By Matthew Sommer
The smell of burning sage filled the Merrill Cultural Center as members of the Native American Resource Center draped the night’s speaker in a ceremonial blanket used to honor someone who survived a heroic act.
Tom Weisskopf, a writer for Time magazine, was an imbedded journalist in Iraq when a homemade grenade blew off his arm while riding in a Humvee with several soldiers in the Al-Adhamiya area of Baghdad. It was 2003 when Weisskopf said he instinctively grabbed the searing-hot explosive and started to throw it over the side of the Humvee before blacking out.
When Weisskopf came to, he wasn’t in good shape. “I was disoriented, I was dazed, and I was bleeding,” Weisskopf said during a speech at Merrill Cultural Center last Thursday.
With blood pouring out of his nearly severed hand, Weisskopf thought it was the end. “I thought it was a pretty unglamorous way to go,” he said during the talk.
Weisskopf would eventually be the first journalist wounded in combat when he was transferred to the amputee ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Weisskopf thought of his children while rehabilitating his amputated right hand and considered why he had risked so much taking the trip to Iraq.
“An old problem of self-worth,” Weisskopf said. “Journalism provides a medium to prove yourself.”
After Iraq, Weisskopf found that he couldn’t engage in any current stories. He lost his writing arm, which made taking notes and typing difficult.
“The loss of my writing hand was an assault on my identity,” Weisskopf said.
At Walter Reed Medical Center, Weisskopf’s journalistic focus turned to the soldiers. He related to those who had suffered a great loss as amputees and were continuing to struggle with adjusting to their new situation. Weisskopf said that they were all men grappling for an identity.
Initially, Weisskopf supported the ideals that the Iraq war represented.
“I felt like we had done something important,” Weisskopf said at the talk.
Seeing the soldiers at Walter Reed caused Weisskopf to question these values.
He spoke of one soldier who was diffusing bombs when an explosion took his eyesight. Weisskopf questioned whether freedom for Iraqis was worth the eyes of this soldier.
Weisskopf’s book, Blood Brothers, relays his own experiences, along with those of three soldiers injured in Iraq.
Dennis Tibbetts, director of the American Indian Resource Center, said that Weisskopf had a great story to tell as an amputee journalist writing about amputee soldiers.
“You don’t heal on your own,” Tibbetts said, “you heal with the help of others,”
Even from the beginning,Weisskopf’s story attracted a lot of attention.
“The media was pursuing me like an avalanche survivor,” Weisskopf said in the talk.
When asked what is like to be on the other side of the story, Weisskopf told City on a Hill Press that it is a transition, but he enjoys the opportunity to tell his experiences.
“I seek opportunities to get the word out,” Weisskopf said to City on a Hill Press.
Jabari Payne, a captain in the United States Marine Corps who served two tours in Iraq, attended the event. Payne said that the perspective Weisskopf presented provides awareness of the war in Iraq.
Payne said, “The stories of the wounded that come back from Iraq are often not reported.”