A Soldier Speaks: Denver Jones

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of profiles of some of the tens of thousands of Iraq War veterans who have come home bearing the scars of battle – emotional and physical wounds that may never heal unless the nation pays them the attention and care that they deserve. We at AlterNet believe that in an election defined by a deep and bitter partisan divide, it is the one issue that can and must bring us all together as Americans.

When U.S. Army Reserve Specialist Denver Jones re-enlisted in the military after the 9/11 attacks, little did he realize that he would become one of the invisible. The Gulf War veteran – who was working as a UPS mechanic at the time – was soon deployed to serve in Iraq with a transportation unit.

Disaster struck when a Humvee accident ruptured three disks and fractured two of the vertebrae in his spine. As he described it to Now with Bill Moyers, "My head came up, hit the ceiling, jammed my neck down, I came down and hit on my tail in the seat, and it broke some seat brackets out from under the seat, and I pretty much was, you know, pretty hurt after that."

Although now disabled for life, Denver is not included in the Pentagon's estimate of the casualties of war – the 7,500-plus number of wounded that counts only those who were injured in combat. After a year-long medical review, the Army finally awarded Denver $1,300 a month, along with VA benefits. But it's small compensation for a life permanently shattered by war. It's hard for Denver to perform the simplest tasks: walk, sit, sleep. As he puts it, "I feel like a 90-year-old man trapped in a 35-year-old body."

Yet when Denver spoke to AlterNet on the phone from his home in North Carolina, he talked not of his pain but the suffering of the Iraqi children.

Is there one memory from the war that still stays with you?

One of the things I think about a lot and can't get out of my head is the living conditions of the majority of the children in Iraq.

Some of them have no home whatsoever. Some of them had mud huts, but there was no windows, no roof, or no doors. If it would rain and they would get some water, they would let their camels and sheep drink out of it before they did. And when the water dried, they would scrape the salt up and put it in bags.

I've spoken to several people over here – about how many children are starving over there – and they come back and say, "Well, there's people starving over here too." [laughs] They have no idea of the size of the problem I'm trying to describe. There is just no comparison to someone who lives on the street over here. Over there, it's not about living on the street – it's how you live.

When you look back, how has this war changed you?

As far as my life goes, it's been changed 180 degrees. It's changed in that I'm not able to do anything physically that I want to do anymore. I'm less mentally strong as I was.

I've learnt to respect human life more and appreciate how precious life is. In more – well, my religious word for it would be blessed – wealthier societies we take for granted how well our lives are. We complain about things that we should be ashamed of complaining about. And people don't even realize what we have. I give a little girl [in Iraq] a dime and she has more joy and happiness and laughter than when I give my child a $5,000 motorcycle.

You don't see those things on TV. When you see Iraq on TV, you see the small areas that were run by Saddam or where his friends lived. You don't see where the majority of Iraqis lived.

When they captured Saddam Hussein, they said, "Oh, what a terrible place that [the underground spider hole] was." That was a hundred times better than how 95 percent of his people live.

In that area, there was grass. Somebody had to go plant grass and water it five times a day. So he was in a nice place, with mattresses and candy and food. And 20 miles down the road, a family is drinking out of the water that the animals have urinated in.

What are your hopes and fears now that you look at the future?

My hopes are that the world can communicate as people – not governments communicating for us. If we communicated as people, there wouldn't be disputes and problems and war.

The governments of countries go and speak as though they represent the people of the country. But they don't represent what the people are actually saying. I've spoken to Iraqi soldiers who at one point wanted to kill me. And once we talked, there was no reason for fighting. Their leader tells them one thing while our leader tells us another. And we go on that.

Just because someone is in a "Third World" country, they're not different than I am. They're human beings and one of God's children. Because I have been blessed with the opportunity to achieve what I have, it doesn't mean that as a human being that I'm more deserving or any better than they are.

Fear-wise, I fear that countries get too involved in who has the most control, or most power. If you use the Bible as a historical reference – and that's not to put any religion into it – there's repeated times it's shown in there that the things we do will not work. That greed won't work. That envy won't work. If it didn't work then, thousands and thousands of years ago, it's not going to work now.

If you had five minutes with the president – whomever it may be on Nov. 3, George Bush or John Kerry – what would you say to him?

Give me just a minute. [pauses] I believe I would say – regardless of who the president was – is to remember how this country's been blessed. To remember the people who are the backbone of this country – the working people. Without the working people, this country wouldn't exist, it couldn't function.

And most of all to remember who has paid and made the sacrifices to keep this country safe – the soldiers. And to take care of those soldiers, irrespective of what the circumstances might be. I would ask him to eliminate the bureaucracy governing the medical care of a soldier after he has been released. There is so much political maneuvering involved in taking care of a soldier.

Just lay down one basic rule – one plain paragraph – so that the soldiers can be taken care of. Just so you understand, you might have one soldier who was grazed by a bullet across the shoulder. And the only thing that is wrong with him physically is a little two-inch long scar. He receives a multitude of benefits.

On the other hand, you have another soldier who was in the same war, at the same time, in a truck accident. And his legs get cut off. But he doesn't get the same gratitude or benefits as the first soldier.

If a soldier is doing the job he is supposed to be doing and injured, then how is that any different? But that's the way it is. I was personally in the war, during the war, before the ceasefire. I get injured and the Army says it's not war combat-related. That's not what the regulations say. When you question them, they say, "The regulations are only a guideline."

But then they get to tell me that if I were at Fort Bragg or Fort Jackson – any training facility within the United States – simulating a war, playing a war game, and got injured, then it would've been war-related.

That's what I'd do. Work with the president and Congress to take all these laws – this basic crap – and throw it in the trash can.

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