Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Quarter Million We Never See

In October of 2007, I sat in a motorcycle class with a man who lamented that young vets had effectively terminated whatever VA disability and medical care he was receiving. I was somewhat bothered to hear that, since it was evident he still needed treatment, and it may very well have been MY appointment that scuttled his.

Mike wasn’t even a Vietnam veteran, as one might expect. He was a special forces vet of Desert Storm. While over a quarter million troops served during that brief conflict, it remains difficult to find them. I have only met a few, and far fewer still that suffered injury. But Mike was one of those. As he explained what happened, he commented casually that it really wasn’t being shot seven times that really screwed him up. That was caused by being knocked out the 2nd story window he was standing next to when he was gunned down. He now walks with a serious limp (crushed pelvis, I believe), sports a cane, and is forced to literally pick up his right leg with his hands to straddle a motorcycle. But he still rides – avidly. And he has for years. He just has to tuck his cane somewhere on the bike before leaving. Somehow he’s managed to pull it off.

With his level of disability, Mike had enjoyed full access to VA facilities, until a new generation of veterans came along that took his place in line. He also insisted he lost his benefits as a consequence of this, too. At the moment, he relies on his employer for health care. Never mind that his condition is a direct result of combat injuries.

Jake is another man that has to jostle for his place in line at a VA hospital – and his injuries are by no means marginal. Part of the Army’s 82nd Airborne, he was one of the few that arrived in Kuwait very early in the “telegraphed punch” that became the first invasion of Iraq. A full six months later, the remainder of his unit showed up, and they soon pushed north into Iraq towards Basra, which was ablaze with oil fires. They were among the first troops to successfully push back Saddam’s army, participating in what was later known as the “highway of death” – the central highway north from Kuwait through Iraq where Saddam’s army retreated under withering fire from US and allied aircraft. It was a shooting gallery – and 19 years later, rusted hulks of tanks and armored vehicles still remain along that road. I’ve seen them myself.

A short time later, his aircraft suffering mechanical problems, the pilot made an emergency landing in the desert, unintentionally setting her down in a minefield. Fortunately, the bird and the personnel remained unscathed, everything was carefully swapped to another plane, and Jake was left behind as a guard. For five days, under a steady drizzle of oil fire grease, soot, smoke, and unknown airborne chemical agents, he remained. He had been issued no gas mask or chemical warfare gear. He didn’t explain details following his five days in the oil fires very thoroughly, but I believe it’s probably because he can’t very well remember them.

“When I woke up from the coma, I couldn’t read, write, speak, or walk. I didn’t even know who I was or where I was.” Nine months later, he was permitted to leave the hospital in a wheelchair.

“I spent most of that time trying to learn to speak again.” Doctors were baffled as to what agents he was exposed, which did the vast majority of the damage, and how best to help him.

“I was actually shot in the head, too, but it was the gas that I think did the most damage,” he remarked. In looking at him, I would tend to agree. His head seemed fine – operable, and covered with a “Desert Storm Vet” hat. His right arm was an immobile prosthetic, so I shook his left vigorously with my own left. 18 years after his prolonged hospital stay and efforts to relearn to speak, he still has a noticeable slur in his words. I leaned in close to understand him.

“You know, they took my damn license away from me. They didn’t think I could drive – not knowing who I was and all.”

Did they give it back, I asked?

“Oh yeah. My wife still threatens take it away again, though. Or just take off the ball on the steering wheel that helps me drive with one hand.” His wife started laughing at this and nods her head in confirmation.

It’s strange to talk to somebody who, now almost 20 years ago, has invaded, secured, and explored the same desert that I did in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. It is strange that the remnants of what they did is still very much evident much later. It is even stranger that we would have to return to fight an already-subdued enemy. I find myself hoping that this current conflict isn’t conducted and terminated as stupidly as the first. I don’t want to be the guy who one day long from now runs into men twenty years my junior that are back there yet again. The secret to killing cancer is to kill all of it – not just irradiate part of it. What will our withdrawal do to what remains of it? I’d really like to know…

Jake and I agreed that the doctor at the Charlottesville VA clinic is a really nice lady. Apparently he’s seen her, too. “Hell, I just came from an appointment in Richmond today, actually.” Unfortunately, however, most of his care cannot be handled at Charlottesville’s general practitioner, requiring a much longer drive to the full specialty facility in Richmond. I shake his left hand again, wish him luck, thank him for his service, and remark that I hope I run into him sometime in Richmond.

But in truth, I hope I do NOT run into him. I’m probably going to bow out of the health care line and let men like Jake and Mike move up. And in twenty years time, I will hope that the younger guys will do the same for us. I just pray they’re not coming from the same desert.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. Every time I think you have run out of material, you come up with a new one.

    Good vignette!

  2. Ditto Uncle Caesar.

    This made me sad.

    Hey, what blood type are you? Mary Anna says she has dibs on my kidney simply because we have the same blood type. I say she's got two other siblings she can hit up for organs if she ever needs one.

  3. Yes this is sad. Was nice of you. Though you do not seem to be disabled Ben. I only met you briefly, but you seemed fully intact to me.

  4. Since Mike was a Special Forces Vet of Desert Storm, I am still unclear why he has lost his VA benefits and must depend upon his employer. Is it the scope of his entitled benefits or he recieves none at all?

  5. Though I certainly WISH I inquired more fervently about the nature of Mike's benefits and the reason for them being terminated/reduced, I did not, and am also left scratching my head in bewilderment and wondering about the exact nature of his case. What I did not mention in the piece, however, is that Mike somehow specifically blames all the Mexican veterans for his plight... I didn't think this was essential for the article.