On the home front, reminders of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq come in small doses

August 20, 2011

The wars came to the Nationals baseball game, as they always do, in the third inning.

The wounded troops from Walter Reed Army Medical Center had assembled in the stands behind home plate. Those in wheelchairs were in front. The ambulatory stood behind them. The Nationals pitcher threw a strike for the third out.

“Give a warm welcome to brave servicemen and women and their families joining us tonight,” the stadium announcer intoned. Now the troops were on the big screen in center field, and the modest Tuesday night crowd was standing, hooting and cheering.

Sgt. Anthony Verra, who lost both legs and part of his right hip when he stepped on a buried bomb last year, waved his complimentary Nationals cap. His wife, Shauna, held their 1-year-old daughter on her hip and gently rubbed her husband’s shoulder. Behind them, a 19-year-old private first class, injured by a mine two months earlier, balanced on trembling legs. His right hand was curled and twitchy. He gazed up at the half-empty stadium and cried.

The applause lasted for 63 seconds.

“Thank you, members of the United States military, for your service,” the announcer concluded.

The troops returned to their seats. The crowd returned to the game. The Nationals trailed the Braves by one run.

After almost 10 years of fighting, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq surface on the home front in fleeting, sentimental and sanitized glimpses. Camouflage-clad soldiers lug rucksacks through civilian airports at the beginning and end of their leaves. Their service is celebrated in occasional television commercials, dutifully praised by political candidates and briefly cheered at sporting events.

Troops often question why more ­have not answered the call to duty and why their sacrifices are so poorly understood by the people they serve.

“For most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction,” then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last year. “A distant, unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.”

In the fifth inning at Nationals Park, Courtney Knolle, a 40-year-old mother of three, was walking past the troops from Walter Reed. She locked eyes on Verra, who was watching the game from his wheelchair with his wife and two children.

A part-time tutor and former kindergarten teacher, Knolle noticed that Verra’s 9-year-old son looked to be about the same age as her eldest. She wondered how Verra had been hurt and how the soldier’s son was handling the injury. She was curious to know whether Verra and his fellow soldiers were getting the best care the country could afford. Like a growing number of Americans, she worried that the war in Afghanistan had become a “losing battle.”

She did not share any of those thoughts with Verra. Instead, Knolle approached Verra and touched his arm.

“Thank you for your service,” she said.

The expression has become commonplace, but Knolle felt good about saying it. Verra simply nodded. Knolle returned to her seat.

Later, Verra said he appreciated Knolle’s gesture. But he wondered, as he often does in such situations, how long she had stared at him before saying something.

Verra was sent to Afghanistan in July 2010. In September, he stepped on a buried bomb that blew off his legs. For the next seven months, Verra and his wife lived in a Walter Reed hospital room crammed with medical supplies and boxes of donated Girl Scout cookies. In May they moved into a Silver Spring high-rise near the hospital so Verra could continue his rehabilitation. His upper body remains strong and fit.

“Honestly, I want to deploy again,” he said.

“We are starting a whole new life,” Shauna Verra said. “We have each other, but our way of being together has changed.”

The Nationals extended their lead to six runs in the eighth inning. Cameron Verra leaned over and tucked his head affectionately into the crook of his father’s neck. The game ended a little after 10 p.m., and Cameron steered the wheelchair into the congested stadium concourse and onto the sidewalk. Some people glanced at the Walter Reed contingent, but no one spoke to them.

The troops boarded a blue and white bus parked outside the stadium. On the ride home, Verra and his wife flipped through pictures from the game on their cellphone. Cameron talked in breathless bursts.

“I want to be a baseball player for the Yankees when I grow up,” he said. “And then I think I will probably go into the military, because my dad was in the military.”

The bus puttered through the mostly empty streets before disappearing behind the gates of Walter Reed.

‘Grab Some Buds’

Mike Byrne, the creative director at a Manhattan advertising agency, was rushing through airport security on his way to a Chicago Bears game two years ago when he happened upon a scene from the war: A returning soldier on his mid-tour leave was being swarmed by his wife and children.

Troops have come home on leave from Afghanistan and Iraq more than 1 million times since 2003. There have been hundreds of thousands of airport reunions. This was the first Byrne had witnessed.

“I literally had to fight the tears, man up and keep walking,” he said. “I was like, ‘That is amazing.’ It never left me.”

Twelve months later, he was working on a series of Budweiser commercials built around anticipation, friendship and the brand’s new tag­line, “Grab Some Buds.”

Byrne wanted to avoid shopworn images of dudes toasting each other at a bar, cheering at a baseball game or clowning around at a backyard barbecue. He recalled the airport scene and recast it as the story of a best friend’s hurried, heartfelt efforts to welcome his buddy home from war.

“That friendship is way cooler,” he said. “And it is way more interesting.”

Byrne, 41, works at Anomaly, a mid-size ad agency housed in a SoHo loft that sprawls across two adjoining buildings. Inside there are exposed aluminum ducts, scuffed wood flooring and coffee tables crammed with hipster kitsch.

Byrne occupies a small desk in the back corner of the loft. He has a shaved head, adoughy frame and clunky Buddy Holly-style glasses. His slightly manic nature mimics the quick cuts of his television commercials.

Five days after President Obama announced his plan to pull 30,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, Byrne had no idea how many troops the United States had in the country and little sense of Obama’s plan to reduce their numbers. He acknowledged that he did not know much about the war.

“Even though it is still going on, it doesn’t feel top of mind,” he said of the Afghanistan conflict. “I imagine that coming home right now would be really tough, because people get confused. ‘Where were you? Afghanistan or Iraq? We got the bad guy, so why are we still there?’ There is not a clear-cut enemy or a clear sense of what we are doing. People just can’t get their head around it.”

Byrne’s 60-second interpretation of America at war would be seen by tens of millions of people.

As he sketched out his Budweiser ad in November, Byrne avoided any direct reference to the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The opening scene features a soldier in a darkened tent calling his best friend to tell him that he is coming home. From there the story unfolds on a split screen. The soldier is traveling home on a plane, a train and then a bus. The friend is rushing to prepare a party for him in a barn.

Six years earlier, when the Iraq war was still new, Budweiser aired a Super Bowl commercial that featured returning soldiers striding through the airport to an impromptu standing ovation from their fellow passengers. As the troops smiled modestly, heroic music swelled.

In Byrne’s commercial, the soldier, who is played by an Army Reservist, is largely ignored on his journey home. He fiddles with his patrol cap in a darkened airplane.

“We love that little moment of anticipation and nervousness,” Byrne said.

The soldier stares pensively out of the airplane window. He splashes water on his face and wipes away what appear to be tears. He listens politely as an elderly woman, seated next to him on a bus, prattles on.

A melancholy ballad called “Goin’ Home,” by the blues-rock guitarist Dan Auerbach, plays in the background of the ad, which closes with the message, “Proudly Serving Those Who Serve.”

The commercial is notable for what it does not include. An early version opened with the sound of thumping helicopters and a three-second shot of soldiers carrying water jugs in front of tents, draped in camouflage netting. The scene was cut.

“The sand read too much like Afghanistan,” Byrne said.

Neither Byrne nor Budweiser wanted the ad to be too closely associated with a particular conflict. Byrne’s goal was to evoke an emotional response from a public that he knew was tired of war. His soldier looks vulnerable and exhausted. The ad is supposed to make people cry, and it does.

“If there are 17 beer choices, I might be more inclined to pick Budweiser because it put out a message that I respect and that made me feel something,” Byrne said.

The spot performed so well in surveys that Budweiser chose to run it in heavy rotation throughout the NBA Finals. It played over and over, the war in a 60-second burst.

The war in 10 seconds

Mark Wise had seen the patriotic beer commercials. As a patient at Walter Reed, he had been on the wounded-warrior trips to the watch the Nationals play.

This past fall, after months of surgery and rehabilitation, he started at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His left hand, which is missing three fingers, was still in a cast. His face was scarred. A few days earlier, doctors had made a fresh incision in his leg to remove a hunk of bone underneath one of his skin grafts. At the time, U.S. troop levels and casualties were at the highest level in the history of the Afghanistan war.

“What happened to you?” one of his fellow students asked him at an orientation breakfast.

“I got blown up in Afghanistan,” Wise replied.

The student let out a nervous laugh. “No really,” he said. “What happened?”

At Georgetown, Wise joined the McDonough Military Association, a student-veteran group formed a few years earlier. But he avoided talking about the war or his military service. It was too hard to tell his story to people who did not know anything about the Army or Afghanistan. He was self-conscious about his wounds.

“I experience a fair amount of paranoia concerning . . . my visible injuries,” Wise wrote in an e-mail to an Army friend. “And I deal with people who don’t understand the sacrifice made by all service members, particularly those in direct combat roles.”

To explain his scars, Wise developed a short account of his military service: “I was in Afghanistan, and there was a firefight,” he would say. “The guy next to me stepped on a mine. It blew me up, and I was in the hospital for a while.”

There was his entire war, reduced to a 10-second exchange.

Instead of closing the gap with his fellow students, the truncated version of events seemed to widen it.

“I used that story to just get past it,” he said.

In February, the McDonough Military Association held its second annual “Free Beer and War Stories” night. The event was designed to give students who knew little of the military or the wars a sense of what life was like for deployed service members. It provoked a genuine exchange — more than 10 seconds, more than 60 seconds, more than 63 seconds — between the former service members and the student body.

For a couple of hours, a distant and abstract war became more real. About 70 people attended. Some of the stories were funny. One former officer showed a video of his interpreter in Iraq, a Sudanese American who had a limited command of English and Iraqi Arabic. A few of the stories were harrowing.

“Everyone get ready for a downer,” Wise joked as he started his slide presentation.

The first picture showed his 26-man infantry platoon posing on a hill outside Fort Carson, Colo.

“These are the guys that I was responsible for,” he said. “They ranged in age from 18 through 36.”

Wise described the flat, open terrain where his platoon operated in Kandahar province and flashed a picture of himself and a few of his men after their first firefight. They are still full of adrenaline and smiling broadly.

The next few photos showed him on patrol and calling in a mortar strike with his radioman, Pfc. Devin Michel, a 19-year-old from Stockton, Ill.

“If you notice,” Wise told the audience, “he and I are always in each other’s hip pockets. It was like that every day all day.”

From there he launched into the story of Oct. 24, 2009. Wise had ordered his platoon to search a mud-walled compound where he and his troops often took enemy fire. A few minutes into the mission, insurgents began shooting at them from the south.

“Let’s go!” Wise yelled to Michel. They leapt across an irrigation ditch and crouched behind a wall as Wise directed the fight. Michel, who had a grenade launcher, asked Wise to switch spots with him so he could get off a better shot.

Wise leaned forward, resting his hand on the mud wall. As Michel stepped over him, the radioman’s foot came to rest on a buried mine containing about 40 pounds of explosives.

Wise was blown on his back. He couldn’t see or hear, or move his left arm. When he reached around with his right hand to touch his chest, he noticed that his body armor was gone. He screamed for help. A few minutes later he learned that Michel was dead.

“Look at my guys here,” Wise said, showing the next photo. It was of soldiers dragging him on a stretcher toward a rescue helicopter and yelling to be heard over the sound of the thumping rotors. “They just lost a central member of the platoon in [Michel]. He was an easygoing kid with a great work ethic. Not only do his friends know that he is dead, but they are trying to load me, their platoon leader, into the helicopter. They are trying to take care of me.”

The next several pictures showed Wise covered in blood and lying on the floor of the helicopter. An Air Force medic hunched over his body and pressed an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. The last pictures were of Wise’s soldiers loading a body bag, containing Michel’s remains, onto the helicopter.

Wise ended his presentation with a picture of Michel, taken not long after the platoon arrived in Afghanistan. In the snapshot, the young soldier has short brown hair, blue eyes, wire-frame glasses and a bit of a sunburn across his face.

“The hardest thing was telling his wife and his mother what happened and explaining that you were sorry for their loss,” Wise said.

After the speech, several of the business school students came up to shake his hand. Among them was Guarav Raje, a 29-year-old who had enrolled at Georgetown after a stint at an investment bank. He and Wise had worked closely on a couple of projects during the first few months of school, and he considered Wise a friend.

“I don’t think I realized that the soldiers over there were in that much danger,” said Raje, who like many students was opposed to the war. “I didn’t understand the magnitude of risks that they were taking.”

As he approached Wise, Raje searched for the right words. He was determined to say something other than “Thank you for your service,” something not fleeting, not sentimental, not sanitized.

“It must be difficult to tell your story,” he said.

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