My Quaker meeting knew I’d long been enraged about our country’s misadventures in the Middle East. They knew I’d been volunteering at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, but they didn’t really know what I’d done about the fury that possessed me. This is a testimony to what can be done when we think we’re faced with helplessness.
I was being consumed by enraged resentment that left me utterly helpless. My rage was directed at elected officials in my beloved land, officials who had betrayed our heritage: turning topsy-turvy our claim of a strong military as being only for defense; squandering the good will abundant in the world over the 9/11 attack on us; engaging in aggressive, wanton, bloody acts propped up by lies; abandoning the values of human rights that had made us the envy of much of the world; sentencing proud and beleaguered distant peoples to destruction, impoverishment, and exile.
I was further enraged by my own myopic and self-centered fellow countrymen who, despite enduring four years of shallow analysis and shameful deceit, had reinstalled as leaders those architects of betrayal of this great land.
Some months after after the 2004 election, as my personal relationships began to wither and wilt over my outspoken resentment, I decided that picking up the pieces would be better than ranting about the betrayal of the U. S. by its own leaders. I sought salvation at the local naval hospital where, I had recently learned, combat-injured Marines were arriving on Medevac flights. I chose a place where no one criticized government policy and everyone avoided any negative comments about any President who is Commander-in-Chief. That meant I could never take refuge simply in talk. I’d have to do something.
When I first began this work in 2006, since I did not conceal that I was a Quaker, others were wary of me. Over the years, mutual trust has led to increased access. The Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) screens and sponsors virtually all of would-be volunteers for the Naval Medical Center San Diego. Their mission, which I joined, was to respond to the “collateral” damage to family members of the wounded and to the wounded themselves. This supplemental, non-medical frontier is calling with a louder and louder urgency to the whole country now.
I want to describe the circumstances in which surprising changes have occurred in me. Here’s the setting: For quasi-family members who technically do not qualify for paid travel orders to get to the naval hospital – common-law spouses, step-children, siblings, fiancées, those divorced but still devoted – the ASYMCA was spending $10,000 a month for airline tickets to bring them to be healing presences for their loved ones. The ASYMCA senior director also cajoles and prevails upon the San Diego Hotel and Motel Association to guarantee rooms without charge for recently arrived families of wounded Marines. Family members frequently traveled long distances to be with their loved ones, whose recovery continues for many months. For far too long, they sometimes had to sleep in their cars for weeks at a time, a practice no longer necessary. San Diego is an expensive city in which to secure decent accommodations.
Families arriving from small towns in a big and strange city find themselves in a labyrinthine complex with their loved ones, who have suddenly returning as poly-trauma, permanently injured, combat-wounded Marines. Even after becoming outpatients, these Marines often continue seeing half a dozen specialists on an on-going basis as they endure recovery times that often span a year, two years, and even longer. A patient’s schedule of medical appointments for a single week can easily fill two single-spaced pages of text. Patients and families arriving for the first time are baffled by the size and complexity of the huge military hospital and often don’t know where to turn to find their way. I organized and trained volunteers to meet every Medevac patient and their family to make sure non-medical needs are met immediately with resources gathered by the ASYMCA: a place to stay, access to pre-paid telephone cards, places to get the best inexpensive food, economical rental cars, the key people to answer specific questions, and airline tickets for far-away loved ones.
I am serving in the Critical Combat Casualty and Complex Care program, what we call “C5,” and am the ASYMCA Liaison on the quality team of forty or so professionals who review each patient’s case on a weekly basis. For every incoming and ongoing inpatient, we consider one-by-one: Are we sure we are doing everything we can for this combat-wounded Marine in our care and for the associated needs of his or her family? This weekly task helped draw me closer to the lives of these Marines and their families, but even more, I have deepened my understanding through another important assignment.
