An Invisible War
New York Times
May 3, 2007
Paul Rieckhoff looked across the crowded restaurant, which was not far
from Times Square.
?During World War II,? he said, ?we could be in this place and there
would be a guy sitting at that table who was in the war, or the bartender
had been in the war. Everybody you saw would have had a stake in the war.
But right now you could walk around New York for blocks and not find
anybody who has been in Iraq.
?The president can say we?re a country at war all he wants. We?re not. The
military is at war. And the military families are at war. Everybody else
Mr. Rieckhoff is an imposing six-foot-two-inch, 245-pound former infantry officer who joined the military after graduating from Amherst College.
When he came home from a harrowing tour in Iraq in 2004, he vowed to do
what he could to serve the interests of the men and women who have fought
in Iraq and Afghanistan but have never fully gotten the support they
deserve from the government or the public at large.
He wrote a book, ?Chasing Ghosts,? which is now out in paperback, and he
formed a powerful veterans? advocacy organization called Iraq and
Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Mr. Rieckhoff is not bitter. He?s actually funny and quite engaging (and a
good writer). But he has very little tolerance for the negligence and
incompetence the government has shown in equipping the troops and fighting
the war in Iraq, and he is frustrated by the short shrift that he feels
the troops get from the media and the vast majority of Americans.
There?s a gigantic and extremely disturbing disconnect, he says, between
the experiences of the men and women in uniform and the perspective of
people here at home. ?We have a very diverse membership in I.A.V.A.,? he
said. ?We?ve got Republicans and Democrats and everything in between. But
one of the key things we all have in common is this frustration with the
detachment that we see all around us, this idea that we?re at war and
everybody else is watching ?American Idol.?
?I think that?s one of the main reasons why so many guys want to go back
to Iraq. They come home and feel like: ?Man, I don?t fit in here. You
know, I?m out of place.? ? Even though there?s never been a clear
statement of the military?s mission in Iraq, and the goals have shifted
from month to month and year to year, the soldiers and marines who have
been sent there have felt that they were carrying out an important task on
behalf of the nation.
?It?s tough to have such a serious sense of commitment,? Mr. Rieckhoff
said, ?and then come home and see so many people focused on such frivolous
things. So I think that frustration is serious and growing. And I?ll tell
you the truth: I blame the president for that. One of the biggest
criticisms of the president, and I hear this across the board, is that he
hasn?t asked the American people to do anything.?
Mr. Rieckhoff is convinced that if the public heard more from the soldiers
and marines who have actually experienced combat, including those who have been wounded and suffered emotional trauma, the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan would be viewed more seriously. Part of the problem, he said,
is that too many civilians have little or no understanding of what war is
really like, and of the toll it takes beyond the obvious toll of the dead
Among other things, there are family problems, drug and alcohol abuse,
untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicide ? all
directly attributable to service in a war zone. ?Incredibly,? he writes in
his book, ?no government agency keeps track of the number of veterans who
kill themselves after their service has ended ? another sign of how little
value is placed on veterans? long-term well-being.?
I mentioned a young soldier I had interviewed in 2005 who worried that
because he had killed three insurgents during a battle in Iraq he might
not be ?allowed into heaven.? The soldier wondered whether he had ?done
the right thing.?
Mr. Rieckhoff nodded. ?Asking somebody to die for their country might not
be the biggest thing you can ask,? he said. ?Asking my guys to kill, on my
orders ? as an officer, that?s difficult. I?m telling that kid to squeeze that round off and take a man?s life. And then he?s got that baggage for
the rest of his life. That?s what you have to live with.?
I signaled for the check and we left the restaurant. It was a beautiful,
sunlit afternoon. New Yorkers were smiling and enjoying the spring
weather. There was no sign of a war anywhere.