Nina Berman

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Nuclear War Play

Islamic terrorists steal highly enriched uranium from Pakistan, transport it to Somalia, then on to Mexico, where they smuggle it across the U.S. border. A 10-kiloton bomb is assembled and detonated, killing 6,000 people instantly.

Several thousand more have serious burns and radiation sickness. Hundreds of thousands flee in panic and seek shelter. Two hundred square miles are contaminated. National Guardsmen from several states as well as the Army, Air Force, Marines, special forces, firefighters, police and the Red Cross are mobilized to rescue the injured and secure the peace.

For Levi Hall, 20, the nuclear detonation couldn't have come at a better time. His girlfriend just told him she was pregnant. He needed money badly. "I work at a factory. I took vacation to actually be able to do this," he said, his arm and face smeared with fake blood as he crouched at the base of Rubble Pile 2, collecting $15 an hour playing a victim at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center (MUTC) in southern Indiana where the U.S. Northern Command (Northcom) is simulating one of the largest nuclear detonation (Nudet) exercises ever. The MUTC, a sprawling complex taken over by the Indiana National Guard in 2005 had previously housed and cared for hundreds of mentally disabled residents. The Army recently earmarked $100 million to turn it into a year-round training center for urban warfare.

Making the unthinkable manageable is painstaking work. Yet this is precisely what homeland security officials believe is possible. According to a story last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, "a high-level group of government and military officials has been quietly preparing an emergency survival program" in case of a nuclear attack. Last month, 41 participants met for a strategy meeting in Washington, D.C., dubbed "The Day After," according to the Chronicle. They urged local governments and individuals to build underground bomb shelters, and prevent evacuations of attacked areas to avoid traffic jams and the suspension of civil liberties, the Chronicle reported.


On day two of the drill, dubbed "Vigilant Guard" and running May 10-18, rescue prospects were looking bleak for several of the fake victims. They had arrived in the early morning at a brick building with a Sears sign taped on the window. They were "moolaged," a term used by the military and Cubic Defense, the huge civilian contractor charged with choreographing the event and supplying fake blood and snack bars that were chewed and spit out to simulate puking. But by noon, there were no rescuers in site.

Some of the victims stood on the pavement playing hacky sack in front of the fake shopping center. Jessica Massie, 25, her left arm bloodied, said she normally worked for animal control. "Our town has dogs running at large and they pick them up and bring them in. I get $8 an hour. I took off work to come here for a week." The previous day, she was "in the rubble pile, and they put debris on me and I was paralyzed from the waist down. And I had a head and a neck wound, and then I started vomiting like real-world vomiting, and they put me on a stretcher." When asked if she thought it would be possible to survive a nuclear attack, she said, "If the Army gets in here and helps us, and everybody does the right thing and no one panics, then I think there's a good chance that some people survive but not everybody."

By 3 p.m., the rescuers still hadn't arrived. Sitting on picnic benches in front of the fake Sears store were two health specialists, one from the Centers for Disease Control and one from FEMA. Both had been flown in to observe the exercise. Asked if he felt such exercises were productive, the CDC official said he had never witnessed a drill that did not provide some useful information. He had witnessed TopOff 2, the 2003 Homeland Security exercise that simulated the detonation of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) in Seattle and released pneumonic plague into the Chicago metro area. From that experience, the CDC last month posted on its website protocols for the removal of radiated human remains.

It took a few years, but protocols have been established and he recently completed a training video with the New York City medical examiner's office on radioactive human remains disposal.

At 6 p.m., with no rescuers to be seen, both health specialists left. Waiting patiently were several videographers and photographers from the National Guard who were making a documentary to show members of Congress the benefit of Nudet simulations. Finally, two men, in all-encompassing yellow suits, part of a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear enhanced package (CBRNE) team, appeared over a grassy hill riding a four-wheel vehicle. They approached slowly. They dismounted the vehicle and opened a fire hydrant. They took water samples. They retreated. One victim pounded on the window of the Sears building, hoping in vain for rescue.

Fifty yards away on debris pile 2, where Levi Hall had already put in a 13-hour day hoping to go until midnight, so that at the end of the week he might make time and a half, first-responders had arrived and tagged him with a priority 2 label. Not far away, at the top of the pile, was a bloodied Chris Dowden, 26, recently returned from military service in Afghanistan. Blood dripped down his shirt. He was tagged priority 1. But just as the first responders started strapping victims on to stretchers, a belligerent mob wielding sticks and fake rocks charged the rescuers, screaming, waving their sticks, egged on by a Cubic director. The angry mob made off with a few stretchers. "Make a good snowboard," one fake rioter said to another. Swat police were called in to maintain order. After a few smoke bombs and an arrest, the rescuers returned to tend to the injured.

