Just A Couple of Old Jarheads

I went to the VA clinic this morning to see an endocrinologist. I’ve had ulcerative colitis for fourteen years and taken lots of prednisone and other corticosteroids, sometimes even intravenously, during that time. A few years ago, my gastro doc sent me for a bone density scan and it showed osteopenia, which was most likely a result of the steroids and poor nutrient absorption, a complication of colitis. Osteopenia is a degradation of bone density that doesn’t quite reach the level of osteoporosis, but I had another bone scan a couple of months ago and discovered that my condition had worsened to the point of osteoporosis. It’s pretty bad all over, especially for my age, but my left femur is the weakest bone. It presents a “high risk of fracture.” So the endo doc ordered some labs a while ago and I went in to talk to her today about how those came out and what my treatment options are. I’m leaning in the Reclast direction right now, but apparently you need to have excellent dental health before you start those infusions so we agreed I’ll get to the dentist soon and when that’s wrapped up, I’ll start the Reclast.

I want to pause for a minute here to write a few words about my experience with VA healthcare. In my opinion, the Veterans Health Administration gets a bad wrap. I more or less had a breakdown in late 2012 and left my job at the time, losing my healthcare in the process. I then went without healthcare until spring of this year because I wasn’t working steadily and couldn’t take care of basic life tasks, like signing up for VA healthcare, since I had fallen so far down into a depressive phase of Bipolar, Type II. By the time I made it to my induction appointment a few months ago, I was deeply, almost obsessively suicidal. I answered the nurse practitioner’s questions honestly at that appointment and found myself talking to a psychiatrist for the first time in my life about an hour later. He started me on Wellbutrin that day and made sure I knew the number to call if I felt like I was in danger of self harm. A couple weeks later, I started climbing up out of the hellish hole I’d sunk into and began seeing a psychiatrist regularly, adding Lamictal to my medication regimen, and my mental health hasn’t been this good for close to twenty years. So, you see, I kind of have a soft spot for VA healthcare now because those good people literally saved my life. If anyone who works in VA healthcare is reading this now – thank you so much. Keep doing what you’re doing. You probably know it already, but the difference you make in veterans’ lives couldn’t possibly be greater.

The VA makes mistakes and it’s subject to the same funding and bureaucratic struggles as any other government entity and it should be held accountable when it falls short, but the heart of the system is the people, and while my experience so far hasn’t been perfect, it’s been at least as good as any private healthcare I’ve received and I am just so damn grateful it was there when I needed it. I have no doubt I wouldn’t be here writing this if it hadnt been. The system can be improved, no doubt, but at least I know that within that system, there are many, many well-qualified, compassionate people who undertake their mission with the utmost sincerity and benevolence.

I came out of the clinic after I scheduled a follow-up with the endocrinologist and walked a few minutes out to my car. I had my window rolled down as I pulled slowly around a corner, heading out to a stoplight to make a right turn and get on the outerbelt to head back north. I heard someone shout “Are you going up toward Broad Street?” and saw an older black gentleman to my left out of the corner of my eye. My gut reaction was to roll my window up and accelerate away from a stranger who was asking me for something, but after a split second of turning my head to the right to go on about my way, I remembered where I was and stabbed the brakes, bringing my little brown Saturn Aura to an abrupt but nonviolent halt. I raised my voice over the city noise.
“What’d you say? You need a ride?”
“Are you goin’ toward Broad? I need to go the Chase down there by Broad.”
“No,” I said, “but I’ll take you if you need a ride.”
The man crossed in front of my car, came around to the passenger side, and I scrambled to throw all the random bullshit off the seat and into the back. As he dropped in next to me I could see he was somehwere in his sixties – tall, trim, and fit. The man was dignified; well-groomed and he wore a dark brown straw fedora that pushed his general state of dress into “natty” territory. I looked around to be sure I was clear on all sides and pulled out of the parking lot onto the driveway and headed toward James Road.
“You look like a Marine!” The man laughed a little. “What branch did you serve in?”
“The Marine Corps,” I told him, marveling yet again at the way something you did for a short time in your youth can be read all over your face twenty years later. We shot a few rapid fire questions at each other about where and when we were in uniform and I discovered he’d fought in Vietnam. I told him I was too young for the first Gulf War and too old for the second and that I was old enough to be happy I’d ended up never getting shot at, watching my friends die, or been called upon to take a human life. When I was younger, there was a short time where I wanted to be in combat and take that ultimate test. But people are different. Not everyone is built for war and too many guys and girls find that out the hard way. I know enough about myself now to know that I would not have dealt well with the personal aftermath of combat. I enlisted the day I turned eighteen and went to boot camp at Parris Island a few months later, in the spring of ’96. I did what I was told to the best of my ability and was honorably discharged four years later. I rolled the dice and, in hindsight, was lucky enough that no war broke out while I was playing the game. So, I’m no Audie Murphy, and I’m not ashamed of that in the least.

I wondered if this guy might be bullshitting me about his service record, because that just happens so much, it seems like, but then he asked me my MOS. “3531,” I told him and just before I got the words out of my mouth, he beat me to it and said “Motor T operator!” So then I knew he was the real deal. And the reason he beat me to the title for that job code is that that was his job too! Now, before you go thinking what an amazing coincidence that was, you should understand that 3531 is the second largest job in the Corps. The only one with more Marines assigned to it is 0311, plain old infantry. So, it wasn’t super crazy we turned out to have the same MOS but it was pretty cool that we were both Motor T, because like we used to say, “If you can’t truck it, fuck it!”

It wasn’t far at all to the Chase bank branch he was going to and before I knew it he was telling me to make a right into a parking lot and then left in an alley and saying “you can let me out right here. I appreciate it.” I told him it was no problem at all. And then it happened. He was turning and had both feet on the asphalt as he stood up and took that first step toward the rest of the day. He looked back at me just barely over his shoulder and hollered out “Semper Fi!”

It’s the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fi.” It’s a shortening of the Latin phrase “Semper Fidelis,” which translates as “always faithful.” And it’s a funny thing, because while you’re on active duty, you don’t run around yelling “Semper Fi” at each other all day. In fact, it would be considered a distinctly corny, dorky thing to do and would garner you accusations of being a “motivator” or some such sort of obsequious kool-aid drinking jackass. You’re a thousand times more likley to commiserate with your fellow Lance Corporals by trading the unoffical motto – “Fuck the Corps!” with each other because, you know, life as a junior enlisted one of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, that wayward band of drunks, brawlers, roustabouts, blaggards, and good ol’ nut jobs more or less fucking sucks pretty much the whole time.

Today, though, that phrase I once would never have even thought of uttering sincerely was a shining diamond of genuine sentiment. This fellow Marine caught me off gaurd with our motto. But my body knew what to do. My voice dropped a register and its volume went up. A hint of authority was woven into my tone and a sheen of pride shone on my words.

“Semper Fi!”

And it’s been SOOOO long since I felt that way. It was really fucking nice, for a change. You know, I’ve never written about the Marine Corps in a public forum before today, and the funny thing is, I don’t think I ever will again. I think that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about that.

Things could be a lot worse, but, frankly, my life’s kind of a mess these days. Don’t cry for me, though. I did something great, once. I found both the limits and the depths of my strength as a human. In the immortal words of Rescue Me‘s “Lou,” “I knew being good at something, and I knew brotherhood.”

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