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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Flashback 1998: Paralyzed veteran shows different kind of heroism

Cart with Wounded Soldiers, by Théodore Gericault
                  (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     The paper decided to run today's column tomorrow, so it appears on Veteran's Day, an occasion I've tried to mark when I could. This column stands out despite the years because I remember approaching the VA—I was looking for a veteran wounded in service whose injury affected his life today, and they offered up Maurice Valeriano.
     Then they tried to yank him back, as you will see, after discovering his injury wasn't combat-related. I said No, somehow that makes it even more apt. I hope you agree. I wish I could offer you an update, but I couldn't find anything recent on him. Perhaps a reader will.

   When children at the schools he visits ask Maurice Valeriano how he was wounded, the ex-Marine has no good battle story to tell. No shell fragment. No sniper's bullet. No land mine.
     Valeriano, a quadriplegic, wasn't wounded at all, in the technical sense. He was injured, his neck broken diving into the ocean in Okinawa.
     Which, if you think about it, for a soldier, is far worse than being wounded. Your body is just as damaged as it might have been in battle. But there is a pause; the respect automatically granted battle-injured vets, particularly at this time of year, with Veterans Day this Wednesday, gets yanked back, if only a bit. Talk about adding insult to injury.
     It's a fine distinction, but real. The Veterans Affairs official who referred me to Valeriano sang his praises over the telephone as a sterling individual, a grievously wounded Vietnam vet who overcame his injuries to go on to a career with Paralyzed Veterans of America.
     Then she called me back. Whoops. A mistake. It turned out he wasn't injured in battle at all. Never been to Vietnam. Perhaps, she said, I would like to be referred to somebody else.
     That second call said it all. I don't blame the VA official. She was only being sensitive to human nature. The public is stingy with its sympathy. A soldier injured at a depot in Kansas or, as in Valeriano's case, a diving tower in Japan, seems somehow fake, as if they were trying to pull a fast one.
     This is vastly unfair. No bullet gets fired in wartime that isn't loaded on a truck by one soldier and unloaded by another and inventoried by a third. The vast bulk of military personnel never see a battlefield.
     Yet the tales of sacrifice we think of—if we think of them at all—are all thrilling war stories, of smoky trenches and clattering helicopters. As if the guy who gets run over by a truck at Fort Bragg isn't serving his country, too. Aren't they casualties? Aren't they filling a role even more difficult than hero: the role of the uncelebrated fallen? Aren't their tales worth a passing thought?
     "I went into the Marine Corps when I was 17," said Valeriano, now 34. "I come from a family of Marines. My brother. My cousins. It's a family-type tradition to serve my country."
     Valeriano was a mechanic stationed in Okinawa. He was swimming with a bunch of buddies in the ocean. He dove off a diving tower.
     "I hit bottom, hitting my head," he said. "I became a quadriplegic. The funny thing about it is, I never passed out. The water was so crystal clear, I was laying face forward, looking at my arms and legs and wondering why I can't move them. There was no pain, no blackout."
     His buddies fished him out. He had fractured his C5/6 vertebrae. He was told he would never use his arms or legs again. He was 19.
     "You think your life's over," Valeriano said.
     He spent six months in the hospital, most of it at Hines, here in Chicago. It turned out he had some function in his arms—enough for him to battle his way into a manual wheelchair.
     "They wanted to stick me in an electric wheelchair," he said. "There was this World War II vet. He said, 'Whatever it is, don't let them put you in an electric wheelchair. Make the effort.' To this day I thank that man."
     It took him a while to re-enter life. "I stayed home for three years, watching soap operas, trying to deal with my disability," Valeriano said. An offer of a job from the Paralyzed Veterans of America got him working; he now counsels vets.
     Valeriano was married, now divorced, and has two twin sons, age 12. I had to ask: "Artificial insemination?"
     "It was natural," he said. "Most people think that if you're paralyzed you can't do that sort of thing. Everybody's disability is different, but I was blessed and fortunate not to lose that ability."
     Valeriano said not many fellow Marines give him trouble. "When a guy is having a bad day, he might say, 'What are you talking about? I was hurt in Vietnam. I stepped on a land mine. You were hurt in a diving accident.' "
     He agrees, in a way, calling his work with paralyzed veterans "a form of guilt" for being denied the chance to prove himself in war.
     "That's one of the main reasons I'm here," he said. "For me to make it here by 8:30 in the morning, I have to get up three hours early -- I can get up at 4, 5 o'clock in the morning. Why am I doing this when I can sit at home and collect $ 1,300 a month in Social Security? I wasn't injured in combat. The government is doing a good job taking care of me. I almost have to do it."
     It can take Valeriano an hour just to put his clothes on in the morning. He does it because he feels it's his duty. I find that heroic.
         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 8, 1998


  1. Very moving column, Neil. I know this man is a hero.

  2. Excellent approach to Verterwn’s Day coverage. . I tried to locate more current info. The only thing I found was a person with this name listed as a non-salaried Director at the AZ Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America in 2020.


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