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Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq

About the author
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer. Her work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, TIME, Newsweek, National Geographic, among others. She is the winner of the World Press Award 2005, and is on the faculty of the International Center of Photography, and an advisor at the School of Visual Arts, both in New York City. Purple Hearts – Back from Iraq (Trolley Books, August 2004) is her first book.

In October 2003, I started making portraits of American soldiers who were wounded in the Iraq War. I began the project because I was not seeing any images of wounded soldiers, much less wounded Iraqi civilians, in the American press. The human cost of war seemed conspicuously absent from public view. I felt that maybe if Americans saw images of their own wounded sons and daughters, they might have more realistic understanding of the consequences of war.

There are no lists of the wounded, unlike the dead. In newspapers, the names of the dead are published every day along with their ages, hometowns and command units. I read these names and feel sorry for the soldiers’ families and friends. But the dead tell no stories. It is the wounded that survive and present us with our own complicity.

Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq is published by Trolley Books

I found my subjects by going on the internet and plugging in certain words: brain damage, blind, wounded, arm, leg, and amputee. I then tracked the soldiers down in their hometowns after they had been discharged from military hospitals. I avoided photographing them at public events like welcome home parades or medal ceremonies. I wanted to see the soldiers in private and alone as each confronts his or her loss and considers the experience of war, their reasons for enlisting in the military and life ahead.

When I started the project there were a thousand wounded. Now there are tens of thousands. They have lost eyes, ears and pieces of their brain. The damage is wrenching and at first I was not prepared for the suffering. Then I became obsessed. I couldn’t stop the project. I had to find more soldiers.

Looking back, I now understand how desperate I was to carve out a place of truth amid the spectacle of “shock and awe”, “mission accomplished”, the “hunt for Saddam”, and the yellow ribbons and freedom fries.

There is a curious divide between those who live the reality of war each day – the combatants, their families, the civilians under occupation – and those for whom war is just background noise in the nightly news reports.

For me, photographing the soldiers made my country’s actions very personal and real.

The soldiers in ‘Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq’ represent a small number of the 5,394 American servicemen and women wounded in action and the estimated 11,000 others injured in combat support during the first fifteen months of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. A precise number of combat support or non-hostile injuries is not known. The Pentagon omits from its casualty reports those soldiers medically evacuated from Iraq due to friendly fire, sickness, accidents, or psychological trauma even though many of these soldiers are severely injured and permanently disabled.

Iraqi casualties are not counted at all.


Spc. Sam Ross

“It was the best experience of my life”

Spc. Sam Ross

Spc. Sam Ross, 21, combat engineer, 82nd Airborne Division, was injured 18 May 2003 in Baghdad when a bomb blew up a munitions disposal operation. He is blind and an amputee.

I lost my left leg, just below the knee. Lost my eyesight, which is still unsettled about whether it will come back or not. I have shrapnel in pretty much every part of my body. Got my finger blown off. It don’t work right. I had a hole through my right leg. Had three skin grafts to try and repair it. It’s not too bad right now. It hurts a lot, that’s about it. You know not really anything major. Just little things. I get headaches. I have a piece of shrapnel in my neck that came up through my vest and went into my throat and it’s sitting behind my trachea, and when I swallow it kind of feels like I have a pill in my throat. Some stuff like that. And my left ear, it don’t work either.

I don’t have any regrets. No not at all. It was the best experience of my life. Twenty-one years old and I’ve seen a couple of countries. I’ve been pretty much everywhere and done everything. I’ve jumped out of airplanes. I got to play with mines. I got to see how the army works. I got to go mess around with a bunch of guys that feel the same way I do, that all enjoy it. I got to interact with people of another culture, people who live their lives 100% different than the way we live here.

Spc. Sam Ross

I have one brother and one sister. Couldn’t tell you where they live. For a while we grew up together. Mother? Father? Well they both exist. They’re both alive, but circumstances regarding the relationship are kind of complicated.

I sleep. I don’t do anything really. Ain’t nothing really to do around here. It’s a shit hole. Same thing it was when I left.

One of the biggest things that’s wrong with people nowadays they’re so anti-military. Not in the sense where they don’t want a military, but they don’t want our military involved in a conflict. And that’s what makes us America.

I want to go into politics. Run for office maybe. This is still secret but I’m talking with people about working with the army. Going on speaking tours. That kind of thing.

Spc. Sam Ross was photographed in the woods near his trailer where he lives alone in Dunbar Township, Pennsylvania, 19 October 2003

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Sgt. John Quincy Adams

“My head doesn’t let me work”

Sgt. John Quincy Adams

Sgt. John Quincy Adams, 37, a Reservist with the Florida National Guard, 124th Infantry, was on patrol in Ramadi 29 August 2003 when a remote-controlled bomb exploded under his humvee sending shrapnel into his head and body leaving him brain damaged.

