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The White House Press Correspondents Dinner: With Millions Unemployed and Soldiers Dying Abroad, It's Time to Crack Some Jokes and Slap Some Backs

Posted: 04/30/2010 11:05 am

There is no other time than the night of The White House Correspondents Dinner when Washington is more out of touch with the country it guides and informs.

With the black ties and dresses, shiny hair and sparkling diamonds, bad jokes and back-slapping, it would be hard to tell that more than 37 million Americans live in poverty every day and millions more at the razor's edge or that more than 508,000 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans have sought care from a Veterans Affairs facility because some of the people at that dinner sent them off to war. That contrast of clashing Americas has always seemed unseemly like the Pope wearing fancy red shoes.

A few years ago, Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro made the documentary, Body of War, about an Iraq War veteran, Tomas Young. Tomas enlisted right after the attacks on September 11th and five days after he arrived in Iraq, he was shot in the chest and paralyzed. Tomas came home to a country completely unprepared to care for its veterans. His frustration led to action and he was one of the first veterans to start speaking truth to power about the lies that led us to war.

During one scene in the movie, Tomas is in his wheel chair watching The White House Correspondents Dinner. In the glow of the television, he sees the sea of tuxedos and dresses, Republicans and Democrats and their laughter and clapter as jokes are made about missing weapons of mass destruction. It is a chilling, heart breaking, moment of disconnect between the decision makers and those who decided to serve.

We forget that we are -- like it or not, for it or not -- a nation at war and we rarely act like it. Most Americans don't serve. Most Americans don't know that 2 million men and women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan; the suicide rate for active duty soldiers has more than doubled since these wars began; nearly 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are unemployed, and their families have to fight to get a wheel chair or surgery or help with a creeping traumatic brain injury.

At tomorrow night's high profile dinner, our national press corps could begin to change all of this for our veterans.

Since the wars began, the press has used incomplete numbers about the non-fatal casualties from the Iraq and Afghanistan combat zones. Most of the time on the news and in the papers, reporters use one set of numbers issued every week by the Department of Defense which are limited to those killed and wounded in action. Those numbers can be found at this site. As of April 29, 2010, the report states that in Iraq 31,790 have been wounded and 4,397 have been killed and in Afghanistan, 5,677 have been wounded and 1,043 killed.

What is interesting about that report is that it includes every death, as it should. Every service member killed because of a bullet, shrapnel, or by suicide is counted, honored, in that weekly report. But the wounded in action number is incomplete. It excludes everyone who was medically evacuated because of a serious injury or illness. Those numbers are released in another monthly report, the last one issued April 3, 2010 and the Iraq numbers are here and the complete Afghanistan numbers are here.

For those who don't want to look and add, the total number of non-fatal casualties that includes those wounded in action and those medically evacuated for injuries and illness, that number in Iraq is 70,615 and in Afghanistan, it is 14,936. These complete numbers have been hiding in plain sight. Why won't the press use them? They show why so many of our veterans are struggling and when all are added up, the total number of battlefield casualties is 90,925. That number is arresting in its size and the American people need to know it.

These injuries and illnesses requiring evacuation aren't inconsequential either. The injuries often include lost limbs, serious cases of Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the signature medical conditions from the two wars.

The press has a chance to make these numbers known to the American people tomorrow night. Imagine a room with all that power? Why not put that audience to good use for those who defend our country?

There will be several opportunities for prominent journalists to issue this correction and call on their colleagues to use the complete numbers: when Ed Chen, president of The White House Correspondents' Association greets the guests, and when Ben Feller, Jake Tapper, Mark Knoller, Suzanne Bohan, and Sandy Kleffman receive their awards. Why not build on that journalistic spirit and fix a fact? Why not use that room and all the power in it to issue an important correction not on the back pages or during the credits, but right there in front of the president, vice president, cabinet members, leaders in Congress, editors, network anchors, leading artists, and the world. This could be a chance for the press to restore some of its good will with the American people by speaking truth to power and at the dinners to follow.

There are more than 1 million veterans from these wars and that means there is a great chance that another veteran like Tomas Young will be watching the dinner in a daze of disbelief from their home. Will our veterans see another night of disconnect and jokes or will they hear something different? Will the truth -- 90,925 battlefield casualties -- pierce through the bubble and let everyone know in the words of the mighty Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" with our Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans.

 
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