Broken Knees, Homelessness & Voice: A Veteran Spouse Sings Like a Caged Bird

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Homeless vet on the road.

In silence I ignore my husband’s battle with chronic knee pain. His right knee regularly swells and frequently fails to straighten. For every pop, click or misstep, he swears out loud. I say nothing, but reach for the bottle of Naproxen, shake out three blue pills, pour water and deliver it to him. Softly, he says, “Thanks, Hon.”

As a young man, Todd Mills jumped out of airplanes (C-130s and C-141s), rappelled from helicopters (CH-47s, UH-60s and UH-1s) and road marched, often packing over 100 pounds of combat equipment. He volunteered. In 1981, Todd enlisted for the US Army, qualified for Airborne, passed the three phases of Ranger school, served four years active duty in the 1st Ranger Battalion and fulfilled an additional four years in the Army Reserve. He earned numerous badges, including one for combat.

As a former US Army Ranger, he knows no quit. He pushes through everything he does, including pain.

Todd recalls parachuting so fast to Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury he bounced upon landing. He had bullet holes in his chute, a mission to accomplish and never considered the impact on his knees. Pain was part of soldiering. Three years after his honorable discharge, he stepped out of wet cement at work and discovered why his knees hurt all the time. He had fragments of broken bone floating in the right joint. When that wet mud pulled his leg, several fragments migrated to lock the knee.

Todd was 25 when an orthopedic surgeon declared his knees to be those of an 80-year old. Because he was young, the surgeon advised Todd to wait until he was over 50 before replacing the joints. In the meantime, he had to have multiple surgeries to shave the bone and remove fragments. The result of “no quit” and pushing his young body in extreme situations for his military unit had blown both knees. However, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) denied Todd’s surgical claims, citing no evidence in his military records of knee injuries.

He accepted the denial and the pain.

Funny thing about voice is that it has nothing to do with whether or not one is an extrovert or introvert. Voice is about speaking up and humanizing one’s human experience. My husband, who loudly expresses his pain, has held his voice regarding his knees. As an introvert, I silently accepted his groans and also withheld my voice until it became a more urgent matter than quality of life. Hardship we can accept; but the diminished access to basic life needs reached a crisis point in May of 2016. It’s my time to speak up.

May 17 we were served a 30-Day Notice to Vacate our rental home. It wasn’t because I was brewing moonshine in the horse barn or bailed on rent; the property owners evicted us to improve the marketability of their house. The Notice reads, “…the unit needs to be vacant while it is listed for sale.” The only place we could find to rent in our area wasn’t available until September 1. Despite trying to negotiate with the owners and property managers, they continued to assert that they “needed” us out.

Before we arrived at this crisis point, Todd’s knee was part of a downhill slide for us. In 2007 we refinanced our home for a more favorable loan only to become victims of mortgage fraud. That same year my husband had problems with his knee following another surgery. Despite workplace laws, Todd’s employer used a medical appointment for his knee to write him up and fire him. He won a wrongful termination suit in 2009, but lost his job. He found work elsewhere, but with his knee pain he decided to go back to school. Then, in 2012, we lost our home to foreclosure.

When we lost the house in a court battle, Todd left school and accepted a contract job in Idaho. He’s since taken numerous other unstable contracts that don’t last. His reaction to stress is to deploy on a mission, take a contract, as if he still were a soldier. He’s never quit, and the US Army certainly never debriefed him for civilian life with a disability. His increased knee pain and diminished employment opportunities have triggered untreated PTSD. Although he doesn’t have fear or anxiety, his lack of them is part of the PTSD coping mechanism. As I began to notice significant changes in his behavior and pain tolerance, I chose to speak up for him.

I began to raise my voice to the VA. I had had enough of their denial of his service-related suffering. In 2013 we successfully filed for medical and disability benefits.  I learned there are three distinct branches of the VA, and the bureaucracy of one doesn’t communicate with the bureaucracy of the others. There’s Veteran’s Health, Veteran’s Benefits and the National Cemetery Administration. It’s an unwieldy organization that fails to meet the needs of the soldiers who served their country.

