Disabled Veteran’s Day
Lately I’ve been remembering the day my parents brought me to Disabled Veterans’ Day at the old Shea Stadium, home of the then-new New York Mets. It happened by coincidence. On the spur of the moment my Dad thought maybe we should go to a ballgame, and we agreed. We lived nearby. We didn’t know it was on the same day disabled veterans from all over the city were invited to the ballgame and admitted for free.
At first, we didn’t notice. I remember the usual ballgame day excitement, how I gasped when I saw the gigantic ballpark and heard the loud buzz of the crowd. I stared in wonder at vast expanse of the outfield (those guys cover all that ground?). I remember the smells of the peanuts and the hotdogs, and that smell beer makes when it hits hot cement. Somehow the sky seemed bluer, the sun seemed brighter, everything just seemed to be generally better on this beautiful day at the ballpark….
Then the Mets took the field, and everybody yelled and screamed, especially me, strongly encouraged by my Dad. He got a kick out of watching me, plus he was a believer in the let-them-get-it-all out while they can theory.
Everything went like it would during a normal ballgame, until we went to the concession stand for hot dogs and a beer for the old man. Somehow I got separated from my parents. I remember I didn’t get scared, though. Quite the contrary. I viewed it as an opportunity to explore a great big ballpark.
I discovered more that I wanted to. At first it was gradual, subtle. A guy with an empty summer shirt sleeve walked past on my left. Then another passed by on the right, walking on crutches, with an empty pant leg folded up and pinned together. More and more of these guys walked or crutched by, empty sleeves flapping, empty pants legs hanging. (This was in the days before state of the art prosthetics, like today). Then a woman pushed a guy in a wheelchair past—with no legs, just a pair of stumps sticking out of summer shorts. Whoa—what happened to these guys?
I tried to look for my parents. But the more I wandered into the crowd, the more I was engulfed by men that were missing arms, legs, both arms, both legs—and faces—guys with missing faces! They wore baseball caps, dark sunglasses, and below that, big sheets of tan cloth that hung like curtains. They looked like giant Band-Aids, covering up the big missing space where the lower face should have been.
There seemed to be more and more of these guys coming from every direction. I remember thinking I should turn around and walk away fast. But somehow I couldn’t. I was shocked, scared and curious at the same time. I had never seen people like this before. I was only six or seven years old. So I stood there gaping at them.
After a few minutes my parents re-appeared , from where I don’t remember. This was many years ago. They looked at the men with the missing pieces, then at each other, then down at me.
My Mom grabbed my arm and told me not to stare at these guys. I asked real loud what happened to them. My Dad hushed me, told me to lower my voice. When we got to our seats, I asked him again in a lower voice. They were in the war,” He replied in a voice just as low. “They’re wounded.”
“See that?” My Mom leaned forward from her seat. “It’s not like on TV.” She was alluding to Combat, The Gallant Men, and other WWII TV shows I liked to watch in those days.
“Let’s just watch the game,” My Dad said. And we tried to re-direct our attention to it, tried to focus on the moving figures on the field, lose ourselves in the stadium crowd. But I just sat there shocked, the after-images of what I had just seen repeating over and over in my mind’s eye….
What really gets me about this memory is that this was before Vietnam got going full blast, before Gulf Wars I and II, and Afghanistan. How many more guys have ended up like this since then?
I thought I had forgotten about all this stuff long ago. I don’t know what brought it back. But now I never want to forget it.
On Veterans Day, as we recognize all American soldiers who have served throughout our history, we need to pay special tribute to those recently returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly those who have suffered life-altering permanent disabilities.
Soldiers like Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch, an Army Ranger who was blinded in Iraq when shrapnel hit him in the face. At the age of 24, this young man from Blairsville, Pa., joined the army to see the world; instead he will spend his days learning Braille and how to get around with a cane. Or Sgt. 1st Class Michael S. McElhiney, whose right arm was blown off in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when a bomb exploded 100 yards from where he stood. Or Army Sgt. Tyler Hall of Ft. Lewis, Wash., who lost his leg and suffered permanent brain damage when the truck convoy he was in struck an artillery shell in the road near Tikrit in Iraq.
To date, thousands of soldiers have been medically evacuated from the current war on terrorism, and many of those are combat disabled, according to the Pentagon. These disabled veterans are America's unsung heroes, and today there are more than 3 million of them. After their fighting ends, their personal battles begin. These men and women must struggle to regain health, reshape lives shattered by disability, learn new trades or professions, and rejoin the civilian world. Their wounds and scars and afflictions, both physical and emotional, serve as daily reminders of the cost of war.
Regrettably, America's soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who have been grievously injured in war do not receive the attention they deserve in our country. They are continually being shortchanged by federal budget cuts.
As thousands of American soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical injuries and mental health problems, it is unconscionable that they might now have to worry about navigating a totally overloaded system. Year after year, sick and disabled veterans must struggle against heavy odds to make their voices heard -- both our government and we citizens need to do a better job of meeting our obligations to them.
It is also time for us to pay fitting tribute to those who have been forever changed in service to our country. Indeed, it has never been timelier to talk about the need for a permanent memorial in Washington to recognize these unsung heroes. *** A memorial in our nation's capital will stand as a physical reminder that we must not forget. It will ensure that these veterans are eternally recognized for what they have given for our country.
In 2000, President Clinton authorized the creation of the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington, the site upon which to build the memorial has been officially selected, and a design concept has been approved by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The plan is under review by the National Capital Planning Commission. *** See Note Below
Washington has many fitting monuments to fallen soldiers from the conflicts our county has been involved in, and there are monuments to our founding fathers. But nothing for the living disabled veterans. We have a solemn obligation to assure these Americans who have given so much more than was asked of them, that they will never be neglected or forgotten. While the memorial moves through the planning review, a major capital campaign is under way to raise the funds to make this memorial come to life. It will cost $65 million -- none of which will come from the government.
When this memorial is finally completed, it will be our gift to the millions of men and women, like Jeremy Feldbusch, Michael McElhiney and Tyler Hall, who continue to bear the scars of war long after the guns have fallen silent and the memory of their sacrifice has faded from the public's consciousness. May these heroes be unsung no more.
*** The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington DC is scheduled to be open in the Fall of 2014. For more information, click on the following link
American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
Published 4:00 am, Thursday, November 11, 2004