Ask Marine Corps Cpl. Eric Hilton what it felt like to inhale fire, and he’ll say, “It was hot.” Ask him how Afghanistan was, and he’ll say, “I had a blast.” The 23-year-old Marine had stopped to buy cigarettes at a crowded bazaar in Kajaki, Afghanistan when he was hit by what he initially thought was a car. A few moments later he woke up on the ground.
“[The locals] can’t drive very well over there. They drive like idiots,” he told me. “I sat up, saw the blood on my leg, and I realized that’s not from a car accident.”
Eric had been hit by a suicide bomber in the middle of the teeming marketplace, only 10 days before the end of his seven-month deployment. The blast killed two other Marines and left 30 civilians dead or injured.
“We’re supposed to be coming home in ten days,” he said. “You don’t think anything’s going to happen to you.”
At the Palazzo Hotel in Las Vegas, 20-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Trent Winstead is trying to explain a feeling he calls “the beast mode,” which is how he describes the rush of adrenaline he felt in combat.
“We always joke around whenever we’re really just getting it. You know, like trucking. Like, if we’re all in a Hawk or something, and somebody’s like…” he trails off. “I don’t really know how to explain it. Just beast mode.”
That rush is one thing Trent seems to look back fondly on about his time in Afghanistan, the country where he spent three months in 2010 and lost his right leg.
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.