Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Paul Rieckhoff spent nearly a year walking patrols as an infantry officer in Baghdad. He saw soldiers dying, his squad leader lost his legs, and he witnessed problems with missing supplies. But when he returned to the United States in 2004, the biggest news story was that Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show.

To Rieckhoff, 33, an Amherst College graduate who joined the Army Reserves in 1998, the contrast highlighted one of the biggest problems of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: The American public was largely disengaged, while a small set of soldiers and families bore the burdens of combat.

"The lack of involvement on the part of the American people is unprecedented," said Rieckhoff, who volunteered for active duty after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and went to Iraq as a National Guardsman, with the Third Infantry Division in April 2003. "And it's my biggest criticism of the president: He has never asked the American people to do anything."

Rieckhoff created Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which he said now has about 85,000 members and an annual budget of about $2 million. It focuses on improving mental health care and conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, obtaining a new GI bill and resolving the fate of thousands of Iraqi interpreters now targeted by insurgents.

"We saw firsthand that these Iraqi interpreters were our eyes and ears on the battlefield," he said. "These folks stood up to help us, and now we are leaving them hanging."

Rieckhoff, a former Wall Street analyst and high school football coach, remains in the National Guard. "I have friends who have been there three times, four times," he said. "I am in danger of going back, but that is nothing [like what] my buddies are facing. That toll on their families is nothing the American people face."

-- Michael Abramowitz

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