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

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.