I traveled the country to research a collection of short stories, Who Will Have My Back: Stories of Love and Care for Those Who Have Served and Sacrificed, meeting wounded and disabled veterans and those who care for them. Through personal interviews and firsthand observations, I gathered the stories of these often-overlooked and sometimes-invisible men, women and organizations.
These stories, only five out of the thousands that could be told, provide an intimate glimpse into the real, everyday life experiences of actual caregivers of America’s wounded veterans. What follows is an excerpt from a Connecticut story about the group Disabled American Veterans.
"We make a living by what we get … We make a life by what we give.”
The DAV van, decorated with silhouettes of American military men and women in uniform, sits outside a darkened fire station in Manchester, parked in a reserved space, nothing nearby to hinder its early-morning departure. Everyone inside the fire station, I’m guessing, except a dispatcher, is probably still asleep. The six solid-black images painted on the van’s side stand sentinel over the otherwise deserted parking lot. It’s 5:30 a.m., zero dark thirty in military jargon, early in any language, and it’s cold for May. I’m here early, last night’s conversation with Curtis, the volunteer DAV driver, still fresh in my mind. I’m not willing to risk showing up late, possibly missing him. When we talked last night, confirming my self-invitation to ride along, Curtis, about as cordial as a paperweight, had left me wondering if I’d stuck my nose someplace it didn’t belong. [Editor’s note: Curtis is not the driver’s real name; the book’s author agreed to keep the names of DAV drivers and veterans private.]
“What time should I plan on meeting you?” I asked, after introducing myself.
“I leave at 0600, with or without you.”
“I’ll be early,” I assured him.
“Don’t matter what time you get there,” he replied. “I leave at six.”
Curtis arrived ten minutes before the day’s scheduled deployment. He parked next to the van, slipped from his car, and waved, a lazy gesture, a half-ask, half-confirmation that I’m the guy he’s supposed to meet. He’s slightly taller than average height, medium build, looks too young to be retired, upper lip tented by a well-trimmed mustache. He wears a DAV baseball cap and what looks like a blue Eisenhower jacket, DAV emblem over the left chest pocket. His slacks, neatly pressed, complete a squared-away appearance. He’s a former Marine. All the drivers I’ll meet later, by the middle of the morning, have served in the military, each one a volunteer, each one retired, each one with a personal reason to serve.
Curtis, his greeting open and friendly, surprised me. He approached with his arm outstretched; hand offered in friendship. Gone was the cool detachment of last night’s unsettling conversation. “I’m Curtis,” he says. His voice, a soft, reassuring tenor, fills the cold morning air with a surprising warmth. “You must be Ron?”
“I am. Thanks for letting me tag along.”
We shook hands, and he nodded toward the passenger side, unlocked the van, and easily swung himself up into the driver’s seat. Inside the van, he moved quickly. He set a water bottle into a cup holder to his left, placed a bag with his breakfast on a tray holder to his right, twisted a Bluetooth into his ear, then connected a smartphone and a GPS. Next, he checked the day’s manifest, a pickup list attached to a clipboard, then started the van, explaining as we left that the first pickup, who he calls “the Regular,” lives in Storrs, not far from the University of Connecticut campus, a twenty-minute drive from the fire station. I watched him press a number on the phone’s touchpad. The Regular, waiting for the call, answered almost immediately. Curtis tells him, depending on traffic, that he’ll be there in twenty minutes, plus or minus. He lets him know that he’ll call when he’s about five minutes out. The call is quick, functional, one of ritual familiarity, ending almost as soon as it begins.
“Can’t be late,” he says, weaving the van into streaming traffic. “This guy needs to catch a shuttle from the Newington hospital to the West Haven VA. If I don’t get him to Newington on time, he’ll miss the shuttle.”
The Regular, his day LoJacked by his dependence on the busy, crowded VA system, will spend hours riding in the van or waiting in a hall for his scheduled appointment. I began to understand something I’ve suspected, something I remember from decades ago as a young Marine in Vietnam: the same hurry-up-and-wait that characterized all things military spills — out of necessity — into VA care. Now, even as civilians, these veterans have no immunity against the unscripted delay of an overburdened system of care. Curtis, as if he knows what’s on my mind, confirms what I’m thinking.
“This guy we’re picking up, he’s outside waiting for me by 6:15 a.m. I’ll get him to the Newington VA hospital by seven-thirty, maybe eight o’clock. We’ll pick up two or three more on the way. The shuttle leaves Newington, maybe around eight-thirty. He won’t catch a ride back until later this afternoon, sometime after 2:00 p.m. It’s a long day for guys like him, but he doesn’t have an option. It’s like taking the bus. The bus has a schedule. So do we. He must go with the schedule, but we try to make things as easy as we can on these guys. We won’t keep anyone waiting longer than necessary. If even one, just one veteran finishes his or her appointment, if any driver is free, we’ll take them back home, try our best not to make them wait around.”
While I think about what questions to ask Curtis — I have a list — I do a little math. I know the area reasonably well. The Regular lives twenty miles east of our starting point, the Manchester fire station. The rest of the veterans Curtis will transport live west of the firehouse. When I called last night, Curtis was busy deciding the order of the morning’s route, prioritizing, starting with the farthest away and scheduling pickups along the route to the VA hospital. His goal: pick up as many as he can on the first run. By 7:00 a.m., he’ll be almost forty miles into what sometimes can turn into a three-hundred-mile morning.
This morning, twenty-two veterans are counting on Curtis.
