07 September, 2006

Soldier Ride, part III

Part I: Tears and smiles and the amazing cyclists
Part II: The brotherhood and the bigwigs

As promised, the story of the Marine in the picture below...

If I recall correctly, the Marine's name is Chris. I had first noticed Chris as the riders played in the surf, watched him sitting there in joy and then playing in the water with such freedom. Here in this picture Chris is hitching a ride because both of his legs were amputated at the knee. The soldier carried his Marine brother on his back, out of the water and up to the Marine's wheelchair, just one of the many scenes of brotherly support and assistance I saw that day.

Da Goddess' son, Little Dude, was given a coin by one of the Vietnam veterans after the ceremony and he saluted the man who gave it to him. LD than asked, "Are you a Marine?" And when the answer was no, "Can I salute a Marine?" The veteran in question instantly instigated a search for a Marine for LD to salute.

The Marine they found was Chris. Permission asked and granted, and soon LD was standing in front of Chris' wheelchair, executing and receiving a very smart salute as their eyes locked. The crowd of people who happened to be standing by all turned to watch, holding our collective breath at the powerful scene--here was young and innocent 10-year-old LD with not even a mark on his face standing in front of a man who had lost both his legs at the knee and had scars running up the side of his neck due to his service in protection of LD, who looked at his Marine hero with nothing but wide-eyed respect and inspiration. They spoke a bit about LD's desire to be a Marine and Chris was positive and supportive of LD's aspirations, telling him what an honor it is to be a Marine and protect your country.

Later during the barbeque I happened to be sitting near Chris. There were so many people that some of us sat on the edge of the conrete slabs on which the tables were placed. As I sat down I noticed Chris a few feet away from me. He'd exited his wheelchair to sit on the ground so that he'd be at everyone else's level. He'd also removed his shirt, which again drew my attention. From the front, his skin was in perfect condition, but his entire back and the exact back half of his upper arms was one big, red, angry scar (an extention of the scarrring seen on his neck and cheek in the picture above). His skin had obviously been burned off--I could see the muscle striations under his thin, new skin and knew that he was very lucky to be alive. I also assumed that he'd had a very long and painful recovery as he fought the dangers of infection from the severe burns and the pain of new skin that had adhered itself directly to his muscles, affecting his flexibility.

As we finished eating, he expertly levered himself with his arms back up into his wheelchair, moving with ease despite the damage to his skin. Someone standing closer to him than I said, "My, you do that so well!"

I wanted to smack her for her well-intentioned but condescending remark. To my surprise and growing respect, he responded lightly with a smile, "Well, I've had a lot of practice." I jumped into the conversation and said something sympathetic about it having surely been a long road. Chris looked slightly uncomfortable and then said it had not really been that long. Having seen first-hand his massive injuries, I was surprised. I squatted down to converse with him at eye-level and politely asked if he would mind explaining what he meant.

"I was wounded on December 7, 2005."

My jaw literally fell open. That was only 8 months ago, and here he's been riding through the desert on a bicycle! I told him I was amazed, and asked if he would be willing to tell me why he thought he'd recovered so quickly.

"It's all attitude, he replied," saying that his doctors had told him it usually took about 18 months to get to the point in recovery he was after only 8 months. I tried to respond, but I think I just babbled in amazement.

It turns out Chris' grandfather was severely injured in a coal mining accident at a very young age, and Chris had grown up knowing what a full life his grandfather led. It didn't hurt either that Chris is a Marine; he said that had a lot to do with it, and that though it was hard at times he'd decided he had a life to live. I told him that I hadn't faced the intensity of challenges that he is, but that I understood the times in life where you either decide to move forward or you die where you are. He nodded his head in agreement.

Chris also said he was still at Walter Reed as an outpatient and that Jim "the Milkshake Man" Myer and LTC Andrew Lourake (AF amputee who has returned to flying) had been great as peer counselors for him. In fact, he was thinking that he might want to be a peer counselor at Walter Reed himself. I strongly encouraged him to do it, as he was proof of how important perspective and attitude are to survival and recovery.

We also talked about Fran O'Brien's. I told him I'd been there the weekend before it closed. "It was an amazing place," I said. He nodded and we were quiet for a moment.

It was such an odd and wonderful thing to finally sit and talk to the kinds of people I'd been trying to help from a distance in Arizona, so weird to sit and discuss people and situations that I'd known largely from afar, but now tied me to a stranger I'd just met. I think Chris and I could've talked for quite awhile, but they soon had to leave to go meet the van that would take them back to the hotel. I reluctantly shook his hand goodbye and stood up, ankles and knees screaming from having squatted next to his wheelchair.

What an extraordinary man...

Part IV: Meeting a kindred spirit, meeting a star, and tying things up.