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"Purple Hearts - My Heart is Burning"
An Exhibition and a Book
About the Wounded Veterans
from the War in Iraq


PressInfo # 224

 July 16, 2005


Annette Schiffmann, TFF Associate


Denne artikel på dansk og på svensk

"I didn't join the army to serve my country, but to escape from the awful boredom in Orange County, to get away from my gang, and from the drugs."

Robert Acosta had just reached the age of 18 when he signed up with the US military. He was 19 when he was deployed to Iraq from his base in Hanau in Germany, and three months later a hand grenade someone had thrown at his Humvee exploded. "There's no way on earth to get you prepared for the situation where all of a sudden you see your own hand lying on the ground in front of you and everywhere across the walls there are little, bloody pieces of you," he says.

While he speaks, again and again with his left hand he turns and twists the hook that now substitutes for his right - it is disturbing for him to talk about it, each time again.


Robert Acosta, Photo by Nina Berman © 2005


New York photographer Nina Berman who works, among other papers, for the New York Times, has photographed him one year ago, and with him seventeen other Iraq veterans (one of them a woman). "Since nobody else was doing it - there was not a single photo in the news - I started looking for the veterans in google, with entries like "amputated legs or arms, or artificial limbs."

In February 2005, the website of the U.S. Department of Defense listed 11,442 wounded soldiers, counting only those wounded in battle. Luis Calderon from Puerto Rico - 22 years old today - is not among those listed. His quadriplegia - paralysis from the neck downward - is the result of a concrete wall crashing down on him after he had ventured to destroy it with his tank because it had a huge portrait of Saddam Hussein painted on it.

Also not listed is José Martinez, now 20 years old. His face is completely mutilated with burn scars from a landmine exploding beneath his Humvee - but it was not "in battle." Jordan Johnson, now 23 years, is missing on the list as well. Her right leg was shattered and smashed during a truck accident, not "in battle". No Purple Heart for them - and thus no pension.

At least not unless they fight for it.

Up to now, the Walter Reed Military Hospital (Washington) alone has admitted more than 17,000 wounded, coming either from Iraq directly or from Landstuhl in Germany, while the hospital of the Navy has registered another 11,000 - also counting those admitted to smaller hospitals, the aggregate number of U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq is estimated at 37,000. Those wounded "only" mentally or in their souls, with psychic disturbances and traumas in bodies unwounded in outward appearance, aren't counted at all.

In March 2005 Nina Berman received World Press Photo Award for shooting these photos, as well as for her book Purple Hearts - Back from Iraq. To her, this equivalent of an Oscar for photographers isn't too important.

The recruiting market is highly competitive, and the recruiters get paid for success. They pull up with their buses in front of schools and offer the kids free computer games - on the condition that they give away their home addresses and phone numbers. The games themselves are designed to test various skills needed in the military, and after the evaluation of the results the recruiters call the parents or the kids at their homes and offer them money and opportunities.

"There are so many who don't have anything else they could do," says Robert Acosta and shrugs his shoulders, helplessly and angrily. "One of these guys here has a father who is in jail because of manslaughter, his mother took off when he was a little boy. The army has been the only family he ever had - shit, man." Now Alex Presman is 26 and has to live with only one leg left. Alan Jarmaine Lewis, now 23, is another one of those who had been hoping "to belong" to something and someone - his father, his sister and his friend were all shot during various gang fights in Chicago when he was only seven. He has lost both legs in Iraq, and his face is badly burnt.

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Since January 2005 the recruiters have had a hard time reaching their quota, and so by now they offer up to $ 18,000 to the youth in case they sign up for the army. But these days, colored people, most women, and many others as well are hardly tempted by any such offers, regardless of poverty, a feeling of senselessness, or the general lack of perspectives - by now even the government's PR version of the numbers of wounded and dead convey the real threat to life and health of going to fight in Iraq.

It is the first opening of the exhibition in Germany at the German-American Institute in Heidelberg. In the big stairway of the Institute the walls are plastered with the endlessly long lists of dead Iraqi civilians - Iraqbodycount was able to name 6.900 out of 100.000 - in words: one hundred thousand. Robert Acosta is on his way upstairs to the opening. When he realizes what he is looking at, he suddenly has tears in his eyes. "Oh shit," he whispers and turns away - "and all that for nothing."

Three days later, in Freiburg, he lends a helping hand in fixing the lists to the walls. "My little brother is 16 now, and lately he was like: maybe the Army would be cool. One recruiter has already been at our house, but I tell you, if this guy or another of his kind dares to show up another time, I'm going to shake my hook in front of him."

"Yes - we will make their life a living hell with our work - that's our most important contribution against this war for the coming months," says Nina Berman - and looking at her grim smile, you are inclined to believe it.


Learn more about "Purple Heart - My Heart is Burning"

Open Democracy: Nina Berman - Purple Hearts - Back from Iraq
"The dead tell no stories. It is the wounded that survive and present us with our own complicity". To mark the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, openDemocracy presents ten portraits from "Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq", the acclaimed photography collection on wounded American soldiers, by the award-winning photographer Nina Berman.

Mother Jones - The Damage Done

Digital Journalist - Purple Hearts thumbs - Nina Berman's photos

Nina Berman's book, Purple Hearts

Information Clearing House - Purple Hearts. A Documentary by Roel van Broekhoven
A photo series that the New York-based Nina Berman made of wounded Iraq veterans led to the making of this documentary. She also wrote the book 'Purple Hearts, Back from Iraq', in which soldiers tell their stories. Documentary filmmaker Roel van Broekhoven crossed the United States to visit the people portrayed in Berman's photos. 
In detail, they recount what happened on the day they got injured; how they arrived back home, blind or legless; how they have to try to forget the war now, in small towns around Alabama and Pittsburgh, or in Washington and L.A. Officially recognised as "heroes," a Purple Heart on the uniform in the closet, most of these soldiers long to go back to an army that has no use for them anymore. A story that President Bush would probably prefer not to see propagated.

The Iraq Body Count

Operation Truth - U.S. Soldiers against the war


In Germany alone, the Exhibition "Purple Hearts - My Heart Is Burning" has already been shown in Heidelberg, Freiburg, Tübingen, Aachen, Saarbruecken, Herford, Hannover, Duesseldorf.



For more information about the exhibition and renting it, contact Annette Schiffmann -

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