Wounded vets need support, not sympathy

Terry Garlock's picture

Many of you actively support the troops coming home from our wars with the challenge of recovering from and coping with severe wounds. I’d like to share some of my reasons for believing your support is even more important than you may realize.

Last Saturday as I stood at the front counter of a North Carolina restaurant, my buddy Tony Armstrong declared to the owner, upon seeing his Wounded Warrior signs, “Hey, glad to see you support wounded warriors, we do too!” Tony makes fast friends wherever he goes, with a quick friendly comment always at the tip of his tongue. I was tempted to tell the guy that Tony and I had been wounded warriors ourselves, but I didn’t.

Tony was a Cobra helicopter pilot in the Vietnam war like me. While I was wounded, Tony describes his experience as an “accident,” when a fuel line surge during a hot refuel set him afire. When he realized he was burning he jumped in a ditch to douse the flames but the ditch water had dried up.

An Air Force Jolly Green Giant, a huge helicopter used for SAR (search and rescue), was refueling nearby and one of the PJs (Para-rescue Jumper) saw what happened and ran to Tony’s aid with a blanket. He quickly wrapped Tony and rolled him to put out the flames, then immediately loaded Tony on the refueled Jolly Green which took off to an offshore hospital ship.

The PJ made Tony stand up holding on so he could strip away his clothes quick to minimize skin damage. But the damage was done.

Maybe you are thinking sympathetic thoughts, but guys are forever practical and the PJ said to a now naked Tony, “Sir, you aren’t going to need your pistol any more. Do you think I could have it?” Tony said, “Sure. Take my survival knife, too!” Maybe that PJ still has those small treasures.

If you could get Tony to talk about it, he could tell you stories about months in burn wards where whirlpool baths were torture devices, where layers of medicated skin were scraped away in sessions that lasted only until the pain was too much to bear, to prepare for the next skin graft that would be scraped away again until the final layer.

Tony knows about the challenge of recovery, and he recently arranged to take a few wounded warriors on an outing from a Savannah Army hospital, but it was cancelled by an official at the last minute because Tony wasn’t on some approved list. Too bad, he was going to treat those guys just like he treats me.

We instinctively give our wounded just what they do not need or want – sympathy. I’ve spent some time with a number of wounded guys from several wars and know some of the pressures they deal with, pressures unknown to many doctors and most families.

First of course is facing the trauma of the event that permanently changed their life. Even for the many whose positive attitude will uplift your soul, they struggle with their own thoughts in solitude about never being “normal” again, worried about how their family and friends will react when they are first reunited.

Troops coming home from war face unexpected pressures anyway, even without the ordeal of a broken body. While marking the days in a war zone off their calendar, fantasies of homecoming sustain them, and when they finally arrive things are often not as they had hoped.

They have changed, they are more serious people now, and sometimes the reconnection never quite works. It seems strange to them that America’s focus is on the price of gas, the ups and downs of the stock market and the latest stubbed toe in the presidential campaign, as if there is no war, as if his buddies are not betting their life on one mission after another.

The most discomfiting thing for many returned troops is the realization they miss their buddies, the ones whom they are close to now, the ones who know them best now. A feeling of alienation and depression is not unusual.

Now add to the mix having been badly burned, or having lost arms or legs or eyesight, and you have a man, or woman, who wants no sympathy but needs support.

Recovery for some is complicated by military review boards making a decision on medical discharge. For us on the outside it seems sensible to discharge those who are no longer fully physically capable, and fair that the wounded guy be paid a disability pension.

But for a man planning a military career, it can be a heart-breaker. One man described it to me as something like a bar fight in a movie, where the hero throws a few bills on the table on his way out to pay for the broken furniture. “I’m the broken furniture,” he said to me.

Dexter Lehtinen, whose wife is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a Ranger, an infantry platoon leader, when he was seriously wounded in the face. Dexter says there were two things very hard for him in the hospitals.

First was that he really missed his men, and felt guilty that he had been wounded, had not only failed to finish his duty but had distracted from the mission by needing to be medevaced and cared for. He wondered whether his replacement figured out how to best deal with his men’s individuals strengths and weaknesses as he did, and he longed to be back there to finish his job right, to look after his men.

Dexter knows his guilt was irrational, but there is the intellectual and there is the emotional side of things.

The second thing that bothered Dexter a lot was the well-meaning reassurance he heard from his doctors and family. “Don’t worry,” they told him repeatedly, “the war is over for you, not a chance you will have to go back.”

Dexter says he never told them going back was exactly what he wanted, what he needed; they would never understand. He says their reassurance always struck him as implying his mission was unimportant, that his dedication and determination meant nothing, that his removal from the field had no detrimental effect on his unit, as if whether he was there or not didn’t matter, that any sense of duty he had was either not recognized or ignored. How could he tell them all their happy-talk was making him miserable? So he took it like a soldier.

Sometimes we project our own feelings onto the wounded warrior, when what they need most from us is to treat them as we would anyone else, maybe with a well-deserved extra measure of respect. I will remind myself next time I talk to wounded warriors. Maybe Tony and I can persuade that hospital to put us on the good guy list.

The support you give to wounded warriors and their families is vitally important not only for the reasons you already knew, but because there is turmoil not evident when you talk to them. In between any words, your support gives them the strong message that America does really care about them. By my measure, that means you are doing God’s work.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is terry@garlock1.com.]