A nurse flicked on the light at 5:30 A.M. My first day on Ward 57 had begun. “What’s your pain on a scale of zero to ten, with ten the worst pain you’ve ever had?” she asked. Pain was apparently so endemic here it was charted on a meter order fake id online. “Five,” I replied, testing the waters. Morning rounds immediately followed, a raucous rush hour of doctors consulting with night nurses and checking on their patients. A pair of interns entered in bright yellow smocks, face masks, and rubber gloves — protection against a drug-resistant bacterial infection common to Iraq, Acinetobacter baumannii, which is contracted through open wounds. The young doctors rebandaged my arm. They used tiny tweezers to pull out and replace pieces of cotton string in eight deep holes of my right thigh and buttocks. I screamed ten on the pain scale and received a shot of Demerol.
At 7 A.M., a caravan of gurneys arrived to transport soldiers to surgery. I was spared, left to the legions of specialists who proved the old adage about hospitals being the last place to get rest. I welcomed the anesthesiologists and their pain relievers. But the nonstop traffic was annoying. The social worker bumped into the dietitian, who passed the shrink. As the veterans’ rep left, a candy striper arrived. So many clergymen popped in, from a Catholic priest to Episcopalian ministers to a rabbi, I could have chaired an ecumenical conference. The brass brought commemorative coins, the Red Cross socks, occupational therapists a mechanical reacher.
The onslaught of hospital pros had one saving grace: no one seemed fazed by my injury but me. Just the word amputation made me shudder. It conjured up a disjointed series of images: a childhood friend who had lost his leg in an auto accident; World War II veterans wheeled into ballparks for holiday games, their empty trousers or shirt sleeves pinned up. I had avoided mirrors all week. Now I feared seeing the startling reality in the faces of my family and friends who would be visiting later that day.
My fears turned out to be groundless. The one emotion everyone showed was happiness to see me alive, maimed or not. But two exchanges stood out. My sister surprised me with a gift: a 1900 silver dollar our gambler father had won in Las Vegas and given to her in 1956 when she was eight years old. Leslie figured if I ever needed a father, it was now.
I held my father’s winnings and thought of the larger bet he lost. He deferred a family life to business success, and died before he had either. I had almost repeated the mistake. The realization put my father’s death in a new light. I understood for the first time why he exited before getting to know me: he had gambled on a future that never materialized. It was a mistake I could begin to forgive.
I had gambled on a job assignment and had my own damage-control problems. Skyler had reacted angrily when he first heard of my injury from my old friend David Maraniss, who had broken the news to my children and estranged wife, Judith Katz. “He lied to me, he lied to me,” Skyler shouted, referring to my parting words when I left for Iraq. “He promised me he wouldn’t get hurt.” According to Judith, Skyler had moped and cried every day until I came home.
He was the first one through the door when visiting hours began. He and Olivia bounded onto my bed, showering me with hugs and get-well posters. Dressed in camouflage pants, Skyler pointed out the intricate drawings of battle scenes in his artwork. Before long, he had grabbed a roll of gauze and wound it around his right hand. He was identifying with my loss, a gesture I saw as a sign of forgiveness. I had shaken his sense of safety, the security blanket only a father can provide. Skyler’s act of generosity capped a day of pardons across three generations of Weisskopf males.
President George W. Bush visited the ward on December 18, my second day at Walter Reed. He moved from room to room, thanking soldiers for their sacrifice and consoling families. When he reached 5735, no one was home. I’d been taken to surgery hours earlier. In Washington, even hospitals have political agendas. Major LaFrançois was the president’s advance man, and I had gotten in her way.
Actually, my job had. Up until that point, I was convinced that nothing mattered to me except the next shot of morphine. But LaFrançois had thrown me an ethical curveball. Midway through my first day, she asked to have a word alone. She told me that the White House was planning a visit and wanted to know if Bush would be welcome in my room. It didn’t take long to decide. I knew the president would be on a well-publicized PR tour to strengthen support for his war. I had favored the invasion of Iraq, believing U.S. intelligence reports of unconventional weapons. But reporters had no business helping officeholders make their case even if they agreed with it.
I declined as diplomatically as I could. The president was coming to thank soldiers and shouldn’t waste his time on a civilian who didn’t fight. LaFrançois thought I was questioning not the appropriateness of a visit but my worthiness. “We feel you are as worthy as anyone else,” she said. “You did so much for our troops to put your life on the line. You actually saved soldiers.”
My story had gotten around. From NBC Nightly News to the New York Times, the media reported it widely, and soldiers added their own editorial flourishes as they passed it along. It occurred to me that people were exaggerating the valor of my actions to help me salve the loss. I had trouble processing the praise, especially from military men whose objectives contrasted so sharply with my own. I was ready to acknowledge that my actions had saved lives, though I was still a long way from understanding what motivated those actions. I did know one thing for certain: I didn’t grab that grenade as a soldier fighting the president’s war. His political aims were at issue now. I found myself having to straddle the chasm between military and journalistic cultures. LaFrançois didn’t understand why any American would refuse a visit from the president. Nor did her bosses, who had also been contacted by Bush’s advisers and took the time to weigh in. The hospital’s commander, Major General Kevin Kiley, stopped by. “We all consider you a hero for what you did,” said Kiley, a six-foot-six onetime collegiate wrestler. “The fact you grabbed that grenade and tried to get it out, you saved some lives doing that.” We chatted for a while, and Kiley brought up the presidential visit. He said he heard that I wouldn’t see Bush. “Are you sure?” the general asked. “He would really like to see you.” I politely demurred again, moving up the chain of command.
I didn’t realize how much trouble I was causing. The hospital had an open-door policy for presidential visits. It wouldn’t have looked good on TV for a reporter to shut out the commander in chief. Kiley asked LaFrançois to persuade me to reconsider, questioning whether I had been clearheaded enough to make an informed decision. She took another crack at it, returning late that night. After I declined again, LaFrançois, like any good soldier, improvised. I was supposed to have my wounds surgically cleaned the next day. She made sure I ended up in the operating room while Bush made his rounds. The next morning, I was taken out before the dawn security sweep. I was operated on from 9:00 to 10:40 A.M. and parked in the recovery room until the president left just after noon.