other people's emergencies: random thoughts of an urban paramedic

For more than twenty years I've worked as a paramedic for the city of Boston, Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this diary are mine alone, and do not represent the views of Boston EMS. Names, dates, locations, and physical characteristics have been changed to ensure patient confidentiality.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Lesson Learned

I took today off from the ambulance to go on a military assignment. With two other JAG officers, I went to a Wounded Warrior Transition Unit to address the legal concerns of injured soldiers recently back from combat zones.

I felt sorry for many of those soldiers, not only because of the physical challenges they face, but because several of them have run into enormously frustrating administrative problems. It's hard to believe that an employer would refuse to rehire a returning veteran in violation of federal law, but that's what happened to some of these soldiers. It's hard to believe, too, that even as a soldier lay in a hospital bed, his wife would abandon him, and move with his children into the home of a convicted drug dealer. I heard that story today, too.

Despite these problems, I found the soldiers to have remarkably good attitudes. They talked openly about their service and their injuries--most without any hint of anger or bitterness. They were proud to have served their country, despite the personal sacrifices they had made.

I found one story to be especially touching. It didn't come from any of the wounded soldiers, but rather, from a sergeant who learned a valuable lesson. He told this story to a group of officers who were training to work with injured soldiers, and one of them repeated it to me. And while it doesn't have anything to do with EMS, it has everything to do with the relationship between patients and those who care for them.

I was a drill sergeant for six years, the sergeant said. I enjoyed doing that, but after six years, I was ready to do something else. I wanted to get back to the fight. I wanted to go to an infantry unit, to do the things I was trained to do.

So I put in my request. After a while, I get a letter in the mail, with my new assignment. I opened it up, and I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'Walter Reed? They're sending me to work at Walter Reed Army Hospital? What the fuck is this? I don't want to work in no fucking hospital! I want to fight!'

I did everything I could to get out of that assignment. I made phones, sent e-mails. Nothing worked. And it's the Army, so what could I do? I've got to go on the assignment, right? I packed up and moved to D.C., and reported for work.

I was furious when I got there. I'm going to be the NCO in charge of a hospital. What a stupid assignment! They don't even do PT at the hospital! I couldn't believe it. I'd been assigned to a facility where the soldiers don't even have to exercise!

On my first day, the commander gives me a clipboard and a bunch of concert tickets. They were donated by some guy named Kid Rock. The commander wants me to pass out the tickets to solders, and write their names on the clipboard. I was so disappointed. I thought to myself, 'Is this what my career has come to? Giving out tickets? What a waste of time.'

But an order's an order. So I go to the first room, to the first soldier, and I don't even pay any attention to him. I just walk in and ask him, 'You want a ticket? It's for a concert by some guy named Kid Rock.'

The soldier tells me, 'Yeah! Sure!' He sounds all excited. I give him the ticket, and I start to walk out, and I hear the soldier call to me, 'Hey, Drill Sergeant! How have you been?'

I turn around and look at him, and I see that he's one of my soldiers, a young private I'd taught in Basic. He'd gone to Iraq. I looked down, and I saw that his legs were gone. They'd been blown off by an IED.

And that's when it hit me: My assignment was not a waste of time. That soldier was who I'd be working for. There's nothing more honorable than helping someone who needs it.

And who was I to complain about that? There I was, complaining about not getting the assignment I wanted, and about having to give out concert tickets, while one of my soldiers was sitting there on a hospital bed with with his legs blown off.

I realized at that moment that I was fortunate to be able to help him, in any way I could.

That seemed like a good sentiment for all health care providers--including me--to remember.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ahmen to that.

1:22 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Is there anything that you or DoD can initiate against an employer for violating USERRA, or is the burden on the individual?

2:57 AM  
Blogger TS said...

Tim:

Yes, we absolutely help soldiers with USERRA issues. The Department of Labor is actually the lead agency on USERRA violations, but we steer soldiers through the re-employment process all the time.

(USERRA--the Uniformed Services Employment and Remployment Rights Act--is the federal law I mentioned in the post, the one that was being violated by employers. This law guarantees that people who leave their civilian jobs to serve in the military can get those jobs back when they return.)

