Blood Brothers
Among the Soldiers of
Ward 57

Michael Weisskopf
(Henry Holt)
Michael Weisskopf was sent to Iraq in 2003 to prepare a special yearend issue of Time Magazine. He traveled as an "embedded" reporter in a platoon of the First Armored Division.

A hand grenade was thrown into the Humvee in which he was riding. He reached down to throw it out. It exploded, and shredded his right hand. Weisskopf looked down and saw his arm with "protruding white wristbones in a bed of severed tendons and blood vessels."

He ended up at Walter Reed Hospital, even though he was not in the military. He and his friends used his connections with Time (and some political pull) to get him admitted to Ward 57, unofficially called "Amputee Alley." It was and continues to be one of the best treatment centers in the world for this trauma.

Blood Brothers could have been written as a personal story, one reporter's journey from injury to rehabilitation, learning to live with prosthesis, perhaps an adventure in a new way of living in the world. But Weisskopf chose to include not only himself, but three other amputees in Ward 57: Luis Rodriguez (right leg), Pete Damon (both hands), and Bobby Isaacs (both legs).

After forty-seven operations, Weisskopf tells us, Isaacs returned to his small-town church in North Carolina to be presented to the congregation. The minister, Pastor Cox, "had no difficulty matching that emotional pitch in his Sunday service ... a Walter Reed amputee who told ABC news Nightline in March, 'I believe that God's still got some use for me.'"

    As the clip ended, Bobby rolled himself onto the pulpit in a wheelchair. The overflow audience of eight hundred burst into applause."

Later, Isaac's pastor addressed the congregation. "I'm going to tell you something quickly," he said. "Bob is going to be walking again. Aren't you buddy?"

    My fellow amputees didn't need a rationale [writes Weisskopf]. They believed in the nobility of sacrifice, a traumatic loss for a just cause. Bobby Isaacs felt only pride when he displayed his stumps at church. It was his patriotic tribute, even more symbolic than a Purple Heart. He gave up his legs for love of country in a time of need.

"Just another amputee on the long road to recovery," the author concludes.

§     §     §

Weisskopf has spent most of his life as a professional reporter, first for the Washington Post, then for Time, among others. (He was over fifty-five when he was injured).

He knows --- you and I know --- that reporting on disability is a tricky business. A reporter, even one who is trying hard to be dispassionate, will choose words and move them about so that you and I will end up seeing the world through his eyes. Weisskopf's fate --- the one that suddenly overtook him and his three friends --- cannot be viewed, nor reported, with dispassion. He may try to present the truth with what he believes to be a distancing ... but his report will be powerfully skewed by his own loss. How it is skewed is a different matter.

In writing about his friends from Ward 57, Weisskopf's vocabulary reveals his particular set. He comes up with words and phrases like "just cause," "determination," "nobility of sacrifice," and --- as an apparent throw-away --- "just another amputee on the long road to recovery." These words tell how he sees his buddies and --- indirectly --- sees himself. Bobby Isaacs felt only pride when he displayed his stumps at church, he writes. But, there, in the church, looking on (as friend; as reporter), Weisskopf, too, was displaying his disability for all to see.

There are sound reasons that such writing brings us old-timers in the disability business to the brink of despair. In psychology, it is called "a double-bind." In family therapy, it is known as "emotional blackmail." In what we members of the ancien régime think of as CripLit ... it is a scandal.

A double-amputee being wheeled on the stage so 800 people can "applaud his stumps" is, at best, an inelegant take on man's suffering; at worst, it is a parody of the woe that has befallen Isaacs and the rest of those on Ward 57. I know few of my disabled friends who would condone (for themselves, for others) such a public bleeding. I know of even fewer who would haul out words like "sacrifice" or "noble" to describe as deep a personal pain as the loss of one or more limbs.

§     §     §

These words I write are not meant to mock an honest search for hope. You and I cannot survive without that. Rather, I am suggesting that writers, the media, the public in general, should always, always stay away from this particularly poisonous view of disability. Getting rid of this "heroism" business is the first step. Being done with Hero-talk starts us on a new, most vital stage of recovery, a recovery not of the body ... but of the soul. Mark O'Brien, the well-known disabled poet, once said that describing us as "brave" is like saying that a Black has natural rhythm. Heroism is not all heroic if there are no choices.

We may have been, like the men in Ward 57, in the killing fields ... but after all that, one does not end up doing battle with the body. We, rather, learn to achieve peace with it so we can muster what is necessary for survival. This "nobility of sacrifice" that Weisskopf offers up can only further cripple us.

