Today I went into the local VA Medical Center to have a precancerous growth hacked off my face. Waiting for the scalpel-wielding physician’s assistant to call me in, I sat and watched a parade of veterans move back and forth down the aisles. The VA here in Boise serves a population of over ninety-four thousand veterans. The location is set in beautiful juniper and ash tree-studded meadows and ridges that rise above the main part of Boise town. Some of the buildings look like ante-bellum architecture one might see back east. Big, imposing, red brick buildings that soar up and over the city. The setting belies the facility’s purpose.
As Betty and I walked into the center to check in, I noticed the variety of men and women waiting to be cared for…is that the right word, cared for? It seems such a weak concept, cared for, for dealing with medical problems of folks involved in the business of defending and killing. Yet I am going to use that word, because I think it fits the milieu of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale and Walt Whitman that has arisen in the wake of two hundred years of military mayhem that has become a populations-wide, Clausewitzian assault on humanity.
The people who staff the VA Medical Center do seem to genuinely care for and about the men and women who shuffle down the tile-floored halls. There are still a lot of World War War II vets around here, their skin like parchment, their walks slowed, canes and wheelchairs, and the Korean War Veterans are hard to distinguish from the WWII people, and then there is my group, the Vietnam era guys and then the younger women and men. I noticed a lot of young veterans there today, a big man in manure-stained cowboy boots and large straw hat, a red and white checked shirt that stretched around his hard muscles, and a young man with a high and tight Marine Corps-style haircut, his hair the color of a carrot. It looked dyed. His arms covered with tinted hieroglyphics, tattoos, that I didn’t really try to cipher. What I read are the eyes. The eyes are the tunnel to the heart. Enter through the eyes and you can crawl right into the guts of a man. This man’s gut sang the song of IEDs and napalm.
One man I noticed as I sat waiting for the knife looked like a Vietnam veteran. Dressed like a biker, lots of leather, lots of hair, he could barely shamble, as if the messages that went from his brain to his legs were being interdicted, like columns of men moving in the night , getting chewed up by artillery fire, mortar fire, ambushes. His difficulty getting around didn’t seem to bother him, though, as he struggled down the corridor chatting on his cell phone.
I wondered what had caused his troubles. A piece of shrapnel from a North Vietnamese 152 mm shell landing too close, an AK-47 round snapped off from a sniper’s spider trap, just nicking the bones in his spine. Maybe he wrecked his Harley and damaged his back, maybe it was work related and had nothing to do with the military and the only reason he was getting treatment at the VA was because, like me, he has a Purple Heart from some other wound. Maybe he had prostate cancer and it was eating up his bones, Agent Orange and all that.
I wonder about Agent Orange. It is suspected that Agent Orange is at the root of a dozen or so cancers, but there is no hard proof, as I understand it, that Agent Orange causes any of the maladies that we go to the VA to have treated. So, when I looked at these men, I wondered what role Agent Orange had in their difficulties.
I remembered the one time I know I got sprayed with that stuff. It was in 1968. Early morning, I was up and on watch. A plane streaked over the base and the surrounding landscape, spraying some kind of liquid. I wondered what it was. Now I know, or I think I know. And from the VA’s point of view, all of that is a moot point. By definition, I have been sprayed.
One of the subject ailments related to Agent Orange is diabetes. I am in the stages of pre-diabetes, but diabetes is part of my genetic makeup, and I love to eat sugar and I am a non-consuming alcoholic who consumed heavily for over twenty years. So is my pre-diabetes a result of Agent Orange or my ancestry and my behavior? I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think anyone else does.
So, with those thoughts in mind, I wondered about all these men who come here from my era with all these problems. A lot of us were crazy after we came back from the war; drank, smoked, over-ate and ate the wrong things. Some of us consumed a lot of drugs, didn’t do physical exercise. So what causes all these problems, us or Agent Orange, or a combination?
Nevertheless, it is very interesting to me that we, as a society, have decided to pony up and fund the care these folks, including me, receive at the Veteran’s Admin hospital. As if we, our nation, see that the cost to be paid for the service they gave is ongoing. That we owe it to them.
The sheer number of men and women in the facility this morning is amazing to me. All these people, all these problems, and this is just a spot, a dot, a miniscule hint of all the people out there, all the people now fighting who will come home with problems, mental and physical, who will then trust that we take care of them.
This Veteran’s Medical Center is a symbol of the cost of the lifestyle we choose to keep. Sushi tonight, a movie at the art house, this weekend a rock and roll concert, a poetry reading, “Restrepo” from the video-on-demand queue, next week a camping trip in a state funded park, the private schools for the kids, the wide streets, the nights we live without worrying about mortar rounds crashing through the roofs of our houses, no IED detonating, spraying thousands of nails and screws and bolts around, decapitating our children on the way to school.
Sometimes, I wonder when I am sitting around the house, laughing at something one of my friends said, sometimes, I get a pang of guilt. What part of the cost am I paying for these men, these women who go off four and five times during their enlistments to these hot and freezing landscapes? Me, sitting around writing blogs, making movies, living off my retirement account, my social security, my motor home, my trips to California. What part of the cost am I bearing to keep the violence off the streets in my town? No invasions, no terrorists, no enemy slinking between the buildings down on Main Street.
What is the cost of all this? Sitting in the VA waiting to get a pre-cancer that may have been caused by Agent Orange hacked off my face, waiting to get cared for, I get a glimpse.