How the hell did I get HERE?
We’ve all probably asked ourselves that question as we lived through the myriad twists and turns of our unpredictable lives.
It was 1987. I was a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps and had decided I’d had enough of sleeping in the mud, and the misery, loneliness, and isolation inherent in the life of an infantryman. My plan was simple – serve out the last few months of my 5 year Marine Corps obligation, move back to my hometown of Alexandria Virginia, go to veterinary school, and marry my girlfriend. I had a roadmap ready for the rest of my life.
Fate, on the other hand, had other ideas.
I was serving out my last days of service as my unit prepared to wrap up a 6 month deployment to Okinawa Japan. I loved Okinawa. It was a recreational paradise with some of the best scuba diving anywhere in the world. And getting the chance to train at the foot of Mount Fuji, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, plus a few side trips to Thailand and Hong Kong, had made what I thought was my last deployment especially memorable. Looking forward to my new civilian life, all I had to do was get through another week or so of Marine Corps life, reunite with my girlfriend, and it was happily ever after.
One drunken Marine changed my life.
4 days before flying home to begin my new life, I was walking back to my barracks with some friends late in the evening. An innebriated corporal who I barely knew was returning from town. Sneaking up from behind, he stealthily launched himself at me in a sudden surprise attack. Slamming me to the ground with all of his 200 lbs, I immediately had that dreaded sensation of having the ‘wind knocked out of me’. Anyone who’s slipped on a throw rug, or had their feet fly out from underneath them as a child knows the feeling. Panic quickly strikes as you struggle and fail to take a breath. But within a few moments, I was able to breathe normally again, and hurl a few choice expletives at my attacker, promising payback would be a ….well, would be forthcoming. Back to the barracks I went, sore, but otherwise feeling myself again, falling to sleep to dreams of a glorious homecoming.
The next few days crawled by in agonizing slow motion. I was ready to be back home again, where cars much larger than necessary drove on the right side of the road, where I didn’t have to alternately freeze and fry out in the elements, or take sick pride in just how much physical suffering I could endure. Still – something didn’t feel right. I continued my Okinawa routine during those last few days. I ran a PFT (although I had a sub par effort in the combination pullup/situp/3 mile run test). I was in the best shape of my life and had worked up to 250 lb bench presses, but at the gym was barely able to do half that. Something was wrong. I felt a little short of breath and asked a Navy Corpsman assigned to my unit to listen to my lungs. ‘I don’t hear anything’ he said. Sounded reassuring to me. And, as it turned out, prophetic.
So, the day before my unit’s fly-out date, I awoke and headed to the community showers to brush my teeth and shave. Looking in the mirror, something bizarre caught my eye. My adam’s apple, normally imperceptibly and perfectly centered in my throat, seemed to be shoved all the way over to one side of my neck. It didn’t take a genius to know – this was not a normal or desirable state of affairs. And I felt bad. Not ‘not good’, but bad. I had a silent argument with myself. If I went to the base infirmary, and something was really wrong, I might not make the flight home the next day. On the other hand, something was clearly and indisputably wrong. Capital ‘W’ wrong. I fought my base instincts to gut out whatever this problem was and trudged over to the medical facility.
A brief physical exam and X-rays ensued. As I waited in the hall for a Navy MD to come talk to me, I couldn’t help but take a peek. The black film with stark white shadows meant nothing to me. But it didn’t take a radiologist to know, one side being filled with ivory detail, the other black as night, wasn’t a good sign. Even I knew, in this case, symmetry was what one was looking for. Before I could grasp the meaning of all this, I found myself being thrown on a gurney and propelled at high speed to a waiting ambulance. Sirens blaring, I was soon being driven at high speed towards Kadena Air Force base, home of the only hospital on the island.
