by EDGAR L. JONES
MARK CARROLL was a kid with braces on his teeth when he joined the Army. Because of his brilliant high school record, he was selected for college training and an eventual commission. When the Army had more need for ammunition carriers than future officers, Mark was transferred to the infantry and sent to Europe. Two shell fragments during the Battle of the Bulge caught Mark without a foxhole for protection. One shattered both bones in his right leg; the other tore through his face, taking with it his teeth, which had cost so much to have straightened, a part of his tongue, and most of his chin.
Today, as he rounds out two years in Army hospitals, Mark looks to be thirty or thirty-five. The holes in his cheek have been filled in, and skin grafts have been employed to reline his mouth and gums. His jaws, formerly broken in eight places, no longer have to be wired together, and future operations will give him a makeshift chin. In the vernacular of the wounded, Mark is a plastics case, and so is his chum Hal, who is called The Nose because he lacks one. And so also is Freddie, whose head was reduced to the size of a man’s hand by an explosion, and Lennie, who could not sleep because his eyelids were burned off.
Dougherty is a neuro case. The nerves which controlled his leg action were destroyed by machinegun bullets which caught him from behind. The surgeon bet ten dollars that he could rectify Dougherty’s sexual impotency, but he lost the bet to another doctor, who had maintained all along that the experiment was pointless under the circumstances. Even at that, Dougherty considers himself much better off than his friend Bill, who lost his power of speech, as well as the use of an arm and a leg. Bill had completed three years of college before the war and was considered a mathematical genius. In the past two years he has relearned, with great difficulty, to count to ten.
Cahill is a paraplegic, which means that the lower half of his body is completely paralyzed. A shell fragment hit his spine and left him without any sense of feeling from the waist down. Interested in surgery, he watches the reflection of the doctors on the bright surfaces of the operating room lamps as they cut into his abdomen and insert tubes in his kidneys and bladder. Sometimes his legs get the spasms and jerk about wildly without his knowing it, unless he happens to be looking. One night his left leg flung itself on top of a hot radiator. The following morning, much to Cahill’s surprise, a nurse discovered that the leg was badly burned, so they had to move his bed to the center of the ward.
Tony is a psycho case, which sets him apart from the others, in a ward with a guard at the door. Tony and his running mate, Aaron, were sent to a forward foxhole to stand guard through a Normandy night. Apparently Aaron stuck his head up and had it taken off. When Tony was found in the morning, he was cuddling the head in his arms and mumbling Aaron’s name over and over. That was more than two years ago, and Tony still rolls his pillow into a ball, hugs it to his chest, and mumbles Aaron’s name over and over. He also cries when he hears “Dixie,” and runs his hands across his lips, which has led the doctors to guess that Aaron was a harmonica player.
I met Mark, Dougherty, Cahill, and the others in an Army hospital, where a man with four limbs and a face feels extremely self-conscious these days. I went back again and again, yet I still have only a half-formed impression of what it must be like to be relegated to the world of the living dead. It appeared to be an easy assignment at first, because I was familiar with the attitude of most of our wartime GI’s. I thought the common experiences which we had shared in the past would serve as a bond between the wounded and myself. But I was a whole man, and a free man, which made me an outsider among the officers and enlisted men who are still fighting the battles of Salerno, Leyte, and the Bulge.
The post-war world which I represented has no meaning for the badly wounded. Not peace, but the scalpel, has been their reward for military service, and the war will not be over for them until they have fought their way back into free society. Each operation for them is another D Day; each faltering step a forced march; each visit to town a night mission in hostile territory. They have suffered through unnumbered nights of twitching pain and unseen horrors, yet time stopped for them with the smack of metal against their flesh. The past is best forgotten, lest it set a man to thinking, and the future is a nightmare of the pain yet to come.
