Relationships Rescued Him

Web Development inMotion

Volume 17 · Issue 1 · January/February 2007 | Download PDF

by Scott McNutt

Weisskopf 01In 2003, TIME Magazine senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf went to Iraq to profile “The American Soldier” as TIME’s Person of the Year. The reporter didn’t put much thought into what might befall him in a theater of war. It was a chance to inject some excitement into a stale work routine and add another entry on a lengthy list of professional achievements.

Weisskopf got the story, but he also became it, losing his hand to the blast of an insurgent’s grenade. That loss propelled Weisskopf on an 18-month long, pain-filled journey of recovery, during which, with the care and support of many people, he evaluated his life and re-established his identity. He has chronicled his journey in a book, Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57. Although Weisskopf’s story encompasses much more than the relationships he made and re-established during his healing process, the book is a testament to the healing power of the bonds that connect each of us to a greater community.

Time and again in Blood Brothers, Weisskopf touches on the theme of a community of caring and explores his own place in a wider web of social connections. As he writes in Blood Brothers: “It had taken a major loss for me to understand what I meant to others. Relationships rescued me. They got me out of Baghdad, into Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and back home. I received that help not because of a grade I had earned, a story written, or lives saved; it was for being me. I resolved to return the love by being less selfabsorbed.”

Weisskopf is one of only a handful of civilians ever to be treated at the military facility. Coworkers at TIME, fellow journalists and Weisskopf’s congresswoman lobbied to get Weisskopf admitted. At Walter Reed, Weisskopf was assigned to “Amputee Alley,” Ward 57. During his time in Ward 57 and after, Weisskopf witnessed and experienced the bonds of friendship, family and caregiving among and for the soldiers recovering there.

For people with limb loss, there can be many different communities, and “combat amputees are a narrow subset,” says Weisskopf. “It’s a lonely world as an amputee – the larger the community of amputees we fit into, I think the richer the community.”

Just establishing a rapport with his fellow amputees on Ward 57 was, in a way, building a bridge between different communities. Weisskopf notes that not only was he a civilian, but he was also at least twice the age of the other patients. Plus, he quips, he was “a professional with more education than I needed.” In his workaday world, he had little in common with the soldiers of Ward 57.

“But there are a bunch of common denominators among those at Walter Reed and on Ward 57 that cut through all that,” Weisskopf says. “Primarily, it was that all of us there were struggling for identity.” That struggle cut the psychological distance between young soldiers who like guns, tattoos and fast machines and a self-described “middle-aged hack” who had gone to Iraq to clinically observe those soldiers going about their mission and to dispassionately write up his observations.

“I felt keenly that I’d gone to Iraq as a guy who was looking in from the outside and left Ward 57 in my own platoon of wounded warriors,” explains Weisskopf. “The distance between us broke down because what they were going through, I was going through. There are few people in society who can understand that unless you were there.”

One of the wounded warriors with whom Weisskopf bonded is Pete Damon. Damon, a helicopter mechanic whose National Guard unit was sent to Iraq, lost both arms when the metal rim on a helicopter tire he was inflating exploded. Weisskopf, whose right hand was destroyed when he grabbed and tossed away a grenade that was lobbed into the back of a transport vehicle, felt a kinship to Damon, and not only because of his physical loss. Each man had questions about his role in what led up to his respective trauma. Damon could not remember the events leading up to his mishap; Weisskopf had questions about the impulse that moved him to seize the grenade.

“I felt keenly that I’d gone to Iraq as a guy who was looking in from the outside and left Ward 57 in my own platoon of wounded warriors,” explains Weisskopf. “The distance between us broke down because what they were going through, I was going through. There are few people in society who can understand that unless you were there.”

Each man encouraged the other to fill in the gaps, and through this similar sense of purpose, a friendship was forged. It would see each of them through to successfully resolve (if not fully answer) their questions about their losses, as well as bring them together for simple camaraderie. Weisskopf even accompanied Damon to visit the parents of Damon’s partner, who was killed in the same explosion that took Damon’s arms. “I also had a debt to Pete because he gave me insight, tremendously,” says Weisskopf. “He triggered something in me that helped me. So, I went there as a friend. I didn’t go there as a journalist. I felt like we were helping each other.”

