True Grit : Encounter with a US War Vet in Grand Rapids

Was filming at Grand Rapids Vet Centre in Michigan. Forbidding red bricked building with darkened windows that gave it an even more foreboding look. But in some of the most beautiful natural surroundings you could imagine. Wide meadows. A river. Lake. Trees. Awesome. And that’s in midwinter. Imagining what it would look like in summer.

I could see some of the Vets. Disabled men in long shaggy beards in self driven wheelchairs. Two of my favourite American  films have dealt with the problems of US Vets coming to terms with rehabilitation when they get back home.  Born on the Fourth of July by Oliver Stone and Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino. Have always wondered how men as young as 19 or less felt when the were disabled in a War neither they understood, nor did their country. Especially when they came back expecting to be treated as heroes, only to find that their nation considered it a misjudged war.

Wanted to speak to the Veterans. But was afraid to be curious. How many people must have asked them the same questions I wanted to ?  Where were their loved ones ? How did they handle the loneliness of Disability. Questions about bitterness,

My friend Deepak Chopra always says ‘ask the Universe honest questions and it will provide you with answers’.

Was watching two films back to back with my 11 year old daughter in Grand Rapids (why are Hollywood films becoming so predictable ? Even the ones with great reviews ?). Grand Rapids was hit by winter’s first snow storm by the time we came out. There was no transport available to take us back to the hotel. None of the drivers were willing to take on the icy and dangerous conditions out there. Bitterly cold and hungry I was considering our options.  Especially with an energetic 11 yr old, who thought this was an outstanding adventure !

But finally one car service said they would send a car. Which arrived in 20 minutes. Driven by a charming and friendly lady I shall call Karen. Because I do not have permission to name her yet.

Karen told me just why it was dangerous out there. It was New Year’s day and the State budget cuts had ensured that there was no salt laying drivers for the roads without heavy overtime. So we were dependent on the skills and experience of the drivers. As Karen drove slowly and carefully I could feel the car skid on the new ice under us on every turn and acceleration. On the way Karen told us how the owners of car services would not allow the cars to go out because the cost of towing cars in snow drifts was prohibitive. About $ 250. Not a comforting thought that.  It was then that Karen told me something extraordinary. That she had lived in Mumbai ! Off and on about 30 years ago. When I worked it out, I realized it must have been over 40 years ago. How ? Wait for it.

What were the chances of the one car that came to pick you up in a small town called Grand Rapids in the middle of freezing winter being driven by a woman that had once lived in the city I live in. I looked at Karen again. She was blond with beautiful features. A little overweight, but then with the food in the US that’s easy, I thought. The real truth came out later.

She told me her Grandfather was a lawyer in Bombay (as it was then) and we soon worked out that she lived in Marine Drive. She remembered the best places in Bombay from 30  years ago.  Places that still exist, and were the hot spots of social life then. I could imagine the life of a beautiful blonde American teenager in South Bombay. I began to wonder that somewhere I may have encountered her. After all, those were the places that all young men like me went at that time. Looking for excitement. And if you are wondering thats where the story is going, you are so wrong. It was what she told me next that left me in complete shock.

Karen joined the US army. Went to Vietnam. Got combat status. So was one of the few women allowed to be on the front line. As the US army was retreating under fire at Saigon Airport, Karen was out there helping get the wounded into the planes for evacuation. Seven days from the end of her one year Term of Duty from  Vietnam , Karen was caught in cross fire. In the ensuing battle her knees were shattered.

On a freezing night, when no car was willing to come out to us for the icy near blizzard conditions, one disabled woman, her knees shattered in Vietnam helping wounded soldiers evacuate drove  us.  After a day of filming at a Vets facility where I was wanting to chat to a Vet from Vietnam all day. What were ever the chances of that ? And one who had lived in Mumbai ! As they say there are no coincidences in life.

Karen and I spoke. Of the futility of war. Of her resentment against the Government that promised her a medical degree but trained her just as a nurse. Of the futility of the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But also of her memories of her life in Mumbai. The smells, the warmth of the people and the colours. She remembered the colours the most. We spoke of the depression in the US and how it was affecting small town like Grand Rapids. Especially her. How she felt let down by her Government, but that she still managed to put her two kids through college ! All the time I was resisting the temptation to look at Karen’s shattered knees that were negotiating the icy roads well past midnight.

Karen had said” I’m sure your Government treats their war disabled soldiers better”.  I knew an honest answer to that question could not be contained in one word called ‘no’, as in no way did it bring out the reality of India’s war disabled.

As Karen dropped us at the hotel. Holding my little daughter’s hand warmly and wishing a great stay at Grand Rapids I shot a quick look at Karen’s knees. What I saw brought to me me the famous American words ‘True Grit’.

True Grit is not bravery in a moment of battle. It is the courage to live life with grit against odds.

