Souvenirs of War: Purple Hearts, Prosthetics and Phantom Pains
“I teared up…and didn’t cry again for 40 years.”
–Combat veteran Bob Ness after a close friend died next to him in Vietnam.
A spooked soul lives behind the troubled eyes of a combat soldier.
Whether returning from the battlefields of Kandahar, Kirkuk, Khe Sanh, or Korea, weary veterans come home with that same intense and unnerving stare…dark, swollen lines surround exhausted eyes that dart in and out of distant shadows; eyes searching for ghosts waiting to haunt the last shreds of sanity remaining inside a terrorized mind.
Veteran’s call it “the thousand yards stare.”
That playful bravado and bulletproof swagger shared on the flight overseas melts into a pool of lies once the first ear-piercing “snap” chasing the tail of a hungry bullet misses a lucky helmet; that innocent belief of invincibility is quickly replaced with the frostbitten truth that the hunter becomes hunted in battle.
A random flip of the coin determines who lives under the protective wing of a merciful angel and who is left alone to run from the devil’s deadly horn; good guys die as quickly as bad guys.
Every GI knows the tiny Bible carried over the heart is too small to hide behind in combat even as faith continues and desperate promises made under fire are honored for the remainder of a grateful life. The chain of true believers pray as one for the end of their forced march in Hell.
Those lucky charms carried inside the uniform can’t stop supersonic bullets arrogantly hunting at 2400 feet per second. That’s like NFL quarterback Brett Farve throwing a pass to a receiver standing eight football fields away and it arrives in exactly one second. About the time it takes to say, “Bang, you’re dead.”
A mother’s cry begging safe return of her baby translates the same in English, as in Arabic, as she stares at an empty front door; while another mother’s frantic wail stings the air after luck dies on foreign soil and a somber “Dignified Transfer” at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware replaces the planned neighborhood “Welcome Home” parade.
Army mom Cindy Parsons remembers dropping to her knees and begging for help after hanging up the phone in 2006 when an official voice first asked her, “Are you the mother of soldier Shane Parsons?” Shane was injured severely in Ramadi, Iraq, and she was instructed to stay close to the phone.
Shane and his mother share an unbreakable bond; he’s an only child, and she’s a single-mother. She describes him as “the most amazing person in my life.”
The voice informed her Shane had lost one leg and was very critical after an IED vaporized the ground below his boots. Four hours later… another call… the other leg removed. More painful news… Shane had barely survived cardiac arrest three different times. “He’s alive” for now said the voice. “Please God” cried Cindy. Hope was running out.
Mom flew to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and prayed once again before visiting him, “Dear Lord, give me a sign. Am I going to bring my son home in a coffin?”
A brilliant rainbow arched over the sky while she walked towards the hospital. She looked up and whispered a quiet thank you while hurrying to see him. He is now recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Shane’s spirit is stronger than the rivers below Montana’s Big Sky. He’s tough, fearless, and wakes up with more confidence than men standing twice his size.
But that road in Ramadi cost him plenty. Shane lost the ability to write his name because of severe brain injuries, says Mrs. Parsons, “but he still loves wearing a uniform and he loves playing sports.” “That’s when he smiles…” she says.
Shane always looked natural in a uniform; even as a child… youth flag football, karate, wrestling, varsity football and the U.S. Army.
“Shane Parsons was one of those players that any coach would beg for,” says his former football coach Tom Grine at Fostoria High School in Ohio.
“Strength… quickness… determination… character… and EMOTION” were all pieces to the puzzle, explains Grine. He “lived for Friday night’s game,” said coach.
He attacked fiercely while on the gridiron and opposing players double teamed him all season. Shane loved the game and left his heart and his soul on the field. A real football hero. He lived by that same warrior’s code in Iraq. Both legs were left behind after fighting on the battlefield. A real war hero.
President George W. Bush presented him the Purple Heart medal in 2007. The Purple Heart medal is the symbol to honor GI’s wounded during combat. “After the president left my room I held it for hours, and hours, and hours. It meant a lot to me,” he said. The president also gave Shane two presidential challenge coins for his collection. “I gave one to my good friend, who saved my life,” he said. President Bush made a point of giving his coin to wounded veterans while thanking them for their service.
(The hobby of exchanging challenge coins is enthusiastically pursued inside the military community and any presidential coin is a prized catch.)
Shane now wears a different uniform playing with a sled hockey team called, The San Antonio Rampage. The entire roster consists of wounded GI’s recuperating in Texas and is sponsored by the volunteer organization, “Operation Comfort,” founded by former flight attendant Janis Roznowski.
Players are strapped onto “sleds” that glide across the ice while balanced on two sharp skating blades. They push off with their arms using small hockey sticks with sharp metal teeth attached to the ends for traction.
