The little boy with silky brown hair suffered from hydrocephalus and he couldn’t lift his grotesquely swollen 2-year-old head from the pillow in his bed at the Hunterdon Development Center in Clinton. He was hard to look at.
I don’t recall the year, probably sometime in the early 1980s and I was reporting on allegations of abuse at the center. I don’t remember the details or the outcome but I will never forget the image of that boy, through absolutely no fault of his brief life, would never be accepted in the world even if he lived, which was unlikely, because he was an example of nature gone wrong, an error that we like to deny and shut way from our eyes. Could he speak, this damaged, tiny child would not say that the world is a good place.
Some years ago, I was perched in an overhead viewing area and watched as surgeons separated the ribs of a 12-year-old boy so that they could cut his chest open and close up a congenital hole in his heart. He survived and I returned days later to see that miraculously, the boy was active, walking around the cardiac unit, laughing with the nurses. For how long, I don’t know. As for his future, I have no idea whether he was able to live a life free of serious medical issues or whether he continued to face obstacles that nature is supposed to help us avoid.
And then my mind turned to visions of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where I went to report in 2008 about the rehabilitation of military veterans who lost limbs in fighting in Afghanistan, and particularly for a 25-year-old Long Valley medic whose left leg was ripped off by a mortar blast. The young man, who looked closer to 17 years old, was having a hard time in rehabilitation, enduring intense pain from the improperly fitted prosthetic leg he had been provided. He had suffered bouts of post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, along with sleeplessness, flashbacks and nightmares.
There were many large, burly, war weary men at the hospital who had lost limbs and who cried like babies and were rendered unable to do even the simplest tasks, like dress themselves or go to the bathroom unaided. Their lives would never be the same and they were the unseen victims of war, their tragic pictures and stories largely kept out of the classrooms to shield young people from the difficult realities of the world that do not fit neatly in the world we teach.
I know of another man whose father was a decorated World War II veteran and before he died was tormented by nightmares and visions of Japanese soldiers storming toward his Chester home. The decorated veteran was the subject of a best selling book and TV series. Millions died whose stories were never told in films or books and were more unseen victims of war and the continuing pain that war brings after the bullets are done.
I would have liked to ask the World War II veteran if serving the country was worth living a nightmare for the rest of his life. Had he made the world safer for democracy? Did any of it make sense? I would like to know if the veterans with no arms or legs still stick to their beliefs that the war in Afghanistan was worth the price they were personally paying in human destruction, just like the World War II veteran plagued by unending nightmares.
The little boy with hydrocephalus was a generally kept out of view as a victim of nature gone wrong. I couldn’t ask the boy because he was too infirm and I didn’t have the nerve to ask the veterans I met who were dealing with a devastating life-changing crisis. I wanted to ask the boy if he felt he would be better off dead and what he wanted in life and I wanted to ask the veterans if they thought they had actually done something worthwhile while suffering such horrendous injuries.
Of course, these are distasteful and difficult issues that most of us are lucky enough never have to face. And we are brought up in a homogenized, disinfected world and the result is that we are raising a generation of people who are largely numb to the realities of the world and who are too often incapable of feeling empathy because it is too inconvenient.
I thought about these things after a walk today while I was listening on my earbuds to a radio version of the 1938, anti-war novel, “Johnnie Got His Gun,” by Dalton Trumbo. Johnny has lost both arms and legs along with his sight and speech, in an explosion while fighting in World War I. He tries to make sense of a situation that made no sense but he has no way to communicate his feelings about the futility of war. He is not unlike those who suffer from crippling injuries in later wars and have been taught not to question or complain but instead to go quietly into the night.
Trumbo was later blacklisted for having Communist sympathies.