The Castleton campus during N-period has a usual routine of meals, meetings, and mingling, but on Oct. 30, the doors of Herrick Auditorium opened to a war zone. Members of the History and Politics Club, the History Department faculty, and the Communication Department collaborated to present a special teach-in featuring a 30-minute clip of Jon Alpert’s award-winning documentary “Baghdad ER” followed by a panel of Vermont college students who served in the military with stories to tell.
Communication professor and Vietnam veteran Thomas Conroy prefaced the teach-in by discussing the importance of being informed.
“Knowledge doesn’t come from Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, Bill O’Reilly, or even Jon Stewart,” Conroy said. “We need to hear the perspective of those who know, those who experienced war. And no one knows war like a veteran.”
Conroy went on to introduce the film, which chronicled the daily routine of the 86th Combat Support Hospital [CSH] back in the summer of 2005. This hospital is renowned for being the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility in Iraq and continues to receive the majority of war-related injuries.
The film began with the image of an injured soldier lying motionlessly on a hospital bed while his comrades pin a Purple Heart badge on his uniform.
The opening montage continues with horrific images and statistics — bloody soldiers on gurneys, hospital workers holding up missing body parts, and the sobering statistic of 90 percent of U.S. soldiers being wounded in Iraq that year.
In one of many interviews conducted on film, Col. Casper P. Jones III from Gary, Ind. commented on the experience of working in a military hospital.
“You really see the horrors of what man can do to man,” Jones said.
The documentary went on to chronicle touching moments of camaraderie shared by the troops, which made it even more heartbreaking when it showed their reactions to losing a comrade.
Many members of the audience would cover their mouths at the mourning of fallen soldiers and cringe at the uncensored gore of amputations and I.E.D. injuries, effectively giving the public, whose perception of the war is usually determined by tame news coverage, a hard-hitting glimpse of reality.
As the film ended on the poignant image of two injured soldiers holding hands in hospital beds to band together over their recently-deceased companion, the panel of student veterans got a chance to enlighten the audience on their experiences.
The first was Robert Bromley, a Danby native and senior nursing major at Castleton, served with the U.S. Army Reserve as a medic in Tikrit, Iraq from August 2007 through June 2008.
Bromley likened his experience in the Critical Care Unit with that in the documentary.
“It was hard sometimes seeing bodies and severe injuries of guys with the same uniform, the same story as me,” said Bromley. “After awhile, we just had to be ready for anything.”
Bromley also talked about his compassion for the injured Iraqi’s, which arrived at the Critical Care Unit in higher numbers.
“The Iraqi guys had no body armor, so a lot more of them wound up dying or with severe injuries,” Bromley said. “We had this one guy for three months because they’re in their home country, so we can’t ship them out anywhere.”
“These guys were good people. You know, of course, some of them are bad guys, and some are ignorant, but not all of them,” he said.
Eugene Hitchcock of Springfield is a CSC sociology major who served the Army National Guard in a medevac unit 100 miles south of Baghdad from 2005-2006.
“We traditionally worked 12-hour shifts, but there really was no guaranteed time off,” said Hitchcock. “We were on call 24/7 because of enemy attacks and rollovers that you can’t really predict.”
Justin Jackson is also a CSC sociology major and hails from Enosburg Falls. Jackson spent the summer of 2008 defending a jet refueling facility in Qatar with the Vermont Air National Guard.
“I feel really lucky because we never felt the same level of danger as the rest of these guys,” Jackson said, indicating his fellow veterans on the panel. “I can’t say enough good things about these guys.”
When Jackson humbly downplayed his involvement, Hitchcock quickly stepped in with a true display of the camaraderie that both the veterans in the movie and on the panel mentioned.
“Every job is important, though. Without each person doing their part, we wouldn’t have the system that we do,” Hitchcock said.
Heather Slater from Saylorsburg, Pa is a Castleton student double-majoring in sociology and social work and plans to work for the FBI one day. Slater served with a Military Police Battalion as a corrections officer at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Slater was also distinguished in a military press release for visiting military and civilian patients every Sunday at a local hospital.
“I worked as a cell guard at a prison in Bagram, observing detainees. One of the hardest things to do was taking care of these people who were pulling the trigger on an IED, and then going to the hospital and seeing wounded soldiers, and I was helping the other guys,” said Slater, overcome by tears.
Slater explained that visiting hospital patients and helping provide relief was a way for her to maintain her sanity in a monotonous and oftentimes painful environment.
“I’d go to hospitals and on missions to bring toys, clothing, food, things they’ve never seen. It was amazing to see how appreciative people were,” said Slater.
Matt Howard, the lone panelist who does not attend Castleton, is from Foxboro, Mass. and attends St. Michael’s College in the Peace and Justice Program. Howard served with the Marine Corps from 2001-2005 and was stationed in Japan, California, Kuwait, and Iraq.
Howard, who has since joined the Iraq Veterans Against the War, had many frustrations to express based on first-hand experience.
“When I initially joined (the Marines), I swore to protect the United States against enemies. I took it seriously. We are an elite group whose actions are dictated by the core values of honor, courage, commitment, and integrity,” said Howard.
“But wait, we were straight-up lied to by the government, and I felt incredibly betrayed,” he continued. “I honored my end of the bargain and it seemed like my Commander in Chief disregarded that.”
Unlike the others, Howard had much difficulty taking away anything positive from his military experience and maintains strongly his opposition to what he believes cannot even be called a war.
“We are occupying, not at war. Violence is not a form of conflict resolution. It’s a clear example that the policy has failed,” said Howard.
Despite their differences in experience and opinions, the student soldiers all seemed to agree on one thing, which was the value of contact from loved ones back home.
“You wouldn’t understand how much a letter means,” said Bronwick.
Hitchcock further elaborated on Bronwick’s point by contrasting the initial departure with a few months into a mission.
“When you leave, there’s this big send-off, and then it’s like people forget,” said Hitchcock. “The coolness of knowing someone who’s fighting in the war wears off. There are still soldiers over there doing work; send them an e-mail, send them a picture, send them anything.”
After an hour of a captivating panel discussion, Hitchcock wrapped up the discussion with a concrete and all-encompassing point.
“We might not agree with why we’re over there, but these soldiers do the job and do it well, regardless of the situation,” said Hitchcock.