Painful lessons learned for Iraqi war veteran

By Chris Bragg

It was nearing the nightly 9 p.m. curfew in Baghdad when Josh Middleton saw the headlights approaching.

A lone truck came up the road where Middleton’s platoon stood waiting. Someone from the platoon waved a flashlight, instructing the driver to stop. The driver, mistaking the gesture for another vehicle’s headlights, continued.

The soldiers fired.

There were no weapons or bombs in the truck, but there were four unarmed men.

“One guy had his head sprayed open with bits of skull everywhere,” says Middleton, who served as a medic for the 30-man Army platoon. “The other guy had a small hole in the middle of his head, like a third eye.”

Middleton pulled the driver, still alive, out of the truck. It was December, and the weather mild, but the man dripped with sweat, which mixed with blood from the wound near his intestines.

“He looked at me like I was going to finish him off,” says Middleton.

Instead, Middleton tried to apply bandages – until he heard a gurgling sound, and feces started to pour from the open wound.

It was Middleton’s first night on the streets of Baghdad. His unit stayed in the field for two more days, and “I had [crap] all over me the whole time.”

For Middleton, 22, nights like this live on.

Compared to other conflicts, the death toll for U.S. soldiers in Iraq has been low — just under 2900 in over three-and-a-half years.

But the war has affected many soldiers in other, more subtle ways. Besides the nearly 21,000 wounded, many of whom live with debilitating physical handicaps, thousands more carry with them invisible mental scars.

More than one-third of the soldiers returning from Iraq, including Middleton, seek treatment for mental health disorders sustained in combat, according to a comprehensive survey last year by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

For many, going home doesn’t mean the war is over.

Middleton holds hands with his girlfriend, Julie Platner, as they order a snack at the trendy East Village café Veselka. Middleton has piercing eyes that sit behind rectangular eyeglasses. He has a clean, boyish face and his wiry physique is covered by a polo shirt. He looks like a young college student — which he is at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he studies writing and literature. He was recently accepted to Columbia University, where he’ll start school this spring, and he eventually hopes to write a novel. Only his shaved head suggests his military service.

From the start, Middleton was an atypical candidate for the Army. Unlike many recruits, Middleton did not enlist for financial or educational incentives, or because his family encouraged him, or in reaction to 9/11.

In fact, Middleton’s a diehard liberal. In middle school, Middleton moved with his father from Pasadena, Calif., to Akron, Ohio, where people rubbed him the wrong way. “It may not have been the buckle of the Bible Belt,” he says, “But it was still a lot more conservative than I was used to.” In high school he moved to San Francisco to live with his aunt.

His reasons for enlisting were primarily idealistic — and romantic.

“I thought it would be the most powerful experience that a man could have, an adventure” Middleton says, “All the stuff that turned out not to be true.”

His father, a veteran who fought in Vietnam during one of the war’s most violent periods, immediately following the Tet offensive, tried to dissuade him, telling him about the guilt he felt after killing and about seeing his friends die in combat.

“He said he didn’t want me to have that kind of guilt, that I didn’t need to see that part of human nature,” Middleton remembers.

But just 17, he signed up for a four-year commitment. He wanted to serve in the infantry, because that was the most dangerous job, but performed too well on the Army’s I.Q. test. So he requested the second most dangerous job and became an Army medic.

There are pierogies on the table, but no one really eats much. Middleton is telling stories about Iraq. As he talks, his eyes sometimes well up, and he squeezes Platner’s hand.

With some difficulty, Middleton recalls the mayor of Mosul, who continued working at his desk moments after an insurgent’s rocket had reduced the rest of his office to rubble. He remembers a brawl between rival tribes waiting in line to vote on Iraq’s new constitution. He remembers a father who vowed to join the insurgency after U.S. soldiers burst into his Baghdad house and one looked longingly, for a split second, at his half-naked teenage daughter.

At the end of each story, where violence meets irony, Middleton lets out a weak laugh. This is when he grows teary.

From the time Middleton got to Baghdad in late 2004 to the time he left in May 2005, the most overwhelming aspects of life were being unable to identify the enemy, being unable to ever relax, never being in a place that felt truly safe.

Besides his normal soldier’s duties, his job was to treat everything from “headaches to gunshot wounds.” But going onto the street in what the Army calls “presence patrols,” he felt his actual mission was to get shot at. “We were cannon fodder,” he says. “Trying to draw the enemy out.”

Under such conditions, soldiers resorted to drastic methods to protect themselves; sometimes that meant taking civilian lives. “It was a ‘better safe than sorry’ issue,” says Middleton. “We had no problem taking the life of 50 civilians to protect one of us.”

In large part, that resulted from their training, according to some antiwar veterans.

