I confess that, until joining the staff of the Veterans History Project (VHP) six years ago,
I had not really given much thought to the plight of disabled veterans. Like most people, I had seen veterans with scars, burns and missing limbs, and probably unknowingly encountered many more with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but I knew none of them personally. In my mind back then, these were people who volunteered to serve and had, unfortunately, paid a high price for that decision. Sure, I was sympathetic toward them—as much as I am toward anyone who appears to be injured or disabled—but I had no clue as to the depth of their love for our country, commitment to their fellow comrades or that so many of them feel guilty for even being alive.
I am proud to say that it did not take me long to “find a clue” in the treasure trove of the VHP archive. Since October happens to be National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I’d like to share with you two stories from the VHP collections that helped to enlighten me on the experience of disabled veterans, particularly those who served in more recent conflicts.
U.S. Army veteran Eric Wayne Cagle was serving as a Staff Sergeant in Operation Iraqi Freedom when on routine patrol in a Humvee, an improvised explosive device detonated and left him with severe head injuries. Ironically, he was supposed to have been on leave that day. Cagle did not realize he had been hit initially. His only concern was for the others riding with him.
I opened the door, got out of the truck, walked to the back and said, ‘You guys OK?’ and they said, ‘Hey, Sergeant Cagle, you’re bleeding!’ and I went [thud]…I was on pure adrenaline…then I passed out.
When he woke up at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC with his wife and mom at his bedside, Cagle said he did not know what had happened to him, could not see very well, could not move his limbs and was unable to speak due to the large tracheotomy tube doctors had inserted into his airway.
I thought I was just screwed. I was so scared.
Cagle, whose injuries left him legally blind, spent the next year at a medical facility in Minnesota receiving therapy for traumatic brain injury before being transferred to other Veterans Administration medical facilities across the country for surgeries and further treatment. He said he received excellent care everywhere he went. At the time of his VHP interview, Cagle was feeling optimistic about the future. He had retired from the military and was looking forward to using the G.I. Bill to attend college and purchase a home. Even still, he wished he could be back with his buddies on the battlefield.
Rose Marie Grosshans Noël was serving in Iraq as a Gunnery Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps when she was wounded in 2005. She had chosen this particular branch when she enlisted in 1988 because she considered it to be the toughest—a good match for someone whose assignments included Aviation Electrician and Drill Instructor. Little did she know all those years prior that she would eventually make history by becoming the first female Gunnery Sergeant to be awarded the Purple Heart.
An indirect fired rocket impacted about 100 meters from Noël while riding her bike one day, leaving her with shrapnel in her cheek. She had no idea she had been injured until she felt the warmth of blood on her neck. Noël had only a green tee shirt at her disposal to use as a makeshift bandage until she could finally get to a medic for help, which ended up being an adventure unto itself.
When we got there, the doors were locked…I’m like, ‘Hello, I’m bleeding here!’ and eventually people came up from where they had taken cover during the attack…When I removed the tee shirt, the blood just gushed out. It felt like someone had just poured a cup full of hot water down my face.
It turned out that the shrapnel was only millimeters away from a main artery in her face. Out of an abundance of caution, the medical team decided to air-lift Noël stateside for further care—a decision she adamantly protested, so much so that she had to be sedated for the trip. Many people tried to encourage Noël to end her military career at that point and go home to resume her much safer role as wife and mother, but to no avail. She was determined to rejoin her fellow Marines and finish the last five months of her tour of duty. And she did.
Rosie would have loved to have gone home, but Rosie wasn’t in Iraq. Gunny Noël was.
During her VHP interview, Noël shared that she had been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury as well as PTSD. Grateful to be alive, her goal was to work daily at living and to continue being a positive person.
As long as I’m above dirt, that’s just another day that I’ve been given.
Tough? I’ll say.
The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington, DC is inscribed with a poignant quote from Vietnam veteran George R. Sullivan, who also shared his story with VHP. It reads, “I am always proud of my service. Yes, I wished things would have worked out a little better for me, but I did come home alive and had a fairly successful life.”
Now that you have experienced a slice of life from these disabled veterans’ perspectives, I hope that you, like me, will feel even more compelled to give our wounded warriors more than a passing glance or a sigh of pity. Give them your heartfelt thanks.