Beliefnet
When I got cancer, I blamed the Army.

Cancer induces opposing attitudes.

First, it's not my fault: X caused it. (X = smoking, bad genes, fatty foods, bad chemicals, too much sun, not enough sun, etc.)

Contrarily, one thinks: this isn't fair. I've lived a fine, healthy, law-abiding, spiritually sound life. Pick on someone else. I don't deserve this. No one does.

If you're a veteran, as I am, the military is a handy scapegoat for nearly everything that goes wrong in your life-and not entirely without reason. Many people learn to gripe, grouse, and bellyache in basic training. Old soldiers, sailors, Marines, air-people, and coast guards don't necessarily face more pain than their civilian buddies. They just have cruder tools with which to complain. And boundless self-pity.

In uniform, we were abused, assaulted, and challenged by our superiors. Some of us were shot, rocketed, mortared, land-mined, strafed, or IEDed while serving our nation.

That sort of thing seldom happens when one is flipping burgers, raising kids, or trading stocks. Old grunts deploy colorful vitriol even after taking a plain vanilla dose of service, much less a bloody side dish of combat.

Personally, when I began to suffer the worst pain of my life--more accurately, the worst pains of my life, pains that I'd not felt even after being shot, rocketed, or satchel-charged--I realized that my military training had not only put me in harm's way.

In fact, it had prepared me to heal myself.

Really.

My epiphany: the military wasn't only a cause of my pain. To be fair, it can be a source of healing and self-repair, too. As my personal discoveries go, this was big. Looking back, my three years in the U.S. Army, supposedly spent to keep a teetering Asian domino from falling into Commie hands, had not only given my brothers, sisters, and me pain, and plenty of it. It had taught us how to cope with pain, too.

I leanred this when I stopped to remember the stuff that I had learned deep in my subconscious back in the Day. That's when I learned to use old pains to combat new ones. You needn't be a combat hero to transform your old pains into remedies, either. All of us have coped with pain. Cancer doesn't produce worse pain that we can deal with. Just more of it.

I blamed the First Air Cavalry for many maladies even before I learned I had the Big C. Even now, after my revelation about the restorative powers of military life, I'm not sure I can exculpate the First Team for all my woes.

I'll get to the Zen of the Infantry soon.

First, the woes...

I bear several scars and tote metal shards from my duty as a combat platoon leader with the First Cavalry. Before I learned of my colorectal cancer two summers ago, I was already diabetic. Agent Orange may have been a partial cause of both illnesses. (The defoliant was sprayed lavishly on the jungles around our sector of I Corps in the mountains near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) But it wasn't just shrapnel or scar tissue that I attributed to my 1968 combat stint. I had the standard invisible scars, too. Fireworks sound like incoming to me, even now, 38 years after I came home. Every Memorial Day when our town rifle squad fires three rounds for those who die in war, I want to dig a foxhole and dive in.

When I had nightmares after cancer surgery last summer, I blamed the Cavalry. I saw NVA sappers in my hospital bathroom. Was it the narcotics? Dilaudid? Morphine? Fentanyl? A mind-altering drug cocktail made me wary of entering the enemy tunnel system in my hospital latrine.

My radiation and chemotherapy began in April 2004 followed by a five-hour surgery. A tumor and three cancerous lymph nodes were excised successfully, and a temporary, reversible ileostomy (like a colostomy, but lower in the digestive tract) was implanted above my right belt line.

The ostomy deposited poop in a neat plastic removable appliance as my colon healed. (Sorry for that detail.) I had pain, but who doesn't? Certainly one expects unpleasant consequences from a long surgery. The rule of thumb is that it takes a week to recover from every hour you've been rendered unconscious by anesthesia. The thing is, however, I was never able to control my pain. Not in the hospital, nor when I got out. My stomach wall hurt where an eight-inch incision cut muscles. My butt hurt.

The cancer was gone, but the pain stayed.

I'm not a whiner. My fine dentist, Dr. Martin Wohl, will confirm that I don't ask for Novocaine for ordinary dental work. I'm tough. Ran three marathons. Trained for a triathlon in 2000. Broke five bones in three separate sports accidents. Had seven prior surgeries. No self-pity allowed. C'mon. This little surgery wasn't gonna take me down.

While recovering, stifling my moans - I CAN TAKE THIS!! This all you got? Show me something tougher, Mr. Pain King - I started walking, and then jogging, slowly.

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