I want to know about Curtis. Why, when the pace of making a living has slowed — now that he can sleep in — would he opt for waking at dawn? Why surrender a day of leisure to the demands of seven hours on the road — in traffic — racing against a tight schedule? Before I can ask why he volunteers, he turns right, silences me with the tip of a finger pressed against his lips, then calls the Regular. “I’m about three ‘Mikes’ out,” he says. “I’m turning down your street now.”
He makes one more turn. Just about one hundred yards farther, he pulls the van into a driveway, its perimeter well-landscaped. The complex looks like some sort of assisted-living facility. Curtis rolls the van to a stop alongside a tall, older-looking man. It’s hard to tell his age, his face hidden behind a David Letterman beard. Looking at him, his health caught in a spiral of decline; seeing him, trying to imagine him once upon a time, vibrant and healthy; I can’t — and I wonder if anyone else can picture him in uniform: tall, erect, proud.
The van rolls out of the lot, back into traffic, the morning commute rushing toward its zenith. Curtis patiently glides the van through thick traffic. While we backtrack the twenty miles we just traveled, then drive a few more miles before the next pickup, Curtis fills in a lot of the blanks. Without much prompting, he explains about his thirteen years in the Marine Corps.
When he pauses, I ask, “Why didn’t you stay in and do the full twenty — retire with fifty percent of the annual income of your highest rank? Thirteen years is a long time, Curtis. It’s closing in on the full twenty, full retirement.”
“Could have stayed, I suppose,” he answers. “I got tired of it. When I quit working on the jet aircraft and went into recruiting, a lot of the tech changed. After a tour as a recruiter, I would have had to re-train, re-qualify, and I just figured it was time to move on. I did okay though. I took civil service exams, thinking I’d join the U.S. Postal Service, but I found out that a corrections officer position paid a lot more. I worked at Rikers until I retired two years ago.”
“And now you volunteer. Why?”
He pauses, and I, anticipating some grandiose response, should not have been surprised by the brevity or matter-of-factness of his answer. “It’s something that needs to be done. You see something that needs to be done, you do it. That’s why,” he says.
I rode with Curtis for most of his shift. I came back for additional visits to learn more about Connecticut’s DAV volunteer drivers. They are a selfless group. Most of them are veterans. They know that men and women will always serve. It’s what keeps our country free. Some will make their way home with visible scars, others with scars we cannot see. Some will be broken. Some unscathed. Some will simply grow old and infirm, and some will be left without support — physical, financial, emotional, everything necessary to live with dignity. To the volunteer drivers of Connecticut’s DAV, those who have served remain, forever, our responsibility.
Behind the book
In early spring 2019, I joined Connecticut author Mary Collins for lunch at Flatbread Company in South Windsor. In between bites of pizza and sips of beer, Collins offered crumbs of information about a stalled book project. After a false start, a collection of short stories about caregivers to disabled American veterans lay in limbo.
It seemed unusual for someone like Collins, an accomplished writer, to be sitting on a book project that was going nowhere. But by the time dessert arrived, I realized the project wasn’t her endeavor, and that she was asking me to write it. “The project is the brainchild of the Duke of Belgium,” Collins said. “My brother is good friends with him. When the project hit a snag, the Duke asked my brother if I might take over and write it. I told them that this was not for me, that they should really consider a writer who is a veteran. I thought of you. I think this is in your wheelhouse.”
“It might be,” I said (I served in the Marines in Vietnam). “But I don’t think I can give it the time right now.”
“Don’t decide yet, talk to the Duke’s aide-de-camp. He can explain it better than I can. He might convince you. It’s a pretty intriguing project.”
“Leopold d’Arenberg, the current Duke of Belgium, is the son of a Nazi concentration camp survivor,” Roger, the Duke’s aide, said. “Near the end of the war, his mother and grandmother were rescued by American soldiers. Even now, 75 years after their rescue, the Duke feels an indebtedness to the military men and women of the United States. For most of his adult life, he’s been actively involved with American veterans. More recently he’s become increasingly involved with disabled wounded warriors and their caregivers. This book is something that he hopes will bring attention to the sacrifices that caregivers make on behalf of wounded veterans. It’s his way of continuing to say thank you. Please consider writing this for us.”
Days later, I agreed.
I traveled to Chicago, Virginia, Denver and New York, interviewing organization officials, individual caregivers, their families, and wounded veterans. I talked with others from California and Texas. Through interviews and observations, I found everyday people with hearts so big that they cannot do enough for America’s wounded warriors and families. Each time I met someone or spent days with different organizations, each time I thought I’d seen it all, each time I would say to myself, “Nothing can top this,” I was surprised by what would come next.
Tunnel 2 Towers, an organization out of New York, has built and gifted more than 85 homes to catastrophically wounded veterans and paid off the mortgages of more than 150 Gold Star widows. Our own Connecticut DAV (Disabled American Veterans), with its dozens of volunteer drivers, shuffles hundreds of veterans to and from medical appointments every day. Sometimes a single driver can log more than 300 miles in a morning. I visited the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center and the Jewell Amputee Clinic, both in Aurora, Colorado, and watched a dedicated young physical therapist coax an amputee to his first step. I met mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, who gave up careers, putting their own lives on hold, all so they could nurse wounded veterans back to independence. Nothing touched me more than watching a service dog from Winsted-based Educated Canines Assisting the Disabled (ECAD) rise on hind legs and push a wheelchair forward. That image became the back-photo cover of the book.
The book is short, deliberately so. But the images, feelings and memories captured in these stories offer a deeper understanding of what it means to accept the mantle of caregiver, and take it a step further.
Who Will Have My Back: Stories of Love and Care for Those Who Have Served and Sacrificed is available through Barnes and Noble, Lagrange Books and Amazon.