Friday, November 6, 2009

Thank a veteran

Tomorrow I'm speaking at a Veterans Day Tribute here in Lansing. My friend and superior cartoonist, Dave Coverly of Speed Bump fame, will team up with me to be the keynote speakers. This sounds odd, because neither Dave nor I are veterans of any military service, let alone combat. But last April, he and I joined six other cartoonists on a USO tour that visited military hospitals in Washington DC, Bethesda and Landstuhl, Germany. It was an eye-opener. Not that we went into it blind, but you really can't be prepared. It's like seeing the giant redwoods in California for the first time. You think you've studied up on it, but until you see it in person, you have no idea. The trees are so big. The soldiers are so impressive.

I can't send the audience there, but maybe I can help them study up a little more. When I got back, the Lansing newspaper City Pulse interviewed me and did an incredible story about the trip. The reporter, Bill Castanier, asked for a quick description of a memorable moment. I must have written about the right one, because it still gives me goosebumps when I read it back. I'll read it tomorrow. You can read it now.

One more note first, though: Whenever you get a chance, thank a veteran. It's impossible to do too much, or to do wrong. I'll confess I feel awkward every time I do, given that I'm a perfectly able-bodied and able-minded American who's enjoying the benefits of their military service while having provided none of my own. But none of them seems to hold it against me. Indeed, they act like the humbled ones. And we both go on our way feeling a whole lot of good. Any veterans reading? Thank you for your service.

Here's one little piece of why:

This Navy corpsman was third man in, with two Marines clearing an abandoned house when a booby-trapped refrigerator blew up and cut them down. He couldn't get to his feet, didn't even have both of them anymore. So he dragged himself to the squad leader and applied a tourniquet to what was left of the sergeant's leg, then gave him orders: I'm going to save the other guy; I need you to keep yelling "I will not die" at the top of your lungs.

As long as he could hear his leader screaming, he knew he was clear to attend to his other squad member. Same tourniquet application, same orders to scream. He dragged himself back and forth between the two men several times before he took the time to put a tourniquet on his own leg. He remembers cutting open his squad leader's pantleg and watching a shin roll away like a fireplace log, neatly sheared off at the knee and ankle. He remembers being a little surprised at the trail of blood-mud that described his path between the two men. He remembers, just before passing out as he was being hoisted onto the medevac, being able to see the sun shine clearly between two perfectly cauterized holes through his foot. Had he had a better angle, he could have seen the sun shining through most of his lower leg that way.

A year later, just about all of it spent in the same room on the same floor at Walter Reed, he was showing a bunch of slackjawed cartoonists the scars on that leg. The other leg was gone, and this one was still touch and go. Somebody called him a hero, but he snorted. He just did his job, that's all. Give the Navy credit for training him so well, he said. But he did allow that he was up for a Silver Star for valor. Someone else snorted. What does it take to get a gold one, for crying out loud?

Stay dead, he said. He had died, for two minutes, but his timing was good. His heart stopped while surgeons were already inside his torso clearing out shrapnel, so it was an easy reach to massage the heart back to silver-star status.

So, what was next? This guy seemed capable of anything except what he wanted, which was to return to the fighting and save more Marines. But he would get his nursing degree and return to that same floor at Walter Reed. Nobody knew the floor better than him. Nobody knew what the patients had been through better than he did. Nobody, but nobody, was going to tell him no.


Jim Smith II said...

Jef - Thanks for visiting with the USO, it really means a lot to the guys and gals.

Thanks too for sharing that story.

PS - You're welcome, and it is humbling to be thanked, I generally reply that it was my honor (and it was).