DETROIT–One October night in 1970, Henry Verner, a 21-year-old Army operations sergeant from St. Louis, was asleep in his hooch.
Viet Cong fire ripped through his 69th Engineers unit in BinhThuy.
Verner woke up severely wounded in a hospital in Japan. Shrapnel had pierced his right rear skull, causing a coma, temporary blindness, headaches, ringing in the ears and balance problems.
Thirty-three years later in his modern office high in Detroit’s McNamara Federal Building, Verner looks and sounds like any other well-dressed, well-spoken businessman. It is only when he turns his head that the mottled bulge of his scalp shows.
“It never healed,” he says simply. “You live with it. But it never goes away.”
For a service member, it could be a fall off a truck. A slip on a ship deck. A too-hard parachute jump. Or a near-fatal wound from enemy fire.
No matter how well-prepared American troops are in the Persian Gulf, warn Verner and other vets, they don’t realize that the physical and emotional impact of combat will remain with them for a lifetime.
Of 25 million living veterans, 2.3 million are classified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as having a disability they got in the service. And because 6.7 million who served in past decades are now swamping VA hospitals, younger soldiers who come home hurt may find long waits for care.
So Verner and fellow vet John Terry have advice for today’s troops:
Stay in touch with your military buddies, in case you need each other one day.
And if you’re hurt, get a report in writing.
“Over there, your adrenaline is flowing so hard, and you’re so scared, and you do extraordinary things,” says Terry, who was an infantryman with the 101st Airborne division on the front lines in the 1990 Persian Gulf War.
Injured in a night parachute jump at Ft. Campbell, Ky., he remembers that constant low back pain seemed unimportant when he was shipped to Iraq at age 22. Although the injury eventually ended his Army career, it was just part of his toughness then.
“Staying in shape is what you do. You might have pain and injuries, but you just keep going because you don’t know if you’re going to die,” says Terry, a native of Charleston, S.C.
Now he is a national service officer for the Disabled American Veterans in Detroit. He knows that after this war is over, he’ll be seeing new faces in the system.
Today’s young troops may not realize it, but more vets are disabled by injuries like Terry’s, not Verner’s.
More than 165,000 gulf war veterans — 26 percent — are classified by the government as having a disability. That is the highest for any war. But only 467 were wounded in battle. By far the most common causes of disability are knee and other skeletal injuries. The mysterious gulf war syndrome that military personnel have described as a possible effect of chemical weapons is not recognized as an official cause of disability.
In this war, it’s the little things that more likely will disable troops in the long run — the missed step, the ladder fall, the hard landing, the wrenched back, says Keith Pryor, field service officer for Disabled American Veterans at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.
“They’re well-protected, but you never know,” he says. “All wars create their own problems. A lot of vets injured in the service will file a claim of a small disability, but by the time they are 60 or 70, the problem from injuries when they were younger grows. Unfortunately, injuries do get worse.”
Verner, who received the Purple Heart, spent many months recovering in military and VA hospitals in Japan and Denver. After leaving the Army in 1971, he returned to St. Louis and tried to pick up his life. He had spent two years in college before being drafted; upon returning home, he tried working as a shipping and receiving clerk. He was still devastated by his injury, and the job did not work out. Luckily, he was recruited to become an advocate for disabled vets and sent to San Francisco.
“There, I worked with other disabled vets, and two of them had lost legs,” he says. “When I saw what they did with their lives, it really helped me.” He now is senior national service officer at Paralyzed Veterans of America in Detroit.
Although his long years of working for Paralyzed Veterans has helped him emotionally, Verner, now married with a 14-year-old son, says he sees many vets who still struggle. It does not matter if they participated in combat 50 years ago or recently. In quiet times, he still thinks about what happened in Vietnam. He always will.
“I would tell any young soldier, forge a relationship with those people you served with. Don’t forget each other,” he says with urgency.
Because only they will remember what you went through.
Only they will remember what you saw, or how you got hurt, or how you changed inside and out.
“It’s a life-changing experience,” says Terry. “Anyone who is not changed must not be human.”?
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