USA TODAY US Edition
Defending America, then inspiring her
Wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan become motivational speakers, sharing stories of valor and survival before riveted audiences
DALLAS, Pa. — His was an ordinary tale of a rambunctious boy, raised in a Chicago suburb, immersed in sports and the love and rivalry of an identical twin, Bobby. Then adulthood and work became routine, and in that carefree summer of 2001, Bryan Anderson joined the Army.
He was inducted on Sept. 11. The boy who had not yet turned 20 spent seven hours in a bus full of strangers headed to basic training on that day that changed America. His nation’s challenge had become his story. He was scared and confused, but also proud when the mood of the young men and women on that dark bus evolved into defiance.
Four years later, Anderson was on his back on a Baghdad sidewalk, both legs and his left hand blown off when the truck he was driving was hit by an improvised explosive device. Frantic buddies saved his life. “My mom’s going to kill me,” he remembers thinking.
In that moment that changed everything, Bryan Anderson’s road back became part of a wounded nation’s story. Anderson, 30, and scores of other wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are doing what they can to make it remain so and relate their struggles to the challenges of others.
Anderson illustrated how in a recent speech to 275 people at Misericordia University in these northeast Pennsylvania hills. In the glare of stage lights, he sat without his leg prosthesis in a wheelchair and described the life of a veteran who snowboards, rides a motorcycle and appears in movies as a stuntman. “As it turns out, there is not a whole lot I can’t be,” he says.
Many of the 47,000-plus wounded veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have returned home with horrific injuries and face lifetime challenges. Many are alive today because new protective armor saved their vital organs but left them exposed to other injuries.
More broadly, history’s verdict on the war in Iraq is unsettled, and Afghanistan rages toward an unknown ending. But there is little doubt that, in the up-front ways in which some of the
Anderson’s message — as well as his stories about how he rides a motorcycle, snowboards and travels — connects with a physical and occupational therapy student in the audience. “I really liked that he was willing to go for it,” says Jenna Georgia, 22, of Washington, N.J.
“That’s going to be his therapy,” says Lee Baker of Old Forge, Pa., a crewman on a B-52 during Vietnam who remembers coming home to hear the minister in his home church talk about “baby killers.”
Another Vietnam veteran — Jack Cleary, the father of the young soldier whose death had brought Anderson here — remembers returning home to “just this resounding indifference” that drove a lot of his fellow veterans into silence.
The 1st Lt. Michael J. Cleary Memorial Fund pays for counseling and outdoor activities for wounded Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
“They are so open, and so willing to talk, which is so critical,” says Jack Cleary, greeting wellwishers after Anderson’s speech.
Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Shay says the narrative of Vietnam vets constantly disrespected is sometimes overblown and the “smoothly oiled story” of a vast majority not talking about their war is sometimes overstated, too. A vastly different era
Even so, one thing is beyond question: 40 years ago, wounded veterans came home to a very different America.
In his autobiography Born on the Fourth of July, paralyzed Vietnam War Marine veteran Ron Kovic describes a self-destructive spiral as he fixated on the reception he got from strangers after he left the hospital in 1968. “Their face changes — the eyes, the voice, the way they look at you,” says Kovic’s character in the movie, played by Tom Cruise. Kovic found a public voice in the anti-war movement.
In Forrest Gump, actor Gary Sinise played the fictional Vietnam-era double amputee “Lt. Dan,” as another embittered, neglected veteran. Sinise regularly visits military hospitals. Anderson describes literally running into Sinise with his wheelchair the first time the two men, now friends, met.
“He’s like, ‘Holy crap, the real ‘Lt. Dan!’ ” Anderson tells his Misericordia audience. “I said, ‘No, you will always be the real Lt. Dan.’ ”
Therapists, veterans and oral historians say the shock of 9/11, the memories of Vietnam and the accessibility of social media have created a very different environment for returning troops.
“Our country (was) attacked on our own soil,” says Stephen Tolman, a Nashville agent who books speaking engagements for Army Spc. Robert (B.J.) Jackson of Orlando. Tolman says 9/11 led to a broad consensus that “no matter where you were politically, that these veterans were defending and protecting all of us.”
Jackson lost both legs and was severely burned in Iraq in 2003. Two of his uncles — both Vietnam veterans who never talked about their war — inspired him to go into public speaking.
“The most rewarding thing I have been able to do is learn how to relate my story, injury and experience and transform it to a message that will touch those that may be struggling with an illness or divorce or just the stress of life, or even those that just want to hear an interesting story,” says Jackson, the father of six.
He has named his public speaking company The Right to Bear Stumps. It symbolizes what some say is another difference of these wars.
“Amputees — they don’t cover it up,” says Dick Mclane, Anderson’s mentor at Pride Mobility, the Pennsylvania-based wheelchair manufacturer for which Anderson is a national spokesman. “In previous wars, guys that suffered amputations always covered it up.”
Steve Maxner, who is leading a Vietnam vets’ oral history project at Texas Tech’s Vietnam Center, says the 9/11 attacks prompted many reluc- tant Vietnam vets to step forward to record their stories, in part to lay groundwork for veterans of the new wars to tell theirs.
“They were saying, ‘Let’s not make the same mistake with our current veterans (that) we did with Vietnam,’ ” he says.
Wounded Vietnam veteran Dave Roever, himself a successful public speaker, says he has trained about 500 wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in public speaking at his Eagles Summit ranches in Colorado and Texas. Telling their stories, he says, helps wounded vets “offload a lot of that stress before that becomes a disorder.” Inspiring others who struggle
One of Roever’s pupils, former Army sergeant Brian Fleming, 27, of Fort Worth, was burned over his face and nearly half his body when the military truck he was riding in was blown up by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in 2006.
Fleming gave his first speech to 2,000 people while still in burn bandages. Afterward, he says, a young woman approached him, described a bad experience in her own life and declared, “If you can get through what you have gone through, I can get through this.”
“That was a game-changer,” Fleming says. “All of a sudden, all of the pain I had gone through had helped someone else.”
His message includes a survivor’s defiant humor. His website is www.blownupguy.com. His Texas license plates bear a Purple Heart and the vanity insignia: “NICETRY.”
“A guy blew himself up trying to kill me, and he was the only one who died that day,” explains Fleming, who serves as a “resiliency coach” for other wounded troops.
Anderson ends his speech at Misericordia by recounting a night that was seven months into recovery when he and a buddy, who had also lost both legs at the hip in combat, missed a bus that was taking wounded veterans from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to an outing in nearby Washington. So they drove a rental car, which Anderson steered while directing his friend, who had settled onto the floor to work the brakes and gas pedal by hand.
As they returned to Walter Reed around midnight, a guard stopped the car at the gate, opened the door and asked Anderson to step out of the vehicle. Anderson says that after a long pause of wide-eyed speechlessness, the guard waved them on with a simple declaration:
“You’ve gotten this far. Move on.”