By Bob Naffier
When I first began to write this article, I was going to start out with something clever like, ‘Twas a few days before Christmas and all through the town… and, well you get the idea. But then I thought, why? There’s so much more to what I really want to say and write. So I gave up the idea of being clever even though this story really did happen just before Christmas.
This story is not like the others you might read at this time of year. It's not about fictional characters. It’s not about people who don’t exist or they live in some far off land where nobody knows where it is. And it’s not about some insignificant “human interest” story that no one will remember. It’s about real people, in a real time, at a real place, with real circumstances that perhaps many of us would choose not to think about right now during these busy holidays. It’s about veterans…wounded veterans.
You see, on December 19, 2015, a heartfelt team of volunteers from the Greendale American Legion Post 416 got together and set out to take on a special task. The mission was to visit as many fellow comrades as they could who were hospitalized in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit on the grounds of the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee. This was a welcome undertaking. It required a lot of thoughtfulness, humility, responsibility, compassion, and personal caring. It also resulted in personal growth. But all these things are in keeping with the words we recite every month at our general meetings; the Preamble. It’s those set of words that begin with, “For God and country.”
For at least one of our team members, this was definitely the umpteenth time that he had visited this facility this year. I’d like to recognize Bob Roark for that. Bob is at the VA Medical Center twice every week visiting patients. He does this not for pay, not for recognition, not for special awards, but because he personally cares about his fellow comrades. For most of the other team members on this tour, it was our first time. It was that one true, eye-opening experience that happens to a person maybe only once in a lifetime and one that would never be forgotten. Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you to the VA Spinal Cord Injury Unit.
First, before we get started, I would like you to please take a look at the photos at the top of this article if you haven't already done so. Meet Chelsea on the left. Chelsea works directly with the patients in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit. She is the Recreation Therapist on duty. On this particular day, however, she also volunteered to be the photographer who captured our team as you can see in the middle picture. By the way, I’m proud to say I’m one of the guys in the picture and we thank Chelsea for doing this. There is something special about Chelsea that anyone can recognize right from the start. You see, she is personally committed to her patients throughout the year and especially during the holiday season as they travel through their difficult recoveries. In the middle picture are the men from Post 416 who took some holiday time to share with some very special veterans. They don’t see themselves as heroes, but we do. We all have our own story, but now it was time for us to listen to theirs. All of these volunteers were fantastic! We deployed to the VA Hospital on a special assignment that, well let’s just call it, “Operation Merry Christmas.” In the far right picture you will see the main entrance of the Spinal Cord Injury Unit. It’s identified as “Building 144.” Our mission was to enter that building and do what we were set out to do, extending our friendship, listening, spreading holiday cheer, and offering everyone gift cards for items from the local canteen.
As we started out our journey, one thing I noticed for sure was that there weren’t many other visitors or families in the building. Possibly they were wrapped up with their Christmas presents…no pun intended. So as we entered the building, you could virtually hear a pin drop. There was no one calling out orders and announcements over crackly loudspeakers, there were no loud TVs, and no one was pushing and shoving to get through the hallways. It was quiet and with an element of respect.
Our first destination was to the Cafeteria where we met with Chelsea on how to approach the patients. There were two main rules. One was to always knock on the door and wait for a reply to come in. The other was to sanitize our hands on each entry. Apparently this was very important because there was a hand sanitizing dispenser mounted on the wall outside of every room and the spreading of germs in a spinal cord unit could be very dangerous. We used them constantly. Chelsea was very friendly and helpful in getting us organized. We removed our coats and jackets and placed them on a legless table. That’s right…a table without legs. Instead of standing up from the floor as you usually see, these tables hung suspended from the ceiling. I imagine this was to help accommodate wheelchairs that might gather around. Wow! They thought of everything. I never saw anything like this before, but it all made perfect sense.
Following our session with Chelsea, we continued on to embark on one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had. If I thought I had physical discomfort or problems in my life, they immediately paled in comparison. The patients in this building were the type that you hold doors open for. You respect them. You honor them for their sacrifice. You see them in a way that you see no one else. Their physical condition in this present day is so much different than the one they had before joining the service. While the reasons for their injuries were both from active duty and non-military related, you could still plainly see the ravages of war; an imperfect world that these veterans had hoped to improve. They did something in the name of protecting this country and protecting our freedom that put them in this situation. Some of the men I saw were visibly without limbs while others had hidden injuries. All of them had injured spines and, for sure, all of them were veterans. They all served this great country. In the end, you definitely respect these guys because you know you would not want to trade places with them.
The first patient we met was John. I changed his name to protect his identity as I will do for the rest of the patients. We found John rolling his way through the hallways in a wheelchair. He liked to see what was going on in the unit and he was there to capture it all if he could. The one thing that was unique about John was that he was the only one cruising around the halls. The rest of the patients were confined to their beds. John, whose face revealed that he was not really old, had hair and a beard that was white as snow. We called him Santa. He didn’t seem to be offended by this at all. In fact he was very friendly and welcoming. Sitting straight up in his wheelchair, he carried a miniature remote controlled helicopter in his lap. It had headlights on it that really worked. The first thing he did was to demonstrate how well he could fly that helicopter. He placed it on a table top where it lifted off via his sensitive touch and strong command of the remote control. Each little lever and button was intricate and very effective. He demonstrated how he could fly the helicopter only an inch away from the wall without crashing. He pointed out how the two propellers on the top, one mounted above the other, traveled in opposite directions. “This,” he said, “is the aerodynamic and scientific way to make sure I can maneuver the helicopter wherever I want it to go.” From there the chopper zoomed out into the open space, performing all sorts of gyrations. He had every maneuver under control. He was a pro. As he showed off his skills from his wheelchair, he told us that his job in the Air Force was to conduct search and rescue operations using military helicopters. Sometimes he would bring back a live body, but sometimes there were those who were not as lucky. So now he had plenty of time to work on his flying skills, but on a smaller scale and from a wheelchair. He was a natural.
