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“I got blown up. That’s it in a nutshell.”
That’s Maj. Chuck Ziegenfuss’ summary of June 21, 2005—the day when a mortar buried neatly, seamlessly under the asphalt of a road north of Baquba, Iraq went off under his feet, ripping new, unnatural seams in both of his arms and legs, bruising his corneas, and sending him into a long, rough recovery.
Four days after his second-in-command pulled him bleeding from an Iraqi canal, Ziegenfuss woke up at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Before getting injured, Ziegenfuss had been working with Soldiers’ Angels—a charity organization that runs the Adopt-a-Soldier program, which strives to ensure that every man and woman overseas gets care packages from stateside. Now that he was back in the states and stuck in a hospital bed, Soldiers’ Angels came to his aid, and a new project was born.
VALOUR-IT—Voice-Activated Laptops for OUR Injured Troops—has since delivered more than 1,600 laptops fitted with software that allows healing troops, sometimes without the use of their hands and eyes, to use them.
When Soldiers’ Angels founder Patti Patton-Bader called to ask what he might need, Chuck told Patti he’d like to start blogging again. Ziegenfuss had blogged regularly at From My Position…On the Way! (http://tcoverride.blogspot.com/ ) while in Iraq and his audience was anxious to know about his injury and recovery after his wife announced it on the blog. Problem was, the only computer for patient use in his section of Walter Reed was many painful steps down a hallway. Ziegenfuss couldn’t yet move from his bed.
He and Patti soon found a laptop for the wounded soldier, but Chuck ran up against another obstacle:
“Not only could I not get out of my bed to walk down there, but my hands were all blown up, he said. “I only had really one finger on each hand that I could use, and one of those was in a cast…I was really incapable of communicating.”
Chuck hunted-and-pecked his way through an online search for helpful software and asked for donations on his blog. The next day, an anonymous e-mail advised him to check his Amazon account. It had been filled with the cost of the software, in full.
“I still have no idea who he was,” he said.
Within 15 minutes of installing the software, he said, he was up and on the ‘Net. And, here’s the good part.
“The more I used the software, the more I wanted to be awake and not be all drugged up,” he said.
Chuck explains the paradox of the healing soldier. “Here’s the thing. They give you enough [pain meds],”—strong, expensive, good meds—“to knock out a horse, and it honestly sometimes doesn’t begin to touch the pain. You really don’t have anything else to think about.”
While on the meds, the pain is better, but all the body’s processes slow down, which means you may be in less pain, but you also may be in a hospital bed quite a bit longer. And, the longer you’re on the meds, the harder it is to get off them.
For accomplished soldiers who have just had their independence ripped away, anything that can shorten that process is welcome. For Chuck, it was a computer.“When you’re using something that takes your mind off the pain…you get the benefit of your body being able to recover without being heavily drugged,” he said.
Something as simple as a wireless connection to the world beyond an IV drip and stainless steel bedrails, something as small as the ability to move freely around the Internet when moving freely beyond his room had become an impossibility, was enough to change Ziegenfuss’ outlook during a very bleak time.
“When you’re lying in that bed, you’re thinking, ‘All right, they say I’m gonna live, but what kind of life will I have?’ I’m having thoughts like, ‘I’ll never be able to hold my children again. I’m never gonna be able to teach my son to play catch.’ That is just so incredibly unbearable…Getting the software and being able to get back to that one bit of normal life…it was so much of a relief.”
Ziegenfuss wondered why he and Soldiers’ Angels couldn’t do the same for other wounded vets. Since then, they’ve delivered more than a thousand computers loaded with voice-activated software to Iraq and Afghanistan vets.
“It’s all about independence,” he said, noting that in the ensuing years, some of his most gratifying moments have been when he gets ignored by the marines and soldiers he presents with laptops.
“They just kinda tune you out,” he said, which means the gift is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.
He tells of two marines at Bethesda: “They actually asked their nurses if they could scale back on the pain meds so they could stay on the computers longer.”
But the computer isn’t just a connection to world right outside the hospital. It’s a connection to the dusty, desert world they left behind. For soldiers coming home, leaving their men behind in a war zone can be almost as hard as leaving their families for the war zone.
“It was my command. They were my soldiers,” Chuck said. “Being responsible for them every day. They’re just like family members. You’re away from them and every day is ‘Am I gonna get some bad news today? Are my guys safe?’...That feeling of being able to talk to them… was so incredibly crucial..”
Today, the man who couldn’t lift a mouse in 2005 can indeed hold his children and teach his son to play catch, although he does continue physical therapy and medication regimens.
“Most people who see me don’t even know I was injured, which is really a testament to the doctors,” he said.
The road to independence has been long and hard, and he knows how much seemingly little things can help, which is why Chuck and all those who work tirelessly for VALOUR-IT and our troops, ask once a year for a little of your help to bring laptops to our vets. They’re just computers—some of the most common and mundane objects of our daily lives—but they can mean much more with your help.
To help a veteran by donating to Project VALOUR-IT, please click below. Every little bit helps.
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