What you can do for Wounded Warriors on Memorial Day
I ran into a very good idea a few days ago that makes me pose this question to you. How will you spend Memorial Day?
I encourage you stop by CrossFit in Peachtree City, near Mimi’s Good Food in the strip center at the railroad tracks off Dividend Drive and Kelly Drive.
At CrossFit you can make a donation to the Wounded Warrior program, and if you want you can participate free of charge in “Murph,” a workout named after U.S. Navy Lt. Michael P. Murphy, recipient of the Medal of Honor after his death in Afghanistan.
To reserve your free spot for “Murph” call 678-519-2302. Whether you work out or not, make sure you donate to Wounded Warrior.
In 2002 Lt. Murphy became a Navy SEAL. In 2005 he led a four-man SEAL team on a mission to capture or kill a top Taliban leader. During the mission some goat herders stumbled onto their position. The SEALs chose to release the goat herders, who apparently betrayed them to the Taliban, resulting in the four-man team being attacked by over 150 enemy soldiers.
Lt. Murphy left his cover to establish radio contact and request immediate support, was severely wounded then returned to continue the fight until he died of his wounds at 29 years of age. Only one of the four SEALs survived.
What better way to honor those who died serving our country than to lend a helping hand to the wounded who lived but need help putting their life back together? That’s what Wounded Warrior does.
A lifetime ago, I spent months in hospitals myself after being wounded and learned a few things. I also spent five years part-time researching and writing a book about veterans, spoke to countless vets along the way and learned a great deal by listening.
One man who helped me see more clearly through the eyes of the wounded is Dexter Lehtinen, a south Florida attorney who specializes in environmental issues in the Everglades. If you’ll overlook my name-dropping, Dexter’s wife is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican Congresswoman for the Miami District, nice lady and very influential in Congress.
In 1971 Dexter slowly emerged from a long episode of sleeping and dreaming in the warm arms of pain-killing drugs, wondering why he was on his back, why he couldn’t see, why he couldn’t move his jaw and why his head was wrapped up in something. As the sounds around him slowly took shape as a hospital ward, he remembered he was an Army lieutenant, a Ranger, that he had been an infantry platoon leader doing his job and struggling to keep his men alive in the jungles of Vietnam near the Rockpile.
The last thing he remembered was wondering why he was on the ground, why his men were gathered around him, why one of them was putting out flames where his hair had caught fire, and why his platoon sergeant kept yelling at him, “You’re going to be OK, El-Tee!”
It turns out Dexter zigged when he should have zagged, the luck of the draw when the enemy’s first mortar shell sent hot shrapnel that took out his eye and cheekbone on the left side of his face. He ended up at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, New York, near his home and didn’t leave hospitals for a year and a half.
But for Dexter, what he remembers even more than the multiple surgeries were the things bubbling inside him, the same things, I think, that our wounded warriors deal with today.
Dexter’s doctors, his wife, his parents and his friends reassured him a thousand times the war was over for him, he would never go back. As if that was a good thing.
How could they know their words intended to comfort him implied he never should have been in Vietnam in the first place, that his commitment to life as a soldier didn’t matter, that the mission he left unfinished was somehow not important, that it was perfectly OK that he failed to get the job done and someone else had to do it for him?
He knew it was silly to think that way, but doing a dirty job in a lousy place was his assigned mission, part of his identity as a strong man, and it wasn’t something he was ready for anyone to toss away like trash.
His family wouldn’t understand even if he found the right words to tell them.
How could they know he didn’t want to leave the Army, that his disappointment in his medical discharge ran deep, that meeting the enormous challenge of becoming a Ranger meant a lot to him?
How could he tell them the disability compensation he would receive meant little, like the aftermath of a barfight in a cheap western movie where the tough guy throws a few bucks on the bar to pay for busted furniture. Now Dexter was the busted furniture.
The people who loved Dexter wanted to help him get back to civilian life, and he didn’t know how to tell them, because he was confused by it himself, but he found himself longing to be back with his men in the stinkhole of Vietnam, where he yelled at them when they didn’t move fast enough, he tolerated the hippie names they painted on the equipment, like Blood, Sweat and Tears, and he had to keep a careful watch on patrol to make sure they didn’t get lazy and do things the easy way that might get one of them killed.
If you asked Dexter if he loved them, whether their brotherhood had been forged in the furnace of combat, he’d look at you like you were nuts, but it tore his guts out every time he lost one of them, and damn, he missed them.
In the Vietnam War casualties were roughly proportional to WWII, but there were three times as many seriously wounded. That was because so many of the wounded who lived through it would have died in WWII.
In Vietnam, Dustoff helicopters would rush the wounded from the filth of the jungle where they were hit to doctors and hospitals.
Fast forward to today. The medical care standing by for our combat troops is far better, and even more of the seriously wounded come home alive. But they do come home broken.
We have a duty to help them achieve the best quality life possible, and that means overcoming physical obstacles and helping them work through the adjustments of a changed life.
If you ever want to be inspired, visit a hospital of our wounded soldiers, listen to their story and watch the fire of determination in their eyes as they rise to the challenge, overcome their doubts and fears and loss with optimism. But like everyone else, they have moments of weakness.
In December of 1970 I had been wounded in Vietnam, and once past the immediate trauma, I looked forward to being home for Christmas. But Christmas came and went as I arrived at a hospital in Japan, still immobilized in bed to let broken vertebrae heal.
I slipped into a funk, feeling a bit sorry for myself, frustrated at being helpless instead of with my fellow pilots where I belonged, tired of the constant pain between shots of narcotics, aggravated at being immobile, anxious to get home.
As I wallowed in a little self-pity, I was startled when Jim screamed. After a pause Jim screamed again, and a young guy with no legs below the knees zipped past me in a wheelchair yelling, “Hang on Jim, I’m coming,” and that’s how I knew his name.
The nurses were showing a John Wayne movie projected on the wall, but pretty soon Jim’s screams drowned out the dialogue. Nobody complained.
A nurse told me Jim’s back was ripped to shreds by a grenade, and when they changed the dressing on his wound, or when his pain medication wore off before they were permitted to give him more, he hurt so bad he had to scream.
Many other patients shouted their encouragement. “Go ahead and scream, Jim.” “Give ‘em hell, Jim.” “Dammit, nurse, can’t you give Jim more of that magic needle?” Some tried to distract him from his pain by asking questions like, “Jim, which do you like better, draw poker or stud?” or “Jim, where you from, Chicago?”
All around me young men, black and white and Hispanic and Asian, officers and enlisted men, missing limbs or eyes, with all manner of injury from violence, set aside their own problems to help one of their stranger-brothers get through unbearable pain.
Pretty soon the nurse announced she was preparing Jim’s pain shot, and the clamor arose. “Yo, Jim, help is on the way!” “Hang in there, Jim, it’ll be better soon.” “Nurse Nancy gonna make you feel better, Jim.” And soon after Jim’s shot he slept peacefully for a while, but he went through this about five times a day.
“What fine men,” I thought to myself, even though some of them were still too young to buy a beer. I felt proud to be with them, to be one of them, and knew I was a damn fool for having the blues. I never forgot the lesson that my problems are small compared to some others.
Our wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan these days are the same fine young people who sacrificed to do America’s dirty work while we went on with our routine lives. They deserve our helping hand putting their life back together.
Do you have a little time for them on Memorial Day?
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His 2011 book, “Strength and Honor,” can be found at bookstores or at www.garlock1.com. His email is email@example.com.]