When You Find Out That You're 'Broken'


The author of this essay wishes to remain anonymous. 

It started as any other Monday morning with my Army veteran. And then everything changed. Or at least it felt like it did.

One minute he was fine. Sure, we have our struggles. His memory problems have taken some getting used to, but we've figured it out. That's just part of recovering from war, right?

The next minute he received his VA disability rating and, suddenly, just like that, he became "disabled."

No one warned me how emotional that would be.

When he got out a few months ago and started the rating process, we thought he might get as much as 50%. After all, he does have some pretty exhausting memory problems thanks to traumatic brain injuries. But we work around them. And there's the PTSD, but we muddle through. He can't hear, really, and that drives me insane -- but we've figured out how to live with it. His back hurts all the time, but he never admits it, so it's OK.

All of these injuries are the cost of service, but we have a great life.

And then the rating came: 100% disabled.

I blinked at the screen as he showed me the decision in his VA ebenefits account. Sure enough, there was the little graph -- 100%. How could that be? He's not 100% disabled. Is he? Is it really that bad? Have I just been fooling myself this whole time? It must be that bad, because here's the VA saying it's true and depositing all that money in my bank account. 

If I accept the money, am I accepting the label? "Disabled." A "disabled veteran."

What does that even mean, "disabled?" It's a label that carries a heavy burden and implications of brokenness.   

"No," my heart cries, "give the money back. Tell them they are wrong. We're not disabled."

We. His rating is immediately my rating. His injuries are team injuries because it is as a team that we deal with working around all his problems.

Disabled. Broken. The weight of the labels is too much. How do you go forward if the VA thinks your problems are really that bad? Do you stick it to the man and work to prove them wrong? Or do we accept the fate that we are broken -- we are 100% disabled? Do you mourn that idea that you are whole despite it all? Do you simply try to forget their ruling while taking the payment as a reward from a grateful nation?

I can see that he, too, is processing the label. "Disabled." A man who never wanted anything from anyone, who had to be encouraged to even apply for a rating. He doesn't like the word. He probably won't tell anyone about it.

But me -- I want to tell everyone. I want to feel solidarity. I want to hear my community sigh back "Us, too. We are 'disabled.' This is what war cost us. This brokenness is the price."

I tell a friend my news. She admits they are at 80%. I blink at her, too, just like I blinked at the rating decision. Eighty percent? Her husband doesn't seem 80%. He's strong. He's fast. He's able. He's not broken. But the VA says he's disabled.

I ask her if she's good with that. She says yes, and tells me what I need to hear.

"Instead of questioning, be grateful that the system has worked so well for you when there are so many it has dramatically failed. Hold your husband tight today. Be glad he is here."

So that's what I do.

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