Shane competed this year at the 6th “National Disabled Festival” in Laurel, Maryland. Both the Rampage and Team USA, (a team of similarly wounded veterans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington) faced off during the tournament.
Mrs. Parsons starts each day knowing she can still share her life with Shane; she found comfort when her prayers were answered. He starts off knowing simple tasks won’t ever be simple again. His comfort is found within the strength of the long line of military champions who returned home from the destruction of war refusing to surrender to the limitations of waking up each morning needing a wheelchair.
Leading that group is Army pilot Tammy Duckworth. Don’t be fooled by her soft “sugar and spice and everything nice” good looks, she’s one tough cookie who didn’t crumble after proving women can take the same mean hits like a man playing in a frightening game.
Duckworth survived when the helicopter she co-piloted over Iraq was shot down six years ago after an enemy missile ripped through the bottom of the aircraft and blasted through both her legs while in-flight. “I get up every day and say thank you to my crew for saving my life,” she said while explaining what happened after hitting the ground. The pilot, Dan Milberg, “carried me out of the aircraft. I was missing two limbs, and my arm was essentially severed. I was a bloody, pulpy person with one limb to hang onto…” said Duckworth. “He knew I was dead but he wasn’t going to leave me behind. I have to be worthy of that effort,” she said.
Duckworth and Milberg get together once a year to celebrate her “Alive Day,” on the anniversary of her wounds. “That’s the only day each year he allows me to thank him for saving my life,” she explained.
Those injuries haven’t slowed her ambitions or stopped her thirst for thrills. “I’m so much more fearless now and try things I’ve never done before”, she said. She recently ran for a U.S. Congressional seat before accepting an appointment from President Barack Obama as the Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs. A perfect fit.
She’s surfed, skied and scuba-dived in open waters. Duckworth still pilots a small plane and has even jumped out of one with the U.S. Army’s elite parachuting team, The Golden Knights.
Oh yes, if a soldier’s troubled eyes could talk. Worried parents would insist children log off addictive heroics played out in cyber-war games like “Call of Duty” and sit them down to authentic accounts of war’s harsh accountabilities before they sign a military contract. Otherwise, the fine print of real modern warfare may never be explained, that a GI’s own funeral may be closer to the present than the future.
Military funerals chill a family’s deep roots long before the last note from “Taps” is heard. Young promise is frozen forever underneath the blue mist of a winter’s icy blanket even when the soft glow from the red, white, and blue warms drifting snows.
And returning GI’s carry heavy baggage loaded with “survivor’s guilt” during their own lonely homecoming standing above a silent friend; names etched onto a hallowed wall are quiet reminders of a loved one’s appointment with death. Memories fade fast but the tattooed message of war travels the world as an inked monument to personal sacrifice.
However, the military continues to be an eager employer and the “Help Wanted” sign burns a bright guiding light across an entire nation. It shines into lonely trailer parks, up dark Appalachian hollows with as much brilliance as through the shattered bedroom windows inside Chicago’s crowded housing projects.
Patriots, paupers, bikers, rednecks, Mexicans and Muslims are welcomed to add to the pillars of strength. Uncle Sam ‘opens arms’ for those with courage to bear arms and defend the flag’s colors.
The military has always been the great escape for those needing a new home. One writer of this story recalls his reasons for signing up in 1971. “I left home for good at 17 years-old and hitchhiked from Boston to California before enlisting on the promise of a daily, hot breakfast; a welcome treat after eating aspirin before class in high school to soften the sting of waking up in a house with an empty kitchen.”
“It was necessary for me to turn a deaf ear to troubling television reports from Vietnam by brave correspondents like CBS’s Bill Plante detailing bloody battles and body counts before I could successfully flee a broken home; even if it meant running towards the military draft,” he explained.
Joining provided the chance to watch a wasted childhood disappear from the rear window of a bus ride out of nowhere as it rolled towards the alien green planet, “basic training….”
Abduction of the terrified recruit was, is, and shall always be, a swift encounter of the loudest kind. “Smokey the Bear” hats suspended above fiery eyes are hitched onto emerald swirls of frenzied tension that swarm, scare, and scream at petrified teenagers stranded years away from yesterday.
Silhouettes stumble across the warm black tarmac to the barking rhythm of a cursing cadence. “Mercedes” dreams and “Tiffany” wishes are tempting distractions but are buried inside the mind’s time capsule; even sweet memories of a willing high school prom date cornered on the tiny back seat of a borrowed car seem impossibly distant when blazing eyeballs burn away past glory.
Welcome to every recruit’s nightmarish introduction to military “shock and awe.” Is it too late to get back on that bus?
Time marches on in step with excited boots crowded onto a magic carpet ride to adventure. Young graduates anxiously await opportunities to use explosive solutions for conflict resolution and a chance to test those new threads of courage stitched along their DNA.
