While serving as a youth group leader at my church during high school, I led a class about what it takes to have great faith. Having grown-up attending church regularly, I wondered if my kind of devotion to God that had soaked in throughout the fifteen or so years of my church attendance meant something less than someone’s who had been to the very pit of despair and risen back to a state of happiness through faith and belief in God. I felt somewhat cheapened by my inability to pinpoint a moment where I had suddenly become aware that church was a place I wanted to be, and not just somewhere my parent’s drove me on Sunday mornings. It seemed like if I knew what it felt like to be at the bottom, I would have a better appreciation of life at the top.
Now five years older, I find myself at a drastically different point in my life, facing a similar kind of frustration. I’m enrolled in a class about disability studies, and yet find it incredibly difficult to wrap my mind around the true despair that life as a wounded warrior can involve. If, as Leonard Davis suggests, we are all involved in a universal desire to reach a culturally constructed idea of normalcy, then how can I, who has never faced a true obstacle to this quest of meeting social norms, understand what it means to be impossibly abnormal? And, more importantly, how can I appreciate my passive achievement of normalcy without having experienced the true desperation of a life forever altered by disability?
Understanding that life means a lot more than mastering the art of blending into a crowd, there seems to be something undeniably attractive about the idea that when I walk into a room, I don’t have to be anything more than just another body, or maybe, if I’m lucky, just another pretty face. I don’t limp in with the aid of prosthetic limbs, or cause grimaces when people catch a glimpse of gruesome scars; I just have to smile and spew the same small talk that we hear every day. But there are so many people in the world (and the number will continue to rise as the military remains active overseas) that don’t enjoy this same freedom. They live lives forever marred by wounds that have changed the way they experience the world and the way the world experiences them.
Wounded warriors are caught in limbo between being a fascinating combination of medical problems that scientific advancements yearn to be able to fix, and an uncomfortably unclassifiable member of society that even close friends and loved ones have trouble knowing how to treat. Doctors make them their pet project. Wounded warriors become a gold mine of special operations and exciting new therapy treatments. The people closest to them struggle to balance helping them and letting them help themselves, always aware that they’ve been through things that can’t possibly be understood and may even be indescribable. And in the middle of all of this is the wounded warrior. A real person with real human needs. A real person who can find joy in going skiing for the first time since losing a leg or having a great first date for the first time since being blinded, but may never again enjoy the exhilaration of walking into a room without eyebrows raising or jaws dropping. A real person who may never again get to experience the heroic praise of being a soldier- only conditional admiration for overcoming great obstacles.
And so what is a wounded warrior to do? Certainly there is an element of acceptance that is necessary for anyone who has been injured in battle to regain at least a portion of a so-called ‘normal’ life. The soldier must work to come to terms with who they are now, and allow the people around them to do the same. As we see in the movie “Home Front,” this acceptance is greatly helped by a sense of optimism. On most days, Jeremy was able to rise above the challenges he faced with little complaint. He worked to accept his new quality of life, and to let the people around him do what they could to improve it. His brother walked alongside him on the treadmill and his father helped him aim the handgun that would shoot his first post-blindness deer. Jeremy wasn’t without anger and frustration, but he reached a point where he could see a new future rolling out in front of him- a future that involved marriage and children and a new sense of independence. He accepted that to his eye doctor he was first and foremost the owner of an eye that could perhaps be rescued. An eye to build a career on. He accepted that he was something of a novelty to his Pennsylvania town and an outlet for local philanthropy efforts. Jeremy was able to move passed his injury and settle into the pieces of his old life that he could still enjoy, mostly because he realized that there are many other soldiers who don’t get to return to their old life at all. In further reading, I discovered that since filming, he’s continued his work as a motivational speaker, and became a member of the Catholic Church last year. Religion seems to have become a large part of his ability to cope with the trauma of his injury and I was so happy to read that his faith helps him to accept his injuries and flourish in spite of them.
