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Soldiers connect with veterans

Employees from Headquarters, TRADOC visit the local VA Hospital spinal cord unit for an afternoon of games, fun

First-time visitors to the Hampton VA Medical Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Unit rarely know what to expect. So, they brace themselves for the worst: that unmistakable hospital smell, dark corridors, and desperate faces.

Thornton, a patient in the unit since 1998, said they’ve been watching too much scary television.

“You can find joy and be content in all situations,” Thornton, 45, said with a laugh. “I’m just passing through. This isn’t the end; this is just a pit-stop. And every morning I wake up, I count it all joy.”

Thornton is among a sunny roomful of patients keeping his eyes on the prize during TRADOC Headquarters’ recent visit for an afternoon of bingo. In a light-filled commons facing Strawberry Banks, military and civilian volunteers keep track of patients’ bingo cards. Some fill trays and knapsacks with food and drink, and others help divvy up the spoils — $40 worth of quarters.

“I think I have a dollar more than when I came in here today,” said Thornton. “And that’s a blessing right there. I do enjoy the people who come here. It’s not just about the food and snacks, it’s about being helpful. This is a family deal. We’re all in this together.”

Laurie Terry, a registered nurse at the unit, said patients like Earl Thornton inspire her profoundly.

“The family dynamic here is evident,” she said. “Each day is a new day, with new expectations. The staff here sometimes is the only moral support these men have. Our mission is to give them the best quality of life possible; to help them grow and blossom and move through the stages of life with dignity and respect. Yes, we’re the advocates, but it is immeasurable what they give us.”

Charles “Chip” Shefelton, the unit’s therapeutic recreational specialist, agreed.

“People ask me what else I would do if I didn’t do this,” said Shefelton, who has worked in the VA system for 17 years. “I can’t even imagine! We have 54 men on this ward. We’re the only long-term spinal cord care unit in the whole VA system, nationwide. If you volunteer here, chances are, you’ll meet someone from your home state.

“Everyone here has a worthwhile story. I look at them and I think, ‘What if this was my brother? What if this was my father? How would I want them treated?’”

Shefelton said the unit houses men from all service branches, including the Coast Guard. Some may have suffered service-related injuries, but none currently living here were wounded in battle. Any service member honorably or medically discharged, or receiving a general discharge under honorable circumstances, is eligible for care. The unit also is equipped to care for women, though none currently live here.


While some patients medically are unable to leave the unit, others are mobile enough to travel. Shefelton said field trips present a logistical challenge, but, with specially-equipped vans and additional help from the staff, the group manages to get out about 10 times a month.

“It might be something as simple as a visit to Hampton Coliseum Mall for lunch in the food court,” he said. “But, it means the world to these veterans.”

Added Terry: “Our objective is to meet them at their optimal level of functioning. The quality of life is set by them. We look at our patients holistically … they are whole human beings … and, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The spinal cord injury unit veterans hold a special place in Col. Joseph Rodriguez’s heart. Rodriguez, 51, recently stepped down from his post as TRADOC Inspector General and will retire in March after 30 years of service. He has volunteered for bingo five of the six years he’s been at Fort Monroe, and especially likes to “call” the game. Rodriguez relies on his patented sense of humor to break the ice.

“I like to joke, to get them laughing,” he said. “There’s one veteran who’s been there every time I have. He sort of wheeled into the room a little late, and I counseled him; ‘Stop! You’re speeding! The speed limit is 15, you were going at least 25.

“They’re not used to having someone talk to them ‘soldier-to-soldier,’ and it sort of takes them aback at first. But, they respond to that. You can tell they really appreciate seeing us.”

Rodriguez acknowledges some people may feel uncomfortable at first.
“Each time it’s a little bit different,” he said. “Some people are shocked. They don’t expect to see the quadriplegics, the seriousness of the back injuries. You can see them working real hard to cover up those emotions at first. Then, after they warm up, they see how rewarding the experience really is.

“Some of these men get no visitors. Either they have no family, or their families live far away. You know, we have so much. I think sometimes we don’t fully realize how blessed we are. We have a responsibility to share those blessings.”

For the past six years, Rodriguez has sponsored Israeli foreign officers at HQ TRADOC. He said it’s important to him that the officer and his family understand the whole Army culture, “not just what we do in uniform.” So, Rodriguez invited Col. Shalom “Shuly” Levy, 42, to join ranks for the afternoon. Levy, who has served his country for 24 years, said he’s never seen anything quite like VA Bingo.

“For me, this was a great opportunity,” said Levy. “I was surprised by the soldiers at Fort Monroe who take on this kind of activity.

“Yes, the room is bright and it is evident the care is good. But, more important is the idea. For me, in the Israeli Army, it was not the first time I have had to face serious injury. I’ve seen even some of my own soldiers seriously wounded. But, when I saw how they treat them here … the touch between the active duty soldiers and the patients, I was very impressed.”

Levy said hospital care for Israeli veterans is more family-based. When he returns home in August, he hopes to enhance that strong nucleus of care by suggesting that army posts adopt nearby hospitals.

Civilian personnel and spouses play an important role in the VA Bingo effort. The Casemate Community Connection (CCC) donates the cash pot and manages the event through a coordinator and designated unit sponsors, typically soldiers’ spouses.

Col. John Durkin, the TRADOC engineer and acting DCSPIL, found 14 uniformed and civilian recruits willing to help. Others who couldn’t attend stepped forward with donations of fruit, cheese crackers, sandwiches, sweets and juice boxes.

“It’s always uplifting,” said Durkin, studying photographs of the event. “Look at all the smiles from the patients. But, look also at the smiles of their partners.

“The staff loved it. Probably next year, we’ll have so many volunteers, we’ll have to beat them off with a stick!”

Units from Fort Monroe share VA Bingo duties monthly, from October through June. Shefelton said patients also get visits from the Hampton JROTC program and Langley recruits. Each brings its own special touch.
“The guys love ball caps, and service-related patches and stickers like ‘Airborne,’ and ‘Infantry’ decals,” he said. “They put them on the back of their wheelchairs. Some people bring phone cards, and postage stamps always are a big hit.”

Washington, D.C. native John Dixon, 49, is the unit’s unofficial “Welcome Wagon.” He searches the hallways daily in search of people to enlighten.
“I served 21 years in the Army Signal Corps,” he said. “I retired an E-7 in May, 1993. This is home now, yes. And you all really brighten our day. You don’t have to bring anything with you. We just appreciate your time. Giving of yourselves means everything to us.”

Laurie Terry said the most important thing to bring is an open mind.
“These were the people fighting to protect our freedom,” she said. “Our patients rise above their limitations. They have so much wisdom. They may be limited in mobility but they’re free in spirit. That is infinite. That is boundless. It’s not enough just to ‘be there’ for them. How can you repay that? ”

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