When Time magazine reporter Michael Weisskopf went to Iraq to do a cover story on the U.S. soldier as Time‘s “Person of the Year” for 2003, he came back with the story of a lifetime. Problem is, it wasn’t the cover story. It was a story that came from losing his right hand to a grenade.
As the first reporter wounded in a war ever afforded the privilege of being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Weisskopf was in a unique position to view and truly understand the care and treatment provided battlefield amputees. From that position, he brings us Blood Brothers, the story of soldiers treated on Ward 57 of the hospital, the amputee ward.
Weisskopf was in a Humvee on patrol with the First Armored Division in a district of northwest Baghdad on December 10, 2003. He heard a clanking sound, thinking it was just one of the rocks youth tended to throw at the Humvees. He looked down, saw a small dark oval, picked it up and began to toss it over the side of the vehicle. “I may as well have plucked volcanic lava from a crater,” he recalls. “I could feel the flesh of my palm liquefying.”
Thus starts Weisskopf’s journey into a world of pain, medicine, rehabilitation and courage. At Walter Reed, he comes to know a variety of soldiers who have lost one or both hands, arms, feet or legs or any combination of them. Weisskopf tells the stories of three of them as much as his own. He takes us through not only his own experiences, but the medical, rehabilitative and personal trials and tribulations of a variety of Ward 57’s patients, focusing in particular on Pete Damon, Luis Rodriguez and Bobby Isaacs even after their discharge from the hospital. None of them are alone or particularly unique. By the time Weisskopf was injured, the Iraq War had produced twice the rate of amputations of every war of the 20th century, except Vietnam, for which there were no good statistics.
I soon discovered that I shared something with those soldiers [on Ward 57] larger than the differences in our biographies. We were men struggling for an identity. The psychological scars of amputation ran deeper than those from conventional wounds of war. The blasts took away something deeply personal. None of us felt like the man who had gone to Iraq. We possessed the same minds; they just resided in different bodies.
If is not difficult to see how their identities were affected. Weisskopf was a journalist who had lost his writing hand. “I never gave much thought to how a hand worked until I lost one,” he says. How would he type? How would he take notes?
Damon was a National Guard helicopter mechanic and had played lead guitar in a local rock band. He lost both hands when the rim exploded on a tire he was inflating on a Black Hawk helicopter. Weighing as heavily on him was the fact that while he survived the explosion, it killed another mechanic standing nearby.
Isaacs, a car buff, lost both his legs below the knee when a roadside bomb exploded near his Humvee in Mosul hours before Weisskopf’s injury. He barely survived long enough to make it to the combat hospital. When Isaacs rises from his wheelchair and stands, albeit wobbly, before the congregation of his hometown fundamentalist church some 18 months later, he is wearing a black bracelet. Inscribed on it is the name of his squad leader, killed in the explosion that took Isaacs’ legs
Rodriguez had dreamed of being a combat medic since he was young. He not only became an Army medic in 1990, he headed his own platoon of medics in the 101st Airborne Division. Like the others, an IED took out the Humvee he was in, blowing off his right leg at the knee and taking two fingers from his left hand. Because the injury meant Rodriguez could no longer be a combat medic, it “severed more than a limb. It dismantled Rod’s identity.”
In addition to telling their stories and his, Weisskopf also gives the reader insight into the care and concern that comes from those who care for the injured. As Weisskopf is being taken by helicopter from the aid station to the nearest combat hospital, he was shivering uncontrollably. A medic put his jacket on Weisskopf. When that didn’t stop the shaking, the medic “lay on top of and warmed me with his body heat.”
When Isaacs came out of his initial surgery in the combat hospital, he had lost more than half his blood volume. An announcement went out over the public address system seeking A-positive blood. Within two minutes, nearly 50 hospital staffers were lined up at the trauma tent offering their blood. The medical unit’s chief nurse, a lieutenant colonel, pulled rank. She went to the front of the line.
Yet Weisskopf talks about more than the emotional and physical toll of treating amputees and learning to live as one. He struggles with other issues beyond simply his injury. Often pressing in on him is the question of whether he knew the object was a grenade when he picked it up. He is haunted through most of the book wondering if he performed the heroic act attributed to him or simply a stupid one.
His other struggle comes from his profession. As a journalist, he is uncomfortable being part of the story rather than covering it. It leads him to believe that the practice of embedding reporters with military units is not worth the cost. He ultimately feels that the only thing that he learned from being embedded was “what it meant to be wounded in action.” Yet, to Weisskopf, that also meant that “I crossed the line from observer to participant.
While it is understandable why a journalist would be uncomfortable crossing that line, there is a distinctive benefit in this case. Weisskopf’s experience made him uniquely qualified to tell the story of Ward 57 and a glimpse of the lives of those who have the misfortune of becoming its patients.
When it comes to Blood Brothers, where you stand on the war is totally irrelevant. Those who oppose it may see the book as a tale of what happens to men and women sent to an ill-advised war. Those who support the war may see the book as an indelible tale of sacrifice by our soldiers. In either case, it is a story of courage and determination, not only by those wounded but by their families and those who provide medical care to them.
The dead never pick up their trophies.
Michael Weisskopf, Blood Brothers