“As a soldier, your job is to kill people and that’s it,” says Jose Vasquez, a 14-year veteran who says that realization prompted him to apply for conscientious objector status so he wouldn’t have to fight in Iraq. Vasquez is president of the New York chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War and has become friends with Middleton, who recently joined the group.

By the time many soldiers got to Iraq, the idea of killing had grown engrained, Middleton says. “Some people just want to kill. They’re like football players who finally got to play the big game.”

The killing bothered Middleton. He did find one kindred spirit, a soldier named Matty, who Middleton says had been kicked out of the Special Forces for talking back to a superior officer. “I saw him sitting on his bunk bed, smoking a cigar and reading the New Yorker,” says Middleton. “I knew he was different.”

While many soldiers grew more aggressive in combat conditions, Middleton says he and Matty did the opposite; sometimes they went on patrol with no ammunition in their rifles.

“We didn’t want to kill anyone else,” he says. The two remain friends.

In retrospect, Middleton thinks his unit did the best it could.

“Everything makes perfect sense at the time,” he says. “Reflecting on it is totally different. You can’t judge it like it had been on the streets of New York.”

Back in the U.S., after five months in Baghdad and Mosul, Middleton moved immediately to the Upper East Side and hoped for a fresh start.

He had several nagging physical injuries, a bum right shoulder injured in training, and a constant buzzing in his ears from hearing too many explosions. But mostly, his problems were psychological.

When he first returned, he had difficulty even leaving his apartment. Military doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of wartime’s constant stress. He was also diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

He now takes 11 pills a day — Lithium for mood stabilization, Paxil for post-traumatic stress and panic attacks, Buspar for anxiety — and has a weekly session with a psychiatrist.

He’s happy with his care at the V.A. Hospital. But he still struggles to engage with people.

“I can only relate to military,” says Middleton, who gets mad when he sees people on the street wearing camouflage. “Civilians just don’t understand. They’re always asking ‘Did you kill people?’ I don’t want this to define me as a human being.”

Middleton says a few students at Borough of Manhattan Community College asked him that very question on his first day of classes as he recounted his biographical information. “Most treat you with respect,” he says of his classmates. “But some people want to get a rise out of you.”

Still, Middleton calls the college a “great stepping stone.” He credits his admission to Columbia, in part, to his decision to attend college soon after returning from Iraq. “It showed I had the drive to get into the school.”

Middleton says he hasn’t made many friendships with fellow students. One of his few friends at the school is Jose Aleman, who served with Middleton in Korea before they went to Iraq separately.

Near the beginning of the school year, Middleton ran into Aleman, a night student, at the admissions office. Middleton convinced Aleman to join him at several antiwar events. Eventually, they appeared together in a yet-to-be-released film about a fictional Iraq vet struggling to return to a normal life, entitled “Liberty Kid.”

In their improvised scene, Middleton and Aleman attend a Veterans Association support group. Speaking from his real life experiences, Middleton tells the other vets he wants his “humanity back” and “to be able to relate to people normally.”

Middleton says that although he’s still having trouble connecting with anyone outside the military, Platner is one civilian who understands him.

She was a student in Boston and happened to live with Matty’s mother. Hearing about Matty’s stories from Iraq gave Platner some insight when she and Middleton met in New York.

“Why would anyone date someone who is in the military?” Platner’s friends initially asked her. “But this is a whole group of well educated, liberal guys that are not the typical profile,” Platner said.

Middleton says Platner, who’s 24 and lives in the East Village, has helped him cope. “If I get really anxious in a crowd, she’ll understand,” he says, “Other people will think you’re crazy.”

Another group with insight into such problems is the New York chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which advocates a complete and immediate pullout from Iraq. The group currently has 300 members nationally, and 22 in New York. It is part political organization, part support group.

“Without them I’d probably be a severe drug addict, or I’d be dead somewhere,” says Mike Harmon, another young Iraq veteran who suffers frequent panic attacks.

Middleton walks up Fifth Ave. a few months ago with 2,000 antiwar protestors, each holding a sign bearing the name of a soldier killed in Iraq.

Middleton’s sign says “Sgt. Vitagliano, Staff Sergeant, 33, New Haven, Ramadi.” He chose Vitagliano; they were close friends when they were stationed in Korea, before their paths diverged on the way to Iraq.

Vitagliano was killed by a suicide bomber driving a car full of explosives. According to soldiers who witnessed the explosion, Vitagliano pushed a fellow soldier out of the way of the vehicle’s path. “He saved at least one guy’s life,” Middleton says.

The mood of the protest is like a funeral. As it goes up Fifth Ave., some of the veterans start quietly chanting. Tourist buses approach the protest; Middleton watches as the tourists stare, for a brief moment, at the names of the dead. Middleton’s eyes begin to well.