The Veteran Within

“Welcome back,” said the black man dressed in fatigues. He was standing on the corner of Nostrand and Atlantic, a few doors down from my apartment building in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

I was returning from the grocery store laden with bags in my left hand and bags in my right hook when our eyes met. I did a quick linguistic calculation — he was welcoming me back from Iraq.


***
It was not the first time I have been mistaken for someone who has served in the military. Considering that since the Global War on Terrorism began, more than 800 men and women have returned home without arms or legs, thanks in part to modern body armor (which saves lives that would in earlier wars have been lost), it is not surprising my upper extremity amputee status is linked to military service.

The black man, I’ve come to discover is Ed, a veteran of Vietnam, receiving monthly disability checks for his service in the Army.

The corner of Nostrand and Atlantic is his spare change perch.

I offer Ed conversation, not money.

I explain to Ed that had things been different, had I not been born an amputee, I would have given serious thought to enlisting. “Back in high school, the Army attempted to recruit me, “I tell Ed. “I took an exam and scored well enough that they began calling my house.”

In the end, my mother made it clear that I would never have been able to pass the physical. “Stop calling, you don’t want her” is how my mother put it to the recruiter on the phone.

Recently, I initiated a conversation with Marine Staff Sergeant Richard Velazquez at the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station, located, strangely enough, in the heart of Manhattan’s theatre district. I wanted to explore the military’s current policy on admitting men and women with disabilities.

“Only if the disability can be corrected,” Staff Sergeant Velazquez informed me. “Then I guess the Marines don’t want someone like me!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry,” he said, fixing his eyes briefly on my prosthetic.

“What if I’m already serving and I lose a limb — what then?” I ask. “There is one guy I know of who lost both legs below the knee and he’s on active duty.” Staff Sergeant Velazquez reports, with a kind of optimism in his voice.

I didn’t walk away empty-handed. I now possess a Marine Corp bumper sticker: Semper Fi it says (in school bus yellow). Latin for: Always Faithful.

“I’m a fan of the Marines,” I assert to Sergeant Velazquez; justifying my possession of the bumper sticker.

As our conversation concluded, Sergeant Velazquez offered me his business card. Three words figure prominently on it: Honor. Courage. Commitment — three qualities required to be a Marine. Sergeant Velazquez exudes these concepts; these ideals.

I can claim 43 years worth of amputee civilian life.

What, you may ask has tested my ability to soldier on?

Curiosity.

“What happened to your arm?” is the perennial question.

And the stares — eyes cast in one direction for far too long.

The stares, to some degree, are self-induced. I could get an I-limb, the latest in robotic hand technology [http://www.touchbionics.com]. The I-Limb has the look of a hand enabling the user to move fingers and control grip while freeing the amputee of the harness system which accompanies the conventional hook apparatus.

But I’m an old-fashioned prosthetics sort of gal.

And I think the steel hook holds a certain sex appeal.

Whatever one’s choice; a conventional hook or an I-Limb, it is a fact that veterans maintain an advantage. They have a war story, something to pin their pride on. I do not. Mine is a tale of normalcy. I was born. End of story. No heroics.

I have found that humor has been the most effective strategy against the relentless curiosity of people: “I was scuba-diving in Bali and I came upon a family of sharks.” Or, “I got hungry one day and I ate it.” These are some of the tales I’ve told — tales that have evoked gasps of “Really! Did that really happen?”

“Go to law school,” a cane-assisted, stout, bald, Navy veteran of the second World War said while sitting beside me as I traveled by train from Manhattan into Brooklyn. “Otherwise, the VA will screw you,” he added, pounding his cane for emphasis.

I wondered what the VA (Veterans Administration) would have to say about this man’s counsel and observations. So I emailed them and received a response within 48 hours: “Based on your inquiry, it appears that the veteran may have had an unfortunate experience when dealing with the VA and we regret that he has developed that perception.”

Regret is such a downer.

In the summer of 1984, I was a member of the United States team at the International Games for the Disabled. Some of my teammates were amputees; veterans of Korea and Vietnam — men proud to have served; proud of their physical difference. I think of them sometimes, especially on Veteran’s Day; a day dedicated to taking time out to reflect on our nation’s warriors — wounded or otherwise.

It is my hope those for whom the Global War on Terrorism has demanded the body’s sacrifice are and remain proud. But be mindful that the everyday aesthetic is not in their favor.

That is why I am so at home among ancient ruins. For it is there, among the women and men with severed hands and arms that I am able to escape.

©2008 Julie Holley

2 comments:

  1. Julie,

    I am the founder of UpperEx, a national nonprofit dedicated to serving individuals with an upper extremity limb loss or difference. You can check out our web sites, www.upperex.com and www.upperex.org. Feel free to give me a call too, our toll-free number is 800-573-6329. Would enjoy the opportunity to talk with you about our mission.

    Best,

    Eric Westover
    Founder/CEO
    UpperEx National Outreach Coalition

    ReplyDelete
  2. And I think the steel hook holds a certain sex appeal.

    oh gd, woman, you would.

    ReplyDelete