I met a “marine’s marine” last week. Guys like him are what keep me in the business of advising and assisting veterans. Hell, guys like him are why I joined the service, the Marines to be exact, in the first place. He brought his original claims form to me and all it had listed on it was a single scar on his right arm, as well as a knock to his noggin in bootcamp.
“I don’t know why that one is on there,” he said, “I told ‘em that was just something that happened in bootcamp and nothing really came of it.”
I checked out his DD214.
“You have three purple hearts!” I exclaimed. “Geez. I suspect we're going to have to update your claim my friend. ...All right Sir, lets talk about those purple hearts; if its all right with you that is. Would you mind much, talking about it so I can get an idea of how badly you were wounded?”
“Sure, no problem,” he answered offhandedly.
When he’d walked in I noticed he used a cane. He moved gingerly with a stoop that I immediately recognized as one stemming from a bad lower back. From his discharge certificate I saw that he was the same age as my mom, only my mom’s “giddy up” is much smoother and more agile than this old marine’s. On my note pad I scratched “bad back?” and “cane.”
“How’d you hurt that back?”
“Vietnam. A booby trap,” is all he said casually with just the trace of a grin, which quickly faded.
“Okay, I’ll be asking about that. Let’s see, you were a marine. What years did you serve?”
“I did my 20, First, I was in from ’52 to ’66, and then when the Corps wouldn’t send me back to Vietnam I got out for three months. I figured if I reenlisted that way that they’d send me back; and it worked; they sent me right back to Vietnam as soon as I re-upped.”
I laughed declaring loudly, “Typical marine! Why be in the Corps if you can’t be right smack dab in the middle of the shit! Hot damn, the country is full of weak-willed pansy asses these days, worried about the price of gas and how much money they can make, but those that ain’t, join the Corps. Even today! God bless all leathernecks!”
“THREE purple hearts!” I exclaimed. “You are either the luckiest guy in the world, or the most UN-fortunate. You lived through it, so I guess that makes you pretty darned lucky. So where did you get your first nick.”
“Korea. I got two there; both times by Chi-com grenades.” Pointing to a deep transverse scar across his nose, and to some ancient pits half hidden by wrinkles across his brow and left cheek, he stated nonchalantly, “That’s where I got all this. Oh, and I also got a nasty piece of shrapnel that tore through my left bicep.”
“May I see that please?” I asked him.
He pulled up his sleeve and I had a chance to examine his “scar.” The tiny piece of hot Chinese shrapnel had ripped into the front of his bicep and tore out through his triceps. The scar is white with age and there’s a lot of tissue obviously missing, causing his arm to be misshapen, especially toward the back. After further questioning, I learned that his strength is much reduced in that arm. Additionally, he sustained significant nerve damage manifested by spasming muscles in his left hand and lower arm; not a surprise considering how much tissue was traumatically affected.
I continued my interrogation.
“You didn’t join up until ’52, so you missed the “bug out” and “the frozen Chosin” eh?” I chuckled, “And about 15 years later you lucked out and caught another war—the perfect career for a marine, you started it out with a war and finished it up with one.”
Being blown up twice while on patrols by Chinese Communist grenades in Korea notwithstanding, turns out Vietnam was the war that nearly did him in, and on more than one occasion.
Once, on the side of a jungle covered ridge, he and his men found themselves on the wrong end of a concerted effort by a couple of U.S. Air Force F4 Phantoms intent on destroying what their pilots thought was the enemy. Luckily, once again, all those two jets managed to do was re-landscape a whole lot of real-estate while making a squad of marines a whole lot more distrustful of their sister service’s brand of close air support.
He wasn’t quite so lucky in the spring of 1967 when a booby-trap exploded in his face, and for the third time in his life while on patrol he was knocked unconscious. He remembers warily approaching the screen of green foliage and just barely sticking his nose into the trees and brush when it erupted. The massive blast threw him bodily up and back, not that he remembers much after the initial eruption. In that incident, bamboo shrapnel pierced his right bicep about 1 inch deep at an upward angle involving at least one, possibly two muscle groups. That wound is only slightly sensitive and tender now and does not much affect the use of that (right) arm.
What bothers him these days more than anything though is his back. He said when he came to after the blast he felt as if he’d been hit by a Mack Truck.
“I must have landed on a rock because my back was never the same after that,” he opines.
His is a story typical of a lot of military men, especially those that “humped” long distances while “rucking” incredibly heavy loads on their backs. Complicated by the trauma to his back he managed to endure on with his infantry career all the way to his “20,” but now, going on four decades later, his damaged back has degenerated to the point that he walks hunched over as if still carrying a 100-pound load. Mind you, he doesn’t whine or complain, but the results of his suffering are obvious for all to see.
Now, a man who has “seen the elephant” as much as this guy has; a fellow who has literally been blown up three times to within an inch of life, you might think he’d be affected mentally. I asked him about that.
“Well, it’s not bad. I have flashbacks every so often is all.”
His wife sat to his side and a little behind him. I was glad she was there, because I watched her face while delicately asking him a series of questions concerning his mental state.
I asked such things as: Do you have nightmares? Are you irritable at times? Do you blow up at people or over situations for no real reason? Do you have problems sleeping? Do you feel sad or angry, but don’t know why? Do you feel tense at times or extra wary as if you might be under attack, even though you know otherwise?
He downplayed or denied each time, yet his wife’s subtle reactions told me that she didn’t exactly agree with many or any of his denials.
“Would you mind if I had you talk to a mental health specialist Sir? I just want to find out if there is something to those flashbacks that you have.”
He agreed as if it might be interesting for him to do such a strange thing.
From my experience, the VA in these parts won’t even consider seeing a veteran who “might” be suffering from some mental condition, unless he shows up with a piece of paper written by a professional declaring the presence of PTSD; and even then, ONLY if that PTSD stems from a documented service incident called a stressor. With his three purple hearts, I know it won’t take much to get some kind of rating if indeed the marine is suffering from some level of post traumatic stress, which I’m SURE he is.
Anyway, I always expect the worst and hope for the best. Unfortunately, usually my negative expectations are met. Some might say it could be a matter of self-fulfilling prophecies, but I think it’s more a question of bitter experience being a harsh teacher. I mean, you'd think that three purple hearts would give a veteran some extra-special consideration, wouldn't you? Guess again.
So, we’ll see…