Thanks to Those Who Serve

Two or three rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) hitting the Humvee you are driving can really ruin your day. Victor Rojas, Specialist E-4 knows this firsthand. Even though his job with his guard unit was to repair power generators, he regularly volunteered for convoy duty. This meant escorting convoys as a driver, a gunner, or a radio operator in a Humvee. Victor chose to volunteer for this type of duty on November 16, 2004.

The convoy had stopped, waiting for the bomb disposal unit to investigate a possible roadside bomb ahead. Victor was the Humvee driver that day and the first RPG struck his side of the vehicle. Shrapnel hit him and tore up his right knee. In the process of trying to get the vehicle out of the way, he began to drive with his left foot, and another RPG hit, this time on the right side, disabling the vehicle.

Most of the American public is familiar with the “bullet proof” vest, which mainly protects the vital organs. It does a fine job of that, even though some projectiles and shrapnel can still penetrate it. The body’s outer extremities are more prone to injury because they are less likely to have the same protection that the bulletproof vest offers. Loss of limb and loss of life due to loss of blood are the most frequent consequences of serving in a war zone.

Can body armor be designed so it protects more of the body? “Yes,” says Steve Baker, Manager of Government Sales for Second Chance Body Armor. “It is a matter of how much of the body you want to protect, without compromising the ability to do the job. But, at its best, war is ugly.” Baker, whose company provides protection for our Armed Forces, knows firsthand about the consequences of war. Just like Victor Rojas, he spent time in the service—three tours in Vietnam in a Navy Special Forces unit.

Technology exists to outfit someone from head to toe, much like an astronaut, making the soldier virtually impervious to injury. However, it makes the soldier ineffective in their duties to protect and serve. Technology also exists to fully armor vehicles. Funding this kind of technology is no small matter. When it comes down to creating a balance between effective protection and effective soldiering, Uncle Sam can only ask the American taxpayer to fund so much.

After the attack, Victor died twice during transport from Iraq to Germany for further medical treatment. Each time he lost oxygen to his brain, causing a diffuse brain injury known as anoxia. Victor Rojas spent four months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. before being shipped to the Veterans’ Administration Medical Center (VAMC) in Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis VAMC is one of four in the country designated as a treatment center for brain injuries. The remarkable work done there is nothing short of miraculous and Victor is lucky to be the recipient of first-rate care. He receives Physical Therapy for the damage to his right knee, Occupational and Speech Therapy for his brain injury, and Recreational Therapy to help him integrate back into civilian life. He hopes to return home to Illinois for Mother’s Day. His treatment and therapy will continue, and his prognosis is good, although he will carry the effects of his injury forever.

The Veterans’ Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis is one of 134 centers around the world. Located just west of Hiawatha Avenue, and just north of Crosstown 62 in South Minneapolis, it is quite a complex. On an average day, 131 individuals are treated for in-patient care, and 86 are hospitalized for extended care. The medical center also serves over 2,500 outpatients daily. It is one of two in Minnesota; the other center is in St. Cloud. There are also six community based Outpatient Clinics in Mankato, Hibbing, Maple-wood, Chippewa, St. James, and Duluth. Patients come from all 50 states, including Puerto Rico, Canada, and Europe. Among all the VAMC’s in the U.S., the Minneapolis facility ranks ninth in the volume of patients seen.

The choices we make have a direct effect, whether they are positive or negative, on the lives we lead. In the case of Victor, his choices led him directly into the line of fire. Now, many would say that he is responsible for his choices, and they would be correct. Regardless of your feelings about the conflict in the Middle East, respecting and honoring the choices our service men and women make is an enormous help in their recovery process when they encounter situations like the one Victor Rojas faced. Honoring their choice to participate in the protection of this country is one way we, as American citizens, can give back to the veterans who put their lives at risk, and, ultimately, became disabled.

If the number of men and women who chose to serve had not volunteered for duty, our government might have had to make a choice too—to hold a draft. Regardless of how you feel about war and the draft, disabled veterans of all ages deserve your gratitude for the sacrifices they made to protect our country. As Steve Baker said, “They gave up a part of their life, and, in many cases, a part of themselves. The least we can do is to thank them.” With great respect, I thank Victor Rojas, and those like him, for the part they played in keeping America safe and free.

Upon his return to the states, Victor commented, “When I got back, everyone was great. They have treated me with respect, and I have been to parades, and to the Pentagon.” Public support has been excellent, and he asks that we continue to support the troops and to give him and veterans like him the opportunity to carry out the same dreams and desires they had as before their tour of duty. Like Victor, most veterans cannot wait to get on with the rest of their lives.

We would like to thank all the staff at the Minneapolis VAMC for the extraordinary work they do on a daily basis. Special thanks to Dr. Kusar, Sally Ecklund, Chantel Ostrum, and Deanne Pavel, for without their assistance and input, this piece would not have been possible.