Photo: Julian Dufort
Four months into her tour, she damaged her knee during a mortar attack. She figured she had torn something, twisted something, but she wasn't worried. The army docs would fix her up. Her injury would even get her a helicopter ride to the military hospital in the Green Zone. A Black Hawk over Baghdad! She never imagined that two years later she'd be hobbling into Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, an angry, bewildered, disillusioned "wounded warrior," transferred from her brigade and assigned to Fort Sam's Warrior Transition Unit, hoping and praying that this time the docs would make things right.
The Warrior Transition Unit is one of 27 such facilities set up across the United States for wounded, ill, or injured soldiers who will need at least six months of rehabilitation and whose cases require complex medical management. Soldiers who are assigned to these units are told their only mission is to heal. Once they do—if they do—they are reassigned to a new unit; otherwise, they might be medically retired. It's hard for soldiers here not to feel like broken pieces of machinery: If I can be fixed, I'm still valuable. If not, I'm useless and a replacement will be found for me. And because they're soldiers, they understand. What good are they if they cannot fight? Lead platoons? Carry battle gear? Keep the others from getting their heads blown off? But understanding doesn't change the feeling of uselessness and abandonment. "Your value," Vikki says, "is completely gone."
The mission of the 89th MP Brigade was to train and offer support to Iraqi police. Vikki was assigned to headquarters company and quickly became a jack-of-all-trades, delivering chow and bottled water, loading and unloading supplies and humping them back and forth across the base, standing guard duty, or escorting the sergeant major outside the wire as part of a 12- to 14-member security squad. "Your job is whatever the army wants it to be," she says, as every grunt soon finds out. "But basically I was helping them do a lot of manual labor. I was the bitch."
Shortly after Christmas 2006, when the mess hall was still garlanded in red, green, and gold, Vikki was unloading training supplies, tables, and chairs from the back of a cargo truck when she heard the whoosh of incoming mortar directly overhead. The bed of the truck where she was standing was five feet off the ground. She was near the tailgate, facing the turret when the mortar landed with a boom. The truck shot forward, and Vikki flew back, as though someone had given her a hard shove. Her left foot was caught in a cargo strap; her body twisted as she flew. She did a flip and landed on her feet, standing straight up—but immediately, her left leg buckled backward at the knee and she collapsed. She jumped up, ready to run for her life, but her leg wouldn't hold her and she fell again. Next thing she knew, someone had grabbed her by the collar and was dragging her swiftly across the ground, her face scuffing the dirt.
Later, when she could no longer deal with the pain, Vikki was helicoptered to a combat support hospital in the Green Zone. With no MRI machine available, the doctors told her she had tendinitis and sent her on her way with Motrin and a prescription for physical therapy. No one guessed that an arthroscopy performed in Texas more than a year later would reveal one ligament flapping loose and the cartilage underneath her kneecap torn to shreds. Or that after the doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center repaired her ACL and performed a meniscus transplant, the pain in Vikki's left foot and leg would be so intense that it felt like "someone was pouring boiling water over it." The Stateside doctors would tell her she had sustained nerve damage, most likely from excessive wear and tear, and also from one of the knee surgeries. They would surgically implant a spinal cord stimulator to send electric impulses to her spine in the hopes of blocking the pain signals. A wire would be threaded into the center of her spinal cord, a pulse generator battery placed under the skin of her upper buttocks, and she would be given a remote control device to regulate the pulses. All that would come later, though. For now she had tendinitis. And supplies that still needed to be ferried across the base.
I first meet Vikki at the Warrior and Family Support Center at Fort Sam Houston, where signs announce that we're in a "no hat no salute" area. In other words, put rank and formality aside; this is "home," or at least homey. A wide front porch holds rocking chairs and planters of petunias, coneflowers, and daisies. Inside, the sunlit main room is filled with armchairs and couches. Vikki goes into the kitchen to grab some bottles of water while I wait on a cowhide-covered ottoman in front of a giant stone fireplace as soldiers walk past, some with one or two limbs missing, one with a burned head, the fleshy parts of his left ear and his nose gone.
Vikki's right hip hitches up with each step to accommodate the left leg, which cannot completely straighten. Sometimes she thinks people are looking at her, and sometimes they are. Vikki's physical therapist has told her to use a cane, but she won't. "I had four months in a wheelchair, two months on crutches, and I'm not gonna do it anymore. There's nothing wrong with the way I walk. I told them to stick their cane up their asses," she says conversationally.
Vikki gives me a tour of the center, showing me the computer room and then her favorite space, the game room, which is dark except for the glow of TV screens. Four soldiers are playing video games, and two others seem to be sleeping in the black leather armchairs; a good place to fall out, perhaps the only place they can, for there are other soldiers nearby.
On the base we visit one of the Fisher Houses, where the families of wounded soldiers can stay for free, and then go to the pharmacy to pick up one of her seven prescriptions, which include the sleep aid Lunesta; the antidepressant Celexa, prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder; propranolol, a blood pressure drug used to prevent nightmares in cases of PTSD; and Tegretol, for pain due to nerve damage. But after two hours of being out and about, she grows tired. Her leg aches, there are too many people, the sun is too bright, she is fraying around the edges, she can feel a migraine coming on. We call it a day and she heads home.
We Hear You!