By Chris Mansel
Hospital tile and a sense of responsibility, that's what hit me when I first walked into a Veteran's hospital. I had been in triage situations in combat and hospital ships, Army hospitals in Germany, but this was different. This is the place where politicians come to be photographed and soldiers to be ignored. Any time day or night you can walk down the hallways and see blood trickling onto the floor or hear a voice crying out for help. After a while you start to wonder if all of the missing limbs aren't gathered somewhere in a room in the hospital, perhaps on another floor waiting to be reissued to another body.
It's not like the recruiting letters say, it's not like the news footage will show you. There are some who do want to return to battle but only to return to their buddies who they have fought beside for what seemed like an eternity, and there are some who want to go back and kill something, anyone. Their minds are twisted from fatigue and now their bodies deformed by gunfire or an explosion sit and drool staring at the television screen. They are never photographed with a visiting dignitary, that traffic is led away from the more troublesome rooms.
On my first visit there I saw a young Army private fall out of his room into the hallway screaming as his prosthetic limb gave way. He hit the floor hard and he swung his crutch at anyone who tried to help him up. He was crying uncontrollably. He started to shake and couldn’t stop his anger until another patient, a young black man with the lower half of his arm missing got down on the floor and took hold of him and held him as best he could until he calmed down. For a few minutes they were both cussing and yelling. The sounds they made went through the walls and out into the open, through the pressure built in the interstate by the hospital and into the neighborhoods they grew up in that would never except them back in the shape their mangled bodies were in now.
Napoleon Bonaparte said, "Go Sir, and don't forget that the world was made in six days. You can ask me for anything you like, except time." Strange words from a ruthless dictator but most of the patients in Veteran's Hospitals are here suffering from the words of ruthless dictators in one way or another. One day while touring the hospital and interviewing soldiers I came upon a young man who had lost his right arm and both legs. His demeanor was about what you'd expect. He greeted me with, "What in the hell are you and what in the hell do you want?"
I told him how sorry I was that he was in the condition he was in and I only wanted to ask him some questions. He snapped back, "Any goddamn answers you could want got blown off with my legs, man!" I backed out of the room quietly and started back down the hallway and heard him shouting back at me, "Hey, you giving up that easy, you just ain’t got it man, just ain't got it!" I stuck my head back in his doorway and he threw a glass of water at me just missing my head.
"Incoming!" He laughed loudly.
I said, "So I guess you want to talk, huh?"
His eyes cut through me as I entered the room; the rage in his voice was troubling. But it could be understood. He looked at my clothes and back up to my eyes and said, “Ever been there?”
I answered back, “Yea, four weeks ago as a matter of fact.”
“Four weeks ago…” He let the words fill the room before he spoke again. Embedded?
“No, we were doing freelance work.”
He lowered his brow, “We? You had someone else with you? Couldn’t handle it on you own?”
“Not exactly, my partner was there with me. He’s in town right now just not with me right now.”
“What he didn’t want to come in here and look at us?”
“What do you think?” I asked him this with a look to let him know the answer. We seemed to have wandered off the subject but I figured I would just let him talk. He was quiet for a few minutes and when he finally spoke again it wasn’t about my partner.
“You get hit, or Blackwater tuck you in at night like a good little mama’s bitch?”
I told him the story of Jack Random and myself and the family we helped to escape the private security forces, about the major and the redneck Army guy. He didn’t seem surprised.
He smiled and smiled a sad smile, “You think that was anything special?”
He reached down and lifted his blanket and scratched at his hip so nonchalantly that I don’t think he even realized he was doing it. The scar he revealed was hideous. I could tell he hadn’t been too long in recovery. I had seen wounds in his state before and I could tell that he had still to see several stages of draining of the wound which meant a few more times in surgery which meant more mental strain on his already fragile ego.
“Questions, like what questions? How I got my legs blown off, my arm, what? Tell me?” He asked impatiently.
I replied that I was curious about his experiences with his fellow soldiers and Iraqi civilians. I explained that I didn’t write for any major publication and I didn’t have an agenda.
