A veteran’s journey home includes an accounting of the toll one’s service has placed on the body. Extended periods of high stress, countless lost hours of sleep and environments both external and internal create conditions for a variety of chronic illnesses that alter the life in some fashion of the post-service individual. Jon Stewart dedicated the first episode of his new TV show to the health costs of war that impact nearly all former servicemembers.
The impacts to my health initially start like a laundry list of those that impact too many Americans these days: hypertension and high cholesterol. During my out-processing physical, I noted to my doctor that my right quadriceps would often go numb for no apparent reason. He ordered up some tests, including an X-ray of my lower spine. Lo and behold, one of the lower vertebrae has cracked its wings and it no longer sits centered on my spine. The muscles in my lower back have compensated by strengthening, but this causes tension in my that pinches a nerve on my hip that subsequently causes my thigh to go numb. Not a huge issue, and one likely caused by one of the many times I fell too hard on my behind while maneuvering around the confines of a ship rolling in heavy seas on its way … someplace.
Since moving to Wisconsin, I assumed allergies caused the perpetual congestion in my left nostril. Failing to think that allergies do not select nostrils to attack, I was prompted to have a more detailed conversation with my doctor this year when I received notice from the Veteran’s Administration that servicemembers who served in the Persian Gulf after 1990 are being disproportionately impacted by chronic versions of asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis. Rhinitis is simply a runny nose, but the chronic version, like mine, causes me to wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe and prevents me from breathing through my nose when I run. It impacts me.
Nothing impacts me like exposure to Agent Orange that took the life of my fiancée’s father and now impacts the long-term health of her stepfather.
Nothing impacts me like the PTSD that has altered the life of another former sailor friend and countless other sailors and soldiers, some permanently, with a disproportionate number of suicides among former servicemembers. This common term of psychology was preceded by shell shock, coined following World War I and immortalized in the stunning poetry of Siegfried Sassoon.
And nothing impacts me like ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which will someday take the life of two men I proudly served with at sea and ashore. ALS is 60 percent more likely to impact servicemembers. We are still making the connections and building the legislation to provide the care they will need.
These are just a fraction of the stories we tell when we arrive home. It impacts us.
Steve Fuller retired from the U.S. Navy in 2019 after nearly 27 years of service serving at sea on ships as small as frigates and as large as aircraft carriers. A visit to the Driftless and a desire for a radical course change brought him home to Wisconsin. He has been a creative writer since he first saw U2 perform in Live Aid, and now as he returns home after a life of service, he looks forward to sharing more of his writing with willing readers.