02 June, 2007

Milblog Conference and Valour-IT: Walter Reed, part II

[Part I here]

People who visit major military hospitals like Walter Reed often talk about how inspiring it is. It is, but it's not all inspiring. It's real and it's painful and joyous, hopeful and hopeless, and discouraging and inspiring... all at once. And every bit of that was on display the day Soldiers' Angels brought the 1,000th laptop.

Many angels brought small gifts with them: individually-wrapped cigars, SA pins, blankets, chocolates and more. They quickly spread out, shaking hands and sharing the gifts with the cross-section of wounded there--some looked perfectly "normal" because their wounds were hidden, while others walked slowly with a cane as if they were old men or sat in wheelchairs. One was blind and had to be led around. Their expressions and demeanor varied, but most seemed to at least be cautiously enjoying themselves.

The catered BBQ for everyone was absolutely wonderful and surely a welcome change from institutional food. Well fed and fellowshipped, everyone was eventually called to gather around one of the benches lining the fish pond outside Mologne House. LTC(ret) Riley, who runs procurement/logistics for Valour-IT, announced that we would be giving out the 1,000th laptop and then turned things over to me after a brief comment from Patti Bader.

Standing on a bench (which made me just about as tall as most of the soldiers gathered around, haha!), I had my first-ever chance to address a large group of warfighters whose sacrificial service protected me. However, I refused to think along those lines for fear of emotional overload. Half hoarse from having been sick the week before and from lack of sleep, I told them the following, shouting as loudly as I could:

Valour-IT stands for Voice-Activated Laptops for Our Injured Troops. It was inspired by a soldier, Captain (now Major) Chuck Ziegenfuss, who two years ago was exactly where you are today and who remains in the Army--he was a tank company commander whose hands were severely damaged by an IED. He had been writing a blog during his deployment and used his two functional fingers to ask for help getting voice-to-text software after he was wounded. The response was huge and we realized there was both a need and a desire to fill that need. We've now given out nearly 1,000 laptops in the last 20 months.

This program did not develop because a big donor dropped a lot of money that made all this possible. Rather, it came from individual donations of thousands and thousands of people--from literally five dollars to 5,000, adding up to over a million dollars in twenty months... all because they love and appreciate you and want to help you during this difficult time. They want to make sure that if you have injuries that prevent you from using a keyboard, you can still stay connected to your deployed buddies and the family members who couldn't come here to be with you, so you can use the computer just like anyone else does. And if you will be transitioning out, we want to be sure you have the opportunity to take classes and develop the skills that you will need to be successful in your new career.

So each laptop is more than just a computer. It's a physical representation of the incredible amounts of love, support and gratitude people have for all you have done. Please remember that whenever you see it. Thank you for everything.

And then Chuck stood up to address them himself...

[Much of the following is paraphrased.] I like standing here talking to you; there's nothing I like more than talking to soldiers... feels like old times when I was driving a tank instead of a desk.

And then he held up his mangled hands with their nine remaining fingers.
I didn't plan to be here. Getting my ass blown up in Iraq was not part of my 20 year plan for my Army career. I wasn't supposed to have 35 surgeries with more to come, I wasn't supposed to lose a finger, have two thumbs that don't work and a hand I can't feel--plus the nasty scars on my legs, butt and back from the burns and skin grafts.

But I did. It happened, and I can't change that. But I can change the future, I can determine what happens next.

I know what it's like to be here, how hard it is, how much this all sucks.... the pain, the drugs they hook you on and the haziness it all causes... I know about the bureaucrats and the stupid regulations and the med boards and the doctors that don't listen to you. It seems it'll never end. But I'm here to tell you, this is not permanent. It's temporary. This is your present, but it's not your future.

I could feel the crowd start to warm to him.

You have to have an attitude, that refuses to be eaten up by this place. Changing your perspective changes your ability to deal with this. Losing the use of your hands, or losing a leg or any other body part forces you to realize that you are more than your parts, that it's your mind that ultimately determines your future. You may get your arm amputated, but what makes you you is still there in your mind.

And besides, we have to look at the bright side! I mean, I get 10% off on all glove purchases, now.

He held up his hands again, and there was nervous laughter. A sergeant in a wheelchair because he had only one leg piped up, "Yeah, and I get 50% off on my shoes!" The laughter increased as others mentioned the "benefits" of amputation and injury. Chuck continued in the style of black humor welcome among those who have been wounded. I could feel the magic in the air and wished desperately I had brought the video recorder I'd been awarded Friday night. He was in his element, and the audience was eating it up.

Chuck likes to play the tough guy and he doesn't write much on his blog about the psychological aspects of his recovery. But he talked about them that day. Using himself as an example, he practically begged the assembled soldiers to hope, to see beyond their current situation and believe they would recover. He tried to will them into their future, into fighting for their recoveries.

Nothing has really changed for you--you still are who you were on the inside; it's just the packaging that is damaged. It took me awhile to understand that, but it doesn't have to take so long for you. It will be the hardest fight of your life, but the essence of who you are can still fight. Your body is just the bag that holds that essence. So do that ****ing painful PT, fight to get off the dope as soon as you can, don't let the bastards win. There are people here and in places like Soldiers' Angels who can help you. You didn't choose this present, but you get to choose whether it wins.

[Coming Up: the 1,000th laptop recipient]