(This interview was originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in October 2005)
Nina Berman's book "Purple Hearts" is a bleak look at the wounded veterans coming home from Iraq. Years before the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandals, Berman was documenting the substandard care that the wounded were receiving, boxes of pills prescribed and artificial limbs fixed with duct tape. We offer parades and lip service, but we do not take care of those who have served our country. Not much has changed in the six years since Berman's book has come out. This is still a national shame.
Here is my interview with Berman:
Since the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, 1956 American military personnel have been killed in the conflict. In addition, 14641 soldiers and Marines have been wounded. With advances in body armor and lifesaving technology, many more combat wounded have survived this war than any American conflict and have returned to the United States for long-term care.
Several months after the Iraq war started, photojournalist Nina Berman started tracking down and photographing 20 severely wounded Iraq War veterans. Most are in their early twenties and they are from all over the country, from a soldier born on the gang-infested streets of Santa Ana, California, who lost an arm to a blinded and brain-damaged Army ranger from Pennsylvania. The resulting book, “Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq” (Trolley Books, $25). The images are stark and unsentimental. Soldiers are photographed with their horrific burns and artificial limbs. The text is in the soldiers’ own words, reflecting patriotism, confusion over why they were sent to Iraq, their uncertain future and questionable medical support.
Berman, 45, was raised in the Bronx and Bergen County and attended the University of Chicago and Columbia University. Her two-decade photojournalism career has included photographing Muslim women held captive in Serbian rape camps during the Bosnian war, Afghanistan under the Taliban and the evolution of Times Square in Manhattan. Berman spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley near her home in New York City.
Q. Why did you start “Purple Hearts”?
A. There I was, sitting in New York City, watching the war on television and feeling that it was not a realistic portrayal. Something that was missing was images and discussions of the wounded and the dead from all sides. It occurred to me in June 2003, as I kept hearing on the radio “three wounded, four wounded,” but never seeing any images, was one way that I could make the war more real to me and maybe the public was to find these wounded soldiers, to see who they were and what it means to be wounded.
Q. How did you find the soldiers?
A. If you go on the Department of Defense website, you will see numbers but no names (of the wounded). There was no government site that listed names. I did what I do when I search for something. I went to Google. I plugged in words like “arm,” “amputee,””leg, “brain damage,” “soldier,” “local hero comes home.” The local newspapers would cover the hometown boy who had gotten hurt. This was how I would gather information about where they lived. It was Journalism 101. Sometimes it was a bank collecting money, sometimes it was a local politician. I would look until I could find a phone number.
Q. What was your goal with photographing the wounded?
A. I always had the idea in my head that I wanted to photograph them at home. I wanted to see where the soldiers came from, to see why they joined. It is one thing to be recovering from your wounds surrounded by doctors and nurses. It is another thing when you are sent home. You are left with just who you are and what you’ve become. I really have the first wave of the wounded. By my calculations, it seems that you spend six months to a year at Walter Reed Hospital or another facility. I have the first wave of guys who have been discharged and sent home as disabled veterans.
Q. How did the veterans take your requests for interviews?
A. I thought they wouldn’t be open to talking and being photographed, but I was pleasantly surprised that almost every soldier wanted to participate. They wanted to tell their stories, to be photographed and remembered. For many of them, I might have been the first person outside of their family or a counselor at the hospital who talked to them about their experience.
Q. You wound up with a wide spectrum of voices from the soldiers. How does the text work with the photos?
A. You can look at the book many ways. You can just look at the photos, and you get one feeling. You can look at the text and get another feeling. The texts are extremely complicated and are filled with inconsistencies. Some writers might try to fix these inconsistencies, but the inconsistencies are what is interesting. What I’m seeing in these soldiers is a military worldview that conflicts with something else in themselves. People say, “Look, the soldiers are pro-war.” I didn’t get that feeling. I got the feeling they liked being part of something that was much bigger than themselves, that they had dreams beyond their small towns.
I would ask them all, would you go back if you could. They’d say yes. I’d think this was insane. This guy’s blind, he’s lost a leg. A father of one of the soldiers said, “You are asking him all wrong. Ask him, ‘If his buddies were home, would he go back?’” I started asking the soldiers the question and they all said no. You dig a little deeper and you see that a soldier wants to be with their friends. They want their life back.
What I said to the soldiers, which I think was a very liberating thing for them, was “I don’t care what you say. Just tell me your story.” It opened up so many things. I didn’t have an agenda. Some didn’t even know their own politics. As the book came together, I realized that there were things beyond portraits and interviews with wounded soldier. This was a portrait of America, the values of our youth, their dreams and the lack of opportunity. Some of the soldiers joined the Army to escape the violence of their hometowns. Isn’t that ironic? To escape violence at home, they are sent to the most violent place in the world. If you think about the equation, it is mortifying.
Q. Did the work take an emotional toll on you?
A. It was hugely upsetting. When you see the soldiers, it can be overwhelming. I became obsessed. It is the only way to do a project like this. I would find myself working in the middle of the night, looking for subjects.
Q. What kind of follow-up care are the wounded soldiers getting?
A. Soldiers tell horror stories about the Veterans Administration. There is virtually no counseling for them. They give them pills. Some soldiers have shoe boxes full of pills and they don’t know what they are about. The soldiers need caseworkers who keep track of them, to see who is getting addicted to drugs, who is crashing their cars. Do they need a new hand? Some soldiers are duct-taping their artificial legs together.
Q. Was the American press interested in your photographs?
A. I had a hard time getting them published here. I was told they were too depressing, that they didn’t show hope. What do you think when you think of a wounded soldier? I think of someone helping the soldier. That for me is the crucial thing about these photographs. They don’t show anyone helping these soldiers. They are all by themselves. My images are extremely lonely. There are no groups of friends around, no politician shaking his hand. It is just the soldiers alone, like in a little cage. That is why I shot the photographs in a square, to give it that sense.