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"Lucky" Relativity theory
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 20, 2004

Cleland lost three limbs in an accident during a routine noncombat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix. In fact, Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman - or what Cleland sneeringly calls "weekend warriors." Luckily for Cleland's political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam. - Ann Coulter, essay, 2/16/04

When I read Ann "Thrax" Coulter's essay on Max Cleland, war hero and former Senator, I shook my head in disgust and realized that this would be my next essay, and that it would pretty much write itself.

Except, to my surprise, it didn't. The sense of revulsion and disgust and outrage was pretty close to universal, and Republicans as well as Democrats were attacking Coulter for her vile words. I looked at various editorials, all saying pretty much the same things I wanted to say, and realized that I wasn't going to say anything that wasn't obvious and redundant. She's a vicious, nasty bitch who brought shame and disgrace down upon her head and the heads of those who support her. How could anyone say a man was "lucky" for losing three limbs while in the service of his country? Even more appalling were the bare-faced lies that accompanied that paragraph; that he was picking up a grenade while on a beer run, not anywhere near a combat zone, and if it had happened at Fort Dix instead, he would be no hero.

What do you write? Hundreds of people had already written about how Cleland got his Silver Star four days BEFORE the accident, how he was, in fact, in a combat zone, if not under immediate fire, and how his action undoubtedly saved lives. I would like to see Ann Coulter race to pick up a grenade and throw it away, not knowing if it was armed and cocked or not.

So I made several false starts, and was still mulling it over when my friend Bob Kemp stopped by. Bob is someone I'm always glad to see, and unless I'm under really big deadline pressure, I'm always ready to blow an hour just shooting the shit with him.

Bob's a "Small 'l' libertarian," one of these "leave me to my vine and fig tree and I'll leave you to yours" types, which means that on politics, we agree a lot more than we disagree, and the sort of stuff we disagree on usually isn't real important. He did high-pressure work in LA for years, and then came up here and lives as simple a life as he can manage, sharpening knives and selling stuff on ebay and the like.

So we blew some time talking about the primaries and Putsch and ships and sails and sealing wax and carpenters and kings. Then I happened to mention Coulter's column and what she said about Max Cleland.

I was surprised he hadn't heard about it, since he keeps up on the news at least as much as I do. He shook his head. Bob's not the sort of guy who gets red in the face and shouts, and he didn't now. But he had some thoughts to share about losing limbs while in service to your country, even if it was stateside.

In Bob's case, his injuries came, not at Fort Dix, but at Camp Pendleton, in 1962. He was an E-3, and they were on the firing range, and one guy who was firing heavy rounds from an M-14 picked right then to lose it and start shooting everyone on the range. Bob caught two bullets, one in each leg.

"I was lucky, Zeppy. They saved my legs."

In truth, right up until that moment I hadn't known he had anything ever happen to them. The doctors did a good job. But those are big, high-velocity bullets that struck him, and even through the injuries were below his knees, the hydrostatic shock caused capillary damage throughout much of his body.

"I was lucky, Zeppy. Most of the capillary damage healed itself."

Except for his heart. As a result of being shot in the lower legs, he had chronic heart problems from that day onward. Heart muscle doesn't regenerate the way other tissue can, and so he had to deal with some minor, but significant restrictions.

For forty years, he got heart medication and other treatment through the VA. Like most vets, he usually bitched, and usually with good reason, about the quality of care.

But then, two years ago, the VA tried to cut him off. His injuries, they ruled, were not "combat related." That's true. He wasn't anywhere near a battlefield. In 1962 there wasn't much in the way of battlefields involving Americans. It was a lucky time.

"I was lucky, Zeppy. They managed to get that overturned."

We talked for a while about the Old Fart, a mutual friend who had spent 20 years fighting for quality care for vets. He had helped Bob. The Old Fart died a few years ago, gasping for air and still contemptuous of the way his country treated him and all others who served. He didn't die in a VA hospital. He died at home, in his bed, with his dog keeping him company. He was lucky.

Bob told me of a friend, also a vet, who had melanoma. It attacked his ears, and in Bob's words, "they [The VA] whacked off his ears and burned the scars." The guy had to put salve on the areas where his ears had been, but it hurt too much. So Bob did it. One time, Bob looked at the tube of salve, and stopped short. "Have you ever read this tube?" he asked his friend.

He friend shrugged and said, "Why the fuck should I read it? I just take the stuff they give me. Fuck it. I'm dying anyway."

Bob shook his head and told me, "He died four days later. He took his gun and blew his brains out."

I've seen what end-stage melanoma is like, and from what Bob told me, this guy had it in his bones, in his brain, everywhere. He was lucky he was able to shoot himself.

But what had startled Bob was the tube had a big black skull-and-crossbones on it and the words, "For experimental use only."

Vets have been claiming for years that VA is trying to kill them to save money. Incidents like this are why I don't think it's just paranoia. Bob explained that VA can do this, because even though you are no longer in the service and are a civilian, your rights are still curtailed, because you sign a release that essentially allows them to treat you as a guinea pig, a lab rat. If you die, oh well. A fair bit of human experimentation of the sort banned by international treaties takes place on American vets.

Two months ago, Bob's kidneys started to hurt. He thought it might be the new medication he had just been put on to lower his triglycerides. He didn't want to drive all the way down to Sacramento, 300 miles away, just to be told they didn't know and didn't much care, so he popped by the local Pharmacy Express and asked the guy behind the counter about the stuff, a cholesterol-lowering drug called Gemfibrozil. The guy punched it into his computer, and the expression on his face changed. "Are you taking Lovastatin or Niacin?" he asked. Bob replied that he was taking both at his VA doctor's orders.

"Stop taking this immediately. The interaction is listed as severe, and can cause kidney failure and death."

Bob went home, and double checked the information on his computer. It took two minutes to confirm what the pharmacist had told him. He stopped taking the drug immediately.

Why doesn't the VA have access to computerized drug interaction data bases when everyone else with a computer does?

Part of the reason is that Putsch cut funding for VA by $28 billion over the past two years. Well, someone's got to pay for the war in Iraq and the tax cuts for the rich, and the vets are among the lucky ones.

Bob stopped taking the deadly combination of drugs immediately. "My kidneys still hurt," he told me, "but at least I'm alive. I'm lucky, Zeppy."

Of course, he still wonders if his government would prefer that he was dead and not costing them money that should go to the more deserving rich.

Vets have a hard time of it. A lot of them are like Bob, screwed up in unglamorous ways, and having a rough time getting more than lip service from their allegedly "grateful nation."

But they can look at Ann Coulter, and reflect that whatever else may beset them, at least they aren't mentally, emotionally and morally crippled like she is.

They're lucky.

Posted: February 20, 2004


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