Does the Military Send Sick Soldiers to War?

The government's own military doctors knew that Spc. Anthony Vanderpool was mentally unbalanced. He had been admitted to the Bronx and Manhattan Veterans hospitals for major depressive disorder, dizziness, spells, auditory hallucinations and suicidal ideation, according to his V.A. records.

And this was before he even went to Iraq.

"I have a lot of anger. I never should have gone, " said Vanderpool, a Army National Guardsmen with 16 years prior service in the Army, Army reserves, Navy, Navy reserves and Air Force. "They didn't care. They wanted me because I was infantry," he said.

Vanderpool spent 10 months in Iraq on meds, not sleeping, depressed, paranoid, suicidal until he finally "spun out of control," forcing his command to acknowledge that he was too sick to be in a war zone. Off he went to Ft. Polk, La., for five months of medical treatment, and in December 2005, he was honorably discharged due to a "personality disorder."

Since then, he has been living a marginal life in Bay Shore, N.Y., single, no children, unemployed, finding himself increasingly isolated and depressed, and vomiting almost daily. He has been hospitalized for attempted suicide, and a recent review of his medical records show that was prescribed a daily dose of Zoloft for depression, Seroquel and Buspirone for anxiety, Zolmitripitan for migraines and Omeprazole for acid reflux. He attends a Veterans Administration post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) outpatient program twice a week.

Vanderpool's story is not unique

"The DOD admits they are sending mentally unfit soldiers into combat in Iraq," said Steve Robinson of Veterans for America. "This is not supposed to happen; the military should not have deployed this veteran to the war; what were they thinking and what does it say about the overstretched military?"

In May, the Hartford Courant reported that service members with preexisting PTSD were being sent back to Iraq, and some of those afflicted had committed suicide.

The situation galvanized Sens. Boxer, Kennedy, Lieberman and Clinton to sponsor an amendment to the last Defense Appropriations Bill in June calling for more thorough mental health screening, evaluation and detailed guidelines on what precludes deployment to a combat zone.

But the final legislation, passed in mid-October, dropped an original provision that would have required screeners to take a mental health history and refer a service member to a specialist if the service member indicates a mental health issue prior to deployment.

Such a provision might have helped Spc. Vanderpool who said that when he was activated by the National Guard and then deployed to Iraq, he told his superiors that he had a history of psychological problems, but these issues were ignored or dismissed. Once in Iraq, they got worse.

"The military should treat combat stress and psychological injuries as medical conditions. Instead, the military treats our injured soldiers as if they lack moral fortitude and improperly sends them back into battle," said Robinson.

"They said I was malingering, that I was a baby, wah, wah, wah wah, " said Vanderpool of his treatment by 1st Sgt. Daniel J. Bien, of Delta Company 101 Cavalry, at Camp Liberty, Baghdad.

Interviews with Vanderpool and members of his guard unit paint a picture of a command that refused to admit anyone was physically or psychologically sick.

"He (Sgt. Bien) didn't believe anybody was hurt," said Vanderpool's former platoon mate, Spc. Danny Gomes.

Added Sgt. Dallas Eccleston, who saved Vanderpool's life during an ambush,"There were people developing problems over there and people not believing them." He went on to describe Sgt. Bien as "definitely a suck-it-up kind of guy."

Bien responded in an email that "soldiers with documented mental illness are not mobilized for war; rather, they are discharged from the Army."

He said he could not "disclose any personal, medical information related to any of my soldiers," then added that Vanderpool "was sent for two mental health evals while in Iraq and there is documentation that he was malingering (faking) to try to get a psych discharge." He did not elaborate on the documentation.

He said Vanderpool had early in his tour concocted a scheme to pretend he was crazy. "He told other soldiers that his brother was mobilized a year or so before and faked being crazy and now collects a paycheck from the state of New York for a mental disability. VDP (Vanderpool]) told others that his plan was to do the same."

Vanderpool has never had a brother in the service.

"Anthony is the only who has been in the service. I have no other sons in the service, and I don't think they want to go there," said Vanderpool's mother Johnnie Mae.

She said that her son had been disabled since 1994 and that he was on medication when he was mobilized to go to Iraq. "I didn't understand why they were taking him over there if he was in the V.A. with a medical problem. It seems they will take anyone over there as long as they carry a gun."

According to documents provided by Vanderpool, his story unfolds as follows.

He was deployed to Iraq after numerous hospitalizations at V.A. hospitals and was being medicated for depression. He arrived in Iraq at the end of October 2004 and was soon caught in a deadly firefight that nearly took his life. After the incident, his psychological condition worsened. Eccleston and Gomes remember Vanderpool walking around, never sleeping, acting strange. A sworn statement by his roommate, Sgt. Timothy Walsh, says Vanderpool complained of flashbacks and was telling bizarre stories about being trained by the CIA and killing people in Spain.