Rereading the end of that last paragraph, I have to cringe at the semantic trap I’ve written myself into. Namely, my use of the qualifier “in spite of.” In these three little words, I find a piece of what makes disability so disheartening. After a disabling injury, a soldier stops being a hero simply for serving their country. A wounded warrior is a hero because they remain patriotic and optimistic in spite of the injury they received while serving. After being thrust out of a military life that was so focused on achievement and precise skills, a wounded warrior may find themselves trapped in a life where they are applauded for accomplishing the most demeaning of tasks. In one blog I found entitled “Wife of a Wounded Soldier,” a woman writes entry after entry about how proud she is of her husband’s efforts to restore their life to what it was before his injury. She talks about how happy she was that he attended Christmas Eve service with her family. It was the first time he’d entered a church since an IED cut his military career short. Of course, in most marriages, going to church with your wife’s family might be an expected part of what you signed-up for when you said “I do.” But after becoming a wounded warrior, this man can make his wife happy just by being willing to accompany her to a crowded grocery store, or staying at a noisy party an extra hour. And while it may sound a bit ridiculous, I think that it would be heartbreaking for him to know that his wife’s expectations have been forever altered. No matter how much physical damage has taken place, it is the emotional aftershocks that are so striking to me. While soldiers who lose a leg may learn to walk again or soldiers who suffer traumatic brain injury may relearn speech, it may be impossible to reclaim the same sense of emotional stability with loved ones. Wounded warriors are relegated to a different set of expectations and held to standards that, though meant to allow them to rejoin society in a fulfilling way, may demean them into renewed sorrow for the normalcy they left behind.
It is this sense that wounded warriors are forever chasing a normalcy that constantly eludes them that drives my study of their precarious position in the world of medicine and in general culture. While some, like Jeremy, are able to accept a new version of normal and move forward with new interests and the understanding that adapting to a disability involves accepting even small achievements as victories, others worry only about achieving normalcy within the disabled community, instead of within society as a whole. I read about Brendan Marrocco, the first veteran of the current wars to lose all four limbs and survive. He has become the most popular guy in town (if Walter Reed Army Medical Center can be considered something of a town for the wounded) in the place he’s been living since a roadside bomb forever changed the course of his life. His perky attitude and cool-guy ways make him an inspiration to fellow wounded warriors, and he charms even the most depressed of patients into a smile. Brendan even has the ability to be a shining star in the medical community, with his pursuit of risky treatments and recent decision to have a double arm transplant as soon as limbs become available. He has taken his new limitations and turned them on their head. They are what defines him, but in a way that makes him special, not sorrowful. And yet I’m left asking myself if his way of facing the world of the wounded warrior is healthy and truly fulfilling. Yes, he has earned a place in the hearts of his caretakers and fellow residents, but he is admittedly hesitant to reenter the ‘real’ world, even as his increased strength allows him to do more and more tasks for himself with his prosthetic limbs. I even wonder if pursuing the risky transplant surgery is a way to lengthen his stay in the protected world of Walter Reed, though many would argue that, in fact, it is his attempt to achieve a piece of cultural bodily normalcy the bomb took away from him. Accepting that my attempts to identify the motivations behind Brendan’s actions may fall far short of the mark, he remains an incredibly interesting case study in the realm of wounded warriors. His excitement for the opportunities that advancements in the medical field will offer him rivals that of his top doctors, and his ability to find a niche for himself in his patient community flies in the face of the dissatisfaction many feel in their inability to return to their ‘normal’ life.
I am now wondering if my notion that wounded warriors simply wish for a second chance to sink into satisfying normalcy is fundamentally flawed. I realize that Leonard Davis’s piece was more about explaining the construction of normalcy than diagnosing the woes of the human condition, but there was still a part of me that wanted to run with the idea that the wounded warrior’s most desperate wish is to escape the limitations of an abnormal life. After further consideration, however, I think that a wounded warrior’s solution to their troubling state is achieving a sense of wholeness in spite of (there’s those darn words again) the irreparable damage that has been done to their emotional and physical states. It’s less about returning to the same place they used to occupy in the human community, and more about being able to wake-up in the morning with a sense of peace and appreciation that they still have a life to live. Wounded warriors are unable to change the fact that people in the medical world find them a delightful test subject or that dozens of eyes may flash to them when they enter a room, but they can redefine the way that they view themselves and learn to find joy in the new challenges they must face. They can work to reorient the idea of normalcy in their life, separating themselves from that desperation to return to how things were that many of us see as an unfortunate part of becoming disabled. The wounded warrior has to be able to see themselves as a whole person, more than just a collection of scars or an unfortunate collection of tragedies for women in beauty parlors to gossip about. It is up to them to rebuild their own sense of heroism, and in that way educate the rest of the world to remove the limitations we place on the lives of wounded warriors.
And so in the same way that I eventually realized that the ability to have faith in God is much more important than the way it was attained, I am now convinced that normalcy, for whatever it’s worth, is not something to be existentially dissatisfied with simply because I have done nothing to earn it. Even after concluding that wounded warriors may not have regaining a sense of normalcy as their main concern, I feel like they would collectively scold me if I failed to be thankful for my unwounded body. It would be a mistake to allow my concerns for the emotional and physical traumas of these soldiers to keep me from enjoying the blessings of my health that wounded warriors and all military members fight to protect. Instead, I must work to praise wounded warriors not for what they have been able to overcome since their injuries, but for the strength that is ever-present in a human being working toward a sense of wholeness.