I was doing landscaping and lawn service in north Miami with my father-in-law. I loved it. Now I like being with the kids and my wife. I try to be with them always. But the big one likes school and the little one stays behind. I take them both with me and my wife to the Veterans Hospital.

There is not much I can do now because if I do it and I fall, and I hit my head, it was cause for it to move my brain and the metal I have back here will move. My head doesn’t let me work, plus my arm.

Sgt. John Quincy Adams

I joined the Guard for money and I liked putting on the uniform.

It was in Jordan I landed and there was, how can I say, it was my destiny and I felt inside me emptiness because my wife wasn’t there, but I knew I had to do it.

Summer Adams, John’s wife: He can’t run. We can’t let him run. We can’t let him risk falling. He needs a lot of sleep because the medication makes him very drowsy. He’s on medication for seizures, mood swings and depression.

He has metal in the right lower quadrant of the brain. He had a lot of rock and shrapnel that came on the side of his face and he has several entry and exit wounds in the arm which damaged nerves and tendons. And then the mental issue.

Sgt. John Quincy Adams was photographed at home with his wife Summer, in Miramar, Florida, 18 December 2003


Spc. Luis Calderon

“From my neckline down I cannot feel anything”

Spc. Luis Calderon, 22, from Puerto Rico, a tank operator, 4th Infantry Division, was injured 5 May 2003 in Tikrit, when a concrete wall with Saddam’s face on it, which he was ordered to destroy, came crashing down on his tank severing his spinal cord and leaving him a quadriplegic.

The wall, it was a mural of Saddam Hussein with his green uniform, beret and a big rifle pointing to the sky. I was excited, pumped to put the wall down. I was feeling good. I couldn’t wait to hit the wall. It was a sunny day, a beautiful day, blue skies. My tank was an M-88. We were five days in Tikrit.

I hit the wall and it just crashed on me and crushed my head and broke my neck and I was dragging the wall still about 100 metres. I felt everything separated, like in relaxing mode, but in reality I was still driving the tank. I couldn’t feel my hands on the wheel. I felt nothing. My sergeant was telling me to stop on the radio but I couldn’t speak loud because my voice just went away.

Spc. Luis Calderon

I’ve had three surgeries. My spinal cord is C3-C4 which means quadriplegic. From my neckline down I cannot feel anything.

I’m just happy I took the wall down. No regrets. I did my job. I got an Army Commendation medal. I didn’t get a Purple Heart. I feel like I deserve one. It would make me more confident that I really did something.

I’m disappointed that when they ask you to go, we go. And when we ask them where is our reward for doing something, they take their time. I don’t know. I don’t know how the system works but it’s pretty bad.

For the moment right now, I just want to heal.

(Despite his classification as a quadriplegic, Calderon waited more than seven months to be retired and discharged, a difference in benefits of several thousands of dollars a month.)

Spc. Luis Calderon was photographed at the Miami Veterans Hospital, 17 December 2003


Pfc. Alan Jermaine Lewis

“Death has always been around”

Pfc. Alan Jermaine Lewis

Pfc. Alan Jermaine Lewis, 23, a machine-gunner, 3rd Infantry Division was wounded 16 July 2003, on Highway 8 in Baghdad when the humvee he was driving hit a land mine blowing off both legs, burning his face, and breaking his left arm in six places. He was delivering ice to other soldiers at the time.

I’ve always thought about death way before I joined the military , just growing up in Chicago and living out here in this world. I had a friend when I was six years old. His name was Charles and he got killed. He was shot in the head. I think it was a stray bullet. My oldest sister was killed by a stray bullet. I was just a few months old. And my father was killed when I was seven. He was being robbed. So death has always been around.

I remember every detail about my legs. every detail from the scars to the ingrown toenails to the birthmarks to the burn marks. I made it a habit even before I joined the military, to cherish every part of my body, cause I would always look at it like, “What if this finger was gone, would I be able to function without it?” Things like that I’ve always had on my mind. I don’t know why, maybe it’s God’s way of preparing me for what was going to happen.

I’ve been dealing with the military since I was sophomore in high school. They came to the school like six times a year, all military branches. They had a recruiting station like a block from our high school. It was just right there.

Pfc. Alan Jermaine Lewis

In basic training they break you down and then try to build you up. But I always had it in my mind that you can’t break me down because I know who I am.

