Wounded troops mend as war coverage wanes

Image: Sam Brown
Capt. Sam Brown, 25, whose Humvee was blown up in Afghanistan, goes through rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, in July. With the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq set and the fighting in Afghanistan nearing its ninth year, war coverage has waned, pushed from the spotlight by fears about the economy and other domestic issues.Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A year after Capt. Sam Brown was set ablaze when a bomb blew up his Humvee in Afghanistan, the 25-year-old West Point graduate endures a steady schedule of painful surgery and stretching to break up knotty burn scars.

He also has another routine: checking a Web site that counts U.S. and coalition troop deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Brown, it's one more regular reminder that the wars have not ended — something he says many Americans seem to have forgotten.

With the timetable set for withdrawal from Iraq and the fighting in Afghanistan nearing its ninth year, U.S. war coverage has waned, often pushed off the front page by the economy, health care and celebrity deaths.

Recovery a constant reminder
But for severely wounded soldiers — those with huge burn scars and amputated limbs — the wars are no distant memory. Their long and painful recovery battles are a constant reminder.

"Unless you see it all the time, it's just kind of easy not to remember," Brown said. "The war is definitely not over."

About 130,000 American troops are in Iraq, and the military plans to keep 100,000 there through January. About 62,000 troops are in Afghanistan, with 6,000 more headed there by the end of the year.

More than 5,100 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. deaths in Afghanistan have reached record levels — August was the deadliest month so far.

Still, polls show that while most Americans say Iraq and Afghanistan are important, many more fret about domestic concerns. An AP-GfK poll in July showed a little more than 60 percent rated the wars as extremely or very important, while 91 percent said the same about the economy.

Last month, an ABC News-Washington Post poll found 51 percent of Americans said the war in Afghanistan isn't worth fighting.

‘Jesus save me’
Brown suffered third-degree burns over about a third of his body in a blast near Kandahar last September. The explosion killed one of his fellow soldiers. The rest helped snuff out the flames that charred Brown's face, arms and back.

"I knew we had hit something pretty terrible. I was instantly on fire. I got out and I literally threw my arms in the air and said, `Jesus save me,'" Brown said as he lifted his arms to shoulder height — as high as they would go because of the scarring.

Brown goes daily to rehab at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where about 600 war wounded seek care because of its specialized treatment for burn patients and amputees.

While the Virginia soldier and others say they understand that most Americans don't have regular exposure to soldiers and families affected by the wars, the waning interest can be disheartening.

'Kind of moved on'
"It's not like it's a waste if people don't recognize me" as a wounded soldier, Brown said. But he said it feels as if many Americans have "kind of moved on."

In San Antonio, a self-proclaimed "Military City, USA," the war wounded say they are frequently recognized for their service and thanked by people in places such as the supermarket. Brooke has the Army's only burn center and its only major amputee rehab facility outside Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"The further out you are from military bases, the less aware you are of what's going on," said Sgt. 1st Class Ireshekia Henry, one of only about two dozen military women amputees. The 33-year-old mother of three lost part of her leg in a 2007 bombing at a dining hall in Iraq. "When I go home to Waco, I get the stares."

Americans have moved on?
Staff Sgt. Eric Cowin of Fayetteville, Ark., lost part of his left leg after an explosion June 9 while on one of the final U.S. patrols in Baghdad. He and his unit had already handed over control of their security station to Iraqi authorities, and it was so quiet in the weeks leading up to the attack that Cowin said he, too, thought the war was over.

Now, even watching TV can set off feelings that many Americans have moved on.

"Michael Jackson was just one man. He was one American and all he did was sing. The troops over there are getting shot up, or blown up, whatever. Nobody even hears about them anymore," said Cowin, leaning on crutches in the workout room of the amputee rehab center at Brooke.

Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris, who was severely burned in a 2007 truck explosion that killed three friends, said after his first deployment ended in early 2005, the wars seemed to be more pressing. But the McCamey, Texas, father of four who joined the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks said the current focus on domestic concerns doesn't bother him.

"There are domestic issues that require a great deal of attention now. I agree with that, because our families need to be taken care of," he said. He added: "I know our soldiers won't be forgotten. And I pray that Americans do not forget why we are fighting."