It was a freak accident, that one-in-a-million for which demolitions people draw hazardous duty pay. A malfunction in the time fuse did not give me my delay. Accidents involving the quarter-pound block are not all that rare, as it is the primary explosive used in training. A few years earlier, eight Green Berets from Fort Bragg died when their ring main with each holding a quarter-pound block of TNT accidently exploded. To my knowledge, I am the only person ever to survive such a mishap.
I survived, but hardly intact. Besides losing the right arm at mid-forearm, I lost my left eye and damaged the right, ruptured both eardrums, lost full use of my left index finger, and severely damaged my chest and abdomen, causing internal injuries to every organ except my heart, stomach, and spleen. My body from chin to knees looked like a cheap pizza. The force of the blast blew big chunks of flesh from my rib cage. My abdomen was blown open and my insides became outsides. As best I can figure, I lost ten pounds on the TNT crash diet.
The hospital recovery was touch and go for two weeks followed by months of grafting and mending. It was a bitch, the toughest thing I've ever faced. With the support of friends and a loving wife (my high school sweetheart who saw me through two tours in Vietnam) I struggled back.
Remarkably, I kept my spirits up and accepted the challenge. I fought harder to simply stand on my feet than I ever fought to stand in the ranks of the Special Forces. The simple things in life like feeding myself and attending my toilet were major hurdles. I could not bear the thought of a lifetime of dependency on others and attacked each problem with a tenacity I didn't know I had.
I fretted about my future and several counselors visited me at my bedside. I wanted to know what my options were. What would happen to me? The benefits laid before me staggered my mind. Money would be the least of my worries, they explained. The VA was there to take care of guys like me.
It all seemed so unreal--the money especially. After adding up unemployment benefits, Social Security Disability Compensation, Army Retirement pay, and VA Disability Compensation, I would be taking home twice what I earned as a Staff Sergeant--and for doing nothing at all. I kept asking, "Are you sure?" and I kept hearing, "Of course we're sure, it says right here. The Army rated you 100% disabled; the VA will do no less."
This lifted my spirits further. I could now go to college and get even more money under the GI bill. The only thing that bothered me about the whole thing was living off of charity-- welfare. I was not raised that way and resolved to apply only for what I needed.
The man from the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) explained, "It ain't charity, Sarge. That's why it's called compensation. You are being compensated for your loss by a grateful nation. You'll bear the scars and the consequence of your service for the rest of your life, but you'll also get the compensation for the rest of your life. Even after you return to work, it will still come to you. Hell, Sarge, if you'd been working in the private sector, you'd be a millionaire. If you want the truth, you're getting screwed. Don't be a fool, when you get out, apply for every damn thing you've got coming."
I took his word, relaxed, and dreamed of a life full of possibilities. Three months later, I left that hospital on my feet and walked gingerly to my car. I spent the next two months on convalescent leave, but I did no convalescing. I spent my time knocking down barriers: putting on Levi's all by myself, walking all the way around the block in under an hour, washing the car, and eventually mowing the grass. Each time I overcame a barrier and once again did what I used to do with ease I grew stronger both physically and mentally.
I set small goals and learned to use my hook. I returned to the wood crafts hobby shop and made the attendants nervous as I struggled to adapt to a right hand world. I built a table and four chairs.
I slowly regained much of my old life, but the one goal I had that was the most important to me was to rejoin my old outfit for morning physical training. Training Command was big on PT. We had what we called the Tropic Lightning Mile, a three-mile run in formation that was mandatory for everyone in the 25th Infantry Division. The Tropic Lighting Mile was the way we started our day.
Many men never could make the full three miles. Formations trailed stragglers. In 1974, I arrived at Schofield Barracks in my dress greens and made my first TLM without falling out. I was determined to leave the same way.
With my medical discharge date looming ominously close, I went into training with a vengeance and damned near put myself back in a hospital bed. My schedule put Rocky to shame. On an early June morning, dressed for PT in a T-shirt, shorts, and running shoes, I quietly slipped into formation with the two-hundred men of Training Command. Lt. Colonel Sedgwick got word and pulled me aside. With an expression of deep concern, he said, "Sergeant Hoffman, what are you doing here?'"
