I have been an amputee for almost 12 years now. While in the Army serving with the 10th Mountain Division I was hit by a VBIED (vehicle born improvised explosive device) more commonly known as a suicide car bomb. In my last 12 years, I have been up and I’ve been down and to be honest, anybody reading this now probably is not surprised by that one bit. A few of my high points were backpacking the Grand Canyon only 18 months after being hit and walking the first day of the PA Hero Walk where I stubbornly walked my longest to date distance as an amputee of 17 miles. Then, of course, there are my low points of not being able to take a single step further because of the pain after less than 1/2 mile or even worse not being able to even put my leg on for days on end because the damage done needs time to heal. In my family, they are well known as my no leg days. I know not very creative but I really wasn’t in a creative mood when I coined it either. As the years have gone by I have begun to break a little more as my hip and back have taken quite a beating. So it is safe to say that I am no stranger to higher than average levels of pain. But this is not the point. Hell, this is not even about me at all. It’s about a chance random encounter.
As I was coming out the back portion of a local walking and biking path finishing up my dog walk an elderly gentleman was walking towards me and I could tell he wanted to say something.
I thought that he was going to say something about my leg just like all the other times I see someone waiting to close the gap to say something. You get used to the little things like this after almost 12 years of being an amputee. Not to mention I look like a vet which already opens doors for people wanting to say a quick “thanks for your service” But not today.
Instead, “I feel your pain,” says this elderly gentleman as he knocks his makeshift wood pole walking stick against his lower right leg and proceeds telling me how he was shot during Invasion of Normandy. He felt almost inclined to let me know he wasn’t one of the guys on the 1st wave that had it real tough. No, he was in reserves and hit the beach on wave 2 or 3. He continues to tell me that he was then sent off to England where they removed a vein in his leg and one short week later sent him back to his guys on the line. While that story was more than enough to prove to me that I’m sure he does feel my pain he, sure enough, wasn’t finished. While fighting in the Battle of the Bulge he also caught shrapnel from an 88 mike round to his back that came from a German Tiger Tank.
So here he is at almost 92 still pushing himself down a walking path. He told me that most of the guys are no longer around. Which I felt was a massive generalization referring to the warriors of WWII but what he really meant was all of his buddies were dead. He told me how he uses a pedometer to track his progress but he is not able to do the 5 miles a day he used to. This is where I think “I feel your pain” really is coming from. He can’t do 5 miles because of the pain in his leg, hip and back. Instead, now he is down to only 3 miles a day.
I personally have spent a lot of time being overcome by my pain. Being overcome by pain for me at least creates depression to the point I get so sick of it all that I charge head first into it all to overcome all the pains. But, unfortunately, this has been just an up and down cycle with my only constant being pain. And that’s where I think this elderly Warrior is without even trying teaching me a very valuable lesson. If my constant is pain then my constant is pain and just live with it as best as possible. But what I am not allowed to do is give in or give up to it. Just as he is no longer able to push himself to 5 miles a day does not mean it’s time to give up or worse just lay down and die. No, instead it simply means to go 3 miles instead. For me, this random and unexpected encounter is a testament of time, willpower, mental power, and determination that I can feel slowly twisting and truing inside of me, changing the way I see things and hopefully, it will change the way I do things. As I think about this more and more I have to admit that I don’t think he does feel my pain. Because I’m sure the pain I also feel in my leg, hip and back are not anywhere the same. I think maybe on one of my bad days I just might feel his pain.
Author – Joe Gross is a US Army Veteran with 2 Iraq deployments. The first deployment was with the 4th Infantry Division in 2003 and the 2nd with 10th Mountain Division in 2005. Joe is a recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He was medically discharged as an SSG (E6) in 2006 due to combat injuries.