Hometown hero

A hero lives in the mobile home park at the south edge of the burgeoning “upscale community” for which I used to edit the weekly newspaper.

It’s the only mobile home park in town — exclusive, if you will — nestled nearly out of sight in the high, rolling foothills of the area. A seasonal creek, rich with frogs, water skaters and wildlife, shaded by live oaks, runs along its western edge.

The park has been there since the community was no more than a few isolated housing developments just off Highway 50, served by a single grocery store and gas station. It’s a small, very neat grid of single-wide, double-wide and dinky “manufactured” homes set along the narrow, paved lanes. Nearly every space has a patch of lawn or a little garden, variously decorated with bright plastic whirligig daisies, venerable rose bushes and temporarily abandoned children’s toys. At the front of the park, where the newer, nicer residences are visible from the feeder road, there’s a playground for kids with a big expanse of soft green grass.

Marine Cpl. Jeff Landay is officially on active duty, but at the moment he’s living quietly with his unemployed parents and five siblings in the mobile home park. He’s 19 years old, a graduate of the award-winning local high school two miles from his home. The school is surrounded by half-million and million-dollar homes overlooked by a members-only country club and a fabulous Robert Trent Jones, Jr., 72-par championship golf course. SUVs are the preferred mode of transport.

Landay, the local hero in this story, might still be in Iraq today, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s slowly recovering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) suffered in May 2006 near Fallujah.

I don’t use the word “hero” lightly. From a story in Village Life, the local weekly newspaper, published Dec. 13, 2006:

On May 21, Landay’s platoon was on a routine patrol. They struck a small IED, but there was no damage. They continued their patrol, but when it was over, elected to return to camp using an alternate route.

Debris blocked the road. As Landay navigated his Humvee, in the lead, around the obstacle, there was a powerful explosion that blew the vehicle off the road and 50 yards down into a shallow ravine, where it came to rest.

The explosion mangled the Humvee’s left front side.

The rest of the platoon watched in horror. They could not radio raise any response from the five Marines inside the damaged Humvee, which was now isolated from the platoon, and in what the Marines call a vulnerable “kill zone.”

Seconds stretched into minutes as Landay’s platoon watched the ravine for any signs of life. Then, they saw brake lights flash on the stricken Humvee.

Badly injured, Landay got the Humvee’s remaining three tires pointed back up to the road. With a last surge of adrenaline, he gunned it back up the ravine to the road and relative safely.

“It really saved all their lives, because they [the rest of the platoon] can’t get out there to get them without backup,” said [Landay’s stepfather Glen] Yaeger.

When Corpsman Luis Rodriguez, “Doc Rod,” reached the Humvee, “it was a disaster,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was smoky, and we had to get the guys out.”

The worst injury was to Cpl. “Cheeks” Ramirez. Attempts to resuscitate him failed. When Rodriguez got to Landay, it appeared that he, too, was a fatality. There was major head trauma and no pulse.

Everyone thought Landay had driven his Humvee to safety and died.

But Rodriquez applied CPR and, miraculously, got a pulse. Landay stared breathing on his own.

“Doc Rod brought Jeff back to life,” said Yaeger. “They got him to a hospital within 20 minutes, which probably saved his life again.”

His injuries were grave. “It’s a miracle he’s here,” said Yaeger. “The doctors are unbelievable.”

The explosion crushed Landay’s skull, broke his jaw and damaged his liver, spleen, kidney and shoulder.

Both of Landay’s parents lost their jobs in the months after he was wounded, his mother because of the massive amounts of time off she needed to spend with her wounded son while he was hospitalized at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and later, at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. His step-father was laid off due to down-sizing at his place of employment. Since the story appeared in Village Life, the family has received help in the form of individual donations and poker-party fund raisers sponsored by a popular local barber. Still, the family is struggling.

According to a follow-up story in Village Life published last week, Cpl. Landay is currently getting his medical treatment through the David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., roughly 60 miles away from his home. This latest treatment is not for the TBI in particular, but for his jaw, which didn’t reattach well after his initial series of surgeries to repair the damage to his head. He recently had surgery in which they redid the reattachment and, incidentally, removed some shrapnel which was still embedded there.

Thanks to his mother, Michelle Landay, who stood up to the military medical board at the Palo Alto VA hospital, Landay may soon be able to go to the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Center at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, where he can continue his rehabilitation and recovery from his TBI before being reassigned on active duty or medically retired. He was originally denied placement at the WWC by the Palo Alto VA board because, head-injured and physically and emotionally wrung out, he wasn’t being “cooperative” enough.

