Writing for TIME, Joe Klein offered up a sober assessment of President Obama’s speech to the disabled vets a few days ago that marked the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq by our country. You can read the August 2 blog post here. It’s not unusual for a writer to have an idea he or she wants to write about, but cannot find a way in to the subject. Klein’s blogging, as well as this past week’s TIME magazine cover with the young Afghan woman, Bibi Aisha, whose nose had been sliced off by her husband, opened a path into something I’ve been thinking about for more than a month.
On Sunday, July 4, I saved the front page of the New York Times. It’s been folded and sitting on my desk since then. The lead photograph, above the fold, is of 23-year-old Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island, N.Y., at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He’s in a rehabilitation room with a medical aide helping him with an artificial leg. On Easter Sunday, 2009, in Iraq, Brendan was riding in a vehicle that was blown up by a roadside bomb. According to the Times, “he became the first veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to lose all four limbs in combat and survive.” He has four artificial limbs, but is hoping for a double arm transplant, “a rare and risky procedure.” He has a a brother who is with him almost constantly and a girlfriend.
When I saw the image of Brendan, I immediately thought of another photograph that I will never forget. When the war in Iraq began the media published a picture of a boy whose two arms had been amputated after being horrifically burned during the bombardment of Baghdad. I had to search the web for details. Twelve days into the official start of the war in March 2003, 12-year-old Ali Abbas was maimed when what has been described as either a “stray American bomb” (CBS News) or “a coalition missile attack” (BBC) wiped out 16 members of his immediate and extended family, including his parents, at the family home outside Baghdad. Ali Abbas survived and, according to the most recent report I could find (2007),now lives in England. Donations that flooded in after his photo was seen around the world were used for medical procedures, rehabilitation, and schooling. In an interview in 2007, he said “I still remember my family and I still blame the person who bombed my house. Because when he bombed the house there weren’t any soldiers or weapons. We were farmers; we had cows and sheep. There’s no reason that [the bombing] should have happened.” Remarkably, he grew to be a teenager who learned to use his feet as hands (he has artificial arms) for everything from brushing his teeth to painting pictures of flowers. He rides a three-wheel bike that he steers with his shoulders. When he’s older, he says he’d like to do some kind of work involving efforts to make peace.
Bibi Aisha is the new “Afghan girl”—a heart-wrenching counterpart to the famous National Geographic magazine cover photograph of a stunningly beautiful young woman that is one of the iconic portraits of the past 30 years. Her story of abuse at the hands of a husband from the Taliban is difficult to hear and read. The violence, unfortunately, is not off the charts. It’s in the culture of the place. There’s hope for her with facial reconstruction surgery. Her visibility has drawn attention and support, however, there are other girls and boys and women and men whom we will never hear about.
We are approaching the ninth anniversary of 9/11. It seems beyond the capacity of any one of us to comprehend the scale of death and destruction that have resulted from that day. And atrocities such as the one involving Bibi Aisha aren’t tied to 9/11; we know about them because we are hearing more about Afghanistan. This week President Obama presented a medal to Susan Retik, who, with Patricia Fleming Quigley of the Lowell Flemings, founded “Beyond the 11th,” after losing their husbands in the 9/11 attacks, to reach out to and help Afghan widows. The late Patrick Quigley’s name is carved into the UMass Lowell 9/11 memorial along the Riverwalk near the hydro-electric plant off Pawtucket Street.
The people mentioned here have paid a huge price. They are alive, but scarred physically and psychologically. Why? Because of conflicts rooted in religious differences, political power struggles, and competition for resources and riches. They didn’t ask for trouble, but trouble found them. I was looking for a way in to this post when I wanted to write about Brendan Marrocco. Now I’m wondering if there is a way out.