The Marine Wounded Warrior Battalion West asked me to help recovering patients write brief autobiographies. I established a writing workshop for these young combat-injured Marines, mostly 19 to 23 years in age, who have had no previous success with writing. To entice them to get their stories written down, I use an interview technique in which I listen to their words, to what’s not said, to what’s between the words, and write it all down. Then I check with them about what I have written and correct it. Nothing leaves our sessions without their approval. The material is theirs, and only they control its distribution. These histories are vital tools that will influence their future assignments or promotions, their school admissions, and their employment. Recovery for many, especially with amputations, takes many months or even years. They need statements that stress what they can do rather than what they can’t. And in 20 or 30 years, they will be grateful to have records of what happened to them in Afghanistan, which they can share with their families,
Though my anger with our government abides, I must avoid talking about it if I want to continue to be welcome at the hospital. So my anger has simmered for several years, and has never reached a boiling point. But something else appears to have happened in the mean time. Some of my anger has been transformed. It has re-emerged as compassion and respect for the strength of the patients I work with. There is no self-pity in their stories. There is no “why me?” There is no ranting complaint about misdiagnoses, or misplaced medical records, or prolonged and agonizing decisions about whether or not to amputate a limb – even though such things happen.
My rage – at the blundering, betraying leadership and mob mentality that have brought us to where we are – has led me into an unexpected process that resembles an ancient longing. The ancient dream of alchemy was a search for ways to transmute base elements into ones of enduring value, turning lead into gold was the lure. In a sense, a modern form of alchemy has occurred in me. A portion of my once-all-consuming rage has been transmuted.
Rage doesn’t any longer dominate all of what I think and do. Zeal, energy, and fervor remain, but the contagious power of dominant fury has been slowed. My attention now goes toward reading the hearts and discerning the thoughts of those not accustomed to speaking of individual matters, who are enlarging their vocabularies, baring their hearts, discovering their own new insights, revealing newly-found determination, and telling their unique stories.
Over three million young persons have circulated through our armed forces in the Middle East over the past ten years, and among them, some 500,000 or more have emerged with invisible wounds, especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Their families are now destined for long-term, possibly lifetime, care of loved ones who have come back to them as strangers – bearing invisible legacies of moral injuries, crippled consciences, persistently jarring intermingling of the past and the present, and repeated reliving of traumas.
I have often asked myself, as I hold at bay the sense of betrayal that once immobilized me: How can my experience be of value to others? I daydream of a volunteer corps of alert and informed civilian listeners, who can serve as resources to the heartbroken, troubled, and frustrated family members of aching veterans. They would be bartenders, church and synagogue and mosque members, service club representatives, barbers, hair stylists, and manicurists – those to whom troubled hearts often open. They would be organized into a completely new network of referral to valid helpful resources by someone who has the energy I once had fifty years ago.
Twenty-year olds who will never again find “home” where they left it are working on getting their bearings. They are rediscovering what “belonging” really means. Twenty-year olds, who unlike many of their civilian peers have looked death in the eye and survived, are mining new veins of resilience, like their brothers and sisters who have gone before. Even as we ponder how to learn from one another, young Marines and soldiers who have seen the death of youthful dreams are weaving mature ones. Those without legs are learning to walk without a chair, crutches, or a cane, and even to stand with no other support.
It’s hard to find a more appropriate word than alchemy at work in me. A previously powerless and enraged citizen tries to help those unfamiliar with writing learn how to put personal expressive words on paper. Bones do grow back together and flesh wounds heal; growing bone stumps in severed arms and legs delay the fitting of prosthetics; multiple medications continue their mischievous side effects; severed nerves slow-o-o-wly reconnect; brains unsteadily recover from extreme impacts –but healing proceeds. My rage is tempered by the mysterious osmosis of the resilience of these young men and is somehow transmuted into compassion and admiration. My friends don’t avoid me as they once did. Something basic has changed.
No matter how politically incorrect it is, I’ll seek what both Isaac Newton and John Donne, seventeenth-century cohorts of George Fox, sought but didn’t find: how to turn lead into gold. For me, rage is transmuted as I witness determination, new dreams, and mature-beyond-their-years plans expressed in the midst of pummeled psyches, shattered bones, visible and invisible wounds, and never-imagined futures. Rage is transmuted – as I see that our collective national actions deprive any soldier of a limb, a sense, a faculty, an ability, or a sensitivity. I see those are tragedies, but as I also see that those matters redefine young futures, yet don’t doom them. Alchemy it is. ♦
Burton Housman became a Quaker while in Japan after WWII as a member of the U.S. Navy, where he helped rebuild a shattered land that was formerly the enemy. He is a member of La Jolla Monthly Meeting, where he serves as co-recording clerk. He also serves on the PYM Discipline Committee, where he actively pursues a renewed respect for – and an accelerated revision of – the Queries.