He was treated by a psychiatrist in Iraq who informed his command that "his weapon should be removed from him as he is a threat to himself and others." On Jan. 12, 2005, Sgt. Bien signed a memo putting Vanderpool on profile and taking away his weapons.

A month later Vanderpool returned to New York on leave, and while there was brought by a friend to the Northport Veterans Hospital emergency room. The friend told hospital staff that Vanderpool was acting strange and was nonverbal, and medical reports described him as confused and disoriented. After a meeting with a military liaison team, which reviewed Vanderpool's medical records, including those showing multiple psychiatric hospitalizations, Vanderpool was released from hospital, ordered to report back to duty and return to Iraq.

A few days later he showed up at the Nassau University Medical Center and was diagnosed with peptic ulcer diseases. After receiving treatment, he left the hospital with his Zoloft, Seroquel and Protonix, and was sent back to Iraq.

For five more months he was deployed with no weapon, even though his base was repeatedly hit by rocket fire, killing at least one and wounding several soldiers.

Vanderpool said he felt terrified without a weapon. Gomes said the command was prepared to send Vanderpool on a mission, defenseless.

"They were trying to send this guy on a mission to the fricking border with no weapon. Even the general turned around to 1st Sgt. [Bien] and told him he was crazy, not to let him off base without a weapon."

Bien said, "No soldier was ever sent out or asked to be sent outside the wire without a weapon."

Then he added, "We were also conducting training for Iraqis at another camp and I had to assign several personnel to run this camp. When I included VDP's (Vanderpool's) name on the list, he refused to go."

In July, Vanderpool said he "flipped out," tried to steal another soldier's rifle and attack a superior officer. He was flown out of Iraq, first to a psych unit in Germany and then to Ft. Polk, La., where he spent five months in medical hold under the care of psychiatrists.

Why would the military keep a soldier in Iraq who had attempted suicide and was clearly medically unfit?

"They kept him there out of spite, to use him an example to other soldiers, said Gomes who spent his whole tour with Vanderpool. "Bien wanted to use Vanderpool as an example to the rest of the platoon to obey him."

Bien said, "If every soldier that showed signs of stress was taken off the battle roster, there would be nobody left to fight."

Gomes, now back in Staten Island, out of the National Guard and working toward becoming a New York City policeman, describes his time in Iraq as "the worst thing that ever happened to me. I'd go to Rikers (the New York City detention complex) before I go back there."

Amid his medical files, Vanderpool showed me a yellow piece of paper, the fragments of his life. Scrawled on it were lists of friends from various towns in Nassau County, friends from his tour in Iraq, his mother and father and brothers and sisters, a pastor and therapists. He just wanted to write it down, he said.

To the V.A., Vanderpool's life is as follows.

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Live From Iraq

Two and a half years into the war in Iraq and we still know so little about the Iraqis on the ground and how they survive and die each day.

News reports are dominated by coverage of American fighters. Our visual understanding of the war is almost exclusively American: our soldiers atop tanks racing to liberate Baghdad, suffering heat and sandstorms, their faces bathed in an orange glow; American Marines in full battle mode charging across the Diwanya Bridge; and the shock and awe over Baghdad, almost like Grucci fireworks -- as long as you don't see what happens when they hit their targets.

And that's the whole problem. We rarely see who is at the receiving end of a hellfire missile, or a 50-caliber rifle, or a 500-pound bomb. The politics of that destruction and the anger and desperation it fuels, remains hidden.

So it brings great relief to finally get a glimpse into the Iraqi experience, from four intrepid independent photojournalists who have compiled their images into the new book, Unembedded (Chelsea Green). Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, Rita Leistner and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad decided to forsake the bubble of the American military and cross front lines to see what life is like from the Iraqi side.

The collection of 149 photographs and dispatches from the photographers begins with the American invasion in March 2003, moves through the rise of the insurgency in Falluja and Sadr City and culminates with the siege of Najaf and the Mahdi Army in August 2004.

Along the way we visit hospitals in Fallujah and Baghdad where relatives wash their dead and care for the wounded. We see a mosque in Baghdad where women mourn more than 50 killed by a U.S. bomb. We see an Iraqi boy triumphantly celebrating the explosion of an American vehicle. And from the courageous Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, the lone Iraqi photographer in the group, (Alford and Anderson are Americans, Leistner is Canadian) we see an extraordinary sequence of photographs of civilians running from a U.S. helicopter attack on Harif Street in Baghdad in September 2004.

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