Walking among those pajama-clad fragments of men who suck at life through a straw, I realized how lacking in understanding I was to expect them to be anything like the GI’s I used to know. They are no longer the vigorously profane, unfearing individuals who cursed with inspired fervor the joint stupidity of the military, the home front, and anyone else presumed to be responsible for sending them to war. They are subdued, introspective men, anxious to make the most of what is left for them and of them. With a dozen operations behind them, and as many more to come, they concentrate now on only one thing: their day of liberation.
Outwardly, the wounded are as cheerful as a pack of Pollyannas. They have to be, because their own morale, as well as that of their neighbors, is dependent upon putting up a good show of inner contentment. But the whole man can read their thoughts in the eyes of those who are fortunate enough to have eyes. He can feel them saying, “That’s what we want, Brother: to be like you; to get out of here and be free; to walk, talk, and hold a woman in our arms; to get a job and be independent; to go to the latrine by ourselves, cut our own meat and chew it, and sit in a bus without everyone pretending not to stare. You got our dream — the chance to live again as a human being.”
MARK CARROLL assured me that men like him do not hold grudges against those of us who came through the war unscarred. He said that one of his mother’s friends, while he was home on sick leave between operations, tried to slip him five dollars. The woman explained that her own son had come back unharmed, and she wanted to make it up to Mark somehow. Mark refused the money and told her she had the wrong idea about the wounded. “We all went into the thing with the same odds against us. Some of us had tough breaks, but that was to be expected. We don’t resent another man’s luck. The whole thing’s over and done with, and we aren’t wasting our time moaning about it.”
Maybe Mark can accept a bad break and forget about it, but I often wonder about the men who can blame their conditions on something besides the impersonal odds of battle. I am thinking particularly of three of the paraplegics, one of whom was paralyzed for life by the rifle shot of a French woman sniper, the second by the pistol shot of an American MP (who later acknowledged his mistake), and the third by the collapse of a German building in which he was sight-seeing; and also of Fred, whose abdomen was crushed by a fifty-ton bulldozer which was inadvertently backed over him at Okinawa. Fred has the most time to think, because he has been in bed for thirteen months without a visitor. Fred is a Negro, and his folks have been able to make the long trip to see him on only one occasion.
The wounded seldom voice their real thoughts, unless you happen to catch them off guard in a moment of depression. They usually have a brightly philosophical remark on tap to ward off any expression of pity on the part of an outsider. Dougherty, for example, brushed aside his blighted future (which includes the rancor of having his girl walk out on him) by saying, “After all, there are other things in life besides sex.” And Paul Hoffner, who lost an eye, nose, and part of an arm in the Philippines, summed up his battle experiences by adding, “So, I’m not over there under a white cross, and life does have its sweet moments, you know.”
I did not ask Paul what he had found sweet during his last two years in hospitals, but I did question Dougherty a bit more, after we had become friends. “We put on quite a show with all this sweetness and light,” Dougherty said, “and some of us really mean it, especially in the daytime. With other guys around, talking and laughing, you feel pretty good about being alive; after hobnobbing with death a lot, as we have, you get to appreciate a lot of little things, including your neighbors, and there doesn’t seem to be any percentage in being a sour puss all the time. But the nights can be hell. If the lights are out, and you can’t sleep, and you’re all alone with yourself, the nights can be pure, undiluted, miserable hell!”
As we were talking, a palsied, expressionless caricature of a man came shuffling by Dougherty’s bed, moving less than ten steps per minute with the aid of a cane. Dougherty looked at him and said in a loud voice, “There goes the most yellow-bellied, slinking coward in the whole damned ward.” I was embarrassed, because the fellow could not help hearing us, but Dougherty went on to explain himself. “We’re trying to shake that boy up a bit. He’s bad for himself and bad for the rest of us. He feels sorry for himself and won’t try to get better. We don’t have much chance to work on him, because his wife is here practically all day long, and she babies him to deat h. Of course he’s bad off, but he has one arm that’s okay, and that is more than some guys have.
