Cartoonists Get Front-Line Reports From Wounded Soldiers and Immigration Speakers

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By: Dave Astor

The high casualty rate from the Iraq War and the issue of immigration are two huge topics for editorial cartoonists. On Thursday, Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention attendees got up-close-and-personal views of both those subjects.

Among the speakers at a “Wounded Warriors” panel were two soldiers who were grievously hurt in explosions in Iraq before eventually coming to San Antonio to be treated at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC).

One, Staff Sgt. Shilo Harris, was severely burned on his face and other parts of his body in early 2007. He has had eight surgeries, and needs at least two more.

The other, Staff Sgt. Nick McCoy, suffered multiple injuries in late 2006 that eventually led to the amputation of both his legs. He arrived slightly late for the session — moderated by San Antonio Express-News military journalist Sig Christenson — and made his way slowly to the podium on crutches.

“I was told I might not walk again,” said McCoy.

The soldier — born on the 4th of July in 1983 — added that he doesn’t have much memory of the explosion. “There was a big ball of light, then it was lights out,” said McCoy.

“It’s unfortunate what happened to me, but it’s more unfortunate for the people who died,” Harris said of the three people killed in the explosion that almost killed him, too. “They were my fellow soldiers and friends.”

Harris noted that he was in a medically-induced coma for 45 days, contracted pneumonia, and experienced other complications. “It’s been a long road to get here, and I’m glad I’m here today,” he said.

“I just started driving last week — so look out!,” added McCoy. “And I’m on the dating circuit again. My mission is to get better, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Lt. Col. Donna Rojas, chief of case management at BAMC, said “the spirit of the soldiers is remarkable. It’s an honor to take care of these soldiers.”

Part of that care is done at BAMC’s Center for Intrepid outpatient rehabilitation facility, which — said its program manager, Rebecca S. Hooper — was built with the help of donations from more than 600,000 people.

Harris and McCoy said they’d like to see more media coverage of how the families of wounded soldiers are dealing with their situations. And they would like the media to focus more on how well injured soldiers are coping than on how badly they were hurt.

Christenson said the Express-News and other papers want to do more coverage of how wounded soldiers are faring, but military public-affairs officials don’t always make it easy. He did note that the Army is better than the Air Force in this respect.

The military journalist said explosions in Iraq are more powerful than the ones during the Vietnam War, leading to horrific injuries. “There are so many ways to get killed, and so many ways to get hurt,” Christenson added, while also pointing out that medical advances mean many soldiers are surviving wounds that would have killed them 35 or 40 years ago.

When the panel concluded, the speakers were given a standing ovation. Many editorial cartoonists are against the Iraq War, but some said privately after the session that they didn’t have the heart to ask the injured soldiers what they thought about fighting in a war many Americans feel the Bush administration should never have started.

Meanwhile, this country’s current leaders have authorized the building of a fence along the southern U.S. border to help keep out illegal immigrants — a fence strongly debated by two panelists in favor of it and two opposed.

Eagle Pass, Texas, Mayor Chad Foster said modern technology and more “boots on the ground” to patrol the border are better solutions than a fence that costs a huge amount and hurts the environment.

Susan Hughes of the Audobon Society added that the fence jeopardizes wildlife habitats that have taken decades to recover. She said these habitats are great places for local children and tourists to visit.

Supporting the fence was Ira Mehlman, national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who said barriers have worked in Israel and elsewhere. He also said illegal immigration could be reduced by cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers, and by paying U.S. citizens “fair wages” to work at jobs considered menial.

And Arthur W. Kownslar, a “Minuteman” who patrols the border, said people from 26 countries (not just Mexico) have crossed into the U.S. from the south — and some could have hostile intentions.

The immigration panel was moderated by Express-News border correspondent Lynn Brezosky.

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