Sunday, March 1, 2015

Guest Blog: Answering the Bell

*Note:  Quinolone Vigilance Foundation is honoring the author's request to remain anonymous. You can find the original here.

Answering the Bell (by Anonymous)

When I was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1999 after a grueling 4-year tour in the Infantry, I had mixed emotions.  I was excited about my new life ahead of me, my newfound freedom, and the new opportunities that awaited.  I was relieved that I would no longer have to endure the rigors of military life, the “zero dark thirty” reveilles, the forced marches with 80-pound packs, the isolation that often comes with military service, and I was excited that I would now sleep in a bed almost every night (I’ve spent more nights lying in the bogs of swamps, surrounded by every form of crawling thing you can think of, than I care to remember).  But I also felt a sense of sadness.  Sure, there was sadness with leaving friends, and any life transition is accompanied by bittersweet feelings for what is left behind, but there was a different longing here.  I joined the Marines to help defend the weak.  I truly believed we could stop genocides, prevent terrorist attacks, and generally ensure peace and stability abroad.  I was never called upon to actually do that. 

Now this probably makes absolutely no sense to anyone who did not serve.  I should be on my knees thanking God that I never had to endure combat. And true, I can appreciate how lucky I was much more now that I’m pushing 40, and hopefully a little wiser, than I could when I was 22-years old and thought I could save the world.  I realize now that life is much more complicated, but I still think that military action, though not a long term geo-political solution, can save lives in the short term when used cautiously and appropriately.  But I often times still have trouble dealing with that aspect of my life.  I feel like I didn’t do my job.  Most of all, I feel like I let my brothers down.

I skated.

That’s what we called it in the Marines.  It’s military slang that immediately makes sense to anyone who understands it, but if you need it explained to you, you’ll probably never understand it.  Picture a column of hot dusty Marines plodding up a road carrying rifles and packs, while somebody goes zipping by on a pair of roller skates.  That’s the visual you need to understand this.  A skater is somebody who got out of doing theirs, someone who didn’t carry their share of the burden, someone who didn’t have to “drink from the cup”.  But it’s more than not just doing your fair share.  It’s doubly bad because a skater isn’t just skating laps at a roller rink, he’s cruising on his skates while his brothers are humping packs. 

I had a very hard time coming to grips with this feeling.  I mentioned that I was discharged in 1999.  These feelings got even tougher to deal with a couple of short years later after 9/11.   Here I am, safe at my desk at the engineering company I worked for, eating a nice hot lunch (because, you know, I had a lunch break and access to hot food) scouring the internet looking for any information I could about my old unit, which was currently engaged in the Battle of Nasiriyah.  I trained those kids (and that’s what they were, kids) just a few years ago.  Every time I heard of a Marine casualty, I got a lump in my throat.  Was it Cottrell?  Did Chewie get it?  Maybe it was Young or Holmes or Wilson?   

It was in this context, in the grip of these emotions, plagued with this guilt, that I had a conversation that has always stuck with me.  I was at one of my good friend’s bachelor parties in Sylvan Beach.  I ended up spending a good part of the evening chatting with his father, who was a Vietnam vet.  I expressed to him how awful I felt about everything.  But I got something from him that I’ve never gotten from anybody else: understanding.  He knew why I felt the way I did.  He didn’t offer any simple platitudes, but he did say something that I’ll never forget.

He told me it wasn’t my fault.

It wasn’t my fault that I was born in 1976.

He told me that the simple fact of the matter was that I answered the bell.

I was there.  I went where I was told, I did what I was supposed to, and I did it honorably.  It’s not my fault that when I got to the far off lands I was sent to that nobody shot back at me.  I never shirked my duty, and I should never feel that I did.

Had I been born in 1922 like my grandfather, I would have answered the bell and fought World War II.

Had I been born in 1949 like him, I would have answered the bell and gone to Vietnam.

Had I been born in 1971, I would have answered the bell for the first Gulf War.

