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Thwarted Warrior

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“It’s not about me,” Doug Rokke said, and only reluctantly rattled off his laundry list of symptoms: fibromyalgia, broken teeth, radiation-induced cataracts, gastrointestinal pain.

And I know it’s not about him, any more than it’s about you or me. “It.” The war, the consequences. The environmental consequences are beyond calculation, and perhaps for that reason little discussed, never “debated.” What does it matter that we went into Iraq on lies, faulty intelligence, whatever? Surely the most elaborately justified of invasions would not have been worth, well . . .

We know about the VA scandal, the great betrayal, but what almost no one talks about are the numbers. According to Veterans Administration figures from last November, 205,000 GIs who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, a third of the total, have sought medical care, for such problems as malignant tumors (1,584), endocrinal and metabolic diseases (36,409), nervous system diseases (61,524), digestive system diseases (63,002), musculoskeletal diseases (87,590), and mental disorders (73,157), among many other conditions. One of the largest categories is “ill defined,” a.k.a. mystery conditions (67,743). In comparison, a relatively small number (35,765) have sought VA care for injuries.

The staggeringly backlogged Veterans Administration, which takes on average six months to process a claim and two years to process an appeal, cannot begin to cope with this onslaught of need and misery, but in contemplating the unconscionable lack of planning that resulted in this disaster, let’s not forget to ask a more basic question: Why are all these GIs getting sick? And with even more urgent moral imperative, especially in the context of the invasion’s justification, we must also ask: What about the Iraqis? Count on it, if our vets are sick, so are the Iraqis’ children, their elderly, and they’re making do with a shattered health-care infrastructure that makes our own look positively First World.

While obviously this is bigger than Doug Rokke, who is, finally, just another sick, outspoken vet, when I visited him recently on his farm in central Illinois — sat for six hours with him in front of his computer, looking at data, on the day before Easter — I could feel the enormity of the disaster get very, very personal.

Rokke, who spent 40 years in the military, retiring with the rank of major, is a veteran of both Vietnam (two tours of duty, serving as a B-52 crew member) and Gulf War 1. By then he had his Ph.D. and, as a specialist in preventive medicine, was tapped to head a crew that cleaned up the aftermath of Desert Storm. Their mission included readying U.S. tanks and troop transports destroyed by friendly fire to be sent back to the States, which meant, inevitably, breathing the toxic detritus of war, in particular the ultra-fine dust of exploded depleted-uranium munitions. Today, his entire crew is either sick or dead.

But the illnesses came later. Before that, a few years after his service in the Gulf, Rokke was called to military duty again, as director of the U.S. Army Depleted Uranium Project. In this capacity, he became one of the world’s leading experts on DU and, ultimately, one of the most outspoken critics of its use. This made him persona non grata to the war machine he once served with the last full measure of devotion, you might say. Rokke the idealistic warrior — a man steeped in military tradition and national service, named after his father’s hero, Gen. Douglas MacArthur — began rethinking U.S. militarism and turned against it.

“When did it really break? 1997-98,” he said. “My guys were sick and dying and I couldn’t get medical care. They denied me medical care. I was sold down the river with the rest of my guys.”

Later in our conversation, he revised that thought: “You asked what turned me? I was never turned. I’m finishing the job.” The job is taking care of people. “There isn’t a day that goes by,” he went on, “when I don’t get a phone call, letter, e-mail or knock on the door from (a vet) needing help — medical care.”

Think about those numbers again. Several hundred thousand sick from the current wars, another several hundred thousand Gulf War 1 vets ailing and dying.

Referring to his namesake’s last hurrah speech at West Point, Rokke added, “I’m an old soldier that ain’t going to fade away till medical care is given to everyone and the environment is cleaned up.

“Tomorrow’s Easter, Bob,” he said, looking at me. “Love thy neighbor. Do unto others. I believed them, too. Then I learned. Every single one of us, if we had to, (would) defend our nation against a viable enemy. On the other hand, sometimes you gotta speak up.”

These are the words of a thwarted warrior, a betrayed warrior, driven by what he has seen and understood to turn around and stand up to the real threat: the friendly (or fratricidal) fire behind him. The best of America is serving the worst.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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