“If there is a new nurse on duty, he’s the type who pretends that he can’t shave himself or handle a knife and fork. Maybe you think it’s cruel of us to call him names, but we can’t stand a bird who is full of self-pity, and maybe we can shame him into being a good sport. Like President Roosevelt once said, it takes guts to fight from a hospital bed, and sometimes it takes more guts than any one of us has. So we pool our courage and pretend that everything’s rosy, and a sad sack like that one only fouls up the spirit of the ward. But we are going to get out of here, even if we have to crawl on our hands and knees and drag whoosie there along with us by the scruff of his neck!”
ALTHOUGH it may take several more years of patching, sewing, and splicing, many of the men with whom I talked will eventually obtain their cherished freedom. That goal was already in sight for Louie Tigh, who had been wheeled off to the operating room on nineteen occasions and has only six more “cuts” to go. It was much farther off for young Freddie, the kid whose head was reduced to the size of a man’s hand. Freddie was riding in an M-2 half-track on one of General Patton’s daring thrusts across France, and the German artillery scored a direct hit. Private Freddie was hauled out of the fire by a sergeant who died later of shock, and that is about all that Freddie remembers.
Freddie’s face, ears, eyes, nose, and hands were all but burned off. His insides were twisted “like spaghetti on a fork” by the fierce heat and concussion of the explosion, while his body spouted blood from countless shrapnel holes. The medics kept Freddie alive with whole blood and flew him to England, where he was encased in a plaster cast from head to thigh and fed intravenously. In that dark and lonely condition (it was five months before he saw the light of day), Freddie says he was helpless as a baby. “I guess others were worse than me,” he explains, “but they didn’t quit, so I didn’t.”
After four months and nine operations, one of the toughest of which involved the rearrangement of his abdominal organs, Freddie was flown to a hospital in this country. When he arrived in March, 1945, the nurses say he was like a “tiny old man — all thin and shriveled.” By the time I had started my visits, however, Freddie was well along the road to rehabilitation. His arms and hands were not fixed, so someone still had to feed him and hold an occasional cigarette to his lips, but his legs and feet were rebuilt, which meant that he could get around by himself.
The plastic surgeons had used big patches of skin from Freddie’s back and thighs to give him a face. New skin was growing from his forehead to the back of his neck; his ears were nearly restored; the foundations of a nose were taking shape, and work on his eyes was in progress. To replace one of his thumbs, the bone specialists had used a strip of silver as an artificial bone, an addition which has prompted Freddie’s ward mates to refer to him as the “most valuable” member of their society. But they summed up his real value to them when they said that “Freddie won’t quit”; because as long as Freddie does not give up hope, the spirits of the men in neighboring beds will ride along with his.
As Freddie says himself, he will be all right “in a coupla years,” and that is all that matters now. Men wounded as badly as that do not let their minds dwell on the war or pass their time in contemplation of where they might be today if their luck had been better. When they think of the past two or three years, they do it only as a measure of the progress they have made toward their day of liberation from helping hands and pity. They know that brooding only leads in one direction: a bed beside Tony in the ward with a guard at the door.
Lennie, the turret gunner who had his eyelids burned off, will also be through with doctors in a couple of years. Lennie bailed out of a Liberator over Budapest with his face and hair ablaze and a gunshot wound in one leg. Lying in the Royal Hungarian Hospital, unable to sleep, Lennie absorbed the will to live from a teen-aged American on the next stretcher to his. Although dying in great pain, the kid did not let the enemy soldiers hear a sound from him during his waking hours. But during the night, according to Lennie, the kid constantly repeated in his sleep, “It doesn’t hurt, Mom; it really looks worse than it is.”
The kid died and Lennie lived. When the Russians threatened Budapest, all the American wounded were evacuated from the hospital except Lennie, who was left behind for an eye operation. As soon as he was well enough to get around, Lennie joined the Hungarian underground and later fought with the Russians in their block by block campaign through the city streets. Wounded twice more, he was taken to a Russian hospital, where the Red Army made S/Sgt Lennie a major and gave him the Order of the Guard. If an American bomber had not landed at Budapest with express orders to bring Lennie home, he would have stayed on with the Russians until the end of the war.
