Disabled Vet Standing on His Own New Feet
News feature, Charles Ding, Cliff Parker
New America Media/Sing Tao Daily, Jun 09, 2009
In its commitment to ethnic and communities of color and to developing new coverage models, New America Media, supported by the McCormick Foundation, is using Los Angeles to tell the emotional and often wrenching stories of what happened when veterans came home and found no jobs, red tape and their own demons and inner turmoil.
As a pioneer in forging ethnic-mainstream media partnerships, NAM brought together reporters for three ethnic media -- Singtao Daily, La Opinion and Our Weekly -- and the Los Angeles Daily News.
L.A. Vets Project - Sgt. Chang Wong from New America Media on Vimeo.
On May 23, at 6:00 a.m., Wong and his tank crew were out on patrol when they were struck by a roadside bomb.
“I remember looking through my tank sight and a second later, my head was pushed way back, away from the sight,” Wong recalls. “I looked around and noticed that my both feet were severely damaged.”
Wong tried to stand and run, but couldn’t lift himself up. So he started yelling for help. “When they finally pulled me out, I was in so much pain and adrenaline I started cursing and yelling,” Wong says. “Throughout the entire ordeal, I was conscious until the field nurses and doctors put me to sleep.”
Doctors at the field hospital at the giant U.S. military base in Balad amputated both of Wong’s feet. They had initially hoped to save his right foot, but because of the severity of the fractures and poor blood circulation, they had no choice but to remove it as well.
Little did Wong know, his life was hanging by a thread. The blast from the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) did more than damage his feet; it sent shock waves that rippled throughout his entire body causing further complications.
Both lungs collapsed, which nearly ended his life; Wong was also given 55 units of blood. Because of the severity of the situation, the Army doctors had an extremely difficult decision to make: whether to use a medical device not approved by the military and face possible reprimands, or continue with conventional methods that were not helping Wong recover.
After eight very precious days, Chang Wong was airlifted to Regensburg University Hospital in Germany, where he would be treated with the unapproved medical device, the “nova-lung.” This machine is intricate and unique for its size (it looks like a compact disc player with four tubes) because it mimics and performs like a set of real lungs. The “nova lung” is connected to the veins and arteries, found near the groin. And as the blood circulates throughout the body, it passes from the patient’s veins through the machine, where it releases carbon dioxide and picks up oxygen. For the next two crucial weeks, Wong was fighting for his life once again. He had fevers over 100 degrees, non-clotting nosebleeds, and tubes going into and coming out of his chest.
Once Wong was stabilized, they transferred him to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the U.S. military’s largest hospital in Europe. Finally, on June 22, 2005 – nearly a month after the IED blast – he was moved to his final destination, Fort Sam Houston, near San Antonio, Texas, where he would receive the remainder of his medical care and begin the long road to recovery.
Chang Wong’s mother, Lien Chu remembers receiving a telephone call. For one whole week, she said she cried her heart out. The military sent her and his father, David Wong, to Germany, where they spent three weeks, in and out of the hospital, caring for their son. After leaving Germany, both parents accompanied him to Texas.
For the first few weeks, his mother would accompany Wong, day and night, and speak to him until he slowly fell asleep. She would stay with him for the next five months.
As Wong was weeded off heavy sedatives, he began to realize that both his legs were amputated below the knee. And at the young age of 23, he found it extremely difficult to accept this reality. He immediately went into denial.
Wong speaks about his battle through depression with such strength and resilience. “I was scared; I was terrified; I was afraid that if I fell back asleep I wouldn’t wake back up again… I didn’t eat, didn’t drink, and didn’t feel like talking but also didn’t want to be alone. And it wasn’t until the 4th of July weekend that I fully accepted all the events leading up to present day and moved forward. I had friends and relatives, who flew in to see me but at that time, I didn’t care for visitors. I begged my mother to leave me behind, to go back home and carry on with her life. She defiantly refused and kept telling me that she would do no such thing. I then turned to my friend, Sara Zigman, and asked if she would convince my mom to leave me be; she also refused.”
“At this point, I gave up and decided to lay there, restless. My mom, thinking that I was finally calm decided to pour some water into my mouth and with no such luck, grew increasingly angry, upset, and tired. She wound her hand back and slapped me across the face; the pain registered, it felt real, I came to the realization that I was not dreaming, that this wasn’t some horrendous dream or trick my mind was playing on me.”
Following that incident, Wong gradually accepted his outcome and decided never to look back and pity himself.
Lieu Chu poured out her heart to take care of her son, consistent with Asian family values -- filial piety, parental care and interdependency. These notions define specific rules of conduct in social relationships and place great importance on the family. The family provides support and assistance to each individual member; in turn, individual members provide support and assistance to the entire family. These relationships, interactions, and obligations are lifelong; and the goal of individual members is not necessarily autonomy or independence.
After graduating from Alhambra High School in 2000, Wong had plans to attend a local community college but because he had just received his permanent resident status, he was charged as an out-of-state student. Not wanting to pay such a high fee for a community college, he decided to take that year off and enroll for the following fall semester.