Another blood brother who helped Weisskopf along his journey is Jim Mayer, a.k.a. “The Milkshake Man,” whom Weisskopf dubbed one of the “Angels of Ward 57.” Mayer, a Vietnam vet and a bilateral below-knee amputee, is a military peer visitor trainer, certified by the Amputee Coalition. Such peer visitors help new amputees adjust to their situation, demonstrating through their own experience that reconnecting to a larger community is possible.

Mayer’s dedication to the soldiers of Ward 57 is near legendary, even going beyond the peer visitor model. That Weisskopf was not a vet made no difference to Mayer. The two men first met when Mayer, offering his customary milkshakes and a chance for conversation, poked his headed into Weisskopf’s room on Ward 57. Well-intended though Mayer was, this attempt at relationship-building was ill-timed, because at that moment, Weisskopf was trying to learn to use the bathroom one-handed. Despite that inauspicious beginning, the two eventually hit it off and remain friends.

“It made me realize early on – every amputee has to – you must accept help from others. It was very easy to get it from my kids. It gave them a real sense of power and a sense of importance. Every kid should have that. I think they truly rose to the occasion, and I am very fortunate to have them.”

Deeming Mayer “an amazing man,” Weisskopf says that he was important because “he figured out correctly that what every new amputee ponders is, ‘Will I ever be normal again?’ What Jim would do with that milkshake was bring you a little piece of ordinary life. It reminded you that you were part of humanity. You had normality within your grasp.” Weisskopf goes on to note that Mayer has now served hundreds of amputees as a friend, confidant and blood brother.

“At first, Michael didn’t want to take a milkshake intended for a service member,” recalls Mayer. “I can’t tell you how much his attitude about that impressed me. I learned that he was a to-the-point talker and a sharp listener. It didn’t take me long to observe that, as a seasoned correspondent, Michael could sniff out b.s. from 50 feet away. So I always tried to concentrate on what he was saying and feeling and respond candidly. To this day, Michael and I can go for a period of no contact and then immediately start talking about anything, with no reservations.”

The bond of family also helped Weisskopf in ways he had not anticipated. Having lost his father at an early age, Weisskopf felt guilt about almost depriving his young children, Skyler and Olivia, of their father. From his experience, he began to understand what had driven his father to work himself literally to death and to forgive him for it. His son and daughter, in turn, showed Weisskopf that they could forgive his “gamble on a job assignment” because of the bonds of love between parent and child. They also showed their father that they could help him in ways that he had once helped them.

“Not long ago, I had tied their shoes,” Weisskopf writes. “Now they were tying mine. I had patched up their cuts and scrapes; now they were changing my dressings.” This change in the adult-child balance of power caused a change in Weisskopf’s perception of parenthood as well. Before going to Iraq, he’d considered it a job. Now, he calls it a love affair. “It was wonderful,” Weisskopf says. “It made me realize early on – every amputee has to – you must accept help from others. It was very easy to get it from my kids. It gave them a real sense of power and a sense of importance. Every kid should have that. I think they truly rose to the occasion, and I am very fortunate to have them.”

One of the central themes of Blood Brothers is Weisskopf’s struggle to understand what led him to grab the live grenade that cost him his right hand. He wasn’t sure that he was the sort of person who would act nobly in a time of crisis. Now, with the help of many people who care for him professionally and personally, Weisskopf accepts that his was an honorable act, one that saved the lives of the soldiers who were in the Humvee with him.

He also sees that his actions reverberate throughout a larger community. On receiving the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism, Weisskopf wrote, “Even if I inhabited a world of self-interest, I acted on a larger stage with consequences reaching far beyond me.” But even if Weisskopf recognizes that his actions have impact in a broader community, Jim Mayer hopes his friend knows their importance to one community in particular.

Asked about the larger context of the recovery process for people with limb loss at Walter Reed, Mayer says, “Walter Reed and the Amputee Coalition have trained and certified over 90 peer visitors. I’m lucky to be one of them and also to be a part of the original core group of volunteers who graduated from Amputee Coalition’s Train the Trainer Program.

“But Michael’s talks and friendship on Ward 57 reminded me that, aside from general reference points like Amputee Coalition’s Phases of Recovery, each patient has a very individualized path to recovery and thriving in life, one with very unique twists, turns and setbacks. Michael writes eloquently about that in recording his and Pete Damon’s and the others’ recoveries in Blood Brothers. That gift from Michael is worth a lot more to me and my fellow peer visitors than whatever we may have given to Michael on Ward 57.”