Lennie found the Russians to be “vigorous, lusty, wonderful people,” and not just because they kept him full of vodka and made him a major. In his spare time between operations, Lennie lectures to men’s smokers and women’s clubs about the danger of the current talk of war with Russia, which he says is merely propaganda which originated in Germany. Lennie is always willing to present himself as an object lesson in the unpleasant aspects of modern warfare. With his hair burned off, his face badly scarred, his eyes reduced to small slits and his ears and nose to red nubbins, he should make anyone think twice about sending youngsters off to war.
Lennie’s concern about the prospects of war with Russia is unusual among the seriously wounded. Most of them have enough to think about already, without taking on the worries of the outside world. Neither GI’s nor civilians, their isolated existence makes it difficult for them to maintain an interest in politics, or strikes, or shortages, or anything else which has no bearing on how much longer they are going to be cut, jabbed, and wheeled about like babies. Their former bitterness about the war has lost its flavor. As a boy with half a face put it, “We used to love to gripe about how things were being run, but it don’t mean anything to us any more.”
Any type of reading for many of them has become a bore, just as leather work and hooking rugs have become bores. They used to follow the war news in papers and magazines, participating vicariously in the activities of their old outfits, but they have grown tired of trying to keep up with the lives of others. After their former buddies came marching home, there was little in the news of which they felt a part. They have even found it difficult to continue in their devotion to the comic strips, because they lose so much of the continuity each time they are wheeled away to be cut. There is nothing unusual about this; the same sort of mental stagnation overtook men on small, by-passed Pacific islands.
Hal, who is called The Nose, fought off mental inertia for more than a year. He studied a lot in preparation for Harvard, where he has been accepted for admission, and he wrote poetry for the hospital newspaper. In the intervals between half a dozen operations, he was always known as a ready man for a serious discussion, but gradually his friends detected a change in his personality. To allow time for a flap of skin to take hold around his mouth, Hal had to keep his head bent against a shoulder for six weeks, and that got him out of the habit of reading and talking. Then, for another six-week stretch, he had one arm bound to his forehead while a tube of flesh and blood was extended from the arm to a spot where his new nose will be, and that seemed to make him morose and cranky.
His friends hastily point out that Hal hasn’t quit on them; he is only the victim of the type of isolation which makes a man a “prisoner of his own thoughts.” Those six-week stretches of pain deadened his spirits, just as they have deadened the spirits of many other men. Most skin grafts take that length of time and mean a continual burning sensation — both in the old spot, where the skin came from, and the new spot, where it is growing. And the same sort of pain is experienced by the men who wait for the spliced ends of nerves to heal. While the results of such operations are often truly wonderful, the wounded take issue with those outsiders who publicize modern surgery as a magic wand which heals overnight.
A PART of the wounded’s seeming disinterest in life beyond their hospital grounds is a deliberate attempt on their part to close their minds to those things which they cannot have. “Why should I read papers and books and other things and torment myself?” asked Frank, who had been curled up uncomfortably for twenty days and nights, waiting for a piece of skin from his forearm to grow over a hole near his ankle. “I don’t have to be reminded of the good things I am missing. Baseball is my real meat, but the hell with reading about it, if I can never play again myself. I’d much rather forget the whole thing than read about the good times others are having.”
John Lee took a different slant on the question. “My heart bleeds — in a pig’s fanny—for the poor people on the outside,” John said. “They have so many terrible troubles. The papers and magazines are always full of their gripes, squawks, and woes. I don’t read the stuff any more; it makes me so sad — and also madder’n bejesus, because they don’t know when they’re well off!” John’s case is rather pathetic, anyway, because he will never walk again. A bomb slipped from a rack in the plane he was helping to load and crushed his back. He did not have to load the plane. His missions completed, he was only giving his former crewmen a helping hand while waiting for a plane to take him back to the States.
