Books: 'Blood Brothers'

Michael Weisskopf
Author/Senior Correspondent, Time Magazine
Thursday, October 26, 2006; 1:00 PM

Michael Weisskopf , senior correspondent for Time magazine, was online Thursday, Oct. 26, at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about his book, " Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57 ," the story the soldiers he encountered while rehabilitating from the loss of his hand at Walter Reed Medical Center's amputee ward. Weisskopf was embedded with the U.S. Army's First Armored Division when a grenade, thrown into their Humvee, exploded in his hand. In the months he spent at the ward, he came to know soldiers like Pete Damon , Luis Rodriguez and Bobby Isaacs , all of whom had returned from Iraq to face a grueling recovery and a deeply altered life.

The transcript follows.


Michael Weisskopf: I wrote this book because I lived the life of a war casualty. This is a war of the wounded we are now engaged in. For every death, eight of our troops come home with serious injuries, twice the rate of Vietnam. The U.S. is fighting a faraway war, conducted by a volunteer army, an easy thing for most Americans to overlook. I realize that war has an ugly face. It's different to wake up to it every morning at a place like Ward 57, where I lived for nearly a month and continued to visit on a near-daily basis for 18 months. I wrote this book to serve as a voice for the battle after the war that thousands of American troops face at places like amputee alley of Walter Reed.


A powerful book...: Can you give us an update on the people you mentioned in your book?

And how exactly do you work as a journalist when it comes to actually producing a story? I believe voice-activated software is complicated. Thanks.

Michael Weisskopf: When I returned from my convalescence, about three months after my wounding, I attempted to act as a reporter the way I always had. The problem is, I could no longer hold a notepad and scribble on it because it takes two hands. I also found my own handwriting with my left hand, which was not my dominant hand, to be illegible. So I took to taping interviews. I then had the problem of transcribing them on a keyboard that is normally operated with two hands. After wearing out my left hand trying to do it, I tried a one-handed keyboard. The problem is, the letters were assembled in a different form than I was used to. Then I moved to voice-activated software, which is sometimes difficult to distinguish "right" from "write" but I had no choice other than mastering it. I trained with it for several weeks before I felt comfortable. It's weird not to have a step between my mind and the monitor, usually played by the hand. I've learned, however, that I'm more coherent when I speak directly from a microphone into the computer. Now I love it and would recommend it even to the able bodied.


Alexandria, Va.: Have you spoken to the three soldiers since your book was published? What do they think of the portrayal/attention?

Michael Weisskopf: I'm in constant communication with my three blood brothers, men who are located around the map but always in my mind. Each of them received copies of the book before it was distributed to the public. All of them said it was painful to be reminded of their struggles, but a true reflection of what happened. Bobby Isaacs told me he spent a day laughing and crying. Pete Damon told me he cried throughout it. Sergeant Rod said he's read it several times because he had forgotten so much of what had happened.


Gulf Shores, Ala.: Thank you for writing your book. My question is, is the Defense Department doing all that it can to help our wounded veterans? Gen. Batiste stated at the V.A. Is 3B underfunded? How does that affect veterans care?

Michael Weisskopf: I will be speaking at Page and Pallet bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama in November. Hope to see you there. I can speak to the care soldiers receive in the military medicine system, not what becomes of them when they leave for the VA system. I can say that military medicine is first class, from the medics in the field through the hospitals to the outfitting of amputees with prostheses. In the first Gulf War Walter Reed received a black eye for failing to outfit amputees with cutting edge technology. This war, they set out to create a world standards for amputee car. Someone like me received a myo-electric arm worth $95,000, plus a traditional body-powered prosthesis, a cosmetically life-like prosthesis and many attachments for recreation and sports. It is a privilege to receive such care and attention.


Washington, D.C.: If you had it to do over again, would you have gone to Iraq to embed with that unit?

Michael Weisskopf: If I had it to do over again, I would have embedded but I would have done it differently. There was no need for me to go on every patrol, sit down with the platoon for every meal, sleep every night in the hooch..I filled up ten notebooks in the three weeks I was embedded. Very little of it wound up in the eventual piece. Before I was injured I had transcribed my notes and observations and shipped them to my partner. Fortunately, he was not with me the night of my injury so he could write a story. If it were up to me, the story would have never been told. Reporters have a responsibility to get out the information. That's tough to do from a body bag or a gurney. My point is that embedding is useful, reporters need direct access to their sources or subjects, but it should be done selectively. If I had to do it again I would go to Iraq, spend a day here with the platoon, go out on a night patrol occasionally, a daily escort once in a while, and withdraw to a place I could think and be independent of the story.


Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.: Mike, just a comment. I read The Washington Post almost daily on line, I got spoiled reading a good paper. I almost fell out of my seat when I saw your picture and then read the story about your accident. We worked together on The Washington Post when I was in the support end working with our foreign correspondents. I will definitely go to the book store and a get a copy of your book. Thank God you survive and we still have your great writing and wit. A fellow Post friend (now retired in N.C.) and daily reader of a great newspaper. (retired 1997)

Michael Weisskopf: I'm so happy to hear from Harry. I will be signing books in Raleigh and Durham on November 8 and 9. I hope to see you there. I'm sorry I had a reason to write this book, but one of the fringe benefits is being reunited with old friends who see it.


Monroe, Mich.: US Army Gen Eric Shinseki, former Army Chief of Staff, often referred to the amputee ward at Walter Reed as a member's only section, because he, too, was an amputee. Gen Shinseki advised that a larger U.S. force was needed to stabilize Iraq, however, both he and his adviser were shunned by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld later refused to attend Gen Shinseki's retirement ceremony at the Pentagon. What is your opinion on the matter?

Michael Weisskopf: Many soldiers I know had agreed with Shinseki on the need for a larger number of troops. Their view was that with such a small force, U.S. troops could not secure arms depots left by the retreating Iraqi army. Those same weapons ended up in the hands of insurgents and were turned against American soldiers.


Lyme, Conn.: I understand the protective vests are saving lives in Iraq, but the public seems not to be aware that there are very high injury rates. The vests do not protect limbs. How many soldiers have been injured in Iraq, and are there figures on how many soldiers have lost hands, feet, legs, and arms? Is it true the Pentagon would prefer we not know these numbers?

Michael Weisskopf: More than 20,000 American soldiers have been wounded in action. Roughly 500 of them have lost limbs-arms or legs. The rate of amputation is twice that of other wars in the past century, except for Vietnam, for which there are no good statistics.


Arlington, Va.: Do you go back and visit the ward now? If so is it difficult to see others going through those early stages of shock and adaptation to their hard new realities again?

Michael Weisskopf: I am frequently at Walter Reed to deal with continuing phantom pain and adjustments to my prosthesis. While I'm there I visit the Ward and all levels of care for amputees. It is very hard for me to see young men and women cut down at the peak of their power and dreams. I've noticed that commonly I see double and triple amputees now, a rare sight when I was a patient. The reason is that the Iraq insurgency is using more powerful explosives, big enough to blow up a city block. It's amazing anyone can survive.


Detroit, Mich.: Do you think that we are too insulated from the human costs of the war i.e., injuries and deaths?

Michael Weisskopf: I hope that "Blood Brothers" will break through the insulation. It is an account of the human costs of war, necessary to give the public a full picture of our experience in Iraq.


Getting admitted: ... to the ward for treatment was unusual. How did you manage that? Was is the right place to go?

Michael Weisskopf: Walter Reed was the perfect place for me because of its advanced with amputees. Through the help of friends and colleagues, I received a rare exception from Army Secretary for a civilian to be treated in a hospital reserved for soldiers. He explained to me later that he felt anyone who had helped soldiers deserved their help in return.


New York, N.Y.: As you perhaps have heard, The Post recently ran an extensive story on Garry Trudeau, who has made recovery and rehabilitation of veterans a centerpiece of his recent Doonesbury strips. Have you had a chance to read them? Do they resonate with you?

Michael Weisskopf: Gary Trudeau not only has devoted attention to this subject but is a frequent visitor to Ward 57. His work resonates with everyone who has been a patient there as well as staff. He is a personal friend of mine. Next week I will be in New York to share an an award with him from the Land Mine Survivors Network.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Where do the plans to close Walter Reed Hospital stand? What will happen to the people in the amputation ward, patients and staff, and how do they feel about the planned closure?

Michael Weisskopf: The place is scheduled to be closed in the next few years, but government procurement often moves slower than that. As long as the expertise is shifted to a military center in Bethesda, I am confident the service will be as excellent. However, it will be sad to see an institution that has cared for wounded soldiers since the first World War be closed.


