounters that they do … these are quite usual reactions to that unusual experience of combat or the environment that they lived in, in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they shouldn’t think they’re losing their mind, there should be no stigma attached to this by others or self-imposed.”
All returning active duty service members, reservists and National Guard members are eligible for fully paid health care or nursing home care for two years after their release from active military service, as long as their illness or affliction is related to their combat service.
Simpson, who is a single parent to four boys, Raekwon, 9, Dashan, 7, Kaya, 4, and Shimon, 3, receives the military’s maximum disability allowance of $4,000 tax-free per month.
Sarro lauds a military that, by his estimate, has paid out $500,000 for his surgeries.
“I can’t stop praising the military,” he said. “Yes, they put you in harm’s way, but that’s your job.”
Returning vets, as well, must deal with two other factors. They must continue to watch a war on television, knowing they can’t participate.
Sarro, for example, lamented that he couldn’t be part of Operation Swarmer, the U.S.-Iraqi offensive launched last week.
Simpson has the opposite reaction, calling such a wish “insane.”
“You know soldiers, pride gets in the way of a lot of things they say,” he says.
“I can watch it now. Back when I got hurt and my unit was still over there, I couldn’t watch it. My buddies were there, you have a close relationship with those guys.
“I didn’t want to be watching TV and hear about a buddy getting killed.”
Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and now the executive director of the political action committee of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) says “it’s hard to fight a war and see that war being fought on TV. It’s harder to come back and learn the justification for that war wasn’t clear.
“These things will take a toll.
“We don’t feel the [VA] is anywhere near equipped to deal with the influx of Iraq war veterans.”
He also tells the story of a returned soldier who had lost his arm, and was diagnosed with PTSD by his civilian psychiatrist, but his military psychiatrist told him he had “adjustment disorder.” The military is not yet adept at diagnosing PTSD, let alone treating the disorder, he says.
Paul Hackett, the Iraq war veteran who narrowly missed winning an Ohio congressional seat in a special election last summer — before his own Democratic party sidelined him — says the cost of continued health care will eventually mean the war tab in the United States will hit $2 trillion.
“We are creating a huge number of veterans that are going to have a tremendous financial impact on this country,” he says.
But one thing returning veterans do not have to worry about, particularly in comparison to the plight of those who had returned from Vietnam, is the reception at home.
Most are greeted as heroes, regardless of the unpopularity of the war on the homefront.
What is remarkable about the tales of Sarro and Simpson are the similarities in how they were injured and the networks of support when they returned.
Simpson, a tank commander in the Germany-based 177th Armored Brigade, volunteered the morning of April 7, 2004, to pick up meals from another base camp in the Tikrit area.
He was in the lead Humvee in a three-vehicle convoy when he stopped about 1,000 metres from his base camp because the truck of Iraqi soldiers behind him had stopped and ignored his calls to continue.
“I looked back to see what the problem was, and I saw a guy between two houses in the alley with a car remote,” he recalls.
“I knew instantly it was for explosives. My first reaction was to raise my gun and shoot at him, but before I could do it, he detonated the explosives.”
He can remember his enemy’s eyes — cold, betraying a man with a determination to do his job. He tried to jump to the back seat, but as soon as he turned his back, he took the scrap metal and debris in the back and realized he couldn’t move his lower body.
“I was scared to look down and find I had no legs at all.”
On May 14, 2005, Sarro, now 26, was similarly only about 500 metres from base camp when his Humvee ran over two anti-tank mines.
His leg already injured by shrapnel, he tried to assist colleagues when he saw a flare go up about 150 metres away, a signal for an attack from the enemy.
During the ensuing firefight, about 20 minutes later, he was shot “right through the leg.”
“It is ungodly the amount of support you get from people,” says Sarro, who wants to counsel troubled youth and hopes to write a book to help teens who may have been travelling down the wrong path, as he was, before he joined the military.
“You just can’t keep him down,” says his father, Mike Sarro, of Phoenixville, Pa.
When Simpson returned home to Dale City, Va., local residents refitted his parents’ home to ensure it was wheelchair accessible.
He will soon be moving into a new wheelchair-accessible home being built by a non-profit charity known as Homes For Our Troops.
He credits his friends, his parents and God as those he talks to to help him through his darkest days.
“I’m alive,” he says. “That’s what counts. I came to a point where I could handle this. Someone else in my same position may not have been able to handle it. Am I above anybody else?
“No. I just won’t let this beat me.”