US 'smuggles wounded troops home' under cover of darkness
By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
10 April 2005
The Pentagon has been accused of smuggling wounded soldiers into the US under cover of darkness to avoid bad publicity about the number of troops being injured and maimed in Iraq. The media have also been prevented from photographing wounded soldiers when they arrive at hospital.
Records show that flights from military bases in Germany arrive in the US only at night. Officials say this is purely the result of flight-scheduling pressures and is not a deliberate tactic to minimise detrimental publicity. They also say that by leaving Europe later in the day soldiers are given a better chance to sleep well the night before.
But many campaigners believe otherwise. Just as the Bush administration has banned the media from taking photographs of the coffins of American troops killed in Iraq as they arrive in the US, opponents say it is now trying to cover up the number of wounded.
"The American public has very limited information about the real impact of this war," said Ellen Taylor, a spokeswoman for Code Pink, a peace group that has been protesting outside the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington, where the bulk of the wounded are taken. "I think that a lot of information about this war is being kept from the public. That is what we are protesting about."
It is not even clear how many troops have been injured since the start of President Bush's "war on terror". The Pentagon says that around 12,000 troops have been evacuated from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, though because officials only list as casualties those soldiers directly hurt by bombs or bullets, the actual total of injured and wounded is believed to be closer to 25,000. Walter Reed says it has treated 4,000 troops injured in Iraq.
"Night-time arrivals are beneficial to the patient as they allow for a regular night of sleep and then for doctors in Europe to make the final determination on their ability to make the long flight, move patients from Landstuhl regional medical centre to Ramstein air base and board the plane," said a hospital spokeswoman, Lyn Kurkal. "There is no attempt by Walter Reed to hide the number of patients we receive. On the contrary, since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Walter Reed public affairs has issued a weekly press release that includes the number of medically evacuated patients received that week."
And a spokesman for the Air Mobility Command said: There are no policies that direct anything about night arrivals or avoiding public contact. Neither public relations nor public perception play a role in flight schedules."
The flights from Germany on a C-141 Starlifter aircraft can take up to 10 hours. But, given the six-hour time difference between the US and Germany, the wounded soldiers could leave at noon from Ramstein and still arrive at Andrews Air Force base near Washington by 4pm.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Operation Truth, a group set up for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, said: "[A cover-up] would fit in with everything else they have done. It would be part of an effort to keep the cost of this war away from the American public. It is not surprising, but it is depressing. It should piss people off."
At the beginning of 2003, Mr Bush issued a presidential order that the media should be banned from photographing the return of troops' coffins when they are flown into the US, usually at Dover air base in Delaware. Parents of dead soldiers have also often been banned from meeting the coffins. Controversy raged last year when the Pentagon released a series of photographs following a Freedom of Information Act filing, but later withdrew them.
But officials have also banned the media from taking pictures of the wounded being delivered to either Walter Reed or the National Naval Medical Centre in nearby Bethesda. Ms Kurkal told The Independent on Sunday: "We no longer allow such photos for patient-privacy reasons." However, a reporter from the online journal Salon was recently able to enter Walter Reed and photograph wounded troops without revealing their identities.
Nancy Lessin of Military Families Speak Out, a group made up of relatives of US troops, said: "The entire Bush administration has been trying to keep the cost of this away from the public. The whole issue of casualties and the toll has been very much hidden."
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/ame ... ory=627924