Michelle Landay raised hell until they reevaluated her teen-aged son and changed their minds.

Landay was featured in the recent ABC News documentary on the military’s medical and follow-up treatment of soldiers wounded in Iraq. Bob Woodruff, the network’s news anchor who also suffered a TBI when an IED blew up next to the tank he was riding in during an assignment in Iraq back in February 2006, interviewed the young Marine. From Village Life:

“Woodruff first spoke with Jeff Landay at Bethesda Naval Hospital in October 2006, shortly after doctors installed a critical ‘bone flap’ over the missing portion of Landay’s skull. In an interview which those who know the young marine find difficult to watch, Woodruff asks Landay simple questions, but a frustrated Landay can’t find the words to reply.

‘He couldn’t’ talk yet,’ said Yaeger. ‘They [ABC television news crew] came out again last week and filmed in our home, and at the El Dorado Hills Sports Club.’ The footage shows Landay working out with his father in the gym, smiling and answering questions more clearly.”

You can see Woodruff’s ABC interview with Cpl. Jeff Landay here.

Cpl. Jeff Landay isn’t old enough to drink, but in this crazy, war-without-end era, he’s old enough to serve his country in the Marines, suffer grievous injury in a war without a purpose, and face a rough and very uncertain future.

Landay isn’t the only local casualty of the Iraq war in his community. Lance Cpl. Brad Shuder died by enemy mortar fire on April 12, 2004, also near Fallujah. Shuder was a graduate of the same local high school as Landay. He was 21 years old and it was his second tour in Iraq.

***

The recent revelations about the terrible follow-up medical care being received by injured soldiers from Iraq at the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center were shameful. Cpl. Jeff Landay is relatively lucky, since his treatment has been through the much smaller Marine Corps. Yet when he was moved to a VA hospital, he ran into trouble.

I have a great respect for the care given to veterans through VA hospitals in spite of all the horror stories. They do the best job they can with inadequate funding and staffing, a bureaucracy that boggles the mind and a great deal of inefficiency.

Years ago, after being discharged from the Air Force, employed but without medical insurance, I went to a VA hospital for treatment of a ganglion cyst in my right wrist that had first shown up while I was on active duty. After two separate attempts to get rid of it by needle aspiration while I was still in the Air Force, it had returned. While it was rarely painful, and normally these odd growths don’t cause any serious problems, the ganglion I had was causing my hand to suddenly loose grip strength at random moments; I’d learned never to pick up my small daughter or heavy pots off the stove using my right hand because I couldn’t trust it.

I was accepted into the VA medical system and an appointment was made. But when the VA doctor who examined my wrist told me “you should just smack it with a big ol’ book,” I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. He simply sent me on my way with no treatment or any better suggestions.

So you can imagine my surprise when I received a letter from the VA three months later, telling me they’d decided I was 20 percent disabled by the ganglion and would, from now on, receive $60 per month in compensation.

I didn’t argue. I was a single mom and broke. That extra $60 helped with rent, child care and groceries. But after six months, the VA payments stopped without explanation. I didn’t inquire – I didn’t really want smack-it-with-a-book-level health care. And I never heard from the VA again.

About a year later, after I’d found a job that included medical benefits, I went to my new civilian doctor, who referred me to a specialist, who was in turn appalled at how much strength I’d lost in that hand due to the ganglion. When I told him what the VA doc had said, he goggled, then told me that “smacking it with a book” was an old treatment from the past that was, obviously, painful, not very effective and apt to do even more damage. I was amazed that it ever was an accepted “cure.”

Since repeated needle aspirations hadn’t been successful, he removed the ganglion cyst in an out-patient surgery at a local hospital a few weeks later. I’ve never had trouble from it since. I believe my hospital co-pay at the time was about … $60.

Mr. Wren, who’s 80 percent disabled due to an injury suffered while he was in the Army, has been receiving all of his medical care through the VA for several years now. The local VA medical center is new and about 40 miles from home, but it’s a lot closer than the one I was sent to outside San Francisco before this one opened.

It’s been a rocky road for Mr. Wren. The care he’s received has been erratic. Sometimes it’s excellent. Sometimes it’s indifferent. A few times it’s been downright awful. The center is always crowded with veterans from all walks of life and of all ages, the majority of them from the Viet Nam or Korean war eras, like Mr. Wren. It’s a new building and a nice facility, and they have some state-of-the-art equipment there, but frankly, it’s a depressing place. The staff are overworked, tend to indifference, and the system is overwhelmed.