And Dougherty added his observations to those of the others. “A hospital,” he pointed out, “is the only military installation where you won’t find a lot of pin-up gals, sexy magazines, and hot novels. There are too many guys in here like myself who are either too ugly now to get a woman, or who couldn’t make love to her if they got one. Pictures of fleshy women and stories with a lot of loving in them only make us miserable. A young fellow can get awful sour, reading about parties, dancing, love affairs, and happy homes with kids in ‘em.”
I don’t know why it should be so, but nearly all the wounded with whom I talked were young and unmarried. The average age of the eighty-four paraplegics in the hospital, for example, was only twenty-three. It seemed ghastly to me that so many young fellows should have been cut down and crippled before they had a chance to get started in life, but they considered their youth and single status to be a great blessing, pointing out how terrible it would be to have someone dependent upon them in their present condition. They claimed that having a family would only be an added worry, and that being young made it easier to adjust themselves to their disabilities and find a new life.
As an example of the adaptability of youth versus old age, the wounded pointed to Val and Chambers, both of whom are blind. Val, thirty-five years old and a former railroad brakeman, got his at Leyte, where a knee mortar exploded in his face. Chambers, a dozen years his junior, was a freak casualty. A German rifle bullet screamed past his face without leaving a scratch, except to break both lenses of his glasses. When the sharp fragments of glass flew inward, Chambers fell senseless on his face, thereby pushing the jagged particles still further into his pupils. Both men were wounded at approximately the same time, yet Chambers is now ready for the outside world, while Val remains a groping invalid.
Chambers is going to be a piano tuner. To hear him play the “Moonlight Sonata,” you would never guess that a little more than a year ago he could not play a note. He learned to play the piano in the hospital, where he also learned to get around by himself. He goes home on week-ends to New York and has no trouble with subways, buses, or crossing streets. Val, on the other hand, has been home only once, with a guide by his side all the way. Val does not know what to do for a living. He loves railroading and was all set for a job in the shops after the war. While he has proved himself handy in recent months at leather work, he dislikes the thought of making pocket-books for the rest of his life. He feels lost, and rather helpless.
Any comparison between the two is actually unfair to Val, because he has had to undergo a long series of operations which have kept him in bed. Yet the younger man does seem to have the situation more in hand. Chambers, moreover, has had the added advantage of going through the Army’s school for the blind at Avon, Connecticut, which Val will attend later. The school has been publicized for its training in facial vision, or the ability to sense the presence of unseen obstacles in one’s path, but Chambers says it’s a bunch of mularkey. “They don’t teach you this so-called sixth sense,” Chambers says. “They tell you that you’ve got it and expect you to believe it.
“There was a tree down at Avon that we kept running into, and they’d bawl us out if we were, quote, so lacking in faith, unquote, as to put an arm up to protect our noggins. So we pretended to rely on nasal vision, or whatever they call their magic, but actually we kept track of how many steps we had taken from the porch, listened for the sound of the leaves, and ducked when the time came. A blind man depends mostly on sounds, not invisible rays. They had a lot of screwy ideas at Avon anyway — like not wanting me to be a piano tuner. They discourage veterans from taking up the traditional occupations of the blind. If you’re blind, though, you’re blind, and there is no use kidding yourself about studying hard and becoming the world’s greatest lawyer or something.”
IN ANY Army hospital, the doctors and nurses urge their patients to get out into civilization as much as possible. They know that too much hospital is bad for a youngster and makes it all the harder for him to adjust himself to the outside world later on. If they are reasonably close to home, the wounded visit with their parents or relatives between operations; if not, they go to a near-by town for an afternoon or evening of recreation. Sometimes they get drunk, fall, and break their crutches, but the hospital staff is usually lenient, putting more blame on bartenders than on the men who drink to forget.
