A Q&A with Jonathan Bartlett, An Injured Soldier Featured in Alive Day Memories
by Austin Merrill
Iraq vet Jonathan Bartlett. Portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/HBO.
More than 25,000 members of the American military have been injured in the war in Iraq. Many of them refer to the day they were hurt as their "alive day"the day they narrowly escaped death. James Gandolfini and HBO tell the stories of 10 of these injured soldiers in Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, a documentary that debuts on HBO on September 9. Jonathan Bartlett, one of the subjects of the film, was a 19-year-old army corporal when his truck hit a bomb on a road near Fallujah three years ago. The explosion blew off both of his legs. Bartlett now lives in Norfolk, Virginia; VF.com spoke with him about the war, his injuries, and his enduring anger.
Tell me about your unit.
We got chewed up. From what I understand, we had something like 110 percent strength when we deployed to Iraq, which means you've got a little more than you're supposed to have. Which is okaythey're expecting to get casualties and whatnot. When they left they had something like 40 percent left40 percent of my unit didn't get hurt in one form or another. The rest of them got either chewed up like I did, or chewed up so bad that they had to leave the area. Or they had to have a couple days off for a bullet wound to heal or shrapnel wounds to close or they got new teeth. Stuff like that. They just got chewed up.
Where were you when you got hit?
My platoon was attached to a unit in a village outside of Fallujah, building wells, shoring up wallsmaking people like us, basically. From what I understand, the tribal leaders in the village invited us in. We told them we'd come in if they kicked all the terrorists outor they were insurgents at this point. And so they did. Or at least they thought they did. They had already set up a bomb and waited for us to get ready to leave. And we were leaving, and my truck blew up.
Any other trucks hit?
No. Just mine.
How many people were in your truck at the time?
Were any of them hurt?
The guy to my right got a broken leg. The gunner broke some teeth. The guy behind me wasn't scratched.
Did you have other injuries in addition to your legs?
I have shrapnel still coming out of me in little tiny bits. The front of my skull is like one massive lump, because it got cracked and crushed when my head went through the steering wheel. And I have some corneal scarring where they pulled shrapnel out of my eyes. I got lucky, though, because they didn't rip out my eyes. All things considered, I'm doing pretty good. My unit thought I was dead. The medic who rode with me from my unit told them I'd died on the helicopter. Which was true, but my heart started again after we landed.
At one point in the film you say that you'd do it all over again. Then later you say that if given your legs back, you'd move on to do something else.
I would do it all over again if I went back to the age of 18 and they told me, you're going to join the army. I'd say yes. But if they gave me new legs tomorrow, I wouldn't go back. I was 18 and idealistic and na´ve and uninformed, and I didn't know how the world works. Now I'm 22 and idealistic and na´ve, but I do know how the world works. And I'm not going to go fight in a war that's so badly run, that some people don't give a shit about. There's just so much bad shit going on in this war. I don't want any part of it.
So your perspective has really changed on all this.
Oh yeah. I'm not some kid who joined the army because of what happened on 9/11 anymore. I've witnessed all the bad shit that went on in the military. There's a lot of good shit toodon't get me wrong, I like the military. It's just that this administration is so incompetent.
It was 9/11 that pushed you into serving?
Yeah, I wanted to go and punish those who had attacked my country.
Did you feel like you should be in Afghanistan instead of Iraq?
I didn't care. I didn't think about it. I don't pay attention to Afghanistan. That country is so far in the shitter. I don't even pay attention to Iraq anymore.
Were other members of your family in the military?
My dad and my mom were in the navy.
So was joining the service something you'd already considered prior to 9/11?
Oh, I'd always thought I was going to join the military. But I didn't know what service. The thought of going to college never occurred to me, because neither of my parents went to college, and I knew I couldn't afford it, and I didn't think my grades were good enough. But it turns out they were. When I got out of the army and went to college, they looked at my transcripts and said, Why didn't you come here when you graduated from high school? We'd have let you in. But I couldn't afford it. And I didn't really know what I wanted to study. I'm a business-management student now, with a minor in communications. But the military was good for me. It really was.
You can say that, despite everything.
Yeah, I can say that. The military was good for me. I was good at being a soldier. I say that with no shame or no boasting. I was good at being a soldier. Mostly because I enjoyed it.
What does being a good soldier mean, exactly?
I could shoot straight, I could ride true, and I could speak the truth. I could fight, I could think. I took care of my stuff. I took care of my vehicles. I looked the part all the time, which is very important. I knew how to talk, which gets you in trouble. I knew how to work the system. I knew how to acquire things. I could take care of my buddies.
You say in the film that losing your legs used to make you angry, but not anymore.
I'm still angry. But it doesn't make me sit around embroiled with rage. I've learned to go with it. After I got hurt I would get so angry that I just couldn't do anythingyou know, when you get so angry that you can't think straight. I used to be a very enraged young man. Now I'm just an angry young man.
At another point you say that when you were in the hospital you cried a lot. Does that still happen? Do you get overwhelmed by all this and break down?
Sometimes. Normally I just don't move. I lie in bed and I stay there all day. I don't even eat. I don't do anything. I just sleep. Sometimes my friends and my wifesomebody will catch me and kick me out of bed. It doesn't happen often, like three times in the last year. I haven't broken down in a while. I haven't felt the need to. Sometimes I feel the pressure of it in the back of my skull and I'm just like, screw it.
Sometimes the legs don't fit quite right and that's depressing. They're very good, they're custom-made for me. But in anything above 80-degree weather, and humidity over 30 percent, I can't walk outside in them. Heat doesn't transmit well through the leg, so I sit there and perspire and it gets hot and my legs start to cook and it's bad. And you have no idea how much of a bitch it is to go up stairs or up a hill in a wheelchair. Or with prosthetics, even worse.
How do you feel when you see people rallying for or protesting against the war?
I think all of them have a massive disrespect for the soldiers who are over there, because they do not understand. They have no f***ing clue. We don't have a choice. As soon as you sign that paper and swear that oath, we do not have a choice. We go wherever the hell the president and the generals tell us to. People who say if you're against this war you're against the soldiers are displaying their ignorance. Most people don't understand. They just don't get it. You know how many times I've been asked by some stupid person, some civilian, how many people did you kill? You don't ask a soldier that. I was a trained killer. That was my job, man. Somebody has to do it. Being a soldier is a job.
What do you think of the retired generals who have come out against the war? Is that a betrayal?
No! It's good! They should have been doing that shit when they were still in. I don't think it's a betrayal. These generals understand that they have soldiers on the line. The best generals are those who know what it means to be a troopie. A ground pounder. A supply clerk. This administration keeps throwing people at a problem and expecting it to fix it. It's not how things are done. You have to give them a plan. You have to lead them. And these generals understand that. The president does not. The president doesn't have a fucking clue.
What's your opinion of the media's coverage of the war?
Oh, please. The media. You know who's covered this war the best in the last five years? Jon Stewart.
What do you hope people get out of this film?
It's supposed to teach people what it's like to go out and do what we do and get hurt. I hope people will understand that being a soldier means more than just supporting the president or the country. I hope people will stop and think about the military in a different way. I hope they will understand that we did things the way we did because soldiers just do what they're told to do. It's not like we have a choice. We have to go into war and we have to kill the enemy. That's our job. And sometimes that means killing a child with a gun or something grotesque like that. I mean, I killed more people with my knife than my gun. And you know, we get horribly wounded, and then we have to live with it. We have to change. You have to go from being a soldier to being someone else. You have to pick up the pieces and put them together in such a way that you can function.
Related Entertainment News