A Tough Encounter With Policy Survivors
By Patrick J. Sloyan
For President Bill Clinton, the results of his policy decisions in Somalia came into sharp focus during a Sunday-morning visit to soldiers wounded in Mogadishu.
Reporters were barred from Walter Reed Army Medical Center during the Oct. 24 session when an uneasy Clinton met with some of the 77 Americans wounded during an Oct. 3 battle that marked the end of a covert operation to seize Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
Hospital officials who accompanied Clinton said the young commander-in-chief was shocked by the encounter.
One soldier had lost his left hand, right leg, sight and hearing. Another had had his hand grafted to his stomach so a shattered arm could heal. Bullets, shrapnel and fire had maimed a young private. A sergeant had his leg in a steel birdcage after the first of a series of bone grafts.
"Clinton was visibly moved," said one hospital official. "He didn't know what to say. The men could see that."
Some were pleasant and respectful. "Clinton is a nice guy," said PFC Alberto Rodriguez, 20, of Naranjito, P.R. He had been riddled with bullets and shrapnel.
Others were cool, even hostile. Sgt. John Burns, 26, of Philadelphia, whose leg was shattered, balked at an offer to have his picture taken with the president. "I don't want to end up in some political propaganda picture - you know, 'President Visits Wounded Soldier,' " Burns said while Clinton was in his room.
The White House refused to make public photographs or television footage of that meeting or a later Oval Office meeting with the wounded. Clinton and top administration officials responsible for Somalia have yet to be publicly shown with the survivors of the fiercest firefight in terms of American casualties since Vietnam.
Some administration officials say withholding the pictures is part of a damage-limitation strategy devised by David Gergen, Clinton's adviser.
"They [White House officials] hope people will forget about Somalia," said a Pentagon official who objected to a plan. He favored giving the wounded the sort of White House South Lawn ceremony held in June when Clinton praised and personally decorated Marines who were first sent to Somalia by President George Bush last Dec. 6.
While Gergen refused to comment, another White House official said Clinton wanted to avoid the appearance of exploiting the Somalia veterans.
But the president's visit to the hospital was prompted by a call from an angry Walter Reed physician. According to hospital sources, the doctor called the White House. "He said these men have been here for three weeks, and no one had paid any attention to them," said a source informed of the exchange. "The White House called back and said, 'The president will be there tomorrow morning.' "
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.