It is important to understand that Weisskopf may well have used these terms in sheer innocence, an innocence that ... as I write these words ... is being slowly leached from him and the other graduates of "Amputee Alley." It comes from the most powerful of teachers: the new body. It's an introduction to what, in 1976, the paraplegic writer Richard Brickner termed My Second Life.

Weisskopf and his friends are in a new school now, one that has no presidential speeches or awards, certainly no graduation ceremonies. They are quietly joining those of us members of the ancien régime. Journalist John Hockenberry called it a voyage of discovery: "My body had become a puzzle. Solving it was exhilarating beyond the simple imperatives of survival."

More, Weisskopf and his friends will discover, as did Mark O'Brien, that disability is the gift that keeps on giving.

Weisskopf's attempt to attach a meaning to his loss makes for a compulsive listing in Blood Brothers of awards that have come to him since his profound injury: the Daniel Pearl Award, the Fourth Estate Award, the Brian Bennett honorable mention from the Overseas Press Club, the White House Correspondents' Dinner ... where President Bush compared Weisskopf to "NBC's David Bloom and Atlantic Monthly's Michael Kelly" who had lost their lives in Iraq.

    Other's like Michael Weisskopf, have shown incredible presence of mind and courage that won our admiration,

said Bush. Then, reports Michael Weisskopf, "The room erupted in applause."

We cannot fault the encomiums ... but we must see them for what they are: important testimonies given to a man who, like us all, is baffled by what has come over his body (and his sense of self). This implies ... really: demands ... that he cling to anything that can give his loss the dignity he feels it deserves. This, for some, is the only way to give meaning to despair, to the troubling hope that a noble sacrifice creates nobility.

Those of us who have lost parts of our bodies in far less heroic circumstances than Weisskopf know that, over time, none of these will avail. The historian Hugh Gallagher, disabled for more than five decades, said to me, not long before he died, "I'm tired of being a crip. I want to do something else."

The tributes that are flowing to Bobby Isaacs, and the ones that came to Weisskopf, may be a recognition of suffering by those with clerical or political power, but they come from those who may have another agenda altogether. This is brought home by the singular photograph of Bobby Isaacs shaking hands with President Bush. Both of Isaac's stumps are on view. No of us can disregard the terrible irony of one is being photographed with the man who can be said to have set up the whole devastating scene in the first place.

As the author makes very clear, Isaacs has a lifetime ahead of him filled with uncertainty. He started out poor. His government pension --- some $3000 a month --- can never begin to give him the equipment and the independence he needs. He faces a dismal future dickering with the Veteran's Bureau, a notoriously stupid arm of the federal government, sometimes even worse --- if such is possible --- than those who run the country's SSI's disability program.

There is, for one thing, the reality of his pain. It is capsuled, if you will, by the contents of his bedtable. There he had a sampling of drugs which might (or might not) relieve the "phantom pain" that comes with loss of one or more limbs. There were "pills to combat seizures and depression, lozenges for bronchitis, allergy nasal spray, arthritis cream, medicated patches for shingles, and an electro-stimulation device."

    It was hard to tell if any of them works. The crushing, stabbing pain in my right hand flared and subsided --- but never went away. Doctors said it might last a month, a year, a lifetime.

A lifetime of an ineradicable pain. And for this, a handshake and a few words doled out by the producer of the disturbing movie that now runs his life.

§     §     §

There are books available that reveal --- far better than Blood Brothers can --- the world that these newly disabled will come to know. Three years ago, New Mobility and RALPH Magazine published a list of what we believed to be the best books on disability. Of those, we gave our highest honors to three. John Callahan's Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, is a must; it is what he calls "the brighter side of being disabled for life." It has a wonderful strain of pissed-off hope (sometimes it is anger that keeps us up to snuff).

Tumbling After, Pedaling Like Crazy after Life Goes Downhill by Susan Parker is what we have come to see as one of the few existential books on disability. Parker tells, in agonizing, painful, merry, finely-wrought detail her new life with her husband, recently a quadriplegic. It gives the reader a chance to see the world of the disabled through the eyes of the family, those who live it daily, those who, we learn, suffer an unexpected trauma of their own.

Finally, since Weisskopf is obviously a political animal, he could gain great insight from Hugh Gallagher's FDR's Splendid Deception. It tells of a man who was profoundly disabled, who pretended it wasn't so, who managed to convince an entire nation of his lack of disability.

It also tells of the price we all paid for it.

--- L. W. Milam
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