And had I been born in 1984, I would have answered the bell for the War on Terror.

And that’s the thing about answering the bell, you never know what you are going to get.  My grandfather answered the bell and got thrown into the hell that was the Pacific Theater.  I answered the bell and got four years of peacetime service and a trip around the world.

It’s not really fair what happens, but the results don’t really matter.  What’s important is the moral courage and the attitude that stands up to answer the bell.    

My friend’s dad told me that from what he could tell from my character, he knew I would have been right there alongside him in the jungles and the rice paddies.  To him, that was more important in some ways than actually being there, and as far as he was concerned, I had done my duty.  That would have meant nothing coming from most people, but coming from a Vietnam vet, that almost made me cry.

I still have days when I feel like I got off easy.  Like I skated out of duty.  I work with a guy who was a Marine in Vietnam and with a woman whose husband was a Marine sniper who recently returned from his second tour in Iraq.  I still don’t consider myself a veteran in the same sense that they are.  They certainly endured more hardship than I did.  But whenever I have these thoughts, I think back to that conversation in Sylvan Beach.  I think back to my final fitness report when I was a Sergeant of Marines where my platoon commander, who later went on to command troops in Fallujah and al-Anbar Province, wrote that of all the Marines he had ever met, I would be his first choice to take into battle.  And although I never did engage the enemy in direct combat, I know in my heart that had circumstances been different, I would have answered the bell in time of war the same way I did in peacetime: with every fiber of my being.

So where am I going with all of this?

I’m fighting my war now.

For the past four and a half years, my wife has been suffering with a chronic illness.  She is disabled.  She is almost entirely housebound, and some days, bedridden.  I am her sole caretaker.

I have no specific desire to get into the details of her illness now.  There will be plenty of time for that in later posts.  Right now, suffice to say it’s a condition you’ve never heard of, it’s not anything that would make any sense to you, and you have no idea of how much it has devastated her life.

I wish I could tell you she had a disease that you had heard of, that had a colored ribbon or a popular walk-a-thon associated with it.  You would understand that, and many of you would get to work wearing a ribbon or raising money walking.  But it’s not something you could understand like that.  That makes it all the more difficult because for the most part, it’s a war we fight alone.  When I tell people at work that my wife is disabled, they inevitably ask what’s wrong.   I think to myself, “Do I really want to spend the next 20 minutes explaining her condition to someone who is not going to understand?”  And it’s not that they don’t understand because they’re stupid or because they are horrible selfish people.  It’s because it is hard to understand and I often don’t fully understand it myself.

I just know that she is very, very sick.  She is less functional than my mother who is going through chemotherapy for Stage 3 lung cancer.  One co-worker did understand once, because his best friend is going through the same ordeal.  He kind of just took me aside after I told him about my wife to offer some encouragement.  He told me how he grew up in his house with his stepfather who was a quadriplegic.   He told me that it is difficult, but having a disabled family member often leads to blessings that most people don’t get to experience.  I told him that yes, I did understand this on an intellectual level, and that I had experienced some of these blessings, but that it didn’t make it any less difficult at times.  He said he knew.  He knew because he saw that his friend, who has this same illness as my wife, had a poorer quality of life on a day-to-day basis than the quadriplegic stepfather he grew up with.

Think about that.  My wife feels sicker than someone with cancer, has less quality of life than someone who cannot use their arms or legs, and I can’t even really talk to you about it because it’s a condition that you’ve never heard of and it would make your head explode if it were explained to you.

As bad as that sounds, there are two other factors that make it even worse.  First, the illness is invisible.  My wife looks fine.  If you saw her, you wouldn’t think a thing was wrong with her.  Part of that is her pride and dignity, which you can’t fault her for because most of us would do the same thing.  Her grandmother recently died, and through a herculean effort, she made it to the funeral (more on these difficulties in later posts).  She looked great at the funeral.  She’s an attractive woman, and it was important to her to look presentable as sign of respect to her beloved grandmother.  That’s what people saw.  What they didn’t see was that after expending that effort, she spent the next three weeks (and counting) in bed.   

