Ky. Voices: Veterans deserve tolerance but must practice it, too

Dr. Ralph D. Caldroney is a Lexington physician and a retired Army lieutenant colonel in the Medical Corps.
Dr. Ralph D. Caldroney is a Lexington physician and a retired Army lieutenant colonel in the Medical Corps.

Even by the standards of an Iraqi POW he was scrawny, barely 110 pounds with a couple of rocks in his pockets.

But skinny was the norm in this barren hole in the desert in southwestern Iraq.

The time was 2008, the height of the surge. But what made this wisp of a boy stand out were two other defining physical traits. The first was a 1,000-watt smile. Who could be happy as a detainee in this isolated setting? We might as well have been on the far side of the moon. Even the innkeepers, we of the coalition forces bemoaned life in "paradise" as it was affectionately referred to.

But he was undeniably happy; he had heard that the "doctore" responsible for the compound he was housed in was a "good man" and could try to help him. The requested help was for his deformed right arm. It was a pitiable sight; the arm was withered and badly misaligned at the level of the wrist and elbow.

My Arabic was at best rudimentary and, as usual I had to rely on my native interpreter to translate. The story that unfolded was a not uncommon one; he had been assaulted in his village by the local insurgents because he was suspected of being an informer.

His story, if true, was that he had met an American patrol in the street and had made the mistake of being friendly with them. This was in keeping with his demeanor with me; he was a puppy dog in a boy's body. The consequences for him were an assault by the "bad guys" in which both his elbow and wrist had been deliberately dislocated. Not only was this extremely painful but, because the initial injury went untreated in the ensuing year, the joints had fused in their misaligned configuration, the nerves surrounding them had been damaged and the downstream muscles had limited function.

I bounced his case over to our orthopedist at our affiliated Combat Support Hospital (CSH); he was one of the more sympathetic providers and said he could take a look. He said there was little that could be done at this late a stage for the nerve damage but perhaps the wrist and elbow could be fused and the arm made more functional. He was a very busy guy and I knew it would take weeks or longer for the boy to be seen.

I had the boy brought back into my exam shed in the compound a few days later. I told him what might transpire but made no hard promises. I was due to ship out in a week and I could not guarantee anything. His reaction was very grateful and he then stunned me by giving me a hug. One was not to touch any of the military personnel, especially the great and powerful doctore.

But his was such a spontaneous gesture that I, my medic staff, the guards and the interpreter all took it in stride and took it for what it was, an act of gratitude.

What became of the boy after I left I do not know. But I felt that I was on the right side of this conflict, if such barbarities were practiced on their fellow countrymen. This was not an isolated occurrence I had come to find; death or permanent disfigurement was a common retaliatory act. Act of intolerance one.

When I returned from Afghanistan in 2010 I felt like I was on a different planet. Everything was different, from the environment to the people, especially the people. I felt a deep and at times bitter resentment to the civilian population that I knew was not at all unique to me or to my century.

This is an emotion that has been chronicled by many returning veterans, dating back since civilization began. Why did my society carry on as if a war was not ongoing and did not seem to be at all concerned that our young men (and now women) in uniform were bleeding and dying, on a daily basis, for these "fat and sassy" civilians? Why were they unwilling to share the burden? I had seen too many soldiers on their fourth and fifth tours who were wounded, both physically and mentally, and would never be the same, even if they survived and returned home.

The group that drew my particular ire was the civilian young who were of military age. They enjoyed all the amenities of the culture with none of the awful responsibilities of service in a combat zone.

I had a very difficult time attending group gatherings at which those of military age were in abundance. It was all I could do to avoid a verbal, or at worst a physical altercation, with one or a group.

But for the main, I kept my emotions in check, mainly with the assistance of the most caring and compassionate of wives.

But my composure finally broke at the wedding of the daughter of long-term friends. I had known them since she was a little girl. It should have been the most joyous of times for all concerned. But fueled by too much drink and a volcano of smoldering resentment, I lost my composure and created a scene.

I uttered under my breath a series of oaths that were overheard by another close friend of long standing. She thought they were directed at her and took rightful exception. My attempts at apology were poorly delivered and muted. I later stomped out of the reception and created an additional scene at our table.

My attempts at rationalization in the days after were that they, the "civilians," deserved my vitriol and that all concerned needed to cut me some slack. It took months for me to realize that I was being as intolerant as the tormenters of that poor boy who still occupied my dreams. But I had created a breach with a number of dear friends that will likely never be mended.

The moral of all of this is one for our returning veterans, their families and friends.

You, the returning veteran must accept your society with all of its blemishes. Especially in this country, the pros far outweigh the cons. If you, the service member become the intolerant one then you have defeated much of the purpose for which we are fighting this war, to give those other societies a chance to share that most wonderful of freedoms, the right to be different and to not be accosted, or worse, for such.

For the civilian population who has to deal with our often fragile psyches, especially in those delicate months after we have returned home, recognize that our wounds are not always external and give us the time and tolerance to adapt.