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Best of TomDispatch: Ann Jones, War Wounds

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America's Father's Day was first celebrated on June 19, 1910, in Washington State. That was only a few years before Ann Jones's father went to war. His was the Great War which turned out " with its trenches of frozen mud, rats and lice, poison gas, and machine-gun death " to be not so great. It was supposed to be the War to End all Wars, but all it did was bequeath to humanity a more terrible war that would be even more worldly.

Jones's father returned from the trenches with a passel of medals, a lifelong disability, and a book of horrors that she was never allowed to see as a child. I don't know if he was part of the reason that she felt compelled to report on such horrors herself, but I'm glad she did. The result is some of the finest journalism about this country's ongoing, never-ending era of Forever Wars.

In 2013, Dispatch Books published Jones's modern masterpiece, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars " The Untold Story and TomDispatch published the excerpt that we offer again today, almost a decade later, for your Father's Day reading.

I'm still in awe of her reporting for that book. At 73, she strapped on body armor and headed to war in Afghanistan, so you didn't have to. She watched the sort of meatball surgery that would have left you doubled over and retching. She asked the hard questions of soldiers, veterans, and their family members that you never could. And she wrote it all up with passion, eloquence, and unsparing clarity. They Were Soldiers offers a still-unprecedented look at the carnage Americans never saw and the toll no one talked about.

The scenes Jones narrated couldn't have been more vivid or jarring, but the dialogue was on another level. She has a way with people. She found America's soldiers where they were, put in the time, and they opened up, offering quotes that blossomed like wildflowers in the spring, even if it was a spring in hell.

In the piece that follows, a longtime Army officer, heading home for "psych reasons," reveals the "con" to which he devoted his life. "War is absurd," he says. "Boys don't know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars " it's embarrassing, it's humiliating, it's absurd." His sons, he said, were in college and would not follow their father's path to war. "They won't have to serve," he told Jones. "Before that happens, I'll shoot them myself." Happy Father's Day. Nick Turse

A Trail of Tears
How Veterans Return From America's Wars


[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones's book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars " The Untold Story, published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized. Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.

Now, we are in Germany, halfway home. This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard. They've done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War. They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.

Two rows of double bunks flank an aisle down the center of the C-17, all occupied by men tucked under homemade patchwork quilts emblazoned with flags and eagles, the handiwork of patriotic American women. Along the walls of the fuselage, on straight-backed seats of nylon mesh, sit the ambulatory casualities from the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), the holding ward for noncritical patients just off the flight line at Ramstein.

At the back of the plane, slung between stanchions, are four litters with critical care patients, and there among them is the same three-man CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team I accompanied on the flight from Afghanistan. They've been back and forth to Bagram again since then, but here they are in fresh brown insulated coveralls, clean shaven, calm, cordial, the doctor busy making notes on a clipboard, the nurse and the respiratory therapist checking the monitors and machines on the SMEEDs. (A SMEED, or Special Medical Emergency Evacuation Device, is a raised aluminum table affixed to a patient's gurney.) Designed to bridge the patient's lower legs, a SMEED is now often used in the evacuation of soldiers who don't have any.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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