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'Purple Hearts' brings home war's human toll

 

November 11, 2005

 

BY MISHA DAVENPORT Museum Pieces

 

Of all the possible emotions one might feel while looking at Nina Berman's photographs of veterans of the war in Iraq, apathy is not one of them. Sadness, yes. Anger, definitely. Shame, you bet. But apathy? No way.

 

"Purple Hearts" documents the postwar experiences of wounded soldiers through 15 photographs and text in the soldiers' own words. It's the first exhibit of its kind in the United States, and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum is unveiling it today in honor of Veterans Day.

 

Berman will be in town today for the unveiling, as will at least one of the men she photographed.

 

More than 2,000 soldiers have been killed in the two-year war. Beyond coverage of the occasional welcome-home parade for the returning wounded, veterans who have returned from Iraq have been virtually ignored.

 

Berman says she began the project (20 of the photographs were published in a book released last year) to draw attention to their plight.

 

Officially, there have approximately 14,500 soldiers injured in the war in Iraq. Berman says that number is suspect.

 

"That number is dodgy because it only counts those soldiers listed as combat-wounded," she says. "There are thousands more who were wounded in combat support, and that doesn't make their injuries less severe."

 

Berman is an award-winning photographer and no stranger to difficult assignments. She covered the rape of Muslim women by Serbs during the Bosnian War for Time magazine and everyday life under the Taliban in Afghanistan for Newsweek. Both assignments earned her Picture of the Year awards. Still, she says nothing could have prepared her for what she would face when photographing veterans of the war in Iraq.

 

One photo seemingly captures Pfc. Alan Jermaine Lewis --who grew up on Chicago's South Side and now resides in Milwaukee -- in a moment of despair. The 24-year-old was a machine-gunner with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division who was wounded on July 16, 2003, when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine, blowing off both of his legs, burning his face and breaking his arm in six places. His two prosthetic legs are secured to what's left of both his thighs by duct tape.

 

"Amputees shouldn't be forced to use duct tape to secure their prosthetics," Berman says. "Every guy I've talked to has had problems somewhere along the way with their benefits or their care. What does it say about us as a nation if we can't care for the people we send to war when they come home?"

 

The exhibit has found support with groups who both support and protest the war. Berman says the project is apolitical and designed to merely remind us of the sacrifice these soldiers made and their need for our continued support.

 

"When I see those 'Support Our Troops' curly-q's plastered on an SUV, I have to wonder if that person knows if they voted for someone who cut veterans benefits."

 

Berman has heard from several people who were moved by the images in her book, asking what they could do to help. One woman in Tennessee has taken it upon herself to send money and presents to the soldiers. A veterans organization is building a home for a blind soldier after reading in Berman's book that he currently is living in a trailer alone.

 

"Supporting our troops is so much more than just giving these guys a welcome-home parade," Berman says. "When the parade ends, these guys often find themselves alone. More than anything, they just need someone there that they can talk to."

 

"Purple Hearts" runs through April 2006 at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, 1801 S. Indiana. Hours are Tuesdays-Fridays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission, $10 adults, $7 students and seniors. Call (312) 326-0270; www.nvvam.org.