By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Andrew Johnson lives with the ultimate price of war — every day.
The Mayville man, his wife and three surviving children have lived with the cold reality of military conflict since late January, when those somber officers showed up at their door.
“It’s a very high cost,” Johnson said, reflecting on the loss of his son, U.S. Army 1st Lt. David Johnson. The 24-year-old platoon leader, a little more than a month on the job, died in Kandahar province, Afghanistan from injuries he sustained from a detonated improvised explosive device.
David Johnson led the Army’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He was deployed Dec. 14, and by all accounts, including his Facebook page, excited about his post as platoon commander.
This is a guy, his father said, who possessed a genius IQ, a guy who had a lot of opportunities to have a safe, comfortable life in the private sector. His calling, Andrew Johnson said, was the Army.
The elder Johnson, publisher of Dodge County Pionier, a weekly newspaper in Mayville, is supremely proud of his son, a soldier who died as he lived — serving his country, helping others.
While Andrew Johnson said he takes consolation in knowing his son gave his life so others could be free, and while he supports the U.S. military’s overall mission in Afghanistan, he’s coming to terms with a grief parents do not want to know.
“It hurts,” Johnson said. “I hope in time I’ll put it in perspective. Knowing that’s what he wanted to do, what he loved, that’s the only way I can make sense of it all. That’s where he wanted to be. But to miss him is heart crushing.
“I am very selfish; I miss him.”
David Johnson is among the 160 service members from Wisconsin or with connections to the Badger State who have died in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, said Lt. Col. Jackie Guthrie, director of public affairs for the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
As of May 21, nearly 4,500 members of the U.S. military had been killed in Iraq, and 1,967 in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. More than 48,000 had been injured in action in the wars.
The dead and wounded, Andrew Johnson will be the first to demand, are the ultimate price of war.
But Johnson, like many of his fellow taxpayers, has concerns about the fiscal costs of an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and the keeping of the peace and rebuilding in Iraq.
“I think we need to fight this war differently, not just throw a lot of money at it,” Johnson said.
Johnson is not alone. In a late March New York Times/CBS poll, 69 percent said they believe the U.S. shouldn’t be spending any money on war in Afghanistan.
While President Barack Obama in a surprise visit to Afghanistan earlier this month underscored his administration’s resolve to move toward withdrawal of U.S. troops, he signed a security agreement that pledges U.S. support to the war-torn nation through 2014.
And while the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December, the fiscal burdens of nation-building will cost U.S. taxpayers more than $100 billion this year.
The price of war for families has been almost unbearable, and for a lot of Americans the fiscal costs have been untenable.
The clock is ticking, literally, at costofwar.com, which tracks the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As of Friday afternoon, the counter — much like the ubiquitous U.S. debt clocks — was at $1.335 trillion, and rapidly rising. More than $800 million has been spent on Iraq, $531 million-plus on Afghanistan.
“What’s important to keep in mind about the clocks is we (are looking at) the amount of money requested by the president and appropriated by Congress … . These are dollars already allocated by law to cover the cost of the wars,” said Chris Hellman, senior research analyst for the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit that analyzes military spending.
“We don’t factor in the cost of care for vets, for instance, just money directly related to what the Pentagon refers to as overseas operations,” Hellman added.
Nobel Prize winner and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes have extrapolated the numbers in their book “The Three Trillion Dollar War.”
The academicians argue that myriad expenditures have and continue to be hidden from the U.S. taxpayer, not the least of which are military replacement costs — at six times the peacetime rate — and the expense of caring for hundreds of thousands of war veterans, many for life.
A Congressional Budget Office report found that about 740,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had been treated in the Veterans Health Administration System, through September 2011.
“That number is slightly more than half of all recent veterans eligible for care by VHA,” the CBO report states.
VHA spent about $2 billion in fiscal 2010 on medical care to all recent combat veterans. One in four recent combat vets treated at VHA from 2004 to 2009 had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and 7 percent had a traumatic brain injury, according to the CBO report.
