February 16th is Cameron’s Alive Day. It was one year ago that he called from the forward operating combat hospital to tell us – a little note of wonder in his voice: “Hey, I did not die!”
Blown up by the Taliban, he survived. Introduced that night to a new drug allergen Dilaudid, he survived. Alive Day marks the unthinkable: walking past death to life.
To mark this auspicious day Cameron has penned a tongue-in-cheek letter, addressed to the Taliban as if they’re a fraternal organization dedicated to raising funds for some worthy cause:
“Dear Taliban, Arghandab River Valley Chapter: Hey guys, THANKS! I’ve had a great year!”
Intended as both an in-your-face taunt to an enemy he could rarely see but regarded with great respect, it’s also a celebratory note of the experiences that fateful explosion made possible.
“Having my leg blown off,” he announced happily one morning as he slid out of bed to go kayaking, “was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Yes, there were many days of overwhelming pain, confusion and out-of-body nightmares. Phantom pain in the lost limb still assails him — sometimes daily and always sneaking up unexpected. There were also conflicts and confusion – but finally coherence – as mother and son danced the waltz of the empty nest.
The past year has also featured several surgeries, amputation revisions, and pain that sometimes crossed into agony. Calm equanimity helped, thanks — at least initially — to powerful pain medications. But there’s also been some deep resolve Cameron has been determined to mine – with good results.
His conversations with the great and the good have been many. Not long after he’d arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Senator John Kerry stopped in for an hour-long discussion. Another day, President Obama’s National Security advisor, Dennis McDonough, visited for a similarly long talk. General John Campbell, commander of his unit, 101st Airborne, came directly to the hospital from the airport as he was returning from Afghanistan. There were lighter moments: an audience with Prince Charles in the British ambassador’s residence, riding a bicycle around the South Lawn at the invitation of the President, and on another day enjoying a birthday with the First Lady, lunching with the generals after touring the Pentagon. And yes, he shared a beer with Vice President Biden. There were also new experiences outside of Washington: running marathons after declaring post-surgery he would never ever run again; riding the construction workers’ elevator up the outside of the building to the 104th floor of the newly constructed Freedom Tower at One World Trade Center; sharing conversations with Jon Stewart, Paul Simon and several unforgettable — but completely nameless – beauty queens.
There have been less obvious pluses too: not having to roll socks any more (had I been too strict?), saving money on shoes, even lightning thrills: “I’m super-conductive now!” as he crossed the street one evening with thunderstorms threatening overhead. But perhaps the biggest benefit of being blown up: “a babe magnet of a scar” on his forearm – better, he declared, than a puppy for pulling the girls.
Humor has also been deployed several times during this year, starting when he quoted from South Park’s Mr. Slave as his medic applied a morphine shot to his bare buttock: “Jethueth Chritht!” – cracking up his worried platoon.
Undeniably there have been other moments, less jolly, when the tedium of the pain or the hassle of the prosthesis has worn through: his young cousin convinced Cameron to let her paint his prosthetic toenails (pink, as it happens). But her other request was sharply rejected; he was already worn down by a bad pain day: “No, I’m not naming my fucking prosthesis.”
Alive Day is not to deny the fact that death has danced close, nor to gloss over the often-severe wounds. It is instead a transforming anniversary of a near-fatal combat injury, an annual day of triumph. Survivors mark it in various ways, some celebrate, others quietly remember, many ignore it completely. For many, like Senator Tammy Duckworth, it’s the anniversary when everything changed and the date eight years after her injury when she finally met the in-flight medic who brought her back to life after her rescue from the mangled helicopter she’d been piloting. While many of the guys will tease each other and themselves mercilessly, there is also an understanding among the combat wounded: this is the “new normal” – just get on with it. Or, as he has quoted the infantry mantra: take a knee, drink water and drive on.
Cameron’s normal now includes running the Boston Marathon (twice), venturing to the South Pole (and swimming – albeit briefly – in that sea), speaking to classes of kindergartners and newly-graduated firefighters, marking names at Ground Zero, and – much to my everlasting consternation — voluntarily returning for a second deployment to Afghanistan.
This Alive Day medically retired from the Army, he is designing and building his own house. He volunteers with Team Rubicon and an animal shelter, and stays in touch with his guys and college friends. The explosive bomb rattled his brain and took his leg, but hey, thanks Taliban: you failed to knock out his heart!