And I speak from experience. It took 26 years for the VA to recognize Todd’s debilitated knees and loss of hearing. We are still trying to push through acknowledgement of PTSD, but finally have access to behavioral therapy after three years of asking.  If at any time my husband needed a voice, it is now. And I’m speaking up for him and coaching him to speak up, too. Now, we are homeless, counted among a populace with little voice. We are defined as experiencing both veteran and rural homelessness, living in uninhabitable camp trailer.

First Lady Michelle Obama encourages landlords to honor veterans’ right to fair housing in a video the White House released in 2015. While I appreciate our First Lady’s entreaty to speak up for veterans experiencing homelessness, it’s pointless. Landlords and banks are not held accountable. I’ve recently met many other homeless vets. One older man said, “I have a letter [referring to the government HUD VASH program to help pay for veteran’s rent], but no one will look at it.” Our landlords disregarded my husband’s vulnerability to homelessness when they served us notice to vacate, and they still sit with a house on the market; an empty house that could have continued to shelter a veteran and his spouse.

If the First Lady has no power, what good is my voice?

Let Maya Angelou answer with a refrain from her famous poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”:

The caged bird sings with
A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

Want a crash course in voice empowerment? Write, then lose something meaningful, and write some more. Never has my voice trilled as fearfully as it does now – a homeless literary artist struggling to maintain writing accounts and deadlines, while fighting for the basic rights of her veteran husband. My camp trailer roof leaks, I have no running water save the Coeur D’Alene River that streams past my free campsite in the National Panhandle Forest. I discovered I’m claustrophobic and have developed pee anxiety and pooping is a huge issue. I have to pay for meals, potable water, toilets and showers.

Oh, you bet I’m singing. The caged bird sings because freedom is due to us all, and freedom is a human need. Land of the free? My husband once fought for that phrase, but let me tell you, not all who live in America are free. The homeless are not free. The marginalized are not free. Stand on the wrong side of any spectrum be that of color, gender identification, religious affiliation, education, abilities and more and you will find that freedom decreases. Anyone needing help is not free. And why is that? Why did my husband volunteer to fight for the freedoms of all when those in power want to silence the caged birds?

Among our freedoms, I count freedom of speech to be vital. Philosopher, Rene Descartes, once said. “I think, therefore I am.” I say, I speak, therefore I am. With all the recent indignities my husband and I have suffered, what has angered me most is how we’ve been treated in dehumanizing ways.

Freedom means being accepted as a human being with dignity and regard. You may not agree with me, but I’m still human and so are you. Dehumanize me and it’s you who loses your humanity, though many without a voice accept the role and suffer in silence. They can take your house; they can deny you access to drinking water and flushing toilets; they can diminish your food sources; they can preach at you as if your circumstances are your fault and not the result of a capitalistic structure where free markets are more valuable than human freedoms. But no one can take your voice.

So when a woman in designer clothes attempted to silence me in a public library where I was trying to office while homeless, I realized how vulnerable my voice can be. She had no way of knowing my circumstances. She had no understanding that the reason I was not speaking in hushed tones to my husband was because of his hearing loss, and that he needs guidance to navigate the sticky web of getting his medical needs met. She might be surprised to know her curtness sparked my simmering anger at the lack of justice and humanity in our nation.

To her and others, all I can say is, don’t judge what you see or assume what you don’t know. Even if someone annoys you, smile, don’t chastise. Your voice is powerful. Use it to build up and not tear down. You can’t see all the silent circumstances and disabilities people carry with them. We all need to do a better job at humanizing the human experience. Voice is a powerful tool.

I might continue to pass the pain pills in silence, but I use my voice to advocate for my husband’s rights as a veteran. As for me, I won’t stop singing until the song has ended and the cage door opens up for all the birds.

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From riding horses to writing stories, Charli Mills is a born buckaroo wrangling words and creating a literary community at CarrotRanch.com. Charli has freelanced for 20+ years, managed marketing communications and writes fiction about women in the West.