"Sir, I just want to run with my old unit one last time before I go. I can make it, really, I'll be fine."
He gave me a cross-eyed look, but said, "I want you to run beside the guide-on bearer and set a slow pace. You don't need to do this. When you get tired, step aside. That's an order."
I led the formation at the standard pace. As usual, about ten percent fell out along the way and straggled in as the formation came to a panting halt. My wounds leaked blood into my sopping wet T-shirt creating a grisly sight. Colonel Sedgwick gave the command, "Left Face," then ordered, "Sergeant Hoffman, front and center."
I was a bit taken aback by this but marched sharply to him, turned, and out of habit, attempted a snappy salute, feeling ridiculous with my bandaged stump cocked in the air. He returned my disabled salute and order me to face about. He then launched into a speech about raw guts and courage that put Patton to shame and made me blush. He berated the stragglers as they humbly entered the formation. It was not my intention to show off or put anyone down. I made that run for me.
That afternoon, I received a call with orders to report to the Division HQ the following morning to see the Division Adjutant.
I took this as an ominous sign. Had they somehow found me negligent? I donned starched fatigues, got a white-wall haircut, and spit-shined my boots. I asked my wife, Connie, to go with me. I figured that what ever was going down would impact her life as well. I wore my hook and felt a bit odd when passing officers without saluting. When I entered the colonel's office, he rose and stepped around his desk to greet me. He wore a smile and offered us a seat. I breathed a sigh of relief.
We'd met three years earlier when I was a PFC in his brigade. His name was Colonel Quinn. He addressed my wife, saying, "Your husband and I go way back. When he first arrived here, he was a PFC in one of my battalions. He marched into my office one day-- without an appointment I might add--slapped his ID card and dog tags on my desk and said, 'Sir, I quit!' Well, I've had a lot of privates quit in my twenty-two years in service. I never had one give me notice."
We had a good laugh. I was glad he remembered. I was prepared to go straight to Leavenworth. Colonel Quinn did not call the MPs. He invited me to sit and talk. He listened and reviewed my service record. That afternoon, I was assigned to another battalion and given duty more commensurate with my experience. When I earned back my stripes, Colonel Quinn saw to it that I got assigned as an instructor at Recondo School. He told how he had to got to war with the battalion commander of the Wolfhounds to get him to release me.
He then went on and explained that he, the Division Commander, and Lt. Colonel Sedgwick had conferred. He said, "This Division can not afford to lose good men. We want to retain you on active duty at your old job as an instructor at Recondo School. We can cut orders today if that suits you." Connie squeezed my hand because it was the words she most wanted to hear. We had a good comfortable life, a nice home, and bills. It meant security.
I thanked him from the bottom of my heart--moved close to tears. Lt. Colonel Sedgwick had obviously misread my purpose in making the run, assuming that my actions were a desperate attempt to hang onto my job and remain on active duty.
I told Colonel Quinn that I had big plans, wanted to return to school, travel, and start a new life. Connie relaxed her grip. We parted with a left handshake and I never stood as tall as I did leaving his office. I would not only leave Schofield Barracks as I'd entered, but I'd do it as a volunteer. I left the Army; the Army did not leave me. It may sound silly, but for me, that made all the difference in the world. I told Connie not to worry.
I returned to California, took off my uniform, and began the process of applying for my benefits. Dealing with bureaucrats and with their red tape was not my strong suit. I filed the forms and opened the claims just as I'd been advised.
Like most NCO families, we lived payday to payday, so the relocation tapped us out. I needed money right away. My retirement pay amounted to half my active duty pay. The first setback came when California denied my claim to unemployment insurance benefits on the grounds that I was not employable. I shrugged that off, but when Social Security denied my claim on the grounds that I was employable and could work as a salesman, I got pissed and threw the papers in their face.
The VA became my only hope and I had been warned to expect a long wait. They were swamped with Vietnam vets seeking claims for everything from combat trauma to Agent Orange effects--or so they said when I complained of the delays. In the waiting rooms I saw non-combat vets and heard them telling their stories. It was the WWII and Korea vets I felt most comfortable with. At least they had injuries you could see. They, too, were upset with the Vietnam rabble.
