San Antonio Military Medical Center
Six of us spent a day visiting with wounded soldiers and veterans in San Antonio (Brooke Army Medical Center, Wilford Hall at Lackland AFB, and Audie Murphy VA hospital), as part of the National Cartoonists Societyâ€™s Support the Troops effort. The USO and VA insist on anonymity to protect patientsâ€™ privacy, and Iâ€™ll respect that. But I feel compelled to tell you some of their stories, because these men and women are heroes; and not just for what they did. They are heroes for what they are.
Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC for short) hosts the burn unit. Because it is located in the heart of Texas, and therefore geographically isolated from the rest of the country, it doesnâ€™t get the national attention some of our other military hospitals receive. But what they are doing there is remarkable.
We met a young Marine 1st Lieutenant who, along with one other Marine were the only survivors of an attack on their HMMWV. When I talked with him, he was undergoing therapy on his hands to keep them nimble â€“ otherwise he would lose the use of them due to scarring from the burns. He was in obvious pain, but politely answered my questions as if we were having afternoon tea. What impressed me, though, was his attitude. Not a word about getting a raw deal. No â€œwhy me?â€ Not a whisper of complaint about the painful therapy that he faced. You know what he asked for? A cartoon with his name in it so his, â€œâ€¦Marines will see it, and know itâ€™s me.â€
In another ward, we met a Staff Sergeant who had lost both legs to a roadside bomb. â€œYou want to see pictures of my HMMWV getting hit?â€ He whipped out an iPOD and showed us about 20 pictures taken from the vehicle behind his. It showed the whole sequence â€“ the caravan, the explosion, and the aftermath. He described the pictures as if he were showing me vacation shots from Yellowstone. He told us he looked at the pictures when he got depressed – they reminded him how lucky he was to be alive. Later, he told me he was looking forward to getting prosthetics specially designed for running.
A Sailor there had been burned in a boiler explosion – he stayed behind to secure the valves, preventing further catastrophe and injury to others. He brushed off any talk of bravery, and described his burns with nonchalance. He would rather joke around and swap email addresses.
The visits began to take on a common theme â€“ these Marines, Soldiers, Airmen and Sailors shared a palpable optimism for life. As I thought about it, when they arrived at BAMC, they were confronted with a fork in the road of their lives. They had two choices â€“ slide into depression, or take on the world. Each one we met chose the latter.
At Audie Murphy VA hospital I explained how Medal of Honor awardees are saluted by everyone in uniform, regardless of rank. These wounded warriors merit similar respect in my mind, for the way they meet adversity â€“ with resolve and inner strength.
One last story. Another young man, a former rodeo cowboy, had endured several surgeries and months of rigorous therapy. He was tough though, and had improved to the point where he was able to walk (actually jog) to a small apartment on base and enjoy a level of independence. He told us, â€œMy rodeo days may be over, but my living days arenâ€™t.â€ He was getting on with life.
There is only one appropriate word to describe these extraordinary men and women – not just the ones written about here, and not just the ones we met…all of them: They are heroes.