Accessibility links

New Book Shows America’s Newest Disabled Veterans Facing the Future with Determination

American Soldiers wounded on the battlefield are traditionally awarded the "Purple Heart," as a token of their nation's appreciation for their sacrifice. But a medal can't help seriously wounded soldiers face the challenge of moving on in life without an arm or a leg, or with a profound psychological injury.

When a roadside bomb exploded one night in Iraq, it left Hugo Gonzalez with serious brain damage. "I didn't know what happened to me until four days later, when I woke up from a coma," he recalls.

The violent shockwave from the blast rattled the young soldier's brain, causing potentially fatal swelling. Battlefield surgeons removed 20 percent of his skull to relieve the pressure. It will be re-attached later. Mr. Gonzalez told NBC News the war in Iraq temporarily robbed him of his memory, but not his determination. "I have a lot...a great will to live," he says. "I'm going forward."

Going forward is what most wounded veterans feel they have to do, according to photographer Nina Berman, who visited 20 disabled soldiers returning from Iraq. They're profiled in her book, Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq. When she took their portraits, she says, she wanted her pictures to reflect how they saw their experience on the battlefield.

"It's an intense feeling of camaraderie," Ms. Berman explains. "They have this intense bond with their friends. The Army teaches you not so much to fight for your country, but to fight for the man next to you. You feel like your emotions are heightened. It's a live or die situation all the time. So it's extremely exciting." But Ms. Berman adds, "One of the soldiers talks about the adrenaline rush and then you get back and you feel as though life is over, because you lived this kind of hyper reality."

Photographing these wounded soldiers gave Ms. Berman a chance to discuss some war-related concepts like patriotism and heroism. She says while many Americans consider war veterans 'heroes,' many of them look at themselves in a very different way. She points to 23 year-old Lieutenant Jordan Johnson, for example, who calls herself not a hero, but a survivor.

"This whole word 'heroes' has gone around so much, here and now," says Ms. Berman. "Does it have any meaning anymore? Do we just use it to gloss over things we don't like to see? So, here comes a soldier back home completely physically and mentally destroyed and it makes us feel better if we call them heroes. So, I asked all the soldiers, 'Do you think you are a hero? Do people call you a hero?' And that's her answer; she is a survivor. She truly is a survivor."

That's also how Tim Origer has seen himself for the last thirty years. The Vietnam War veteran co-wrote essays to accompany the portraits in Nina Berman's book. Her photos of the Iraq war veterans brought back some painful memories. "I was sent to Vietnam in 1968, during the Tet Offensive," he says. While in a patrol, we were ambushed and I lost a leg to a 105 [millimeter] artillery round."

Mr. Origer says when he looked back at some letters he had sent to his parents from Vietnam, they sounded like the stories in Purple Hearts.

"To me, the war in Iraq is similar to the war in Vietnam," Mr. Origer explains. "When I first came back, I felt a lot like the people in Nina's book, extremely patriotic. I was extremely distressed. I couldn't understand why the people of Vietnam, people that I had no personal grudge against, why had they blown me up? I was supposed to be there helping them. But at the same time, there were Vietnamese that were being killed by the Marine Corps that I was with. When people start shooting at you, you know that people don't want you there."

Tim Origer was 19 years old when he lost his leg. And that's not the only war wound he's had to live with.

"I suffered PTS, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome," he recalls. I had slowly, kind of, withdrawn, and eventually I spent probably 15 years isolated in the woods as a bushwhacker. Once I had children, I started coming back to the world. You think you've adjusted, but you don't know that there is something wrong with you."

Mr. Origer believes that veterans are the only ones who can help other veterans. And that's exactly what he is doing now. With other men who fought in Vietnam, Mr. Origer is reaching out to soldiers returning from Iraq, to share his experiences with them.

"We want to be there to help them because when you have nobody, you end up with the problems that we had as Vietnam War veterans, he says. You end up with a drug or an alcohol problem. You end up beating your wife or kicking your dog."

Photographer Nina Berman agrees that America's newest war veterans need more attention, medically and financially. Such basic help, she says, is essential to enable them to face their disabilities and adapt to life away from the waving flags and heroic homecomings.