Monday, August 10, 2009
The House of Broken Men
He was younger than I, whirring to, fro, and into the elevator in his black motorized wheelchair. We make room for him. Right hand on the joystick, left hand in decorticate posturing, his face leaning to the right, immobile. He was maybe 22 or 23 -- I could see it in his face. The face seemed to retain only a small fraction of the expressive capacity it once had; and echo of what once was. His skin had a patchwork of redness - perhaps from the contaminants insurgents put in I.E.D.'s, perhaps from post-burn skin grafting. As his vehicle stops in the center of the elevator floor, the momentum causes a slight lunge forward in his head, followed by recoil. His eyes unfocused, seemingly stare at some script, invisible to us, held right in front of his face. Projecting upwards, mounted somewhere behind his seatback is a 12-inch American flag.
Behind him a barely-haired man baby-steps his way into the elevator. He's 70 maybe, in a tweed coat, sweatpants, untied shoes, with a stale look of shock -- as if he was watching a bus full of school children catch on fire. Behind him, he drags his tails: an oxygen tanks on wheels, and an I.V. pole. The conserving regulator on his oxygen bottle supplements his inhalations with pure oxygen, to the tune of "kuff, kuff." He turns only partly around, facing the elevator buttons as, with his equipment, there's no room to turn anymore. The elevator doors close. Upon our ascent, someone from the back mentions how the snow is really coming down. The old man, still staring at the elevator buttons, blurts out, in a loud monotonous run-on sentence, "I think its partially cloudy and I say I think it's partially cloudy because I just had a brain aneurysm on my right side." The elevator returns to silence.
For those that can walk, the VA hospital is an exhibition of humanity's diversity in walking; a sharply less-comical version of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. Some old guys, walking slow but upright, some slow and hunched over; others with canes, bouncing to one side, some with steps only six inches; others with rigidity on one side, waltzing themselves down the hallway. As I stepped through the revolving door through the south side of the building, I pass by an elderly man. He's pointing with his cane and talking to no-one, "We parked our car right there. What did they do with my car?" On my way across the street for a smoke break, I see a guy heading inside with what looks like a piece of large luggage, complete with extended handle and rolling wheels. I think to myself, "Checking in, are we?" Then I notice the folders: gray, red, brown -- a 201 file with the last four digits of his social security number on top. What he's dragging behind him are actually about 30 + pounds of his medical and service records.
I flick out the cherry, trash the butt, and work my way back in. I am the only one on the elevator at the 1st floor, but it stops at the second. Another elder, brown khakis and puffy winter coat, climbs on board. His head is not so much shaking as it is slightly vibrating -- looking like he's trying very hard to suppress how severely disgruntled he is. After the doors close, the elevator fires up and he starts, "I don't know what the hell their problem is." I turned toward him and inquire, "Who, the hospital?" He doesn't answer, just continues: "Rented that goddamn storage shed, and it takes King Kong to open the doors. Damn thing is full of spiders, too! One jumped down and bit me right on the hand." He shakily extends to me the back of his hand to show, but I see nothing out of the ordinary. "Then they can't put a damned light in the thing, so it's dark as hell..." He continues his rant on our elevator ride, getting off at the 5th floor. I give him a pat on the back as he leaves, "Well, sir, good luck with that." That's all I can think to say.
The elevator takes me to the 6th floor, and I enter my department. On the way to my office, I see a man who appears to be in hi 80's, seated by the oxygen closet, wearing jeans and a worn flannel insulated button-up shirt. He's exceptionally thin: his cheeks and eyes sunken in around his cheek bones, but what caught my attention were his hands. They had a slightly translucent quality to them, where you could see the hair-like bright red arterioles running their course throughout. Additionally, dark maroon patches were also visible on his forearm and the back of his hand; maybe from bumps and bruises, maybe from blood draws.
Although I saw no oxygen tanks, I asked if he needed a refill. He smiles, pointed to the office across the hall, and said in an exceptionally breathy voice, "No, I'm just waiting for my appointment." There's a pause. He asks, "You prior-service?" "Just got back from the desert 5 months ago," I respond. "You have that look about you. That's why I ask." There's a pause, then he starts. "I joined back when I was eighteen. I joined the Army/Air Force as a medic. They were both one branch back then, but then they decided to split. So, they gave me the choice: either be a foot soldier and go with the Army, or go with the Air Force. Well, my mother didn't raise any idiots. You went to the desert? I went to Korea. It's messed up, you know; chasing these guys all over the place. Then we get to the river and we're told not to cross, or even shoot across it: it's a demilitarized zone. ...What?" I laughed, he smiles, and I not my head. He says, "I say, if you're going to do the job, just get it done."
I relayed to him one of the same types of situations in the modern day: an operations order, a high-value target list (H.V.T.), and a patrol. Before the mission, our battalion actually went through the trouble of giving us all print-outs with pictures and names of the H.V.T.'s. During the mission, we established an observation post (O.P) and had positive identification (P.I.D.) on one of the high-value targets. The HVT entered a black Lexus that joined two other black sedans and was traveling southbound, in our direction. We called up the sighting, and the potential to interdict. The radio squawked back: command asked us to confirm PID. We did, and after a couple of minutes of silent radios, the 3-vehicle caravan turns right, approaching a cluster of buildings. We called again for the authorization, noting to them that he would soon be out of our line of sight. Command came back through the radio, nixing the interdiction opportunity, giving no explanation.
I expressed to him the same kind of sensibility, "What the point of giving us a printed HVT list and then letting him drive away? As it turns out, our unit wanted to play politics with some of the HVT's. So, a week or so later, a convoy of three vehicles from brigade level or higher goes rolling through that area to play politics. They intend to meet with some of the town's most influential people, so the town knows they're coming. On their way, an I.E.D. hits them, killing a sergeant and major." He inquires, "You were an infantryman?" "I was a medic with the infantry," I respond. There is a slight pause. I say, "I was one of those idiot medics you mentioned earlier that opted to run with the foot soldiers -- but I can't blame that on my mother." We laugh. His is a silent laugh, out of respiratory illness: face loaded with expression, but no sound. He's called in for his appointment and we shake hands.
I leave for the day, and on my way out, accidentally kick an empty whiskey shot bottle by the hospital doors. Some of the vets are homeless, alcoholics, and drifters. Most came into the Army from various forms of poverty, and to poverty many return, having bore the weight of an idea. But, so long as suffering is inevitable, one might as well be helping to deal with it. As I walk to my car, I'm approached by a middle-aged man wearing a 7-11 uniform shirt. He asks, "Sir, could you spare some change for a veteran for the bus?" I stop and look at him. "I ain't no bum or nothing. I got a job, I just don't have any money right now," he continues. I ask, "Veteran, huh? What unit?" He sparks up, "502nd paratroopers. I was a helicopter mechanic. I could take apart those things and..." That's when I will reach for my wallet and give him a couple. Even if he is full of shit, at least he put some effort into it.