Mr. Wren sometimes has to wait three months for an appointment; if he needs to be seen quickly, he must go to their emergent care clinic, which operates along the lines of a civilian emergency room. Unless the complaint is life-threatening, patients can wait six or seven hours to be seen, more on weekends. And once he has been seen, the usual response is to send him home with a small amount of medication, if necessary, and instructions to call for an appointment with his VA primary care doctor – which he might not get for three months.

Needless to say, he doesn’t go to the emergent care clinic for a cold or the flu.

They’ve lost his records many times, changed appointment times on him without notifying him, and put him through a nightmare tangle of paperwork, bollixed-up communications and even mailed him medications meant for other patients.

He’s also been the recipient of many expensive tests and is mailed a drugstore of remedies every month for pain, depression and even indigestion. It took them almost two years to diagnose his sleep apnea after I first mentioned to him that sometimes he didn’t breathe for long stretches at night, and wondered if his window-shaking snoring might be an issue. Sleep apnea, I reasoned, keeps the sufferer from falling into deep, restful sleep, which might have something to do with his ever-increasing pain. Still, it was another year before they finally got him in for a sleep test and two months more before they issued him a CPAP machine.

Fortunately he didn’t die in the meantime, and now he breathes all the way through each night and I sleep better, too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on his pain level.

The great thing about VA medical care for veterans is that it’s free.

For all its good and bad points, the VA is the only medical care many veterans have to fall back on. They served their country, many of them during wartime, many of them suffering debilitating injuries. They deserve the best medical care a grateful nation can offer them. And to the VA’s credit, it tries.

But now this whole, creaky, overwhelmed military medical system is being inundated by a new generation of wounded soldiers, many of whom will probably need care for the rest of their lives, like Cpl. Landay. It’s good that Congress and the White House are moving to improve the conditions at Walter Reed’s Building B and taking a look at the rest of the military and veterans medical systems, but it can’t happen soon enough.

Now we hear that, despite more than 70 percent of the American people turning against the war in Iraq, our military involvement there will likely last through fall 2008 or beyond. Eighteen more months. More than 3,000 soldiers have lost their lives over the last four years and many, many thousands more have been injured, some of them grievously and permanently. Will our leaders really allow another 3,000 to die before they end this travesty? Will they allow thousands more of our young people to be injured while the military and veterans medical systems here at home, vastly overloaded, spits them out like rotten teeth for lack of funding, facilities and competent staff?

If they do, I want to know why.

***

Update: If you’d like to send a card or letter to Cpl. Jeff Landay, snail-mail to:

PMB 173
Cpl Jeff Landay
4354 Town Center Blvd, Suite 114
El Dorado Hills, CA 95762

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One Response to “Hometown hero”

  1. RoseCovered Glasses Says:

    We need to be careful to differentiate between the Active Service Hospitals and the Veteran’s Administration. There are major differences.

    I am currently a resident in a Veteran’s Home after having undergone treatment through the VA for PTSD and Depression, long overdue some 40 years after the Tet Offensive that cap stoned my military 2nd tour in Vietnam with a lifetime of illness.

    http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/news/local/16873701.htm

    My blog has attracted the stories of many veterans such as myself and other sufferers from PTSD who were victimized by elements of society other than the VA system of medical and mental treatment. I, for one, became trapped in the Military Industrial Complex for 36 years working on weapons systems that are saving lives today but with such high security clearances that I dared not get treated for fear of losing my career:

    http://rosecoveredglasses.blogspot.com/2006/11/odyssey-of-armaments.html

    When my disorders became life threatening I was entered into the VA System for treatment in Minneapolis. It saved my life and I am now in complete recovery and functioning as a volunteer for SCORE, as well as authoring books and blogging the world.

    When I was in the VA system I was amazed at how well it functioned and how state of the art it is for its massive mission. Below is a feature article from Time Magazine which does a good job of explaining why it is a class act:

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1376238,00.html

    I had state of the art medical and mental care, met some of the most dedicated professionals I have ever seen and was cared for by a handful of very special nurses among the 60,000 + nursing population that make up that mammoth system. While I was resident at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis I observed many returnees from Iraq getting excellent care.

    I do not say the VA system is perfect but it is certainly being run better on a $39B budget than the Pentagon is running on $494B.

    We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read this happens please see:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/03/spyagency200703

    Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

    There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.
    The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

    So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

    This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

    The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.
    For more details see:

    http://www.rosecoveredglasses.blogspot.com

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