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The Man With No Legs

November 10th, 2008 - 10:14 am

Washington loves the Marines and so, on the latest celebration of Marines’ Birthday, the town is bubbling with parties and reunions.  I say “bubbling” literally, since Marines have always been good for the beer business.  Appropriately enough, since they were founded (invented?  created?) in a bar in Philadelphia in 1775, and they’ve been drinking enthusiastically ever since.

(Capt) Gabriel and I were invited to a reunion of a Marine Company that fought in Vietnam, now median age about sixty, I would say.  They were in good spirits (again, literally), having just returned from a visit to the Marine Corps Museum down in Quantico (40 minutes on a good day, much much longer on a typical day), so far as I know the only museum in America where you can drink beer.   (Ooooorah!)

Terrific guys, running the gamut from “Hippy” (hair down to his waist, moustache that Jerry Colonna would envy) to Navy corpsmen–now medical doctors–who were responsible for several of the vets being alive.  It’s hard and painful to realize that these warriors were shunned and spat upon when they came back to America.  Those who think that our current political atmosphere is uniquely viral have either forgotten or are fortunate enough not to have lived through that culturally disgusting era.

The returning Marines paid a terrible psychological price, twice over:  they were pariahs in their own towns, and the government itself did not provide the sort of help–especially counseling for what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder–that our troops are given nowadays.  We talked to some of these old Marines who have only been able to talk to a professional counselor in the past few years, and they are very grateful for it.  They are only now holding reunions, and they are clearly very happy about it.

But these Marines are adamant that they were not “victims,” and they get very angry if anyone tries to treat them that way.  “Honor the sacrifice,” they say, “but don’t treat us like victims,” which echoes the sentiments of just about every vet I have known.  And they’re right.  They deserve honor, much more than American society is generally inclined to give them.  And they are still fighters, and we still need them.

One of the corpsmen–I’ll call him “Doc”–told me his favorite war story, and it had to do with another guy there, named “Pete.”  Pete was getting ready to go home, when a new guy showed up, with the latest body armor, and the guy offered to swap with Pete for Pete’s tee shirt and lightweight jacket.  Pete didn’t want to do it–they didn’t like the added weight of the protective plates and the high neck in the jungle climate–but finally did.  Just a few hours later he hit a trap, and was blown up.  “Doc” and two others worked frantically to try to save him, and put him on a helicopter back to Danang (I think).  As usual, “Doc” called the main medical facility a couple of days later to ask about Pete’s condition, and was saddened to hear that Pete had died.

Now fast forward about twenty-five years.  Doc is at a reunion when all of a sudden a guy in a wheelchair comes steaming up to him.  “I want to kiss you,” the guy says, “you saved my life.”  It was Pete.  He’d lost both legs, and as a result got involved in amputees’ programs at the University of Arizona, which has since become one of the two or three best in the country.  And a couple of years ago he got a call from Walter Reed Hospital, to tell him that they had a brand-new pair of the latest high tech legs for him, if he could make it to Washington.  “So I threw a couple of tee shirts and some jeans into a bag and came down here (from Western Pennsylvania),” he told me.  And he’s still here.

Turns out there’s nothing better for amputees than seeing a sixty-year old Marine who has been through it, and prevailed.  Pete does everything, from sports to, ahem, an active social life, and when the wounded kids meet him it gives them energy.  Hell, if this old fart can do it, I sure can.

And they can.  And do.  I am still waiting for some ambitious writer to tell the amazing story of the medical technology that has emerged from this war, and the incredible generation of wounded vets now inspiring thousands of others–military and civilian–to throw themselves full bore into American life, and not take the soft option and withdraw.

Happy Birthday, Marines.  Thanks again.

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