He faced away from me and all the color went away from his face and said, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you man, I’m dead, just dead.” Tears began streaming down his face in a continuous flow to a point where they would not stop. He took a gun that I didn’t see and put it in his mouth and looked around the room and I thought he was going to pull the trigger. I jumped up from my chair and he fell out of the bed and I screamed: I just couldn’t help it. His face twisted with rage. I jumped back against the wall as several orderlies came to the door quickly and he took the gun out of his mouth and yelled for them to shut the fucking door.
His eyes were directly at me now and he put the gun back in his mouth and I must have gone pale because the orderlies at the small glass window in the door disappeared for a moment and came back with an older man who I guessed was a doctor I hadn’t seen before. He held up a piece of paper that had written on it a short message, “Do you have any medical conditions?”
For a moment I forgot about my safety and concerned myself with that short note. Here across from me sat a young man who had lost both his legs and one of his arms in the service of his country who now had a gun in his mouth and all they were worried about were getting sued by a journalist.
Saliva began to pour out of his mouth and the tears stopped. I felt so sorry for him but I was afraid to say anything. I had been in situations similar to this before and I had learned from experience to allow the individual to calm themselves down in their own time.
Outside the door I could hear the rustling and panic in the hallway. I could sense the sirens, the news vans, and every cliché you’ve ever seen. This was after all a Veteran’s Hospital in Washington D. C., the nation’s capital. The home of whoredom and the constant leaking ship of news that forever set sail on the putrid waters of suffering that wouldn’t for a second pass an opportunity to cover a story like this. I wondered to myself if the young man had thought past putting the gun in his mouth, if he had organized in his mind what he wanted to say or if he was so traumatized he could even see past the door of the room in his mind or with his eyes.
For a moment I looked over at him and he took the gun out of his mouth. He started to say something and raised the gun back up to his lips and squeezed the trigger a little, my eyes were so focused on his finger I could hardly breathe. But then he took the gun away from his mouth and rested it against the side of his head and said one word, “Gunship.”
There was a loud banging on the door and a voice from the other side said, “Marine you have a hostage in there, you’re a hostile force! Relinquish that weapon!” The Marine screamed out, “Perkins get the fuck away from here before I shoot you instead, asshole.”
As I watched this terrified young man, and he was young, barely over the age of twenty, I thought that grace be beguiled then it is a dishonor to the living and to the dead. The room quieted down again, almost instantly. There was an eerie silence and in the hallway as well. I wondered what kind of circus was going on outside this small room but mainly I was focused on the young man across from me, I wasn’t as much worried about my life as I was this young man getting the help he needed, surely a healthy young man wouldn’t be holding a gun to his head or in his mouth.
He spoke sooner than I thought he would, and as he began to speak there were knocks at the door which he ignored. I honestly don’t know if he heard them or not.
“If you line up three marine snipers and tell them to aim at the kneecaps of three Iraqi’s standing in the middle of twelve other Iraqi’s by the fourth shot you can be sure that only one weapon if that will be aimed at the spot where shots are coming from. There’s more danger there defending these fuckers from themselves than there is checking out for your buddy beside you.”
He looked at the floor and followed an imaginary spot across the wall up to the door to the small glass window and put the gun back in his mouth. He did this slowly and I knew then he wasn’t serious about shooting himself, I had seen this kind of hysteria before in a standoff with a police officer in Georgia. Maybe he would feel more comfortable having someone to speak through, especially in this situation. After all this was Washington and they didn’t take to having their Military Industrial Establishment being bad mouthed in print. I could vouch for that personally.
One thing that started to occur to me was the fact that this had to be exploding across the screen of CNN by now taking the attention away from the Presidential campaign and Jack had to be somewhere outside trying to get in. I had no idea if my name had been released or if he knew I was involved but he did know I was coming here today. It wasn’t too long ago we had escaped a shootout in Iraq but this was different, Jack would be running towards the weapon in question.