The other unfortunate circumstance is that her illness is chronic.  People will often tell her, “Oh, be happy you don’t have such-and-such disease.”  I know it’s well meaning, but it’s an ignorant thing to say to someone who is chronically ill.  Many housebound, chronically ill people would trade places with someone who is terminally ill.  It’s in the root of the word.  Terminal illnesses end.  She often suffers just as much on a daily basis, without knowing if or when her suffering will end.  As of now, it looks like she might continue to suffer until natural death (she is currently 34).  Now you might be thinking to yourself, “What a terrible attitude.”  I’m a marathoner.  Imagine running a marathon, and then having somebody tell you, “We changed the race course, the finish line has been pushed back.  We’re not sure how far it’s been pushed back, but the race is going to be a LOT further than 26.2 miles now.”  How would you feel?  In the comfort of the chair you are sitting in right now, you might think, “Oh, I’d just buckle down and keep going.”  I’d love to hear what you’d actually say on Mile 19.  I’d bet that you’d be singing a different tune then.  It reminds me of a psychological tactic we used to use during physical training in the Marines.  Instead of telling the platoon that we’d be doing 20 pushups for our next exercise, the corporals or sergeants leading the exercise would just say, “We are going to do many, many of them.”  You can count down to 20.  You can’t count to “many, many”.  It really does make the physical exercise seem harder.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that those who have cancer, serious spinal cord injury, or any other disease or condition are in any way better off, not suffering, or unworthy of our utmost respect and sympathy.  Nor am I saying that I wish my wife had any of these other diseases, injuries, or conditions.  They are horrific situations that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.  I am simply saying that the chronically ill also deserve the same respect and dignity as those whose disease has a recognizable name. 

But the real triumph here is that she keeps going with hope and a sense of humor.  The people who suffer from disabling chronic illness are the absolute toughest people that I know, and between my time in the military, my athletic hobbies, and my current career in the construction industry, I’ve met more than a few tough guys.  The chronically ill endure horrific pain and suffering, they do it with no end in sight, and they do it without an ounce of respect from society.  That’s the purpose of this blog.  To give a voice to those who have none.  To shine a light on these people who deserve our admiration and respect.  To let the world know their stories so that they may not suffer in vain.  I also hope that it can give encouragement and advice to the chronically ill and their caretakers.

The story, of course, will be told through the eyes of her caretaker.  That’s one thing about the sick.  They are often too sick to even tell their own story.  In some ways this may be beneficial because not only will you hear the story of the chronically ill, you will see the effect it has on families.

In boxing, most of you know that between rounds the fighters retreat back to their corners where they will get a brief rest, a swig of water, some coaching or encouragement from their manager, and medical attention from their trainer if needed.  When the bell rings to start the next round, they have a choice.  They can stay in their corner, and if they are unable to continue to fight, their trainer will wave a towel, or toss it to the center of the ring.  They can throw in the towel.  Or, if they want to continue to fight, they must stand up, put their hands up, and walk to the center of the ring.  They can answer the bell.  You never know what you are going to get when you answer the bell.  You might win the next round.  You might get knocked out.

My mother-in-law bought my wife one of those little bells that you might find at a diner to alert a waitress that an order’s up, or on the desk of the Post Office or some place with a little sign that says “Ring for Service” or something.  She got it half-joking for our kitchen because it can sometimes seem like a diner in there (more on this in later posts).  Now, we leave it next to my wife’s bed so she can call me if she needs me (I sleep on the futon in the living room for reasons that will become apparent in later posts).  That bell rings far too often.  Too many times has that bell been rung in suffering at some horrific early morning hour, to alert me that she needed assistance.  It has conditioned a Pavlovian response in me.

It’s been 20 years since I was an 18-year old kid who shipped out to boot camp, ready to take on the world.

I’m still answering the bell.

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