John led us through the hallways to the various rooms where we could visit other patients. He always scouted ahead of us to see if the rooms down the hall were occupied. He waved us forward if there was someone there. He never entered the rooms, but he was delighted to be at our service. Along the way to one of the rooms we saw an elevator door open. Out rolled Rosie, a computerized robot programmed to deliver supplies to the staff. I swear I almost heard her say, “Pardon me, coming through.” Rosie was capable of entering the elevator, calling up the correct floor, and getting off to deliver her items. I was flabbergasted. She was a little camera shy on the day I took her picture, but I managed to get it and take a look for yourself. The professionals who thought up this program thought of absolutely everything including the robot. Again, she reduced the spread of germs by having less human hands touch the supplies. Rosie did it!
We continued our tour by walking past one of the nurses stations. Behind the counter were some very astute looking employees dressed in dark blue hospital uniforms and scrubs. They were all busy with something and some were working on computers. They were extremely quiet as they went about their business. Their soft-soled shoes made virtually no noise. They also were very serious and focused on every patient; but still they were friendly. They looked up at us without saying a word, nodding their heads in recognition of our passing through. I almost felt like I was a part of a super human team on a similar mission. We both cared about the patient.
The next patient we saw was Joe. He was completely bedbound. He was lying there slightly on his left side looking away from us when we entered the room. He was resting in sort of a semi-fetal position. He appeared as though he was unable to turn himself over in bed to see us and so we went around to the other side of the bed to see him. He appeared to be staring at a blank wall most of the time, but then he would look up to see out the window. He barely moved his head in the process. We introduced ourselves and immediately a big smile came across his face. It extended from ear to ear. “I’m so happy to see you guys!” he exclaimed. We asked what branch of service he was in. He replied, “Air Force,” and a bunch of us cheered him on. The smile he had from ear to ear got even bigger. We asked how long he had been there. He said, “I arrived in February. This is now seven surgeries and ten months later and I’m still waiting to go home. I don’t know when that will be yet. But don’t worry guys,” he continued. “I’ll be home someday. I’m just so happy you came here to see me.” He wished us a Merry Christmas as we began to leave the room. Our Chaplain, Doug, gave him gift certificates to the hospital canteen so he could send a visitor to bring him back some munchies. We were truly as moved to see the smile on this man’s face as he was to see us. What a heart-warming experience.
As we left the room, there again was John, our friend with the helicopter. He was waiting for us in his wheelchair and guided us to the next room. We knocked on the door and heard a voice say, “Come in.” We all cleaned our hands as we entered. As with the first patient, we introduced ourselves, this time to Jim. This man was also lying slightly on his left side. It seemed like many of the patients we saw were situated in this position. I’m not sure if that was due to their spinal injuries, but it seemed like none of the patients were lying flat on their backs. So guess what! Jim was in the Air Force too. So were the next three patients we saw! We began to wonder if there was something different about the Air Force until we finally ran across a Marine. We asked each of the patients the same questions and one thing was for sure. All of them were happy to see us and wanted to talk. No one was griping and no one was complaining. They were just happy! They seemed to appreciate us and especially they appreciated the VA staff that constantly made a difference in their lives. They couldn’t be in a better place under the circumstances. We could also see in each of the employees working there that they truly cared. You hear stories about VA Hospitals across the country, but there is nothing negative here. These employees live each day to help these great freedom fighters. It’s all about them and all about their care.
While visiting the Marine, he said he was getting out in two weeks and that they have been telling him this since September. He laughed and we laughed, but my heart still had a ping of sadness. We gave him a big “Hoorah” and he returned the gesture. Like many of the patients, he was from out of town and so far away from home. Thus, I can now see how the Fisher House will be so helpful. Only two of the guys were from Wisconsin; one from Fond du Lac and the other from Milwaukee. The rest were from various states and on this particular day, almost all of them were alone. It broke my heart especially in light of this being Christmas time. Whatever their religious belief, I wondered what kind of holiday these guys were going to have without family or friends around?
Each of the patients seemed to know that we, if anyone, would understand, care and relate. We all knew they became something that many of us all too often could have become ourselves; confined, injured and alone. The possibility of sustaining a life-changing injury was part of the job we signed up for. We were just luckier. None-the-less, there was a certain kind of a bond; a code or unspoken rule…something between us that made us who we are. We shared our personal stories, mutual respect and love for the country we share. This, to us, is the America we fought for! We could see the good in them and I think they could see it in us. To all of us, the meaning of, “Leave no man behind,” is more than a slogan. It’s a way of life. It’s what we do. We thank each other and every man and woman who has ever served. This is our nation. It's ours because of them; one nation under God.
It was a successful mission for us and I pray it was for them. Though their journey is far from over, it seems to me that day by day, it will be filled with hope, dedication and determination. I want to thank the Spinal Cord Injury Unit for allowing us to visit and I want to thank you for reading this. If anyone wants to make a difference, consider this. Consider that no one is asking for money and no one is asking for long-term commitments. But if you want to, if you desire to touch a life, these guys would appreciate it more than you know. Don’t worry about what you will say or do. Ask a close friend to join you if you want for support. Or ask a hospital representative for advice. They are there for both you and the patient. They are willing to share their knowledge and suggestions with you. Contact Voluntary Services at 414-384-2000, ext 41802 or 41803 in order to complete the process and become a registered volunteer. Thank you and thank you for serving! God bless!