I’m just about as political as I am religious, and I dislike discussing both of them equally.
So, this isn’t a political post, it’s simply personal.
In 1973 I was 5 years old. Vietnam was still very much a part of Americans’ lives. My grandfather, a WW II veteran, was a frequent patient at the VA hospital in Houston, a very large facility. I remember visiting him often. There were scruffy old men, mostly. One showed me how he could pull his thumb off his hand, a little slight-of-hand that made my eyes go wide. But there were a few young men, boys really, not older than my sister or my cousin.
One day we were in the canteen, having lunch. It was a busy place. Most of the men were getting around on their own, some in wheel chairs, some on crutches. I walked across the room to get something from a vending machine when orderlies rolled a gurney into the room, right in front of me, and on the gurney was a young blond kid, propped up on pillows, tucked under heavy white sheets. But where his legs should have been the sheets were pulled tight, flat, across the bed. And where his arms should have been there were the empty sleeves of his hospital gown. I must have been in awe, and probably stared at the sight. My grandmother came up behind me and leaned down reassuringly. “He’s a quadriplegic,” she said.
He was a quadruple amputee.
I had seen men in the hospital who were paralyzed. They were frozen, but still whole. I had seen men who were missing an arm or a leg. But I had not seen, and could not imagine, a man without arms or legs.
Quadruple amputee — one word to describe the sum of this boy’s losses.
It was an amazing thing for a little boy to see. It frightened me.
The VA was an odd environment, anyway, men shuffling about in pajamas or robes, unshaven, some of the old ones cackled at me, some of them looked angry, as if to shoo me away. The canteen reeked like all hospital cafeterias, hot steam from the dishwashing line mingling with the smell of overcooked vegetables and fried meat. Outside the canteen the odor was either disinfectant or body fluids. I made up a name for the color of the walls — hospital green, a putrid color that didn’t appear natural, and certainly wasn’t found anywhere else. The basement of the hospital was a main corridor, with a low ceiling lined with pipes of many sizes that hissed and rattled, and voices down their echoed.
Being inside the hospital was like being in a horror film.
The sight of the young kid, otherwise clean and fresh, just wasn’t right. It didn’t belong. He didn’t belong.
I thought those were scenes I would never see again. They were horrific. I thought they were confined to the 70s, a decade in which the bizarre was the norm. The conservative 80s, the prosperous 90s, even the early part of this century seemed untouchable to the stain that I knew in the 70s. I thought, naively, that we, as a country, were more sophisticated than to send our young people en masse to be cut up and cut down, and cut apart.
I have great respect for the people who make up the military. My best friend is overseas, and some of my good friends I’ve known through the military. (I even tried to join; in an odd stroke of good sense they didn’t see me fit to be an officer. I would not have exactly thrived in that environment.) My respect doesn’t transfer carte blanche to politicians.
Last night, Trish was flipping back and forth among the network news, and we caught Bob Woodward’s story about a young man who nearly lost his life in Iraq. He’s badly disfigured now, and he has a traumatic brain injury. The story included very graphic images of the man in his hospital bed.
Since 1975, a generation, maybe two, have been spared these sights of war’s ravages, the toll it takes in human flesh.
Eventually, though, my daughter will see someone with a prosthetic leg, or with one sleeve empty. She’ll be about the same age I was, but she won’t have to be in a VA. Fortunately, we don’t closet our wounded as much as we did in the 70s. She’ll pass a man on the street or in the mall, or sit beside a lady in a restaurant. She’ll ask what happened to the person, and I can answer that, to some degree.
Then she’ll throw in the ubiquitous “why?”
And I won’t have a good answer.
See this story.