Before the new school year began, a few of his friends approached him about serving in the United States military. They told him his college tuition would be paid for, that he would acquire leadership skills, and see different parts of the world. After giving the idea of serving in the military some thought, Wong took on the commitment. Without notifying his parents, he enlisted in the United States Army. His parents were shocked and extremely upset when they found out. It is atypical for someone with a Chinese heritage to enlist into the military voluntarily because in Asia, military service is a requirement.
August 2001, Wong was sent to Fort Knox, Ky., for basic training and one-station-unit training (OSUT). After completing the grueling, four-month training, he was deployed to South Korea for a one-year tour and from there, he deployed back stateside to Fort Irwin, Calif., where he remained before deploying to Iraq. On January 2005, his unit was activated and deployed to Iraq. Wong was a tank gunner in the 1st squadron, 11th Armor Calvary Regiment.
Born in 1982, in Malacca, Malaysia, Chang Wong is of Chinese decent. His family immigrated to America when he was two. Before enlisting into the U.S. military, he had just received his green card and was not yet naturalized. Prior to his deployment to Iraq, Wong sent in his application to be naturalized and was waiting for an interview and a swear-in date. He received notice in May and was relieved that he would soon become a United States citizen. But because Wong had joined the military, he never had a chance to make that interview; therefore, immigration authorities requested an immigration officer from Italy to set up a naturalization ceremony for him at the hospital in Germany. Wong was finally naturalized on June 13, 2005, three weeks after losing his legs in Iraq.
His naturalization ceremony was atypical. He doesn’t remember it because he was sworn in a medically induced coma.
In April 2006, Wong returned back home to the city of Alhambra. That following summer, he enrolled at Pasadena City College, the school he had planned to attend before joining the military. After completing his general education requirements, he applied and was accepted to California State University, Fullerton, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business. He is expecting to graduate no later than 2011. While attending Cal State Fullerton, he is staying with his aunt in Rowland Heights.
Chang Wong received his first prosthesis in August of 2005; the first pair of legs was temporary. After several major and minor adjustments and improvements, he received a pair of permanent prosthesis in early 2006. When he bathes, he sits on a chair and removes his prosthesis; afterwards, he puts his prosthesis back on.
After using the prosthesis for a period of time, they need to be adjusted, refitted and modified, but the prosthetics manufacturing company requires the approval of the Department of Veteran Affairs before they can begin any type of adjustment and modification requests. In order for this to occur, Wong needs to be seen by the VA prosthetists and this takes between several weeks and several months. He hopes that this process will become more efficient and less time consuming.
Oftentimes, Chang Wong will wear pants over his prosthesis, which makes him look like any able-bodied person. However, this “healthy” appearance also brings him problems.
For example, one time, when Wong drove himself to the campus, he parked his car in a disabled parking spot. Since he appears young and “healthy” looking, other people who are around, frown, look down upon him, and even harass him for parking in the disabled spot. Security guards and campus police have also questioned him—“How did you get this handicapped parking permit?” He had to produce his veteran certificate of disability, and sometimes he even lifted his pant leg to reveal his metal prosthesis before they believe him. As a veteran who sacrificed life and limb for this country, he feels he has been wronged but also understands why.
In the summer, Wong wears shorts and runs at a park near his home, using specialized running prostheses that resemble skis. Children are often curious and even follow him around to watch him run. Wong isn’t embarrassed by his appearance but finds it uncomfortable when adults stare at him like he has been cursed.
While at school, he does not participate in sports; but he plays wheelchair basketball with friends and occasionally swims and skis.
Today, Chang Wong is being compensated for his disability from the Veterans Administration and Social Security. In addition, he receives free medical services in military hospitals. Fortunately, even in this economic downturn, Wong is able to meet his financial obligations and live somewhat comfortably.
Wong, like many other wounded soldiers and marines, were in a fight for survival. Fortunately, due to advancements in body armor, medical procedures, and such, his chances of survival increased dramatically—compared to soldiers and marines who served in Vietnam or World War II.
With that in mind, soldiers would come back from the battlefield alive but with very serious, visible amputations and disfigurement. In addition, they came back with less visible injuries—post traumatic stress syndrome. Similar to the experiences of veterans before him, they all face the long and sometimes, very lonely road to recovery. Like all major obstacles in life, overcoming this or any hurdle requires perseverance, support, and a strong will to keep pressing forward.
Wong is a strong-willed individual who wanted nothing more than to recover—physically, mentally, and spiritually—and return back to his normal life. He began setting recovery goals that were very unrealistic and when he did not meet his goals, he pushed himself even further and harder. His ambition, focus, and dedication were unreal and he fully recovered in less than eight months.
But Wong’s journey is not over. As the years go by, it will become even more complicated. Not only will he have to overcome any difficulties that may take shape but also now he must deal with the degrading stares, misunderstandings, and discrimination.
Wong’s home is located in U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff’s district. The reporter called Yvonne Hsu, the congressman’s district representative, and asked how Schiff’s office can help veterans, such as Chang Wong. Hsu asked Wong to call the office—she would like to speak to him in order to determine what types of benefits he is eligible for. She also hopes Wong and other veterans know that if they require any assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), they are welcome to contact their elected officials.
Chang said he would give her a call after midterms.
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