Some men like to get away from the hospital; others stay away for a day and long to be back. The hospital, to the latter, is their own private world. They may become bored with its routine activities, but once outside, they quickly realize that the tempo of hospital life is geared to their limited capabilities. People on the outside, they say, arc in too much of a hurry all the time, and a man on crutches gets lost in the shuffle. There are no stairs or streetcar steps to get up and down in a hospital; traffic moves slowly, and a wheel chair will get a man to the library, PX, gym, or music room. Most important of all, a fellow in a hospital is with other men who are disabled or disfigured like himself. Outside those friendly walls, he feels conspicuous, awkward, alone, and afraid.
I asked Mark Carroll how he felt about people staring at him. When Mark first started going out, his chin was an aluminum cup into which his saliva continually dripped. “No one gave us the tipoff before we left the grounds,” he said, “but we gradually learned to stare right back at people — maybe a little too defiantly at first, but it probably was what the gawkers deserved. You know, it would be better if people talked to us, instead of just staring. After all, we’re vets, and we don’t mind a little genuine recognition. I’ve had a lot of trouble, though, with drunks pestering me, and with old ladies who say, ‘Whatsa matter with you, Sonny? Do you have an impacted wisdom tooth?’”
Mark, as I suggested earlier, is a remarkably welladjusted youngster. Some of the other wounded hate being stared at so much that they never leave the hospital, except for those rare occasions when a hundred or more of them are hauled off to a baseball game or a special matinee. They prefer to remain among people who take their limitations for granted and do not make them feel like cripples — a word they despise. A number of them, upon discharge, have begged to remain as civilian employees in the hospital environment, and one of them, upon returning to civilian life, committed suicide. By shooting himself through the scar of his former wound, he finished the job which the Germans had left half done. At least, that is how he explained it in his note.
When I first talked with Jake, the Virginia steamfitter, he had not been home in four years. He wanted to go badly enough, but home was a thousand miles away, and it had taken sixty pints of whole blood and plasma, plus nearly 2000 penicillin injections, to get Jake to the point where he could walk across the ward by himself. Shell fragments tore away half of Jake’s hips and left his legs twisted and powerless. He suffered through months of a peculiar type of agonizing pain known as causalgia, which turns up in approximately 2 per cent of all cases of nerve injuries. Although he was hit in the hips, Jake’s uninjured left foot had a burning, crushing, griping sensation which hurt so much that he could not stand to have a sheet touch it.
As soon as Jake had the strength to survive another operation, the surgeons relieved his causalgia by performing a sympathectomy, which involved cutting the nerve fibers leading to blood vessels and sweat glands in Jake’s foot. He felt pretty good for a while after that, and then he developed kidney stones, a common ailment among those who are confined to bed for long periods. (Dougherty was just feeling the pain from his first stone while I was there, and Fred, the Negro with the crushed abdomen, had three or four of them.) Despite his kidney trouble, the hospital made arrangements to fly Jake home for Christmas in December, 1945. The doctors thought the change would do him good, and Jake was sure of it.
The day before Jake was to leave, however, a stone dropped into his ureter and became lodged there. He sweated through a night of pain, finally had to tell the doctor about it, and spent his Christmas in the operating room. When I talked with him months later, Jake was discouraged. He could move around rather freely with the help of a cane and braces, but he did not bother to go into town for outside recreation. He could not drink or dance; his hips made sitting in a movie too uncomfortable, and there was always the danger that another stone might become stuck in his ureter. He was wondering what type of work he could do, if and when he got out of the hospital. Steamfitting was the only trade he knew.
On one of my last visits to the hospital, I noticed that Jake’s bed was empty. The Kid from Brooklyn was sitting near-by in a wheel chair, so I asked him what the story was. (The Kid has aphasia, as well as paralysis of both legs, and of the first twenty words that came back to him, fifteen were indecent.) The Kid was so excited that he said twice as much as ever before, and half of it was intelligible. It seemed that Jake had passed all six of his remaining stones and was home on a furlough. Judging by the contortions which The Kid used to describe Jake’s achievement, his labor pains must have been fearful to watch, but Jake was home at last.