Gentle persuasion and kindness are used by GI’s trying to reduce the deep suspicion of foreign soldiers marching on distant soils while attempting to “win” local “hearts and minds.”
Not all are convinced and soldiers are punished by angry Taliban hands triggering roadside bombs that launch lethal gusts of burning hatred and scorched vengeance against all things American. Precious AB-positive, and O-negative bloods are united forever with the same tired dust exhaled by Genghis Khan nearly 900 years ago.
Powerful Improvised Explosive Device’s (IED’s) teach 21st Century soldiers and Marines cruel and unusual lessons of “adaptive” physics from clever schoolmasters born in the dark shadows of the Stone Age.
An entire nation cries after pink mists of sprayed blood rise with clouds of dirt after the calm below a brave soldier, sailor, marine or airman blasts away; a conversation ended instantly. Why can’t blood politely drip to the floor?
U.S. Army Sgt. Nickolas Edinger claims Oregon to be his official military “Home of Record,” but was more likely born underneath a lucky star before landing on this planet. He tells an amazing story of denying the grim reaper claim to his life ONLY 29 days earlier in Afghanistan.
Edinger disliked carrying the large machine gun slung across his belt buckle while on patrol because it was too awkward. The weight of bullets and the size of the weapon added 140 extra pounds to his solid 200 pound frame; Edinger loved powerlifting so he justified the extra load as part of his pastime. But, seconds after being knocked down to the ground in the middle of a thick brown cloud Edinger realized hauling heavy metal saved his life when it absorbed the upward blast of the anti-personnel bomb he stepped on moments earlier. “The explosion hollowed out my left foot,” he said.
(GI’s depend on quick medical treatment in the first minutes of the “golden hour” following injury. Hypovolemic shock kills quickly. Aiding and transporting wounded GI’s to field hospitals is crucial.)
Edinger looked down and cursed before confidently tying a tourniquet above his own knee to stop the life threatening bleeding. While waiting for the medics to arrive the pain increased. “On a scale of 1 to 10 for pain, I know what a 10 is,” he said.
“I still feel my left foot 24/7…and I feel a precise pain. Like my toe nail is ripping off upwards,” he explained while taking part in a three-day Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride in Annapolis, Maryland this year.
Edinger calls his wound a paper cut while comparing himself to others in the disabled community. Yea, right… a paper cut!
Sounds of rushing Humvees are replaced with the cautious pace of new crutches giving time for broken GI’s to piece together the missing days, weeks, or months after waking up continents away from the geographic point the day began inside quiet hospitals called: ‘Brooks,’ ‘Bethesda,’ ‘Landstuhl,’ or ‘Walter Reed.’ Talks of “amputations,” “Purple Hearts,” “prosthetics” and “pain killers” are done in passing but the personal fears of living a life less than whole remain silent.
All vanity is burned or scraped to the bone for heroic young GI’s left challenged with convincing a lifetime of “first impressions” that beauty is, in fact, only skin deep and not a measurement of accomplishment; a tough task inside a country that adores personal reflections and good looks.
Nine continuous years of boots on the ground have scattered missing limbs across the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan as enemy trophies while harsh phantom pains are endured forever by men and women where toes, legs, fingers or arms were attached the night before, the day the Earth moved.
Odd fittings replace bones and muscles once packaged inside a tight, flesh wrapper before all went missing; memories of chilled river water refreshing tired feet melt away for GI’s learning to walk again while practicing baby steps balanced on stilted prosthetics.
The physical and psychological sting of losing a limb is unimaginable and the transition to normal life is a long, lonely journey for GI’s struggling with months of painful rehabilitation. Thanks to animal assisted activities like the Caisson Platoon Equine Assisted Program on Ft. Myer in Arlington, Virginia, military amputees are given the chance to use the reliable strength and steady warmth of a large comfort animal to soften the physical demands while bonding with a horse.
Co-founders Larry Pence and Mary Jo Beckman, both career military retirees, saw a need for a different type of therapy and convinced the U.S. Army’s famed Old Guard (3rd Infantry) to allow them to borrow their caisson platoon soldiers and horses for therapy rides once each week.
Pence explained “if these horses weren’t working with us on Thursday mornings they would be pulling a caisson at a funeral inside Arlington National Cemetery. The caisson platoon soldiers are given an opportunity for ‘soldier to help soldier’… rather than continually burying their fallen comrades they can help them recover. Everyone wins.” The soldiers volunteer as side walkers to protect the rider from falling off the horse.
“The horse’s hip motion while walking is almost identical to the human hip motion at the walk,” says Beckman. “The wounded body gets moved as if he can walk normal. My job is to set the scene and let the horse do its magic.”
Prayers to Rita, the Saint of the Impossible, go unanswered for older veteran’s still dreaming of ending the lasting pain of their war injuries.
