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My Week in Vegas With Wounded Troops

Since 2001, there have been 48,083 American service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many Americans hear very little about them. When the national media broaches the issue, it’s often in terms of statistics and connected to some sort of domestic challenge or burden: the high veteran unemployment, the cost of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or the military suicide epidemic.

At times, wounded warriors have been exploited for political agendas; they’re often used as props by the anti-war movement, which has characterized them as victims of imperialist U.S. government foreign policy. And while politicians love to tout their appreciation for veterans, they often gloss over the deeper challenges the wounded face after they return home.

There are a few reasons for the disconnect. For one, the all-volunteer military means that wide swaths of America have little interaction with service members in general, let alone wounded soldiers. And their injuries can sometimes be emotionally difficult to deal with. Wounded warriors represent both the horrors of war and the valor, and when they return home they force us to confront both. It’s impossible to see a 22-year-old confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and hold a romanticized view of war. And it’s impossible to listen to the story of how he got there and not be left humbled by his sacrifice.

I was able to spend last week with a group of 40 wounded warriors who served in Afghanistan and Iraq at a Salute the Troops event at the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas. What struck me at the beginning was how young some of them looked and how candid they were about their experiences: what it was like to suffer the loss of legs or arms, or permanent control of bladder and bowels; what it felt like to inhale the fire from a suicide bomb or to step on an IED plate; and the sense of guilt some felt because they were unable to go back and continue fighting alongside their friends.

But, for the most part, they didn’t dwell on their injuries. They spent the week hanging out at poolside cabanas, at the hotel sports bar, playing poker and dancing at the nightclubs. They joked around with each other, talked about sports, and commiserated over military hospital bureaucracy.

The four-day event was organized by the Armed Forces Foundation and sponsored by Southwest Airlines, Omaha Steaks and the Palazzo Hotel (which also paid for my trip). Three other bloggers, VodkaPundit, BlackFive’s Bruce McQuain, and Kristle Helmuth, were also on the trip (and I highly recommend reading their coverage as well).

The annual event was the brainchild of AFF founder Patricia Driscoll and billionaire casino mogul and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is someone even prominent politicians have a hard time securing meetings with, but he dropped by for dinner with the wounded warriors every night of the trip, often working the room on his motorized scooter.

“There’s one thing I know,” he told the group in a speech on Friday night. “When you volunteer, you don’t lead from behind. So you guys carry a sense of patriotism that is unbounded…You’re protecting us, and that’s something we can’t thank you enough [for].”

Over this Memorial Day weekend, I will share the stories of three of the wounded warriors I interviewed last week. I hope it will provide some insight into what they experienced in combat and what they’re struggling with and looking forward to as they transition out of military hospitals and return home.