Back From Iraq

“My life is divided into two parts: there’s before Iraq… and after.” As he pauses and reflects, his dog trots over and licks his hand. He smiles, and his eyes briefly spring to life. But the smile fades, and his eyes gaze off into the distance.

“Those were difficult times. I regretted ever having survived.” He ponders his statement for a few seconds. “Maybe it would have been better if it had all ended then. There.”

Chief Master Corporal Janusz Raczy was a member of Poland’s second tour of duty in Iraq during 2004, based at Camp Lima, near Karbala. On that day, Janusz was part of a unit that was required to set up a checkpoint monitoring traffic on a road between Baghdad and Karbala.

“I remember everything, even the smallest details – as if it was today.” He takes a deep breath before continuing. “After many hours at the checkpoint, we were nearing the end of our shift. We were about to hand over to another unit, but we were unlucky.”

A vehicle coming towards them failed to stop, and ploughed straight through the checkpoint. Janusz didn’t have a chance to react. “It was a bus, one of many that went through that day, so it didn’t arouse much suspicion. It was dark, and it was difficult to see that there were no passengers aboard, only a driver,” he recollects.

“I remember it all; the policeman who bounced off the bus like a rag doll, the impact, and a noise – like something cracking. Only later I realised they were my bones snapping.”

The rest of the unit opened fire and the bus stopped, but his body had taken a battering. Not only was he hit, he was practically crushed. The injuries he suffered were horrific. He lists them, as if reciting a stanza from a poem of the macabre:

“Shattered shoulder, broken collar bone, broken shoulder blades, two broken ribs, punctured lungs, shattered pelvis, severed nerve in one arm, two broken fingers, severed nerve in my left leg, and a double fracture of my right leg – which was nearly torn off. It was hanging on by a piece of flesh, where thankfully the artery was still intact,” he says matter-of-factly. Amazingly, his right leg wasn’t amputated, and given the severity of his injuries even the doctors were astonished he was able to walk again. But the journey he took to get back on his feet was agonisingly difficult.

Following the attack, he was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Baghdad and when his condition was stable enough, he was flown to Germany. After three weeks in intensive care, he regained consciousness. Two months passed before he returned home to Poland.

“I spent six months lying down on a bed, then six in a wheelchair. Then it was time to learn how to walk again.” He stops momentarily, gathering his thoughts. “The first year was difficult. I seemed to be taking two steps forward, and one step back; whenever the doctors managed to solve a problem, they would find another.”

Back in Poland, the help that Janusz received put him on the road to recovery but, as with most Polish roads, it was rocky and full of potholes.

“When I returned to Poland, well – put it this way: no one is interested in a dog with a dud leg. But that was the beginning,” he says. “I was one of the first, and as everything in the army, there are regulations. Although that changed when they opened the centre for injured soldiers in Warsaw. Since then, everything has been working better,” he says optimistically.

Janusz is careful with his words when discussing the army. He hesitates when he feels the conversation is heading towards criticism aimed at his former employers, and is quick to praise the level of care he received from the army.

“Later they did take an interest in my welfare,” he says assuredly. “They organised transport to the centre in Warsaw, which was 500 km away from my house. The care was very good. Professional.”

Throughout his service he received a monthly wage, which the army continued to pay during his recovery, and when doctors decided that he was no longer capable of active duty, they released him, issuing him with a monthly military pension. Janusz admits the sum is fine for a healthy man, able to find extra work if needed, but for him it’s not as straight-forward.

“The situation has changed now,” he points out. “Now that I receive a pension I lose certain privileges. I have to pay for my rehabilitation and medicine, whereas before I didn’t.” A sad smile appears. “Now, with the help of my wife, rehabilitation is restricted to my own exercises. Private care is very expensive. My injuries are not something you come across daily, so the appropriate medicine is also bloody expensive.”

Married and with a child, Janusz must also find a way to provide for his family. Like any husband and father, he wants to be able to care for his loved ones, but given his wounds, it is difficult – finding a job is not an option.

“It’s not possible because of my condition; at any moment something can happen that would require having to spend time in a hospital, or mean me going thorough another operation.” He takes a moment to contemplate his next remark. “If I was an employer, I wouldn’t hire someone like me.”

Spending his days indoors has made him feel frustrated and useless; even the simplest of D.I.Y jobs are just too taxing and risky to attempt. “I want to find work, if not only to have something to do, instead of sitting at home all day,” he says.

