Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fellow Asses

In Korea in December 1950, US Marines, wholly overwhelmed by Chinese troops pushing south, faced a bleak situation at best. With a brutal winter upon them, surrounded and cut off by the enemy, their leaders still maintained the bullheaded, confident attitude so commonly attributed to US troops as a whole. Amid this disaster, Major General Oliver P. Smith is purported to have declared, “Retreat; hell! We’re just attacking in another direction.” They still had a fight in them, the circumstances be damned. As another example, the famous Chesty Puller is cited as observing, “We’re surrounded. That simplifies the problem!” They were fighters, as were and are still the current US fighting forces. They all possess a fierce stubbornness.

And it keeps us alive. Circumstances can be awful, but so long as there’s ammunition or bayonets, there is still an enemy to defeat and a battle to win. The men and women of our fighting forces are perhaps the most tenacious and hardheaded in the world. As warriors, this alone elevates them into superiority, and keeps them fighting and optimistic in the most potentially hopeless situations. We were trained to be this way, and it works.

The trouble is, this fierce independence extends well beyond the realms of combat service and even military service itself. Ask any VA general practitioner. It is probably universally agreed that vets are the most difficult, disagreeable, and noncompliant patients a doctor can have. “Oh, I’m okay. I’ll make do. This is nothing. There are other guys much worse off than me.” The stubbornness is more than irritating; it’s selfless.

I have found this to be consistently the case when speaking with veterans suffering with some service-related injury or another. This past week I listened to a veteran awaiting surgeries to both ankles and knees tell me that SHE is fortunate and there are lot of guys in need of more help than she. She didn’t really need help. The guys without limbs did. “I have legs, and they don’t,” she told me. Another vet, after enduring multiple traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), was extremely sympathetic to his comrades that are struggling with more holistic and complicated injuries. “They need more help than me. I’m doing absolutely great.” A third, severely behind on bills and riding the edge of bankruptcy told me, “there are others that need help more than us. Make sure they’re cared for first. We’ll be okay.”

These situations illustrate a powerful and persistent independence, but also identify a problem. Disabled veterans, an already-difficult community, are extremely reluctant to accept help from others. They help each other – even in the midst of their own injuries and recoveries, and then they help themselves. Asking assistance from others isn’t something they are trained to do. They’re proud, they’re resilient, and they just make do with what they have. Few people in need are more reluctant to accept help, which many friends, loved ones, and concerned strangers find frustrating. “How do you help people that don’t want to be helped?” is one question I’ve fielded. To be honest, I’m really not sure.

Some of the greatest success stories of disabled veterans recovering from or at least learning to work around their disabilities are those that have committed their fullest concentration not to warding off people that may potentially help them, but to their own recovery. It is precisely the same irritating stubbornness that, when devoted to their recovery, gives those vets with what appears to be a hopeless limitation the drive, gumption, and persistence to improve their condition. The hard part is getting them to invest their energy positively instead of keeping at bay anybody that wishes to help them.

For one specific example of how military resolve can be put to good use, I recently met a serviceman who suffered a number of traumatic brain injuries in Iraq. After some time confined to a wheelchair, he figured he'd try out skiing to help with the rehabilitation process. Four months later, he's ranked fifth nationally in his class.

In the future, I will not be offering to help any veterans, because it will be, at best, poorly received. But I will offer myself as a constant, as a friend, and somebody who will continue to pester about them how they’re doing, inquire how everything is progressing. If they’re having a great day when I call, I will be pleased to hear it and that’ll be the end of it. If they’re having a bad day, I will attempt to offer some words of encouragement (if any are suitable), and again, that’ll be the end of it. My contact with them, if constant, indicates that my concern for them is not driven by some sort of self-guilt or subject to undulating emotions. I’m just there regardless, as a confidante, supporter and friend. Once that has been established, I don’t need to ask how I can help them, they will simply tell me. I’m there; they know how to get a hold of me, and if they need something, they will call me. Offering my help, however, is the quickest way to lose an opportunity to truly do so. Disabled veterans don’t need help; they need somebody who will care about their wellbeing regardless of their success or failure. Like most anybody else, they simply need friends. I specifically intend to be the friend who can be just as stubborn an ass as they.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. That has been my experience also, not specifically with veterans, but with anyone in grief or illness: the thing they need most is someone to come alongside them, be there for them, share their experience, and support them without acting like that's what you're doing, sort of like not letting your left hand know what your right hand is giving, a gift without fanfare.

  2. Very well-put. Thank you. We are to, in a sense, "go there with them."

  3. The presence of a personal, legitimate friendship automatically addresses most help/support issues, be they even physical or financial.