Spring, 2014. It was battalion hump-day in the coastal lowlands of a North Carolina hellhole known as Camp Lejeune. The air was thick. The heat lay heavy. I had 12 miles to look forward to today—not too many, but enough to piss you off. It would probably take about four hours at a decent pace, breaks included, carrying our entire deployment issue on our backs. Four hours of shoulder straps sinking their teeth into my neck with my eyes locked on the sweat-stained ass of the guy in front of me. By the time we hit the halfway point, my arms were numb to the fingertips and all I could do to keep my mind off my chaffing thighs and the ache in my knees was think about weekend liberty. Up ahead a guy fell out. I heard the sharp clatter of somebody’s weapon bouncing on the pavement. The sound prickled my skin and made me cringe.
The entire formation erupted. “Corpsman up!” Some of us sang it; some screamed it—mostly for fun and a chance to be belligerent. It’s the small things. I watched the corpsmen carry him to the rear of the formation on a foldout stretcher and load him onto the 7-ton truck trailing behind us. I kind of felt sorry for him. Mostly, I hated him and envied the fact that in five minutes he’d be kicking his feet up and airing his boots, while the rest of us carried on. Doc would tell him to drink more water, change his socks, and take some Motrin, that he’d be fine.
I went back to my happy place—some never-ending weekend, far away, full of women and booze. I had my own problems. I was a grunt with a rubber leg in the Marine Corps infantry. My left knee was garbage. Doc after doc, year after year, from one unit to the next, said it was just a sprain, or a strain, or something just as stupid. My latest light-duty chit, that paperwork explaining my physical status and limitations, was a couple days expired, and I figured if I was going to finish a 12-miler with one working leg, I shouldn’t waste time thinking about that poor sucker. For three years I had been dealing with the world’s longest “knee sprain.” I didn’t have room for sympathy.
August, 2011. I was burning down a rope in full battle-rattle during a platoon fast-roping exercise. My legs were bent and braced for impact. I hit the ground and felt a pop and shift in my knee. I collapsed and rolled out of the way. It hurt unlike anything I had ever felt. I limped over to doc; he did some range-of-motion tests, felt around a bit, and quickly determined it was just a sprain. That was the beginning of my troubles. Over the next few years, my leg gave out on me continuously, often when I needed it the most. It was excruciating and embarrassing. At one point someone called me a bitch, to my face. I’ll never forget it.
Eventually I saw some orthopedic doctors, but so much time had passed that my knee had stopped swelling, and I didn’t show typical signs of ligament damage: I had decent strength and range of motion. I got an X-ray, but ligament damage doesn’t show up on X-rays. I lost respect and credibility the more time that passed without answers. After three years, my medical record was as thick as the medical encyclopedia sitting on the counter in doc’s examination room. I was tired of having excuses, of trying to push through, of hoping everything would be fine and that my knee would just heel on its own. I was tired of being told to change my socks, drink more water, and take some Motrin. I was tired of light-duty chits. I wanted to be fixed, I wanted my confidence back, and I wanted respect—not to be called “a bitch,” or a liar.
Some weeks after that 12-miler at Lejeune, I found out I had a torn ACL and meniscus. My leg had given out during morning PT for the millionth time and I couldn’t take it anymore. Three years of “dealing with it” had finally become too much. I fought for an MRI and got one. We were in the field when I found out. One of the senior Corpsmen in our company called me over and said, “We got your MRI results back. Basically your shit is fucked up: You have no ACL at all. It looks like it’s retracted over time and your meniscus has two tears in it.” The commanding officer told me to go back to the packs and hang out. I’d made it this far; I’d be OK until we got back. At least now everyone knew I wasn’t bullshitting. I wanted to scream, “SEE I FUCKING TOLD YOU!” But I’m better than that.
I’ve tried to understand why it was so hard to get help. It was infinitely frustrating, knowing something was wrong and being mistaken for a weakling with no integrity. That frustration often pushed me into making stupid decisions because I didn’t want to be a bitch. There were times that I felt like a complete outsider in an institution that swears by loyalty.
June, 2014. I got corrective surgery about a month after my MRI. But, because I’d gone years without proper treatment, the residual damage was too extensive and my first surgery was unsuccessful. My new ACL didn’t graft properly and my meniscus tore again four days before my End of Active Service date. They tried again to tell me it was just a sprain, and I was told to take it up with the VA. I did, and I had another surgery in August 2015. I’ll be blessed with arthritis and a full knee replacement before I’m 50. I’m 25 years old.
For a long time I felt alone in my struggle. I wanted to see if there were more guys like me, so I decided to speak up on Facebook. There were plenty, and some of them had stories worse than mine—something I didn’t think was possible. These were guys I served with, guys that dealt with the same people and the same bullshit.
Former Riflemen, Philip Jordan and Nicholas Hellen, have equally frustrating stories of misdiagnoses and maltreatment. Jordan’s foot got caught between the skid and ledge of a repel tower and “snapped,” while in Okinawa, Japan. The Medical Officer and his 1st Sgt. gave him shit and the MO got pissed for bringing it up and asking for an X-ray, Jordan says. He waited for a month to get seen by somebody at the base aide station, just to be told it was “fine,” that it was “just sprained.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that played out excuse. Fortunately, Jordan saw an outside care provider once he returned home. However, they determined that it had been broken and healed wrong, so he would need corrective surgery to fix it.
Hellen almost died. He suffered from a “softball-sized ulcer” in his small intestine and a small one in his stomach. His ulcers weren’t discovered until it was almost too late. “I lost half my blood count overnight and my next of kin was contacted and told I was on my death bed” after a night of vomiting blood, he says. Ultimately, Hellen got the necessary surgery, but his problems followed him when he transferred to a West Coast unit preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. None of his medical records had been passed on, and he was immediately labeled a “shit-bag” for not being able to keep up. “None of my command believed me, or my story,” he said.
Trust me I know the feeling. To once stand proud, young, and strong. Only to become injured and so easily distrusted, disowned, and left to limp behind the pack. Drinking water, changing our socks, and taking Motrin, like the docs told us to do, doesn’t cure all of our ailments. Trust, empathy, and a little respect would have helped.