I always wanted to go into education and become a teacher but they just don’t make enough to survive off. So I figure with my disability now and the money I’ll get form the government, I can use that plus the money I’ll get from being a teacher and live comfortable. So I want to go to college and study education – public school primarily middle school, six to eighth grade.

The reasons for going to war were bogus but we were right to go in there. Saddam was a bad guy.

Pfc. Alan Jermaine Lewis was photographed at home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 23 November 2003

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Pfc. Randall Clunen

“I’m an adrenaline junkie”

Pfc. Randall Clunen

Pfc. Randall Clunen, 19, 101st Airborne, stationed in Tal Afar, was pulling guard 8 December 2003 when a suicide bomber broke through security and exploded himself and his vehicle. Chunks of shrapnel ripped into Clunen’s face.

I really have no idea what my mission was. We were trying to catch the people that were doing stuff. Looking for AKs, RPGs, just stuff like that. We found some weapons, but most of the time we would just go to get the people for information. And when we weren’t doing that we were sleeping or eating. We had TVs and Play Stations.

I liked it. The excitement. The adrenaline. Never knowing what’s going to happen. I mean you could walk in a house and it would blow up. Or you could go in and get fired at. I’m an adrenaline junkie and I like that. I want to get out there and hump stuff on my back. That’s what’s I was doing. I was doing what I wanted. I did something with my life instead of sitting around doing nothing.

Yeah they (Iraqis) were scared. You have like nine Americans busting into your house just screaming pointing weapons. Yeah they were scared. We would go in when they were sleeping and we would just bust in and wake them up so they didn’t have time to get their stuff.

Pfc. Randall Clunen

I have no political feelings. I’m just a soldier out there. You know, we’re trying to help them live like us so they can be free and not be scared to do anything. Trying to set them free. That’s how we looked at it. Sometimes we hated being over there because they just didn’t respect what we were doing. We were trying to help them and they didn’t want us there at all.

It was a car bomb. A suicide bomber. He came just ripping through the gate and he exploded the car and himself. I got hit. My nose was sitting over here, like on the left side of my face and I couldn’t breathe so they had to cut a trachea in. I was bleeding extremely bad. They kept me in a room by myself because I was just like really bad looking. I had tubes running all through me.

All the excitement that was going on, now it’s nothing. You just watch the news or you watch the war movies on TV. Full Metal Jacket, there’s a couple of other ones. I want to find Hamburger Hill, that’s a good one about the 101st. My dad and I, we’d just sit there and watch them. A lot of John Wayne movies too, you know the cowboys and Indians, and then the war movies.

Pfc. Randall Clunen was photographed at his home in Salem, Ohio 14 February 2004

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Spc. Corey McGee

“We don’t know who the bad guy is”

Spc. Corey McGee

Spc. Corey McGee, 25, a 50-caliber gunner with the 10th Mountain Infantry, was injured in an ambush while backing up Marines in Fallujah 9 April 2004. Bullets pierced his neck causing nerve damage and partial paralysis.

Basically what’s wrong with me now is that I had shrapnel in my neck and I was paralysed because of it. I can’t really walk. I can’t feel the right side of my face, from shoulder blade to my right ear. I have enormous amount of pain inside my neck. I can’t sleep because it hurts so much. I couldn’t even eat for a long time. It’s hard for my body to keep it down. I can’t ask for anything more, just to be alive. I’m going to be better.

Everyday in Iraq you think okay, I made it today, I’m going to make it tomorrow. If it weren’t for your buddies lifting up your morale, you would go crazy, you would lose it. There was just so much going on. You were never safe. You can’t tell the enemy or who he is. If the bad guys knew that we were only there to help them, if we could show them. But it’s so hard because we don’t know who the bad guy is. We don’t know who to trust.

We made sense of our day by trying to survive every day.

Spc. Corey McGee

Sometimes you feel hopeless and when you see somebody wave to you, that give s you so much hope for that country and hope for us, for the US, so that we will never have 9/11 happen again. I think that’s why we’re over there. It’s so that we’re bringing it to them, and they’re not bringing it to us. Basically it’s the war on terrorism. They’re attacking US soldiers and I consider that to be an attack on the US the land, the sand. To me that’s just the same thing as 9/11.

I have to say it definitely starts in basic training, that’s when you start learning. That’s when you start loving your country.

I was a little bothered by the fact that no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were found. I was thinking that we were going in for a reason and that was one of them, of course we have several other reasons, but when you think that we’re searching for WMD and actually we’re not, then that leads you to think, okay, if that’s not the case, what is to say that the other reasons we’re there, like rebuilding the government, are really happening. It kind of gives you a little doubt, it does.