“The Three Trillion Dollar War” delves into the hefty price tag of increasing military personnel commitments and the expanding roll of contractors in the theaters of war.
“Worse, the military has been competing against itself: the high pay for the contractors is one of the factors forcing the Army to offer ever higher bonuses for reenlisting,” the book notes.
“Soldiers, as their tour of duty comes to an end, can go to work for contractors at much higher wages. Despite huge increases in reenlistment pay, the military is losing some of its most experienced personnel to the private contracting firms.”
The National Priorities Project breaks down direct military spending on the wars by state.
Wisconsin taxpayers will have contributed $22.5 billion of their taxes to the war effort, according to NPP. The group breaks down spending by state, through income and other tax collections.
For fiscal critics of the war, those taxpayer dollars could be better spent. In an era of massive state budget deficits and ballooning state and national debt in a limping economy, spending priorities come closer into focus.
Wisconsin, for instance, faced a $3.6 billion shortfall in the latest biennial budget. Gov. Scott
Walker and the Republican-led Legislature filled the gap through deep budget cuts.
NPP’s report titled “Afghan War Costs Compared to State Budget Shortfalls” asserts that 80 percent of the states with projected shortfalls would have those funding holes filled or exceeded by their taxpayers’ share of the war cost.
War critics have argued, although counterfactually, that states like Wisconsin could have been in much better fiscal shape if the U.S. hadn’t been staked to two wars.
That argument, however, discounts the military spending that went into Wisconsin’s economy over the past decade.
President George W. Bush and defenders of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have argued that the military actions, which have led to the deaths of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, have made the United States and the world safer from terrorists.
Wisconsin repeatedly has answered the call in that war, sending 10,000 National Guard members, many to three, four, five tours of duty, said the Guard’s Lt. Col. Jackie Guthrie.
She said she will leave the politics — the costs of the war — to the politicians.
“Service members follow orders,” Guthrie said. “We do the missions our elected leaders have deemed necessary.
A father's burden
Andrew Johnson said his relationship with the military has been “very positive,” since his son’s death. He’s met with some high ranking military officials, in recent months, and he said he has gotten a better understanding that “our enemy is a lot closer” than most Americans think.
As for the financial cost of the wars, Johnson said the Pentagon needs to spend taxpayer money more wisely.
Still, his frame of reference changes when he thinks back to the images that filled the world’s TV screens on Sept. 11, 2001.
“To answer that question (of cost), you have to run those 9/11 tapes again, look at those and watch our people get slaughtered. That’s the reason we started this,” he said.
As a father of a fallen soldier, the cost is incalculable, but it seems to come with acceptance.
“It is horrible to lose my son. My heart is broken. There is a part of me that is always going to be gone,” Johnson said.
Observations of a father
On January 25th of this year, my life changed forever. My son, Lt. David Johnson, was killed in action. Although my wife and I are so very proud of David, we are deeply hurt by the great loss for our family. His loss is also felt by the Army, our community, Wisconsin and the country. We are in the midst of the painful grieving process and it is difficult to put this loss into perspective at this time.
Our family paid a very high price for our country. I am also very aware of many others that are paying the price of war. I am not for war. However, it apparently is inevitable when our enemy is constantly trying to kill United States citizens. We have no choice but to defend our great country. We will prevail over our enemies. My son, along with hundreds of thousands volunteered to protect us. Many of our service men and women have paid the ultimate price with their lives; even more have been physically and or mentally injured.
Memorial Day is a special day for all Americans. It is a day when we remember and honor those who have served. As citizens we enjoy great freedom. Shortly after my son was killed, a man from the Milwaukee area who I have never met, e-mailed me a photo of his three young beautiful young daughters. They were all under 12 years old. He told me that my son David died so his daughters could be free. He was right. Let us all reflect, remember, and celebrate all American hero’s this Memorial Day.
Andrew Johnson, father of 1LT David Johnson