Forget the War? Many Can't

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

August 4, 2005

Washington

Specialist Fourth Class Hugo Luis Gonzalez knows that he will never be the same. He can barely see now. The sight in his right eye is completely gone, and he sees only faintly with the left. The damage from the head wound he suffered plays games with his moods, and there are glitches in the tape of his memory.

"We got ambushed," he said softly. "I have to say I was very, very, very blessed that night. The angel of death put his cloud over my body. But I am alive."

Specialist Gonzalez is one of many thousands of American troops who have suffered disabling wounds in Iraq. Their harrowing ordeals do not get much attention. For most Americans, these troops - many of them armless or legless, or paralyzed, or horribly burned - are out of sight and way out of mind. Jennifer Aniston's marital woes are viewed as a much more compelling story.

On CNN's "Reliable Sources" on Sunday, there was a discussion of "Iraq fatigue," the idea that viewers, readers and editors are tiring of stories about the war and the number of deaths. But despite the fatigue, the war continues to force itself on us, with jolting developments like this week's terrible death toll for American marines.

Specialist Gonzalez was wounded in an attack that erupted in the 1 a.m. darkness of the first day of summer in 2004. He was on patrol in a "bucket," a Humvee that was open in the back like a utility truck, and not armored. Everybody understood that the vehicle was dangerously vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, so a system was devised to rotate the troops who rode in it. It's fair to think of this as a roadside version of Russian roulette.

"It was a whole experience to prepare that vehicle to go out," said Specialist Gonzalez, "because you knew that if something happened, you were definitely going to get it. We put as many sandbags as possible on the floor, hoping those sandbags might save your life."

I asked if he had done anything else to prepare. "Oh, yes," he said. "Pray. And then you take a big breath when you go out of the gates to start the mission. You inhale at that moment. And when you come back from the mission, then you exhale."

On that morning, Specialist Gonzalez had to be carried back from the mission. The "bucket" took a direct hit from an I.E.D., and a furious gun battle with insurgents broke out. Fragments from the blast ripped into Specialist Gonzalez's head.

"I remember trying to get down and calling for a medic," he said. "I lost consciousness on the floor."

Emergency surgery was performed in Baghdad, and then Specialist Gonzalez, who is 32, was flown to Germany and eventually to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. A portion of his skull was temporarily removed because of the swelling of his brain. It has since been restored, and he is still being treated at Walter Reed.

I interviewed Specialist Gonzalez on Tuesday in the quiet, air-conditioned offices of Disabled American Veterans, which is helping to prepare him for the transition to civilian life. He sat rigidly on the edge of a sofa, his left hand clinging to the knee of his wife, Any, who is 27. They were married last February.

"She has to be my eyes now," he said.

I asked Specialist Gonzalez if he had ever become depressed during his ordeal. "Yes, I did, sir," he said. "Actually, I've been getting more depressed lately than in the beginning."

After a pause, he said, "Frustration makes me sad sometimes. And I have mood changes. From very happy to kind of sad from one moment to another. And I've become judgmental. Criticizing others. I do that most of the time. Even Any. People have pointed it out to me."

His ability to concentrate has deteriorated, he said. "I have to accept it. My room is like a whole map where I keep big chart boards to remind myself which day I went to the gym, which bills I have to pay, so I don't pay them again."

These are the kinds of sacrifices some Americans are making because of the war. If we're already sick of hearing about the troops getting killed, there's not much hope left for increased attention to those who are wounded.

Specialist Gonzalez said his chief worry, the concern that keeps him awake at night, is what lies in wait when he finally leaves the hospital and returns - newly married and without many of the tools he previously took for granted - to the "real world."

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com