New York, N.Y.: Thank you for your professionalism and personal bravery. You saved the lives of your mates in that Humvee.

Michael Fumento, an imbedded reporter as you were, has recently written criticizing the byline "reporting from Baghdad" by many current print and electronic reporters who rarely leave their hotels. They report as first-hand information that is often second, third, or fourth-hand to them.

What is your opinion of this issue? CAPT, JAGC, USN (Ret.)

Michael Weisskopf: By necessity, reporters have to remain secure otherwise they will never get the story out. They are brave just to fly into Baghdad these days in the face of potential attack by shoulder-fired missiles. I regret that Baghdad is no longer open to the kind of easy access I enjoyed in my first visit in the spring of 2003. Even if the reporters are several steps from a story, they are closer than I am in Washington and their words have to be respected.


Oxford, Miss.: I heard you on NPR the other day. Very compelling story. Look forward to reading the book. I have a simple question: how has losing your hand affected your work? I mean physically. I assume it's much harder to type, take notes, etc. Has that been one of the more difficult things to adapt to?

Michael Weisskopf: It was a very difficult adjustment but a physical one. The hard part about returning to reporting is that we attempt to step back from our subjects and to report them analytically. I found myself in the center of a human drama that required me to abandon distance from my subjects. I wrote this book from the heart and I find it difficult to return to the distant, intellectual and dry requirements of reporting. So my biggest hurdle has been emotional, not physical.


St. Paul, Minn.: We often hear from top administration officials that they make frequent visits to Walter Reed to be with our injuries troops. How much of a fixture while you were there?

Michael Weisskopf: A large fixture. The most impressive visits were off-camera. Some politicians and even generals came with media followers. Their motives were less pure. Some came by themselves at night or on holidays without any attention from the media. They were the most welcomed.


Duluth, Minn.: Hope this is not too personal, but how are you coping with the psychological aspect of now being different? All my best and my gratitude.

Michael Weisskopf: I tried hard for months to disguise my deformity. I sported a life-life silicone hand at the end of my prosthesis so that no one would notice. As I came to grips with my loss and the underlying motivations of my actions in the Humvee, I shifted my view. I am now proud of my stump. It has a story to tell. It represents life--my own and that of a photographer and four soldiers--who would have died in the Humvee if I had not picked up that grenade.


This chat: How are you answering the questions? Are you dictating? Using voice-recognition software?

Whatever you're doing, you're fast.

Michael Weisskopf: I am relying on the able services of a typist.


Timonium, Md.: Michael:

We met when you covered the Dale Anderson corruption trial for the Baltimore Sun. I was moved by your excerpt in Time. Any chance that you'll be signing your book in our area.


Michael Weisskopf: I have no plans, but if you buy a copy of the book, call me and arrange a meeting I'd be happy to sign it.


West Orange, N.J.: Where can one find reliable data on the number and degree of disabilities incurred by U.S. personnel serving in Iraq?

Michael Weisskopf: Google it--there are Web sites that can be found that have data.


Virginia: How do you think the soldiers from this war will adjust when they are (finally) allowed to come home? Is there going to be rampant PTSD? Are there going to be more McVeighs and John Allen Muhammads? Will the Va. be swamped?

Michael Weisskopf: The casualties in this war have largely been racked up by roadside bombs. Soldiers are frustrated by not engaging an enemy and that has led to a new form of malaise. The rate of PTSD is already high.


Anonymous: No posting or response expected.

Thank you. You will never know how many people are indebted to you.

Michael Weisskopf: You can thank me by telling your friends about this book, which is a voice for thousands of wounded soldiers in this war.


Austin, Tex.: On another chat, somebody just now asked Dana Priest about the four or five best books to read about the current world situation. Part of her answer:

"Weisskopf's Blood Brothers"

Michael Weisskopf: That is high praise from one of Washington's best and most accurate reporters.


Michael Weisskopf: Just after I was hit, the photographer with me snapped two pictures in the bed of the Humvee with what was left of my right arm in the air and my left hand pointing to it. A medic was opening up a tourniquet to save my life. I keep a copy of that picture on my desk to remind me how life is made of moments and how quickly it can end. I wrote "Blood Brothers" as a reminder of the battle after the war I fought and thousands of others have fought. It is a reminder that the good moments in life have to be seized.


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