THE patients most dependent upon constant medical care are the paraplegics. The rest of the wounded have their moments of freedom, but the paraplegics in many cases are chained to a pair of plastic tubes. One tube carries a septic solution into their paralyzed bladder and kidneys; the other returns the discharge to a bottle on the floor. With the nerve supply to these organs cut off, the danger of internal infection is always present, and two other disabilities, kidney stones and bedsores, are almost certain by-products of prolonged immobilization. To top off their troubles, the paraplegics sometimes get the spastic jerks in their dead limbs so badly that the nerves and tendons to or in the legs have to be cut.
During the First World War, all the paraplegics died, but the techniques for handling them improved so rapidly that between 2500 and 3000 of them were saved this time. Those saved were rushed to special medical centers in this country, where the paraplegic sections were actually hospitals within hospitals, with their own workshops, recreation rooms, physiotherapy tubs and tables, and ambulation rooms. Thanks to new types of treatments, the Army expects one third of its paraplegics to recover sufficiently to walk out of the hospital on their own two feet. The rest will remain confined to crutches and wheel chairs, with a nurse close by.
While paraplegics used to be treated as permanently bedridden and given only passive exercise, the neurosurgeons of today have found that the best cure is to get their patients moving around by themselves as soon as possible. For reasons that remain unexplained, any type of activity on the part of a paraplegic produces some improvement in his nervous, muscular, and digestive systems. Although wheel chairs are the only means of self-locomotion possible for those injured above the tenth dorsal vertebra, those fortunate enough to be hit below that spot can learn to walk with crutches and leg braces. Then it is only a matter of trying to keep busy and waiting to see if some degree of life will return to the kidneys, bladder, intestines, and legs.
Cahill, when I talked with him, had high hopes of getting considerably better in the next few years. For a while he could not move his arms, but the feeling gradually returned to them and made it possible for him to learn to walk —first between parallel bars and later with the aid of braces and crutches. After five operations in the past year, his kidneys and bowels function fairly regularly of their own accord, even though Cahill cannot feel them functioning. This milestone in his recovery has meant freedom for brief intervals from the tubes and jars which have kept him close to his bed for nearly three years. It is now theoretically possible for him to go home on week-ends.
“I’ve tried going home, but it did not work very well,” Cahill said. “A fellow’s bodily functions may not be a pleasant subject for conversation, yet they are all-important to us paraplegics. You see, I can’t tell when I’ve had a BM, and that makes it difficult in polite society, and I also have to wear a tube down one leg to take care of the flow in that department. The last time I went home, I forgot to close the spigot at the end of the tube. The folks thought it was the new little dog which wasn’t housebroken, but I knew better. So I stay around here now — it’s really easier, and the nurses are used to us.”
Cahill, incidentally, was the only one among the wounded who had been given a rough deal by the medics. The others had nothing except praise for the Corps, and Cahill had, too, excluding one outfit in England which did not want to be bothered with a paraplegic. The GI’s in that one particular unit did not take the trouble to turn Cahill over at regular intervals or to change his sheets, with the result that he developed huge bedsores which weakened him considerably. They also let him go without an enema for long periods, so that he felt bloated and miserable.
In the hospital that I visited, between two and three hundred men were there to receive preventive treatment for post-traumatic convulsive disorders. Army surgeons predict that 10 to 40 per cent of the men who have had penetrating head injuries will sooner or later develop epilepsy, or convulsive attacks. The scar tissue in the brain at the site of their former injuries will contract, pull on adjacent brain matter, and cause “puckering,” which is associated with the spasms suffered by epileptics. To prevent this, the surgeons remove the brain scars and reheal the wound by a new method which does away with dangerous scar tissue.