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you well know we are seeing more and more returning soldiers with post concussive head injuries. I recently had a kid who was denied benifits by the VA. What avenues can we steer them to other than the Homeless Shelter for Veterans? A place which is underfunded and not staffed to handle these issues.Thanks for any info.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Norma said...

Yep, TS, sometimes a small thing you do for someone (which may have nothing to do with their health issue or injury) means the most and reminds you that the effort is always worth it. And I would like to shamelessly plug www.homesforourtroops.org, a great local organization that builds and modifies accessible homes for our service people who have returned with disabilities and injuries that require adapted living space.

10:30 AM  
Blogger TS said...

Anonymous:

That's a great question, because many of these guys are caught in limbo: Their injuries prevent them from seeking help--but without help, they'll never get better. The VA is supposed to provide this help. But what do you do when the VA turns you away?

To start, the veteran may be eligible for help from a JAG unit like mine. Retirees from all the military services are entitled to free legal assistance for life. Soldiers who get retired medically as a result of wounds suffered in combat have the same right to these services as those who retire after 20 years of service--even though they may have served only one or two years. In dealing with the kind of veteran you described, it might be worth suggesting that he contact a local Guard or Reserve JAG unit, known as an "LSO" (Legal Support Organization). If they can't help, they may be able to steer him in the right direction.

Non-profit organizations also exist to help with these kinds of problems, but unfortunately, there is no comprehensive network that covers the entire nation. A classmate of mine at the JAG School set up a free legal clinic in his home town, to help veterans who can't seem to get the necessary help anywhere else. That clinic spawned several more in other cities. But again, these clinics are not located in every city, which leaves many veterans without help.

The National Veterans Foundation seems to be a pretty good organization, but I've never dealt with it directly, and therefore I can't vouch for it personally. They claim to offer a wide range of services, and are accessible by telephone (888-777-4443), as well as by computer (www.nvf.org).

I hope this helps.

12:05 PM  
Blogger TS said...

Norma:

There's nothing shameless about that at all. In fact, I think it's worth mentioning in a separate post. Thanks for the idea.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

"Non-profit organizations also exist to help with these kinds of problems, but unfortunately, there is no comprehensive network that covers the entire nation."

How true. We take injured soldiers kayak fishing which has proven to be amazingly therapeutic, especially for the TBI/PTSD folks. The hardest problem we have is getting info to those who are back in the civilian world. I can "find" the folks at Brook Army, Darnall, Madigan, Walter Reed, Eisenhower, but not the kid in my home town. Their privacy needs to be protected, but would be great to have a central location for them all to go to where they could type in "Kayak" or "fishing" and find us or anything else they want. Not easy to do but would be worthwhile.
Jim@KayakAnglersSA.org
HeroesOnTheWater.org

7:36 PM  
Blogger Last Angry Man said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:07 PM  
Blogger Last Angry Man said...

"What avenues can we steer them to other than the Homeless Shelter for Veterans? A place which is underfunded and not staffed to handle these issues."

Indeed it isn't, as I know all too well.

We'd only just begun to see these guys in numbers, coming back from OIF and OEF. My experience was that we were simply out of our depth in referring them to appropriate agencies.

A useful side-note: every Wednesday from 6pm-onwards, the Veteran's Center has a free legal project for veterans present, who will advise Veterans and frequently represent them pro-bono.

To have a new case vetted by them, a Veteran must put their name on the new case list from 4pm-6pm (in the front lobby), else they won't be seen.

(Call 617-371-1800 if further details are required)

(Edit: sorry, had to repost - gave the wrong number the first time!)

8:11 PM  
Blogger TS said...

Jim:

That's excellent. Thank you for what you do.

9:53 PM  
Blogger TS said...

Last Angry Man:

Good to know. Thanks very much. (For those readers from outside the area, this comment referred to the Veteran's Center in Boston, Massachusetts.)

9:54 PM  
Blogger Last Angry Man said...

Yes, sorry. I was posting as if everyone reading was from within a 20-mile radius of me. Mea Culpa.

10:53 PM  
Blogger VA PhireMedic said...

Thanks, TS, for all you do.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Donna said...

A good story, well told. Thanks TS

6:06 PM  

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