10% Disabled

When I got out of the US Navy in 1979, I had it my mind that I was done with Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club and its affiliates. After six years, I’d had enough. So it was with some surprise and not a small bit of trepidation when a few months later I received a letter from one of the those affiliates, the Veterans Administration. Seems I was required to appear at the local regional VA hospital at a specific time and date. No option, be there. Huh.

Not wanting to incur the bureaucratic wrath of the US government, I showed up at the appointed time, clueless as to why I was summoned. During the next several hours, I was essentially given a full physical examination. The doctors and nurses were unhelpful as to what it was all about – perhaps they didn’t know. The system had deemed I be examined, so that’s what they did. I left the hospital with hardly more of clue than when I entered.

Making the whole thing even odder was the fact that, like everyone who is discharged from military service, I was given pretty much a full physical examination just prior to leaving the navy. Why the VA wanted to do it all over again was a mystery.

A few months later, the answer arrived in the form of another letter from the VA. Using arithmetic only a government agency can comprehend, they had determined that I was 10% disabled. I was officially a disabled veteran.

Which 10%? Well, anyone who knew me back then would have sworn it was my mental faculties, particularly the two psychiatrists who examined me at the behest of Metropolitan Edison Company, operators of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant where I had just applied for a job. I wasn’t entirely right in the head. Call it PSSD (Post-Submarine Stress Disorder). But no, the VA had determined that I had bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. I was entitled to what amounts to beer money for the rest of my life.

Two things about that. One, I’m pretty sure the VA doctor and nurses hadn’t done squat in terms of examining my knees. They did the usual physical exam stuff – EKG, chest X-ray (?), blood work, turn your head and cough. I think there might have been a rudimentary stress test, too. Maybe not. But definitely no examination of the knees beyond the usual reflex test. So, why the physical? The only thing I can think of besides medical routine is that the VA wanted to make sure there wasn’t something else wrong with me. There was, you know. I developed bad tinnitus from the horrendous din in the sub’s engine room. I mean, seriously, it was fucking loud back between the mains, which is why I didn’t hang out there all that much. Anyway, I blame the navy for my hearing, too.

The second thing is that they were 100% right. I did have bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. Sort of.

Here’s the thing about that. I busted up both knees while I was in. Chondromalacia patella they called it, although the VA decades later said – “no way it’s chondro mal. More like osteo mal.” Whatever, the damn knees have been crappy since about 1977. And I remember exactly, to the moment, with GPS accuracy, when and where it happened. One of the few clear memories I have of … well, anything.

On the north shore of Kauai, there’s a long hiking trail to a secluded beach. It’s right out of the movie South Pacific. Kalalau Beach. One of the most scenic and peaceful places I have ever been. Back in the day, the only way you got to the beach was via the eleven mile (one-way) trail along the ocean cliffs. Nowadays, I understand you can drop in by Zodiac boat although maybe they’re restricting that, too. But in 1977, it was the trail. During one off-crew period, three shipmates and I decided to do Kalalau.

Wow. Gorgeous waterfalls, ocean views, perilous drop-offs from the trail to certain death, the Kalalau trail is wonderful, magical. As a bonus, towards the end, once you lose the tourists, the trail becomes clothing-optional. Kalalau Beach itself was more like clothing-discouraged and everyone one there seemed to abide by that.

For most of the trail, once you gain the 800 feet or so of elevation, you wind in and out following the contour of the ‘finger’ cliffs along the coast. When it veers inland, you get tropical vegetation and extreme humidity. Veering seaward, it dries out and you get those perilous dropoffs I mentioned. But mostly, not a lot of elevation change along the bulk of the trail.

Until you get to the end, near Kalalau Beach. Then – and I remember this clearly even if it isn’t true (it is) – the trail descends a ridiculously steep grade down to sea level. So steep that you may lose your footing. Which I did. Rather than fall over in a heap, I did what most people would do – I went with gravity and more or less ran down the slope, avoiding an unseemly wipeout. This with a full back pack.

I may not be describing it all that well, but the point is that what I did was incredibly hard on my knees and after gaining the beach, I knew I had done something terribly bad. My knees hurt. So what, right? I’ll be fine the next day. Right?

Not so much. Although I limped around and explored that incredible beach for the rest of the day and the next, I was hurting. When we headed out, I actually needed help from my buddies to get back. They took some load off my pack, which eased the pain a bit.

The knees were never right after that. “But wait!”, you say. “How is that the navy’s fault? You were on a fricking hiking trip!”

Well, there’s this seemingly weird but actually understandable concept that the military owns you and your body. Whatever happens to you while you’re in, the military deals with it. Basically, they had the responsibility to discharge me in the same condition I was in when I joined, which was physically fit. So, they owned the knees no matter what happened to them. Mind you, this arrangement was not a one-way street. I had no right to refuse medical care, for example. As an example, prior to every patrol, we had to see the dentist and if the dentist said we needed work, it was done. We had no input into the matter. The navy can’t have sailors with impacted wisdom teeth or whatever while under water in the middle of the Pacific. Similarly, I got the notorious swine flu injection without my consent.

Hiking the Kalalau – twice, I went back the next year (I know, don’t yell at me.) – wasn’t the only activity that was hard on my knees. This might be a little hard to explain, but part of my job as a nuclear electronics technician/reactor operator was to maintain the reactor controls equipment on the sub. As you might imagine, submarines are a bit cramped. Most of the electronics panels I worked on were in narrow alleyways. Every week, we had to calibrate the various panels, which involved hours of squatting in front of them while we operated the test equipment and adjusted the channels. That is very hard on the knees even if your knees are in good shape. Every one of us would groan after a weekly on the PPIPs. The back hurt; the knees hurt; the ankles even hurt. I doubt everyone sustained permanent damage to their knees but chronic injuries are not uncommon in such occupations.

Since becoming a ‘disabled veteran’, I’ve tried my best to not act like one. Before the disability got too bad, I ran 5K and 10K races, played an obscene amount of tennis and hiked hundreds of miles. Other than running road races, which I wasn’t in love with anyway, the difficulty with hiking has been the biggest challenge to my preferred lifestyle. I like to hike and I like to hike terrain with significant elevation changes, which are the toughest on my knees. Going downhill in particular is quite damaging.

Which brings me back to Telescope Peak. I wrote a blog post on that epic hike earlier. Summiting Death Valley’s ultimate peak is perhaps my greatest post-Kalalau hike and I’m still suffering the effects years later. It was really hard on the knees.

Totally worth it.

I do not have a ‘Disabled Veteran’ plate and will never have one even if I’m eligible (which I’m not – there’s a 25% disabled threshold for that). Although I am eligible for VA health care and Atlanta has a fine VA hospital and outlying clinics, I rarely take advantage of it. I have my own private insurance and, frankly, it bothers me to use the VA because it’s so underfunded. There are many, many veterans who need their services way more than I do.

So, beer money for life.

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