The VA put me through an endless series of exams. The staff were always nice and friendly but overwhelmed with the red tape and the patient load. I could see the individuals wanted to help, but were themselves helpless.
As weeks rolled by and turned to months, everything we'd collected in six years of marriage went for ten cents on the dollar. The marriage itself was the last thing to go. She didn't leave me; I let her go. It pained me deeply to push her away, but I could not stand to look in her face and see me in her eyes. She deserved better than to be bound to a crippled fool. I thought she'd be better off with someone whole.
I fought back at the system for a while, then in frustration, told them all to go fuck themselves. I'd had all I could stand of the poking and prodding, the humiliating exams, and endless hours in waiting rooms clogged with the walking wounded of the Vietnam War. I turned my anger and resentment on the Vietnam vet. It wasn't long before every evil in our society had its roots in the long-haired, hippie-type, pseudo-combat Vietnam vet.
In time, I completely gave up on the VA. I took up a push broom and with five-gallon buckets of asphalt driveway sealer, went door to door offering to sealcoat driveways. My wounds were still healing and I often ended my day with both blood and asphalt stains on my clothes. I made ends meet. By the time the VA finally came through nine months later, I had a viable but illegal asphalt repair business going.
The 100% rating I was almost guaranteed came in at 90%. My initial approach had been all wrong. I wanted as much distance as possible from the ones who said I can't do. I went before the people who were to review my disability and showed what I could do. If asked if I could pick up a coin with my hook, I'd flip one in the air and catch it on the fly. Hell, I even brought a deck of cards and demonstrated a standard shuffle. They were impressed. I was still under the impression that I was being reviewed for compensation.
Oddly, VA compensation from 100% to 90% drops in half--VA math. That's also when I learned that VA compensation offsets retirement pay. It was almost a wash. There was one loophole, however, I could get rated 100% if I were unemployable. That would disappear if I were to prove otherwise. I sold the business. It made no sense to forfeit seven-hundred tax free dollars in order to earn one-thousand taxable dollars the hard way.
I was, in effect, being told, "We will pay you seven-hundred extra dollars a month if you promise to stay out of the work force." I promised. My biggest mistake in life was accepting those terms. By then, I'd been beaten down. All I wanted was to get on with my dream and find a new life.
I won't say I kept my promise, and I won't tell you I didn't. Each year, when they sent the form asking if I'd earned any money that year, I signed under penalty of a ten-thousand dollar fine and/or ten years in jail, "No, sir, I've lived at the poverty level all year."
I left the army full of hope and optimism. I felt strong and confident. I entered a system that stripped me of my dignity, turned me into a dependent of the state, and had me living on an underground economy, always looking over my shoulder like an illegal alien in my own country.
I have carried a deep resentment for the way things went down. I blamed the walking wounded of the Vietnam War for fucking up the VA. It seems, in retrospect, it was the other way around.
One day, I hope to stand as tall as I did in June of '77. That day will come when I sign the annual form, "Yes, I earned a great sum this year. Please take it from my compensation. Now roll this form and future ones in a tight little roll and stick them where the sun don't shine. I've had enough of poverty and your Goddamn compensation!"
Boy, that felt good!
Most importantly, I learned that the Veteran's Administration is not there to help vets as their primary mission. There primary mission is to protect the taxpayers of a grateful nation. The VA is doing an excellent job.
My problem was and still is that I am not willing to fight and scrap. I have been told many times to appeal my Social Security claim. I refused. I have been told that I could easily get my disability rating made permanent at 100% by claiming PTSD. I have refused to do that also. I know how the game is played, I just don't want to play. All I ever wanted in the first place was enough to get by with dignity--adaquate compensation.
If I could, I would abolish the VA and mandate each service branch take care of its own. When soldiers, sailors, and marines sit beside vets in hospital waiting rooms, you may rest assured, the vets will get the care they need when they need it. Disabled vets should remain on active duty for pay purposes until retrained or re-educated, and placed in suitable careers. Those who can not return to work should be compensated at a rate that would allow them to live in dignity. A nation unwilling to do this should disclose this fact to their prospective soldiers, sailors, and marines and deal with the consequences.