36 thoughts on “Broken Knees, Homelessness & Voice: A Veteran Spouse Sings Like a Caged Bird

  1. I had chills while reading this as I believe we’re all just a pay cheque away from homelessness. My heart goes out to you and your husband keep on singing and writing and your voice will be heard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems the safety net is growing thinner in regards to homelessness. Some stay off the radar to remain autonomous, and some are only counted periodically like at Veteran Stand Downs. Thank you, we are chirping along and have more appointments at the VA to push through.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “To her and others, all I can say is, don’t judge what you see or assume what you don’t know. Even if someone annoys you, smile, don’t chastise. Your voice is powerful. Use it to build up and not tear down. You can’t see all the silent circumstances and disabilities people carry with them. We all need to do a better job at humanizing the human experience. Voice is a powerful tool.”

    Powerful and very wise words. Thanks for such a moving post. God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jackson! I’m happy that passage spoke to you. I had to process my anger and pain and decide what to do next and making sure it moves us forward accepting each other in our humanity seemed best. We can do so much good with our voices.

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  3. Thank you for using your voice so beautifully, not just for you, but for all veterans and ultimately for all of us. “Dehumanize me and it’s you who loses your humanity…” Indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s so frustrating that those who sacrificed so much to protect the rights and freedom of others, have their own rights, freedom and dignity stripped away. So much about our lifestyle is taken for granted with little thought given to those who help to maintain it. If anything went wrong we’d be quick to say, “Why weren’t you there for us?”
    May your voice be heard and responded to in the most wonderful and appropriate ways. I wish you well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and not only in times of war do our soldiers protect — right now in Louisiana where we have horrific flooding, soldiers are on the ground to rescue people and provide security and safe haven for thousands. Last year when we were beset by fires in the west, soldiers who had no fire training, risked their lives nonetheless to fight the blazes. If our military operated like the system supposed to provide their care we’d be in dire straights! Thank you for reading and supporting us, Norah.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We owe them much. PTSD is getting a lot of media recognition here at the moment for those in all services, police, paramedics, military etc. I hope they get the emotional, psychological and financial support they need too, not just expressions of sympathy. Best wishes to you and yours.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I sorrow for not only your situation, but what a government has quickly forgotten to one of it’s own who they promised to protect and take care of. I pray that God blesses your stories and I especially pray for my brother who needs healing in so many ways. I pray that someone in your state who has the courage and ability to help do what needs to be done quickly. I will remember you both in my prayers, and hope others will join me. The political issues ahead are not promising for veterans and the people who could make a difference need to VOTE. God Bless You Both.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. For each step of your journey, may an angel carry your load. I completely understand. So much red tape and waiting, but they sure are quick to snatch our me up and ask them to be shot at, even take a bullet, so far from home. I am there with you and my prayers are with all of us that changes are made to HELP our returning soldiers. xoxo

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  7. Thank you for raising your voice on this issue. I have been “up close and personal” with the homeless experience over the last couple of years and the two main issues the general public remains ignorant to are the level of trauma someone in that situation is consistently exposed to (and most being people who have already experienced significant trauma in their life) and how difficult it actually is to navigate the systems designed to help. There is no excuse under Heaven sufficient to explain away a veteran of a country with over 500 billionaires sleeping on the streets. None. Keep talking, keep raising the issues, people need to know what the root causes of this cycle continuing for many, are made up of.
    I am about a week away from self-publishing the memoir of my experiences and what I witnessed from my perch in the no-man’s land that is homelessness. I had to go the self-publishing route because by and large, the rejection letters I received upon query, have all suggested this is not an issue people want to hear about. I am going to prove them wrong.
    Thank you for speaking up and writing this wonderful piece!

    Like

  8. Thank you for the articulation and context in which you applied to the issues of veterans affairs, homelessness, and most of all… For being a loving advocate for your husband! Your story speak to me on so many levels… As I relate to 99% of it…. Thank you for your service, brother…. And your service as well, sister!

    Like

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