21 Responses to “True Grit : Encounter with a US War Vet in Grand Rapids”

  1. esha chhabra says:

    What a story of courage and humility. Many times the everyday people we encounter in our daily lives have tales of heroic proportions – completely unexpected, completely inspiring! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Kris says:

    I am touched by this post. There are a few one reads and enjoys but every once in a while, there are pieces that stay in one’s heart never to fade out of your mind. This is one of them.
    But the brutal truth is that Americans elected Nixon for a second term. The man who bombed Hanoi on the day of Christmas, the man who broke diplomatic relations with Sweden because, Olaf Palme called the act no different from that of Nazi’s was re-elected for a second term. In a country that swears by liberty and freedom, this man who was responsible for cancelling the passport of Bobby Fischer, the chess champ who defeated the then Tsar of Chess Boris Spassky, because he had some views of his own and expressed them. The American citizens re-elected this man.
    We cannot always blame the Government though I get a feeling Governments are elected only for shifting the blame for one’s own failures. The unfortunate truth is that every American deep down his heart feels that he or she alone is born in the true image of God and the he or she has right to decide what is and what is not good for rest of the world.

  3. Giridhar B says:

    Whatay! Great encounter! One I would die for!

    (Later, much much later, please please please make a movie out of it….!)

  4. Bill Burns says:

    Greetings Shekhar,

    Thanks for writing and sharing this story. You lifted me up. Am rebuilding my career pretty much from the ground up at age 58 and struggling to get my daughter through college.

    I have no reason at all to get down or feel sorry for myself. It humbles me to share the same country with someone like ‘Karen.’

    And as I look at your photo – I think I may have listened to you speak in Portland, OR at the Rose Garden last year.

    Was it you?

    Bill

  5. shekhar says:

    Never been to Portland or Ohio, Bill. Where is Rose Garden ? Shekhar

  6. Story beautifully told. Thanks for sharing.

  7. AJ says:

    Inspiring.
    Last year I met a big group of Vets when South West flew them free to Phoenix.
    Moment of a life time and the care from everyone …
    American – free, hard work, heroic, courageous, humility, opportunity for prosperity and success …

  8. evi untoro says:

    I am speechless. I was crying reading your writing from begining till the end. Thank you for the story. War is no good at all. May the world be peace and we live in harmony. Many thanks for the people like “Karen” hoping the world will have more this kind of person. La vita e bella. Life is so beatifull. Keep the spirit always ! 🙂

  9. Mohan says:

    Very inspiring and heart warming story. Enjoyed reading. Thanks.

  10. Sui Anukka says:

    Thank you for this wonderful account. I am in tears at the beauty and awesome power of this story. It is giving me courage and strength to face a challenge that I am presented with in my life at the moment. I salute ‘Karen’ and those like her for her courage and ‘true grit’, and you the storyteller for being open to the experience of meeting with her, connecting with her and sharing and transmitting her light to us all. Blessings from London Mr Kapur

  11. Rashmi says:

    What an inspiring story ! Thank you for posting, may I borrow to post on FB?

  12. shekhar says:

    yes of course Rashmi, do post on FB

  13. austere says:

    Amazing.
    In a state of wonder- shock, better I stop at an all encompassing amazing.

  14. Rudra says:

    Think also of the War Veterans of India , who live in far more difficult conditions and show even more Grit and dignity than this woman.

    In 1962, sent to battle by a Criminal Nehru with China , Ill-Equipped they fought with bare hands , no snow-boots , never left their posts , then in 1965 , in 1971 and in Kargil 1999 . Maimed they were left with no Social Security.

    They live with dignity in 1000 times worse conditions than this American vietnam war veteran – at least I hope this woman feels as Sorry for America bombing and killing Millions of Civilians in Vietnam , using Chemical Weapons and destroying the environment in Vietnam irrevocably.

    In Indians however , we see the same Stupidity and Blindness of pre-1962.

  15. abhishek says:

    ask the honest question and universe will give the answers to you- this will surely help me to ask questions from the people to observe the life without any hesitation and hence to find life…
    thanks.

  16. Rajalakshmi says:

    Beautiful story, and told so beautifully !!

    Thank you for sharing this with us .

  17. Chandra Shekhar says:

    *i’m blind but, i’m moved by “true-grit”…!
    *Karen’s courage to live #life with grit against odds…!!
    *i’m blind but, can see that #Karen’s courage was also a kind of battle n we can’t take away d Bravery
    she has shown …!!!
    reg.,
    Chandra

  18. salil pradhan says:

    An inspirational story. Loved it. Shall share it in fb for keen readers.

  19. KayEm says:

    Gosh, that was moving. Everyone tells us war is horrible and still governments keep indulging. Even common knowledge that discussion and negotiation are a better option doesn’t seem to make any difference. As for war veterans in India, I hope people who come across such individuals, write about them REGULARLY. Only then will we come to know how badly (or well) they are being treated.

  20. sunil kumar says:

    thanx shekhar, we carried your blog in english in our hindi daily. we regularly carry english articles on our edit page. http://www.dailychhattisgarh.com date 3 jan 2012, page 6.

  21. Jaci says:

    Your description of my hometown is flattering. I’m glad you could meet such a strong and courageous resident of our great city. A truly inspiring story, and I hope you will be back soon.

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