Mariusz Heyny’s injuries, although not as debilitating as Janusz’s, have also proved disabling. Another member of the Polish army’s second tour of Iraq, Mariusz saw military service as an opportunity to make ends meet. “The beginning of 2000 was a tough time in Poland, so I thought that enlisting in the army would be a good idea; a long-term and stable job,” he says.

Unlike Janusz, however, Mariusz was not a professional soldier; he signed up for contractual military service, and it wasn’t long before he found himself on a plane bound for the Middle East. He had reservations at first, but was aware of the consequences that withdrawal from duty in Iraq would bring.

“Any soldier who had committed to two years of contractual military service had a duty to appear before a military verification panel in Bydgoszcz,” he remembers.

It was clear to Mariusz that these talks were regarding the situation in Iraq. But while he and others were waiting to be summoned, an unknown senior officer made an announcement. “It’s hard to explain, but you could tell he was angry,” he recalls. “He told us that the situation was clear; the army will not want to keep in touch with anybody unwilling to go.”

The message was not difficult to understand, he points out. Go one way, or the other; either he goes to Iraq, or he is discharged from the army. The choice was obvious. “I had a wife and child to support at that time also, so I couldn’t just resign and not go.”

When Mariusz finally did arrive at Camp Babylon in 2004, he discovered an alien world. He was under no illusions; it would be a difficult transition.

“Before my deployment, I couldn’t imagine how it would be. Of course, I watched what was happening on the news, and we took part in courses before we went to Iraq, but there was a big difference between what we experienced in Iraq, and what we trained for,” he says. “The climate is also hotter, and we trained during winter.”

“Unorthodox” is the only way to describe Mariusz’s accident. Coalition casualties in Iraq are usually a result of attacks by roaming militias, random assaults, or suicide bombings.

“My accident is a little strange when you consider that we went to Iraq as soldiers. We were armed, and vulnerable to explosions or people shooting at us ? but we had a car accident,” he says. “We were driving fast, about 110 km per hour, but it was a safe speed. A good shooter would have been able to hit us if we went any slower.”

Mariusz’s armoured car was escorting an American convoy during a reconnaissance mission in the region, when it suddenly started skidding from one side to the next. Then came the screech that still haunts him to this day.

“I don’t remember the precise moment I was thrown from the car, but when it started flipping it threw out everyone sitting in the back. I hit the ground, and saw a spark as I saw glass flying toward me. I thought it would crush me, so I had to drag myself out of the way.”

After being helped by a U.S officer from their convoy, and regaining his composure, Mariusz went to check on his colleagues, where he was given an I.V. drip to hold for one of his critically injured friends. “A moment I’ll never forget,” he says.

Soon he began to feel weak. Realising his burnt clothes were fused to his back, he reached over his shoulder, and discovered a mixture of blood and gravel. Next thing he knew, he was whisked away by a chopper to the Polish military hospital in Karbala, where he spent a month in a wheelchair. Two months later they transferred him to a hospital in Wroclaw.

“After five days I was discharged from hospital by a doctor who said nothing was wrong with me. I took a vacation then returned to the army, but I was constantly in pain, and frequently had to take leave to see a doctor,” he remembers. “Then the case for my compensation was opened by the army’s medical tribunal, where I was told that my health was impaired by only six percent. I appealed, but they upheld the decision,” he says.

Mariusz was shocked. “I suffered spinal injuries, and I took a serious blow to the head. I get excruciating headaches constantly, and can?t stay in the same position for long. My legs and toes frequently go numb, and when I touch my skin,” he pauses to run his hands over his body, “…it feels like I’m wrapped in paper.”

During his military service Mariusz received a monthly wage of 1000 zloty, which, including himself, had to provide for a wife and child. However, since being discharged from his contractual duty he is not eligible for an army pension, and the money he earned during the mission in Iraq has run dry. Today he has two children, and looks after his younger sister; his mother is seriously ill and unable to care for her.

His only option was to go to ZUS, Poland’s Social Insurance Institution – a public institution servicing the social security system, through which the Ministry of Defence insures its troops. Injured soldiers are eligible to receive compensatory allowances and rehabilitation benefits in the form of a monthly pension, but they can only claim such payments following a medical assessment by ZUS’ own doctors.

