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Festival: The Medicine of the War in Iraq

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It was an interesting thing, attending an event about the war in Iraq in which neither Bush’s policies nor the propriety of the war ever really took center stage. The subject was the medical side of the war. There was not a hint of “controversy” in the room, if anything the tone was deferential, quite properly—I’m sure there is unanimity on the question of whether our soldiers merit the best care we can possibly provide. Atul Gawande’s guests were Colonel John B. Holcomb, commander of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research in Texas, flanked by Major L. Tammy Duckworth and Captain (Ret.) Dawn Halfaker, two veterans who lost limbs in separate incidents in 2004.

Tammy Duckworth’s name may be familiar, as she narrowly lost the race for Illinois’ 6th district in 2006. (From the sound of it, she hasn’t yet given up her ambitions for public office; she is now serving as director of the Illinois Veterans’ Affairs Department.) Having lost both of her legs, she appeared on stage with two prosthetic legs, only one of several options the VA has made available to her, including various types of wheelchairs. Dawn Halfaker was on a police patrol when a rocket-propelled grenade tore her Humvee in half. She lost an arm — were it not for her Kevlar armor, the injuries would have been far worse. She attended without her prosthetic arm, observing that wearing it can be a drag.

It’s important to note that both women displayed all sorts of traits common to all soldiers, wounded or unwounded, male or female, by which I mean wit, perceptiveness, pride, honor, and the like. Dawn made an acute point about the lot of female combat amputees: knowing that others are likely to interpret them accurately, a male veteran wears his scars with pride. Since fewer people immediately assume that a lost arm occurred in Iraq, a woman is more likely to cloak the amputation with a prosthesis. Tammy added, “I’m proud of my scars. I’m proud of my wounds. It’s not like it was a bar fight,” although she occasionally does jest in the latter vein: “You should see the other woman.” At one point Tammy displayed one of her “bar tricks,” swiveling her somewhat Terminator-like shin to a vertical position such that her foot could easily support her glass of water.

Not all audience members regularly encounter recent veterans (I am among that number). It was especially interesting to be reminded of the soldier’s quite proper ability to compartmentalize. Tammy has disagreed with the war all along, but as a service member, she was bound to follow the decision of the freely elected commander in chief, and was proud to do so. Tammy continued (paraphrasing), “If you disagree with the policy, it’s your duty to take it up with the politicians, and elect them out.” Dawn’s attitude was remarkably similar, if less inherently oppositional. Both described the bodily disfigurement as an “acceptable outcome” of battle—a seemingly strange position until you realize that a soldier lives with the daily possibility of instant death or capture by a sadistic enemy. This was a sobering and informative event, to say the least. —Martin Schneider

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2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree