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Post Magazine: The Wounds of War

Post Magazine Cover Story

Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; 1:00 PM

Former Army medic Alan Babin can't even remember the valor that earned him a bullet in Iraq. But that pales beside the heroism required every day of his long recovery.

Post staff writer Monte Reel, whose article about Babin and his heart-wrenching rehabilitation appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, will be online Monday, Dec. 20, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about the article.

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Reel covered the war in Iraq for The Washington Post in 2003. He is now a foreign correspondent based in Buenos Aires.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Monte Reel: Greetings, and thanks for joining in this discussion today. It looks like we've got some questions coming in already, so I'll jump right in.

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Leesburg, Va.: Just a comment, thank you for a beautiful article about a very courageous and special young man. He will stay with me through the Christmas season and long after, I will be keeping him in my prayers. I know that he will accomplish exactly what he wants in his life because of his great determination.

Monte Reel: Thank you, Leesburg. After following Alan's story for more than a year, and I came away with a similar impression. For a period of several months, each day was literally a life-or-death matter for him. To get to where he is today has taken a lot of care from others, and a lot of willpower on his part.

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Falls Church, Va.: Thank you for this wonderful article. Will you be doing a follow up each year to let us know of the Babins family progress? I am sure everyone would really appreciate it.

Monte Reel: Thank you very much. His recovery certainly is ongoing, and for those who want to follow it, one good way is to visit a website that his mother, Rosie Babin, has created. She includes updates on his progress several times a week, and even posts her own photos of him. I'll try to get you that website address for you posted here shortly.

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washingtonpost.com: Alan's Angels web site

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Takoma Park Md.: Dear Mr. Reel,

I'm starting work for a large government IT contractor the CEO of which wants employees to get involved with helping injured / and non-injured veterns of the Iraq conflict. What services would you recommend. From your article, it sounded like families want to explore medical terms and procedures that their sons or daughters may need to undergo. Would there be some way to help the VA hospital systems with information clearinghouse? I've also thought about using art as a recovery/theraputic tool?

Thanks for any ideas...

Best regards, Chris

Monte Reel: Hi Takoma Park, judging from the Babin's, I'd say you're absolutely correct that some families of wounded veterans are hungry to get all the information that they can get to sort through the sometimes dizzying world of military bureacracy and procedure. Many of the wounded veterans come through Walter Reed, an Army hospital in Washington, so I'd suggest speaking with someone there -- or with the various veterans' advocacy groups around -- who might be able to give you some ideas on the best way to help.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Thank you for making a firefighter cry during his lunch break. Too often, we focus on the death toll and forget the wounded. Thank you for a wonderfully written article.

It seems incomprehensible that small arms fire would have caused the injuries that Alan suffered.

Did you have an opportunity to talk to the soldiers he worked with in Iraq (like the gentleman he was trying to assist when he got shot himself?) How are they doing these days?

Monte Reel: Thanks much, and yes -- the fact that a single bullet can cause so much damage is pretty astounding. I did talk with several of the soldiers who were with him when he was shot, including all of those mentioned in the article. I was in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne when Alan was shot, and talked to some of the soldiers there at the time of his injury about him. Others I talked to when they returned to the U.S. When I spoke to them in the States, a lot of them had just returned from several months in Iraq and were expecting to be going back there soon.

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Falls Church, Va: Is there an e-mail for Alan Babin to send my wishes for a speedy recovery. What a great story!!

Monte Reel: Yes, I believe the website Rosie created includes an electronic "guestbook" where people can send their best wishes to the family.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I am amazed at Alan's remarkable ability to survive the injury he sustained. How much physical therapy is he continuing to have? I hope he is finding still more ways to communicate his mental thoughts.

Monte Reel: Alan is going through physical and occupational therapy every day, as he tries to regain strength and mobility. I know that his parents were recently in the process of obtaining a computer device that would allow him to use the limited mobility of his hands to choose words on a computer screen that would be mounted on his wheelchair. The device would actually emit an electronic "voice," allowing him to have conversations.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Your story was heartbreaking and but important on the war wounded, but is anyone covering the GIs coming home sick? I read that they are coming home by the thousands, but what happens to them? How many are there? Where in the US are they treated? What are their most common illnesses? Are large numbers returned to Iraq? Are large numbers discharged medically? We never hear.

Monte Reel: Thanks for the good questions, Ann Arbor. There are lots and lots of stories to be done about returning veterans, and I'm certain that many more will be written that will address some of those items you raised. One of the problems that doctors who treat veterans have noticed is that many of those returning from combat are suffering brain injuries. A lot of those injuries are more subtle than Babin's, but present problems nonetheless. Walter Reed's brain center selectively screened about 150 returning soldiers from Iraq and found that more than 60 percent showed signs of brain trauma -- a figure that one of the doctors there attributed to blast injuries, which seem to be a more frequent cause of injury during this war than in previous ones. A lot more analysis needs to be done.

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Philomont, Va.: Hi, I was just reading the article and noticed the live discussion. Thank you for covering this story and giving us insight into the struggle that many families face rehabiltating their injured loved ones. How did you come upon the family and will you write a follow-up story for us?

Monte Reel: Hi there, and thanks for taking part. I got in touch with the family after Alan's mother wrote to me asking if a wounded soldier I very briefly described in an article I wrote for the magazine in 2003 was Alan (it was).

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I was riveted by the account of Alan's wounds and recovery. His mother is something special. It makes me wonder how many wounded slip away because they get "care" in the hospital but not the extent that Alan received. I feel certain that his chances of survival were greatly enhanced by so much personal attention.

Monte Reel: Yes, his mother has been about the most attentive caregiver you could imagine through this, and I'm certain that's helped.

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Washington, D.C.: If such a story appeared daily in national newspapers, highlighting the very real casualities, do you think the public perception of the war in Iraq would be changed? You wrote a wonderful article, but this type of news seems to be woefully neglected on a daily basis.

Monte Reel: Thanks very much for that. I hope the article contributes to the understanding of the war and its aftermath, and as for whether the public perception would change--that's something that's hard to judge right now.

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New York, NY: At its core your article relays what, to me, is best and worst about humanity. Specifically that as a group we have dreamt up and participate in modern warfare (worst) and yet at the individual level we seemingly have such strength and optimism (best). Has your work related to this article changed your view of humanity?

Monte Reel: Has it changed my view of humanity? Hmmm, that's certainly a big question.... I think being around Alan and his family definitely helped illustrate the value of determination, that's for sure.

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Silver Spring, Md.: 2 Questions but first a remarkable story of a remarkable young man and his family. The young medic is truly a war hero and that doesn't even do him justice.

From your description in the article, it appears he was shot in the stomach. Was he wearing body armor or do medics not ususally wear it?

Although the army has a moral obligation to care for the wounded, at what point do the wounded get discharged and then put under the care of the VA?

Monte Reel: Yes, Alan was wearing body armor, but unfortunately the bullet went through a gap between the protective plates. After Alan returned to the States, he was actually retired from the military with the rank of Corporal.

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Washington, D.C.: Contact Aster Black, American Red Cross station manager, at 202/782-6362.
or
Medical Family Assistance Center
Walter Reed Medical Center
6900 Georgia Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20307-5001

Monte Reel: Thanks very much for that answer!

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Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Reel,
Thank you, thank you, thank you from all of us who have had the honor of coming to know and love this family.

His is a remarkable story, with many chapters ahead.

L. Hansen
PROUD member of Alans' Angels

Monte Reel: Thank you, Fairfax. I should probably explain the "Alan's Angels" tag to readers -- that's the group of people that recieved the email updates that Rosie began sending out concerning Alan's progress while at Walter Reed. The mailing list grew enormously by word-of-mouth in the months he was there.

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Preston, U.K.: Monte,

I am a British ex-serviceman who was very moved by yesterday's article. What a fantastic and loving community that brave lad has down in Texas. Will he make it to college in Austin, where I am sure they will be equally caring? And can you talk his mom into publishing her diary?

Thanks again and a Happy Christmas to all our American brothers and sisters.

M. Vaughan

Monte Reel: Thanks very much, UK! I'm not sure whether or not Rosie would publish her diaries in full or not, but I'm sure they'd make inspiring--and extensive--reading. She's something a reporter's dream: She documents everything, a trait she ascribes to the former-paralegal in her.

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Chicago, Ill.: What a tragic story. As a physician I imagine what lies ahead for him and his family and it breaks my heart. When I hear a soldier say they'd go back or that they don't regret being in the army even with the physical damage they now live with, it boggles my mind. It's like when people say that their tragedy must be made to mean something. What good can it bring? Will it change people's minds about war or re-evaluate our being in Iraq? In 5 years when he is still struggling everyday and the war is over (we hope) will his continuing pain mean anything except that it is a tragic loss? I don't think so. It's just a sad sad story.

Monte Reel: Thanks very much for the comments, Chicago.

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Virginia: How much does all this cost (medical, care, rehabilitation)? I'm glad my taxdollars is put for good use.

Monte Reel: Coming up with a total cost estimate for Alan's care would be almost impossible to tabulate, I'm afraid, but it's definitely not cheap. Most all of it has been paid by the government and through insurance, and the financial burden to the family (from direct medical expenses) has been minimal.

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Fairfax, Va.: As one who knows the Babin family and spent time with Rosie while she stayed at Walter Reed, I just wanted to tell you what a great story you wrote. Alan's survival and his courageous battle to recover is nothing short of a miracle.

I hope your readers will make note of his website, where they can continue to follow his progress.

washingtonpost.com: Alan's Angels web site

Monte Reel: Thanks very much, Fairfax.

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Vienna, Va.: How did you come across Babin? And are there many more cases similar to his story of being wounded and recovery? Is Rumsfeld doing anything about it? At least he could take the time and sign those letters of condolences!;!;

Monte Reel: Vienna, thanks for the comments. I think there are probably lots of stories like Alan's out there, particularly during this war, where the ratio of wounded-to-killed soldiers in about 9-to-1, much higher than the 3-to-1 of other American wars of the last 100 years or so.

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Bealeton, Va.: I am curious as to why the Babin's had to get outside financial support (from Ross Perot) for the MRI. Why wasn't Alan able to get the diagnostic test through the military service?
Of course, I applaud Ross Perot for stepping up.

And although I grieve for Alan's injuries one thing was abundantly clear throughout the article... the Babin's are a remarkable and loving family and Alan is beloved by those who surround him...in that way he is a lucky man.

Monte Reel: Thanks, Bealeton. Babin did get diagnostic tests from the military, but the family took Perot up on his offer with the thought that a second opinion couldn't hurt and might well help.

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Round Rock, Texas: Chicago, Ill. In five years, we believe that Alan will have adapted to his new digestive system, be living a full and productive life, supported by a family that has vowed not to leave his side until the day he does no longer need our assistance, and should that require a life-time committment, we are in it to the end. I bid you peace. Please, do not feel sorry for Alan, or us. We are grateful each day that Alan continues to be in our lives and proud that he was willing to risk his life for another. A Grateful Mom, Rosie Babin

Monte Reel: A comment from Alan's mother -- thanks, Rosie.

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St. Charles, La.: Your article tore my heart out. Such valor, but such an incredible waste. My heart goes out to everyone who has lost or suffered through the injury of a loved one as a result of this miserable war.

Monte Reel: thanks for the comment, St. Charles.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Thanks for the excellent article. Please tell us what Alan's prognosis is.

Monte Reel: Thanks very much. The plan his doctors have for him is that they will try to reconstruct his digestive system in the coming months, and that the pace and extent of his progress largely remains to be seen.

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Monte Reel: Thanks to everyone who took the time to read the article and to take part in this chat, and I apologize for not being able to type faster! Apologies to everyone who submitted a question that I didn't have time to respond to, and thanks again to everyone who joined in with such good questions and comments.

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