Spc. Corey McGee was photographed at his home in Tampa, Florida, 17 May 2004

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Sgt. Wasim Khan

“Before I came to America, I thought Americans were smarter”

Sgt. Wasim Khan

Sgt. Wasim Khan, 24, 1st Armoured Division, was pulling security in downtown Baghdad 1 June 2003, when an RPG attack shattered his leg and sliced his body with shrapnel. An immigrant form Pakistan, Khan received his citizenship while recovering at Walter Reed Military Hospital.

I’ve had a total of seventeen surgeries, two in my eye and fifteen in my leg. I feel the pain. I got to eat something and take my medication. I can’t move my leg so I have to keep it up on the couch. I have shrapnel in my arms and legs. I can feel them, they’re moving. In the shower, little pieces are falling out.

I’m not really down to be honest with you. What happened, happened. They way I think, it was supposed to happen that day and I can’t do anything about it. The good news is that I’m still alive and God bless I still have both legs.

Sgt. Wasim Khan

I feel like I am part of history. In Washington, we go out together, the Korean veterans, the Vietnam veterans, and now the Iraqi veterans. There’s this Vietnam veteran who comes on his own and brings us milkshakes three times a week to the hospital.

Actually before I came to America, I thought Americans were smarter. But when I talk to them, they don’t know about other countries. Even some people don’t know American history. I study. I read books. I read the newspaper. I watch the news. You should know about every other country. It’s a good thing to know.

When I was here a couple of weeks ago they killed two Pakistani Muslims here in Brooklyn. They were coming from the mosque. It was on the news. They called them “Taliban, Taliban”, and they shot them. But I’ve never had any problems.

Sgt. Wasim Khan was photographed at his home in New York City, 10 January 2004

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Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch

“I knew about the Middle East as much as I needed”

Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch

Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, 24, a Ranger, 3rd Battalion, 75th Regiment was injured 3 April 2003, during an artillery attack near the Hadithah Dam. Feldbusch, who was first in his class of 228 Rangers, is now brain-damaged and blind. He sees nothing but darkness.

I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. I had a great time there. I was a biology major. At one point in my life, I wanted to be a doctor.

Even while I was going through college, I thought about going into the military. And when I was done, it was brought up to me again, about going into the army, and I thought, you know what, I would like to do that. There were lots of other things I could have done but I was like, you know, I want to do that. And I talked to recruiters around here, I knew the commander of the recruiting station and he was trying to get me signed.

Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch

Before I went, I knew about the Middle East as much as I needed to. But it didn’t make a difference. I wasn’t fighting a political war with them anyway. That was already taken care of. It was a new kind of war that was going to be fought, so that was where I was stepping in.

That’s about it. I don’t have any regrets. I had some fun over there. I don’t want to talk about the military anymore.

Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch was photographed at his home in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, 18 October 2003

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Lt. Jordan Johnson

“I’m not a hero. I’m a survivor”

Lt. Jordan Johnson

Lt. Jordan Johnson, 23, in charge of a platoon protecting the general of the 1st Armoured Division, was en route from Baghdad International Airport 20 July 2003 when her humvee crashed and flipped, smashing her leg and tail bone, and putting her into a coma. Another soldier died in the crash.

I really had a hard time wanting to be even here. They told me last month I have chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome so I meet once a week with a psychologist. It helps to talk to someone. Basically I just can’t sleep. I literally only get maybe three or four hours of sleep a night. It’s a very restless sleep. It’s strange because I wear myself out. I do as much as I can physically and probably too much emotionally. I’m just never tired. I’m tired. I just can’t sleep.

When I got to Walter Reed, there were support groups for all the soldiers who got injured in Iraq. I was the only female. It started off people really talking about their injuries, and it just became a woman bashing scenario. I was very uncomfortable. I felt let down. It would be nice to say that everyone is nice and treats you as equals, but they don’t.

Lt. Jordan Johnson

Someone asked me the other day, “how does it feel to know that you were going over there and one of your missions was to find WMDs and how does it make you feel not to have found any?” It’s disappointing. You go in with a mindset as a soldier that you have a mission. We found Saddam, that was amazing. The fact that we haven’t found any weapons that’s upsetting. So here my brother’s gone over there in January, so now what’s the mission?

Being part of the United States, what our main goal always seems to be is going in and proving that we’re a super power. Why are we trying to prove that?

All I really want out of this is to be able to walk again, to run again. I went from star athlete to not being able to do six repetitions. It’s a very slow process, but I’m dealing with it.

I don’t need a medal or any kind of badge or award that says who I am because I know who I am. I’m not a hero. I’m a survivor.

Lt. Jordan Johnson was photographed during rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Centre in Sa Antonio, Texas, 26 March 2004

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Spc. Robert Acosta

“All the reasons we went to war, it just seems like they’re not legit enough for people to lose their lives for”

Spc. Robert Acosta

Spc. Robert Acosta, 20, an ammunitions specialist with the 1st Armoured Division, was in a humvee near Baghdad International Airport 16 July 2003 when a grenade was thrown into his vehicle. In the explosion he lost his right hand and the use of his left leg.

The first real eye-opener was just driving through the desert and seeing vehicles blown up and bits of uniforms everywhere and I guess the aftermath of war, and just people throwing rocks, seeing the hatred of people, the love of people. A lot of things that people aren’t supposed to see like destruction and houses where people lived, just destroyed. Little kids in the middle of nowhere. You know that they don’t have no families. It looked like it had the potential to be a really pretty city but it was mangled, just destroyed.

It was 16 July. I think three guys were killed the day I was injured. It was broad daylight, 1800 hours, and the grenade flew in through the window, landed on the radio between me and my buddy. It went off in my hand, took my hand off, shattered my left leg, broke my right ankle, blew the whole body of the humvee out. My buddy Anthony, he was fine, nothing happened to him. I remember asking him are you alright, and he said, “yeah are you?” and I said, “no dude, my hand is gone.” I was telling him man, I don’t think I’m going to make it and he was telling me to shut up. He got me back. He’s in Germany right now. he got our because of like psychological or whatever. It messed him up.

At Walter Reed, it tripped me out. I guess you hear about guys getting hit and this and that but you don’t realise until you actually see them. Because when somebody gets hurt, they’re out of there within hours. You hear rumours, you hear stories, some guy got hit, some guy that… but you don’t really see the reality of it until you get there and see them in hospital. It’s a trip when you’re one of those guys too. I mean we would go to the mall and it would be like me missing my hand, my buddy Ed missing a leg, my buddy Chris missing his whole arm. We’re all in crutches or wheelchairs, whatever, and they’re just like five or six of us going through the mall, soldiers just back from the war, mad at the world just talking shit to everybody.

But in California, nobody really knows what soldiers are going through. They see on TV, oh yeah, two soldiers got wounded today and they think, “Yeah he’ll be alright”. But that soldier is scarred for life both physically and mentally. But they don’t understand. They see one soldier wounded and they’ll forget about it like as soon as they change the channel. Some people get brave and they’ll ask me “What happened to your hand?” And I say “I was in Iraq, got injured, lost my hand”, whatever. And they’re like, “The war’s still going on?” And I’m like, oh my God, are you fucking serious? What do you live in a fucking cave?

Spc. Robert Acosta

Before I would go to a lot of parties. I would go to a lot of clubs. I was always out and about. I haven’t been to a club. I haven’t been to a party. I don’t care what people think, I just don’t like dealing with the questions. Like “Was it hot? Did you shoot anybody?” They want me to glorify war and say it was so cool and it was like I did this and that. They’re just ignorant. I mean you watch action movies and they glorify all this stuff like war is something cool, like it’s something you want to do. But the reality of it is, seeing all that crap, fucks you up in the head, man. I can’t sleep at night. It sucks. It really sucks.

You know Santa Ana really isn’t the best place in the world. Opportunities in this town are very hard to come by. The education is just out the window. Like my brother went to high school this year. He’s a freshman, and he like had to sit on the floor in some of his classes. The books are all written in, it’s just graffiti and pages torn out. That’s how it was when I went to high school, like the people don’t care.

There’s a lot of stuff that happens around here. You go to parties and see people shot up. I mean I grew up seeing a lot of stuff. Lost a lot of friends from drugs too. I mean my best friend from junior high is strung out on meth. I kicked him out of my house the other day. It hurt, but I can’t deal with that. I probably would have been one of the many that got caught up in some wrong situation. So I mean getting out of here was like the best thing I’ve ever done because you leave, you leave.

I loved the military. It was my life. I loved it. I miss being in the military because it’s like I had a routine. I was good at what I did. I had friends. I was successful. I was happy. And it was all taken away from me.

Yeah I got a Purple Heart. I don’t care. No soldier wants a Purple Heart. I’ll tell you that much. No soldier wants it. Awards don’t mean nothing to me. I don’t need anything to prove I was there. I know I was there. I got a constant reminder.

I mean like all the reasons we went to war, it just seems like they’re not legit enough for people to lose their lives for, and for me to lose my hand and use of my left leg, and for my buddies to lose their limbs. Like I just had a big conversation with my buddy the other day and like we just want to know.

I feel like we deserve to know.

Spc. Robert Acosta was photographed at his home in Santa Ana, California, 13 April 2004

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