Thursday, April 28, 2005

Getting Your C-Legs

Ever seen a C-Leg? It's a state-of-the-art prosthetic limb, run with a microprocessor. It's the leg of choice for amputee soldiers coming home from Iraq. I don't even want to think about how large the DoD budget line is for C-Legs. I'm sure it's depressing as hell. Walter Reed is far too full of young men and women being fitted for these things. B.D. in "Doonesbury" got a C-Leg. The U.S. Army Medical Museum has original Doonesbury strips that Gary Trudeau donated when he came to visit soldiers recuperating at the facility.

I'm at Mayorga Coffee right now, doing the job hunt thing, courtesy of their free wi-fi. A young man sat down at the table next to me a few minutes ago. He's fidgeting with his latte and trying to read the newspaper, but he keeps setting it down. He's clearly distracted by something unseen. The cafe is quiet today, and most of the tables are empty. He's handsome, with a short military hair cut and chiseled features. He's wearing a green t-shirt, baggy khaki shorts, and a nice new pair of Nikes. One athletic leg taps the floor in time to the Al Green track playing in the background. The other leg is still. It's all shining metal and bright blue plastic. It's a C-Leg. And I'm willing to bet that it's a "gift" from Uncle Sam. Yes, sirree, bub. Join the army, see the world, kill some people at the pleasure of the U.S. prez-ee-dent, and come home missing a limb... or two... or in a pine box.

Part of me wants to go over and talk to this guy. He seems so restless. I want to ask him about his experiences. I want to ask him about his leg. But I have no idea what the etiquette is. I'm not a journalist. I have no credentials or reason to bother him, other than curiosity, sympathy, and a desire to let him tell his story. Finally, his cell phone rings. He has a brief, heated sotto voce exchange with someone and smacks the phone down to the table. His frustration radiates down his remaining leg into his tapping foot. He sighs, pulls himself up from his seat and awkwardly hobbles to the door. The leg is still new to him, clearly, and it hurts. Lexus of limbs, maybe. But it's not the real thing.

A van pulls up outside. Government plates. Another young man with hair high and tight sits behind the wheel. The amputee angles himself painfully in the passenger seat and they're gone. Back to Bethesda Naval Medical, I suppose.

I wonder if the trip to the coffee shop was just a try at something normal. Something everyone does. Just sit in a coffee shop, with a smiling young woman serving you a cup. Not care-package coffee warmed in a battered stainless steel coffee press on the engine block of an Abrams while you wait to be maimed or die or kill someone. No pain. No fear.

Just coffee.

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