I’d find out later that I had walked around with a collapsed lung for days until I developed ‘tension pneumothorax’, a life-threatening condition where pressures from the collapsed lung build up to a point where your heart chambers can no longer fill with blood. It was those pressures that had pushed my larynx to one side of my neck. Had I followed my usual stoic nature, ignored the obvious, and gotten on the plane back to the US, I wouldn’t have survived the flight. Instead, I got to experience the emergency treatment for a collapsed lung, having a physician stick a scalpel through my chest, open up the hole with a gloved finger, and have a garden hose shoved into my chest cavity, all without the benefit of medication or anesthesia. Now that’s an experience every one should have. Still I consider myself extraordinarily lucky for not getting on that plane.
So I wasn’t going home. I wasn’t reuniting with my beautiful soul mate. I wasn’t getting out of the Marine Corps in days. Plans had changed. I was in for a month of fun. A couple of my best friends from Weapons Company, 2nd Bn, 8th Marines, along with my Platoon Commander, Lt. Mabe, came by to bid me farewell on their way to the airport. All but one of them I would never see again. They brought me a present, a pair of ceramic Shishi dogs that sit on my mantle at home still, and wished me luck. And suddenly, I was alone. The next 60 days were interesting. Chest tubes were placed, chest tubes were removed. The process was repeated several times. Every time they pulled the tubes, my right lung would collapse again. Chest tubes are not fun. I lost 20 lbs in 2 weeks. I was up twice in all that time, forced to pull what looked like a tonka toy behind me, only this one was attached by tubes and filled with fluids coming out of my damaged chest. I found, when you come at people pulling nasty contraptions containing body fluids, they get out of your way.
When it became clear that chest tubes were not going to heal my damaged lung, I was scheduled for a thoracotomy and lung repair surgery. It was a simple operation. Step one – cutting my chest open from the middle of my back to my sternum. Step two – jacking open my ribs with a rib spreader. Step three – snipping the bottom and damaged lobe of my left lung away and stitching it up. Step four – scratching up the interior of my chest wall with gauze and acid to ensure the repaired lung would stick to the chest wall while it healed. And the final step, inserting 2 more chest tubes.
I vaguely recall weeks 3 and 4 of my stay. I was given copious amounts of morphine and Demerol. Watching Japanese television, bizarre enough straight dead sober, with a mountain of narcotics running through your veins – lets just say it’s something you really have to experience to appreciate. Somewhere in the haze of this stretch I managed to call my parents. In typical fashion for a highly efficient US Government operation, my parents had never even been informed I was in trouble, and my parents thought I was calling from my base in NC to tell them I’d be home soon. At the same time, I realized I hadn’t heard from my girlfriend in months, but wasn’t able to get through to her.
I received another shock to the system right after surgery, when an officer unknown to me visited to inform me that, sometime during the narcotic haze period of my experience, I’d been notified of my selection into the Marine Corps MECEP Program, an enlisted to officer commissioning program, and in a drug-induced state of mind, had accepted the offer (hence agreeing to at least another 5 years of Marine Corps service). The officer was there to find out which colleges I was interested in attending at Marine Corps expense. I have no recollection to this day of being informed that I had been accepted to this program, nor agreeing to accept the offer.
A drunken tackle by a casual acquaintance had rocked my world in more ways than one.
Declining a tempting offer from one of the hospital nurses to complete my convalescence at her apartment (she was married and her husband deployed elsewhere – even then I had some lines I would not cross), I was put in a cab and taken back to my former base. I had no clothes (not even underwear), no money, no unit, no friends. And no idea how I was getting home. I was restricted from flying – anywhere – for at least another 30 days. The Red Cross (to whom I am grateful to this day) bought me some clothes. I read books, tried to move without experiencing excruciating pain, and waited.
30 days later I was at Kadena Airfield. When told I ‘wasn’t authorized’ to fly back to the United States, I threw a fit right there in front of 100 strangers, and told them that if they didn’t put me on a plane, I was going to knock someone’s teeth out, and I didn’t really care who I started with. Whether they believed me, or just wanted to get me out of the airport, next thing I knew I was looking out the window at clouds and ocean, from a first class seat.
I knew where the plane was landing, but where I was going? All that had suddenly and inexplicably changed. And my crystal clear plan for the future was now as nebulous and ephemeral as the wispy clouds flying past the window.