The young men in wetsuits were only a few years older than my 17-year-old son. On this cool, gray afternoon in August they gathered on a white sand beach a few miles north of Camp Pendleton, mustering up their courage. None of them could surf. One couldn't even swim. His name was David Camrago and he was a 24-year-old Army sergeant from Mission, Texas.
David also didn't have a right leg. It had been blown off three months before when his Humvee ran over an IED in Amiriyah, Iraq. Needless to say it was going to be tough for him to pop up on a board. He didn't care. A month before he'd been lying in a military hospital in San Antonio. Now he was yards from Trestles, one of the premier surf breaks in the world, attending surf camp with a group of other wounded vets. Most were amputees. Some had all their limbs but their bodies were badly burned, a map of pale pink scars from all the surgeries.
The camp was called Operation Amped, but except for the soldiers, there was nothing remotely military about it. Billabong was the sponsor and a handful of surfers, like former world champion Shaun Tomson, were there teaching the vets. My son was privileged to be there too. Privileged because he got to see the cost of the Iraq war in a way few Americans have been forced to do: up close and personal. Privileged because he got to know a few young soldiers and hear their stories. "They were all wounded by IEDs," he told me matter-of-factly when he got home.
There are many reasons we haven't seen this war, and continue not to. The appalling media coverage is one of them. When's the last time you saw footage of U.S. troops after a roadside bombing, or a 20-year-old ferried to a military hospital with his limbs blown off?
Bush, who cynically parades out the troops whenever it serves him, is the other reason. His "surprise" visit to Anbar as evidence of how security in Iraq has improved was shameless, an outrage. Another sleight-of-hand performance. If the situation in the country has improved so dramatically, then why did Bush need thousands of troops redeployed to Anbar to protect him? If the surge is such a success, then why didn't he touch down for his six-hour photo op in Baghdad, where the surge has been concentrated? If life is "slowly returning to normal," as Katie Couric breezily announced in one of her many astonishing remarks about Iraq, then why didn't Bush take a stroll through the market?
This story in today's Belfast Telegraph offers one explanation:
Bombs, mortars and gunfire left dozens dead and injured in Iraq within hours of insurgents announcing a Ramadan offensive.
The attacks, three of them in Baghdad, came just days after U.S. General David Petraeus' report said violence had fallen and President George Bush declared "ordinary life was returning to the country."
There is no ordinary life for David Camargo and the other 27,753 Americans who've been wounded now in Iraq, who've been forced to bear the horrible brunt of this stubborn and callous president's policies. That is the grim reality. But David is trying.
That Saturday, as my son stood on the sand watching, David climbed out of his wheelchair, then hopped down to the water. He crawled onto a surfboard on his stomach. Then like all surfers do, he waited for the perfect wave. Eventually one came and when it did he was ready. He rode it all the way in.