[Photos by EUGENE RICHARDS]
NEW YORK TIMES: In Iraq’s Anbar Province, in May 2005, Shurvon, who joined the Marine reserves seven years earlier at 17, partly as a way to pay his community-college tuition, was riding back to his base after a patrol when an anti-tank mine exploded under his Humvee. The Humvee’s other soldiers were tossed in different directions and dealt an assortment of injuries: concussions, broken bones, herniated discs. Along with a broken jaw and a broken leg, Shurvon suffered one of the war’s signature wounds on the American side: though no shrapnel entered his head, the blast rattled his brain profoundly.
Far more effectively than in previous American wars, helmets and body armor are protecting the skulls and saving the lives of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, a joint Defense Department and V.A. organization, about 900 soldiers have come home with serious traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I., which essentially means dire harm to their brains; it can be caused by explosions that deliver blunt injury to the helmeted skull or that send waves of compressed air to slam and snap the head ruinously even at a distance of hundreds of yards from the blast. (The 900 also include injuries caused by shrapnel or bullets that have managed to penetrate.) Some of these veterans have been left — for protracted periods and often permanently — unable to think or remember or plan clearly enough to cope with everyday life on their own; others, like Shurvon, have been left incapable of doing much at all for themselves. (A recent Rand Corporation report estimates that, additionally, 300,000 soldiers have suffered milder T.B.I., frequently including brief loss of consciousness, disorientation or cognitive lapses.)
In the explosion’s aftermath, Shurvon was airlifted to the American military’s hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where Gail saw him for the first time since he was sent to war a few months before. By that point a portion of the left side of his skull had been cut away to relieve the pressure of the casing of bone against his swelling brain. “His head,” she told me, “looked like a ball with the air half out of it.” She was confronted, too, with a CT scan taken by the hospital. “I didn’t do much biology, but I’m thinking, That’s not a brain I’m looking at,” she said, describing her reaction. “Everyone has a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere, but this didn’t look like that. Do you remember Play-Doh? When children play with Play-Doh” — she slammed her palms together to demonstrate — “it’s just a gray blob. That was Shurvon’s brain.”
Before his injury, Shurvon was, as his younger sister, Candace, recalled, “a big kid” who liked to come home from his job at Wal-Mart, stocking shelves and counting cash, and curl up with his older sister’s son to watch Spider-Man cartoons. Short and slender, he squirmed through every tunnel his nephew slithered into at Chuck E. Cheese. But he was “the brains of the family,” Candace said, and Gail added that, besides being something of a ladies’ man, he had a 3.4 G.P.A. at college and was on his way to an associate’s degree in computer science when he was called up. MORE
RELATED: President Bush opposes a new G.I. Bill of Rights. He worries that if the traditional path to college for service members since World War II is improved and expanded for the post-9/11 generation, too many people will take it. He is wrong, but at least he is consistent. Having saddled the military with a botched, unwinnable war, having squandered soldiers’ lives and failed them in so many ways, the commander in chief now resists giving the troops a chance at better futures out of uniform. He does this on the ground that the bill is too generous and may discourage re-enlistment, further weakening the military he has done so much to break.
So lavish with other people’s sacrifices, so reckless in pouring the national treasure into the sandy pit of Iraq, Mr. Bush remains as cheap as ever when it comes to helping people at home.Thankfully, the new G.I. Bill has strong bipartisan support in Congress. The House passed it by a veto-proof margin this month, and last week the Senate followed suit, approving it as part of a military financing bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Senate version was drafted by two Vietnam veterans, Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. They argue that benefits paid under the existing G.I. Bill have fallen far behind the rising costs of college. Their bill would pay full tuition and other expenses at a four-year public university for veterans who served in the military for at least three years since 9/11. At that level, the new G.I. Bill would be as generous as the one enacted for the veterans of World War II, which soon became known as one of the most successful benefits programs — one of the soundest investments in human potential — in the nation’s history.
Mr. Bush — and, to his great discredit, Senator John McCain — have argued against a better G.I. Bill, for the worst reasons. They would prefer that college benefits for service members remain just mediocre enough that people in uniform are more likely to stay put. MORE