Meet Vietnam War paraplegic Alan Storetveit. An enemy’s bullet barely missed killing him in 1970 but instead damaged his spinal cord and abruptly ended his walk along the Cambodian border, all on his mother’s birthday.
“It felt like a Mack truck hitting me… knocking the wind out of me,” explained Storetveit about that moment “an intense fire-like feeling… like a hot poker up my spine”. The bullet left him lying on his back “like a snow angel” as he tried desperately to find his rifle. “I expected to see some grinning Asian with a rifle running out of the bush to finish me off”, he said quietly.
He still fights burning pains along his spine after more than 14750 days since colliding with that bullet.
While Storetveit laid helpless and face down on a hospital bed in Japan two days after being shot, his mother was helplessly alone in New York after reading the chilling Army telegram that eliminated confusion about her son’s condition with disturbing punctuality. It read: Alan is presently paraplegic.
Four simple words translate into an unsettled reminder for aging baby boomers of his selfless sacrifice made during those turbulent years. He proudly honored an “obligation to his nation” while others found reasons to sit. He now sits and watches as his peers walk.
A constant, peaceful calm lights Alan’s face through his very gentle eyes. No signs of anger, no bitter outbursts and no resentments about that war’s dark path.
Personal possessions from the war are handled as historical artifacts: photographs displayed inside a worn album shot just hours before Alan’s last stand, his dependable Timex watch, a Purple Heart medal and a handwritten letter from his friend and former platoon leader in Vietnam, 1stLt. Charles Dixson, sent to him while recuperating. Alan and Dixson remain very close friends.
He mentions his only regret being he’ll never dance at his children’s weddings, “I’ll be watching from the table.”
The thought of the Vietnam War frightened an entire generation growing up in 1968 and for those who experienced that war, the fear continues today. Just ask veteran Bob Ness. Ness walked at the lethal tip of a sharp spear of “recon” soldiers hunting down determined American killers hiding deep inside the spider holes below the thick jungle leaves. He made sure enemy bodies dropped quickly around his feet when he aimed his deadly M-16 rifle.
The horrific sights and gruesome smells suppressed for decades by Ness are now easily triggered by the slightest hint of gunpowder; swift flashbacks to the “Kodak” moment his innocence fractured when gulping the thick, bitter, stench of ballooned human bodies baking under the Southeast Asian sun. He remembers how petrified he was stepping over hungry maggots feasting on those rotting soldiers before his first night patrol. “Knee knocking is a true thing… I was so scared I couldn’t turn it off,” he said.
That’s a lot to ask of a teenager, especially one growing up watching television episodes of “Leave it to Beaver” inside happy America. John Wayne was every child’s hero up on the silver screen then but the frightening memories from Ness’s own home movie were never seen while sharing popcorn at the matinee. They’ve remained painfully private for him while playing continuously for forty two years as unwelcome film noir reruns in brilliant Technicolor.
During one intense fight in “Operation Wayne Grey” Ness leaned down to say goodbye to a dying GI, “I teared up… and didn’t cry again for 40 years…” he said.
His friend wasn’t the only American to die that day; the platoon was bloodied at once when 25% of its troops were chewed up in the opening seconds of battle and another 40% were killed in action (KIA) or wounded by the fourth fierce day. Ness received the Purple Heart medal after a speeding bullet’s vicious path ripped through his left hand while advancing into the fight. That is the only reminder of Vietnam he has framed and proudly hanging up at home in Florida.
Demons chasing Ness have been leashed at times through “self medication… to find someplace safe. Drugs, drinking…” He still wakes up afraid every morning at 3 a.m. waiting for attacking North Vietnamese soldiers wanting to kill him. “That was their favorite hour to attack,” he said, and he lays in bed awake all-night once a week reviewing every tiny detail of his 12 months camping out “in country.”
Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital therapy sessions relieve anxiety from his continued Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD), a real problem experienced by combat veterans and gradually being recognized by the VA. (Survivors guilt, depression, spousal abuse, drug use, alcoholism, recklessness and thoughts of suicide are symptoms caused from stress in combat.)
Ness left Vietnam forty years ago but still can’t, and won’t, drive a car over a bridge for fear of being ambushed in the open. “There is no way, I freak out…,” he explained.
War has been called by many names: Uprisings… Conquests… Interventions…. Rebellions… even Revolutions. Ancient soldiers defending the Ottoman Empire faced the same dangers as those advancing behind Napoleon’s charge. Zulu warriors were as reluctant attacking in the light as American farm boys were defending the ridge above the Gettysburg fields. But every grateful nation sets time aside to honor those men and women who bravely defended its’ flag. Some country’s call it “Veteran’s Day,” some say “Remembrance Day,” others say “Armistice Day”. Either way, it’s “their day” to stand tall while a nation says thanks.
Without the bravery, fearless courage and talent of the following photographers this Reuters project would not exist.
Joel A. Chaverri