Life on the Pentagon's Dirt Heap

Fred Reed
Issue CCLXXX - March 6, 2011
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You see them here and there, usually in countries where they can afford to live, barely—Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico. They are the Pentagon’s throwaways. There is the old guy, old now anyway, who took several rounds in one of our previous pointless wars, one in Asia, and ended in constant irremediable pain. Little was, or is, visibly wrong with him. Nerve damage is hard to see. Some parts don’t move as well as they ought, but it’s nothing he couldn’t live with.

So he gets a small disability pension and lives on ferocious pain killers, always. They make his mind gauzy and when he gets important letters from the government, such as those to see whether he is still alive and should continue getting his pension, he doesn’t understand and throws them away. He is not pleasant to be around because he tells the same stories over and over. Some VFW guys keep him from dying moaning in a crap apartment over a bar.

It was a terribly important war, though, to do something or prevent something I can no longer remember, and billions in military contracts had nothing to do with it.

Another guy, a tunnel rat while in his teen years, screams at night and rolls off his bed to avoid incoming. He was present at some atrocities which, had they been discovered, would have been isolated incidents or, today, collateral damage. He can keep them out of his head by day but at night they come. If you want a case-book example of bad PTSD, he is it and clearly, to me anyway, a victim of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant with which the military contentedly poisoned the troops. It was a war, you see. Bad things happen in wars.

The Veterans Administration does nothing, or nearly nothing, to help these guys. The VA is not a malignant organization. Almost always its employees try to do their jobs, try to help. But it is undermanned, underfunded, and technologically backward. The Pentagon is more interested in crippling new soldiers than in caring for those it has already crippled. A new and useless strategic bomber, which all involved know to be useless, is more important than some old man in a wheelchair drinking himself to death in East Pedro, Mexico. This isn’t the VA’s attitude. It is Washington’s attitude.

The rules and regulations of the VA, the forms and requirements, the inefficiency and lack of technology, are such that a vet has no hope of pushing a claim through, no matter how justified, without a very smart and tenacious lawyer or other rep to help him, and then it takes years. The average unsophisticated vet doesn’t have a moral’s chance in Congress. The impenetrable thickets of paper protect the Treasury from a massive unfunded liability. 

Many veterans of our unending witless wars are not screwed up, or at least not too screwed up. Lots are. A couple of kids in my high-school class were sent to kill—I forget; it was Mexicans or Laotians or commies or Moslems, but people who clearly needed to be killed and mutilated. I mean, if we hadn’t done it they would have invaded King George County, Virginia. These kids, perfectly normal when I saw them in biology class and on the basketball court, came back knee-crawling drunks. Here I pass over Studley, paraplegic, or Doug, who took a 12.7 through the head. He did not become a drunk. But they all served their country, whatever the hell that means.

The vets that the reading classes have heard about are the highly intelligent and talented who return and write books. I know perhaps a dozen of these. Some seem sane, others are eaten by secret demons. They are the ninety-ninth percentile. The great mass of damaged vets are inarticulate and unseen. A lot are of intelligence below the average and few are educated.

They don’t read columns on the web, or most likely anything else, and since you do, you probably wouldn’t be comfortable around them. I’m not. But the military made them what they are. Washington made them what they are. We made them what they are, by tolerating Washington and the military.

Long ago, on Cach Mang in Saigon, I went into a bar, it wasn’t Linda’s Surprise Bar but something similar, and encountered Red. This was after the GIs had left, and I was playing reporter for Army Times. Red was a hulking guy with, who would have guessed it, bushy red hair. Little red tracks of whiskey ran across his face and converged on his nose. He was just a red sort of guy. He was one of those who just didn’t fit back home in Brook Dale Estates as a security guard in a shopping center. So he ended up in Saigon to drink his pension.

“Ah’ma rifleman,” he said in the dark of the bar, slurring badly. “A rifleman.” Over and over. It was his entire conversation. I didn’t want to offend, so I waited to leave until he put his head on the bar and passed out. The mama-san watched patiently. She had seen it before.

As a nation, we don’t much like vets, especially the ruined. Some of those who are supposed to like them, or at least care about them, don’t. It can be surreal.

About a year ago I went to the VA hospital at 50 Irving St. NW in Washington to get a prescription refilled. A volunteer at the desk, black guy with the VFW, I think, asked me kindly, “Do you know why you are here?” A big VA hospital isn’t the Mayo Clinic. Guys shuffle in with little voices, cirrhosis, God knows what, malnutrition from living on the street, just old and on the way out and don’t know what is wrong. And the VA folk, almost always, are decent folk. We’re not talking IRS or TSA.

Almost always decent. I got sent to see Nurse Practitioner McNaunessy. At a military hospital you would see a doctor, but the VA is underfunded. There is nothing wrong with Nurse Practitioners, but they aren’t doctors. In rolled Nurse Practitioner McNaugahyde, who looks like a beer truck with eyes. Hostility rolled off her in waves. Oh god, I thought. This is like Hunter Thompson in drug overload. Maybe radioactive green snakes will drop from the ceiling. She proceeded to find reasons not to do anyhing that I needed done. Semper fi.

Anyway, I pulled the pill bottle from my pocket and put it on her desk. A magic marker had broken in my pocket some time before, and the bottle’s label had reddish stains on it. She looked hostilely at the bottle, and then hostilely at me. Then she ostentatiously grabbed a Kleenex and picked up the bottle with revulsion.

It dawned on me: She thinks the stains are blood. I felt like lying and yelling, “Yes, Nurse Practitioner McNanowatt, you’ve caught me. Yes, I spent last night in a plastic miniskirt and nine-inch heels, slitting the throats of innocent prostitutes in Northeast, and got blood on my pill bottle. I confess!” 

But I didn’t. No guts. But…for this we wore the uniform?

Fred Reed has worked on the staff of the Army Times, The Washingtonian, Soldier of Fortune, Federal Computer Week, and The Washington Times, and has been published in Playboy, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Harper's, National Review, Signal, and Air&Space. He has served in the Marines, worked as a police writer, technology editor, military specialist, and as an authority on mercenary soldiers. See Fred's homepage, Fred On Everything.

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