ALTHOUGH the war is not over for them, the wounded are well aware that GI’s and casualties are no longer popular subjects in the outside world. They have seen the enlisted men on the hospital staff receive their discharge papers and walk out as free men. Their favorite doctors in a number of instances have returned to civilian practice. Their pet nurses have waved good-bye and favored them, months later, with wedding announcements. Their friends among the Red Cross volunteers have dropped out of sight, and only an occasional big-name entertainer now bothers to give them a free show. Manufacturers no longer send them part-time work to do, a wartime expedient which enabled the men to feel gainfully employed. And the most telling blow of all, they no longer have so many visitors or so much mail.
Jake, who had not been home in four years, remarked upon how much he missed the Sunday afternoon visits of the people who lived near the hospital. He said that the visitors were usually strangers to him, but that he enjoyed their “fluttering friendliness, their candy, and the crazy hats the women wore.” Sundays, he added, had now become the loneliest day in the week for him. And as soon as he said it, he hastily made one point clear: “I’m not complaining, believe me. It’s only natural that the people on the outside want to forget the unpleasantness of the war. We’ll never get over how swell they were to us, and a feller can’t expect folks to go on forever doing nice things for us shut-ins who don’t know there’s a peace on.”
The wounded may laugh when they ask the question, but they arc more than half serious when they inquire of an outsider, “Are we still heroes, or have we become burdens on society?” They have felt the marked change in the public’s reaction to the returning soldier. There are no more cheers and parades for the vets, they say; it’s moans and groans now about what to do with them all. No one has to tell the wounded that their chances of getting a good job are decreasing with each passing day, yet their high morale, as far as I could discover, is dependent almost exclusively on their determination to do a full day’s work upon their release and prove to the world that they are not “cripples.”
I did not meet a single man wdio did not believe that some day he was going to get out and hold down a steady job. It is this one abiding faith which keeps the wounded looking ahead instead of backward. Much as they want to see the last of hospitals, however, many of them have to wait months for the final “cuts” which will ready them for discharge. With the Army’s rapid demobilization of medical personnel and hospital facilities, the surgeons still on duty have to devote the bulk of their time to those men whose conditions warrant immediate attention. They can give only a low priority to those others who merely need an ear, or a chin, or part of a nose to make them more presentable.
With medical treatment under the Army slacking off, the wounded have been confronted with the possibility of being transferred to a hospital under the Veterans Administration, a prospect which they dread. To them, such a move would be the final break with the outside world, tantamount to being cast into limbo. They would no longer be uniformed soldiers; they would be hidden away among the lost relics of this past war, and the one before that, and the one before that. They prefer to stay in familiar surroundings, where they know how far the discipline will stretch, and to have their work done by doctors whom they know and trust. They prefer, in short, to stay as close as possible to the living world and to go on dreaming that we on the outside are waiting to receive them with open arms and a secure job.
While I have been writing their story, the wounded have kept me informed by mail of the latest developments in their world. The dreaded news has already arrived for them — the Army is closing their hospital in another month and turning the installation over to the Veterans Administration. In preparation for the approaching change, the wounded have been divided into three categories: those who will remain as civilian patients under the new administration, those who will be transferred to other Army hospitals, and those who will be discharged.
One would expect that the men who will receive an immediate discharge would be the happiest of all, but such is not the case. Many of them needed only a few more “cosmetic operations” to improve their appearance — a bit of skin here, or some cartilage there. But the Army doctors have told them that it may be six months or a year before they can get onto any surgeon’s operating schedule, so they might just as well return to civilian life and hope that they can eventually find a Veterans Administration doctor to finish them up. With no danger of complications setting in, their cases are no longer a military responsibility. They are to have their freedom at last, but not in the way that they visualized it for themselves. Instead of going boldly back into society, they will seek out the dark corners which do not throw too much light on the scars that no one has had time to fix up.