Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Beyond the Iraq war hearings


I've never been a big basher of members of Congress as a class. Capitol Hill lawmakers do important work in a democratic republic, and many of them put in long days of high purpose. Also, as tempting as it is to roast Congress, it's always helpful to recall that Congress in our Great Republic represents ... us.

Last week, however, I may have finally reached a break point. I say finally because my anger, disgust, frustration—call it what you will—has been building for some time now, perhaps since late 2007.

It started when lawmakers who properly demanded "a change in course" on Iraq got just that from the Bush administration and then refused to recognize there had been "a change in course" because it wasn't the one they wanted—even if they never defined what they meant by a change in course. It built with all the hedging, waffling and incoherence of lawmakers who had been happy to back the war when the going was easier.

The two rounds of Iraq progress report hearings proved the most galling. Lawmakers used their time for questioning Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to give windbag speeches or instruct the two on what's really going on in Iraq.

Maybe it's the contrast to the pair's sober adultness and cool competence, but so many lawmakers came off as clowns and empty suits at these hearings. They seem so unworthy of this historical moment or the folks fighting and sometimes dying in Iraq. Or maybe it's because I've had one of the war's wounded on my mind.

He's Marine Cpl. Garrett Jones of Dundee, Ore. Last July 23, he was on foot patrol in Karmah, between Baghdad and Fallujah. A bomb exploded, tossing him into a drainage ditch. His left arm and right leg were injured. His left leg was still attached but mangled badly. The water in the drainage was turning red from his blood. Jones figured he was a goner, and he would have been if fellow Marines had not fought off the insurgents, pulled him out of that ditch and applied a tourniquet to his leg. Later that day, his left leg was amputated at mid-thigh.

Fast-forward to the present—past a hellish first month, past the months of rehabilitation. Last month, Jones completed his rehab program. Next month he'll complete predeployment training and join his unit for a combat tour in Afghanistan.

Semper Fi—Always Faithful. It's worked in both directions in Jones' case. He wanted back in action—this time in intelligence, not as assaultman—as much as the Marines wanted him back.

The point here is not to make Jones some kind of endorsement of Bush's Iraq war policy. No, the point here goes beyond war critics or supporters, Democrats or Republicans—to the quality and integrity of our lawmakers' conduct over the course of this war. Their conduct seems so far removed from the bravery and grit and commitment, the seriousness of purpose, the life-and-limb, on-the-line authenticity, the heroism that our troops in Iraq or Afghanistan show every day. These hearings seem a world away from one Garrett Jones, and the contrast can be sickening.

Jones, of course, would be the last person to single himself out. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, about a dozen troops have returned to the battlefield after becoming amputees. And his father, Scott Jones, a Newberg, Ore., police officer, has a list of "heroes" he's come to know through Garrett.

"The events of the past year have had a profound impact on me," he told me Thursday. "I never really had any heroes before this. Oh yes, there are people I have recognized as heroes. The same as most Americans. But I've never really had any truly personal heroes—people whose bravery and sacrifice have touched me in a such a direct and personal way—until now. I'm always willing to spill my guts about my feelings for these people. I think it's because I believe these heroes belong to all of us, not just me. I just want people to know that things such as honor, bravery, loyalty and sheer guts still exist in America. And what's even more extraordinary is that these things exist in a special breed of our young people. And one day these young people will run this country, and knowing that gives me hope."

In a better time, more people would know about this special breed.

Scott Jones will talk about his son's best friend, who was killed in February 2007. He'll talk about the Marine who pulled Garrett out of the ditch and the Marine who used a tourniquet and "saved Garrett's life." And the injured squad leader who refused to take any pain medications or leave the scene until Garrett was taken care of.

He'll also spill his guts about the nurse who took care of Garrett in Iraq. As it happens, she had been a Portland surgical nurse. She had wanted to do something to help the young Americans fighting in Iraq and joined the U.S. Army Reserve. On the night of July 23 she called the Joneses. After they had spoken to Garrett, this nurse got back on the line. "She said something I'll never, ever forget," Scott Jones says. "Before she said goodbye, she said, 'For now, I'll be his mom. I'll love him and take care of him.' I cannot put into words how much those words meant to us—to know that Garrett was being cared for by this caring human being, half a world away, as he was going through the worst thing that had ever happened to him."

Scott Jones knows all their names but doesn't want them named here out of respect for their privacy. He also recognizes all the many unnamed heroes. But he feels free to have me name one.

"I'd be disingenuous if, out of modesty, I didn't admit that my son is also my hero," Scott says of his 22-year-old son Garrett. "His bravery and indomitable spirit amazes even me."

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