Monday, March 5, 2012

A Worthy Hero (Who No Doubt Doesn't Think of Himself that Way)

Photo of Wesley Barrientos in Bakersfield, California. Photo by me, digital manipulation by Katie Hannan.

Now that’s I’m finally coming out of the fog of pneumonia I can reflect on the people I met while out on the road. There were several who touched me with their stories and their kindnesses but there is one who motivated me every day and who will continue to motivate me every day—and that person is Wesley Barrientos.

Since 1989 I’ve dealt with my back injury and its impact on my life, what it’s taken away from me. All of my life I’ve dealt with bad knees and with every step I take worry they will stay underneath me. Both have stopped me from doing so much. I wish I had been a better physical specimen, sometimes angry about what I’ve never had and what has been taken away from me.

Until I met Wes.

Wes is a year younger than my daughter but an old, wise soul. I don’t know the kind of person he was before he lost both legs to an IED in Iraq in December 2007—his third tour of duty in that God-forsaken place. I do know he is a man of action and a man who says “Why not? Let's do it!” instead of “I can’t.”

Wesley volunteered for the United States Army as soon as he graduated from high school. He wanted to be infantry and insisted that be his job. He wasn’t signing up for military service to be a cook or a supply person or a paper-shuffler—he meant to fight, and fight he did.

Wesley was wounded a total of three times—he is the recipient of three Purple Hearts. Seriously, in his chest beats the heart of a lion that simply doesn’t understand the words “no” and “can’t.”

To listen to him talk about the act of war that took away his legs is chilling and usually brought tears to my eyes. He was near the end of tour #3 and he and his squad were heading in for the day when Wes’ vehicle found a roadside bomb. The explosion took off his left leg and right foot right off the bat. He recalls waking up several days later in Germany, with fluorescent lights on the ceiling and a pretty nurse standing over him saying “Thank God you woke up!”

His reply: “Thank God I woke up!”

“Do you know what happened?”

Knowing that he wasn’t in Iraq anymore, and knowing what it took to get airlifted out of there, he replied, “I got blown up.”

That’s Wes. Why mince words?

The nurse went on to explain that he’d lost his left leg, and would probably lose more of his right leg, too.

“Is that all?”

She explained he also had a broken back and broken jaw.

“Is that all? I expected you to tell me my guts were all hanging out and that you were waking me up to say goodbye!”

When he was transferred to Walter Reed Army Hospital, the doctors there asked him his goals. Nobody told him he couldn’t walk or eventually run, so he said he’d be doing both in 6 months.

The doctors tisked him and said more like 18 months, son.

Wes made a liar out of those doctors and was true to his words.

I watched Wes walk anyplace he wanted, places I wouldn’t go. He motored up stairs as if he were a 4-year old on two good legs. There was one day, stopped in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Desert where he and his riding partner Jeremy Staat looked up at a rocky mountain and wished they had time to climb it. Thing is, I have no doubt Wes would have.

Wes talks about the one time he parachuted from a plane and how he landed in a tree, breaking an ankle. He talks about not wanting to have it x-rayed, and how frustrated he was to have to have light duty—and in a bit of foreshadowing, how he stopped using his walking cast long before he should have.

I never heard Wes complain of pain. The only time he complained was when he was hungry after a day’s ride, and he really didn’t whine a lot. He was in the process of treating some blisters that were developing on his hands where he pushes and pulls the crank that powers his bike. He wasn’t really complaining, just doing preventative maintenance.

He and I had a conversation about his rehab, and how the doctors were giving him oxycontin for pain. He felt the use of oxycontin was holding him back, and he’s not one to be dependent on anything—so he quit cold turkey after taking the meds for four months. He takes no narcotics for pain today.

The day we visited the Nevada State Veterans Home really gave me the opportunity to see what a quality guy Wes is. There were around 30 veterans in wheelchairs, perhaps 10 ambulatory, waiting for Wes and Jeremy to come in with their bikes. While waiting, we spoke to some. I was enamored of two gentlemen right in front—a pair of WWII and Korean War Navy men.

After a brief time at the podium, the riders worked the room, so to say. I watched Wes sit down with Army veterans and just listen to them—not moving his eyes off their faces, really hearing their stories, taking their words to heart. As each conversation came toward an end, he’d call me over to take photographs. He smiled, but the smile of the veteran he’d just conversed with had an even bigger smile.

He later remarked how much he’d been touched by the visit. I saw that there is a bond connecting our veterans of all ages—their “wars” may have been separated by decades, but the experiences touch them the same, and remain with them forever. There are few experiences in life that do that.

(A quick aside. The Nevada State Veterans’ Home is just that—a home. The staff are all mission-oriented and if I were still working as an RN I’d be proud to be working there. The mission is the care and respect due to the residents for serving this country—there are no patients there.)

When the 100-day ride is over—and I have zero doubts that Wes will finish—he will come back to Bakersfield and continue the paperwork to have his “Life Over Legs” Foundation become a 501(c) charity, and begin to fight the VA for his education benefits so he can attend Bakersfield Community College and eventually finish a 4-year degree. (Yes, our veterans have to jump through hoops to get their education benefits, and the VA just loves looking for loopholes to deny those benefits. If a veteran wants to attend college, he or she must start the paperwork a semester before, and that's no guarantee the paperwork will go through or be approved. Shameful.)

Wes’ goal for “Life Over Legs” is to fund visits to military hospitals, clinics and rehab facilities, to give hope and inspiration to wounded soldiers. Watching Wesley stride into any room on two titanium legs is certainly inspiring, and it is a sure thing that anyone watching Wesley, or hearing his story and seeing him today, will think “If he can, certainly I can too.”

I will try to pay attention to when Life Over Legs gets its non-profit status—a donation will certainly be an investment that will pay dividends in the lives of so many of our physically and mentally-wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Wesley Barrientos is the guy who will make a difference long after every single serviceman and woman is brought home from that fleapit.

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