Mariusz decided to go through the process, and four months later a decision had been reached; he was to receive a monthly allowance. “I was happy. There was an apology for the delay, and I was told that I’d receive an allowance for an initial six months – I thought they might even pay for my physiotherapy,” he says.

Three days later, however, Mariusz received more news. “I got a letter by registered post. My verdict had been overruled by ZUS’ head doctor, who decided that ‘no – he’s young, he’s educated and nothing’s wrong with him.’ I couldn’t understand it.”

Mariusz didn’t give up, and returned for another assessment at ZUS, but he found the decision was upheld. He decided to take the matter to court, even with his request for legal representation turned down. “So I wait,” he says. “A year has passed. That’s how things work in Poland.”

But even in his difficult situation, he still praises the army for what they provided for him after the accident. “We used to live in a tiny apartment; one room and a kitchen, for eight people – my whole family. Then after the accident a man came from Warsaw, who asked if we needed any help from the army. I’m very grateful to them,” he emphasises. Now with the help of his friends and family he just manages to pay off his new apartment, be it at a discounted rate. “But an apartment is not everything,” he adds. “Where is my health, and how am I to live with no money?”

Janusz and Mariusz are not the only ones struggling when returning from missions overseas. Polish involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in over 300 wounded soldiers returning home, many of whom face the same obstacles – but slowly support is appearing.

Servi Pacis, an independent foundation with the aim of helping injured soldiers and their families, was created in Warsaw in June 2003. Colonel Jerzy Bielecki, head of the foundation, believes that since Poland entered Iraq, plenty has been done to assist the injured, but more is needed ? especially efforts to level the discrepancy between professional soldiers, and those on a contractual service basis.

“Even now when a [contractual] soldier is injured and returns to the country, a military commission discharges him and the army wash their hands of the matter. Of course, if he is a professional soldier he has certain privileges and a military pension, but for a civilian, the army can do no more,” he states.

Servi Pacis not only presses the Polish government to change current legislation. Col. Bielecki has a vision; together with his colleagues he has created an organisation that offers advice and direction to injured and disabled soldiers, and a network that provides important support – financial and emotional – to those in crisis.

Since its five years of existence, the organisation has, among other things, refurbished flats to make them accessible to the disabled, donated expensive prosthetics, sent out Christmas packages with gifts such as books for injured soldiers’ children, and even provided money for groceries. Col. Bielecki however, believes that it’s not only material and financial support that helps the veterans get by.

“We try our best. I?d like to think that our help makes a difference.” He pauses, then with disarming frankness says, “But the simple fact that somebody remembers these people, especially when it’s friends who understand the pain, have lived through the same problems…” He trails off. “It’s important not to forget.”

The subject changes back to what seems to be the most pressing issue. Since Servi Pacis’ inception, Col. Bielecki and fellow board members have been calling for the gulf between professional and contractual soldiers to be eliminated. They believe that as a peacekeeping force deployed abroad, every soldier should be considered equal, and feel that a change is imminent.

“The Ministry [of Defence] is doing a lot right now, and all the elements are in place. There are many other praiseworthy proposals, for example a bursary for injured veterans’ children. Of course, there is a difference between planning and actual realisation. By the time these plans are implemented…” He interrupts himself, seemingly frustrated. “Well, life goes on, doesn’t it?”

Despite all their hard work, Col. Bielecki admits that the funds they work with are not enough to help all those who need it. They receive nothing from the Polish government, and rely on donations from various benefactors, both corporate and private individuals. Nevertheless, they do what they can, and both Mariusz and Janusz have benefited from the foundation?s generosity. Both men agree their struggle would be much harder without organisations like Col. Bielecki’s.

“Servi Pacis has helped me a lot, both as a soldier and as a civilian. I can count on them. They give me support that enables me to bounce back up off the bottom,” Mariusz says earnestly.

Janusz agrees. “It’s a foundation that as an injured veteran I can rely on. As their funds are small, the financial amounts are not substantial, but what they give is very helpful.” He goes silent for a moment. “Sometimes life-saving.”

To find more information on the Servi Pacis organisation or to make a donation, please visit www.servipacis.pl

Janusz Raczy and his friends have recently set up a veteran’s association for those injured and disabled during missions overseas. The association was created to address the rights of ex-soldiers and their goal is to press the Polish government into making crucial changes to help those hurt during duty. To make a donation, or for more information, please visit www.stowarzyszenierannych.pl, or write to
stowarzyszenierannych@wp.pl

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