And yet, memory does exist out there. In the NYT Magazine yesterday, memory seems to be haunting Gail Ulerie, the mother of Shurvon Phillips. Except haunting is not the word - it has a talon like grip on her whole life, which has come to one point and one point only:
Gail Ulerie, Shurvon’s mother, had already received his O.K. — a painstaking raising of his eyebrows — on a pair of jeans. Mostly, Shurvon can answer only yes-or-no questions. The slightly lifted brows, a gesture that stretches his eyes yet wider, signify yes. A slow lowering of his lids indicates no. Now, with tomorrow’s clothes decided, Gail, a Trinidadian-American, reclined Shurvon’s bed for the night. He wore a hospital gown and tube socks pulled up tightly on the twigs of his caramel-colored shins. The socks were immaculately white, as if Gail believed that if everything were properly and precisely attended to, right down to the cotton that sheathed his toes, her son’s brain could recover.
In Iraq’s Anbar Province, in May 2005, Shurvon, who joined the Marine reserves seven years earlier at 17, partly as a way to pay his community-college tuition, was riding back to his base after a patrol when an anti-tank mine exploded under his Humvee. The Humvee’s other soldiers were tossed in different directions and dealt an assortment of injuries: concussions, broken bones, herniated discs. Along with a broken jaw and a broken leg, Shurvon suffered one of the war’s signature wounds on the American side: though no shrapnel entered his head, the blast rattled his brain profoundly.
Far more effectively than in previous American wars, helmets and body armor are protecting the skulls and saving the lives of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, a joint Defense Department and V.A. organization, about 900 soldiers have come home with serious traumatic brain injury, or T.B.I., which essentially means dire harm to their brains; it can be caused by explosions that deliver blunt injury to the helmeted skull or that send waves of compressed air to slam and snap the head ruinously even at a distance of hundreds of yards from the blast. (The 900 also include injuries caused by shrapnel or bullets that have managed to penetrate.) Some of these veterans have been left — for protracted periods and often permanently — unable to think or remember or plan clearly enough to cope with everyday life on their own; others, like Shurvon, have been left incapable of doing much at all for themselves. (A recent Rand Corporation report estimates that, additionally, 300,000 soldiers have suffered milder T.B.I., frequently including brief loss of consciousness, disorientation or cognitive lapses.)
Now, the question may be posed on this Memory day about who is worthy to remember Shurvon Phillips. Perhaps the amnesia and indolence, the spiritual laziness, the deep corruption that lines every American soul with a cankering rust as we, a supposed Democracy, lay down and let the power be taken from us, lay down and let the torture cells blossom across the face of the globe, lay down and let Shurvon Phillips be swept up in a paroxysm of violence that serves only to placate the vanity of our D.C. kleptocrats – perhaps all this strips us of our right to remember Shurvon Phillips. Or maybe we will skip ahead to the end – we aren’t going to remember him anyway. Not on Memory day. Not on the day dedicated to remembering to forget. Not on any day. This is who he was:
“Before his injury, Shurvon was, as his younger sister, Candace, recalled, “a big kid” who liked to come home from his job at Wal-Mart, stocking shelves and counting cash, and curl up with his older sister’s son to watch Spider-Man cartoons. Short and slender, he squirmed through every tunnel his nephew slithered into at Chuck E. Cheese. But he was “the brains of the family,” Candace said, and Gail added that, besides being something of a ladies’ man, he had a 3.4 G.P.A. at college and was on his way to an associate’s degree in computer science when he was called up.
Her round face framed by overlapping brown, cream and white headbands, Gail remembered the military doctors at the National Naval Medical Center stopping by her son’s bed in the weeks after his injury and commanding: “ ‘Sergeant Phillip! Sergeant Phillip! Give me a thumbs up!’ ” His hands remained still. “When I called his name,” she said, “sometimes he fluttered his eyelids a little bit.” And his eyes seemed to focus on her, at moments. Those were about the only signs of awareness. And even those may have been her imagination. Col. William O’Brien, then the director of the Severely Injured Marines and Sailors program in the Department of the Navy, visited Shurvon in the hospital during that time. “She was a true believer,” he said of Shurvon’s mother. O’Brien saw no purposeful fluttering of eyelids, no responsiveness whatsoever. He saw a man with a misshapen head, his mouth open, staring vacantly into space. But as Gail recounted to me, she would plead with her son, in a voice infinitely closer and quieter than those of the staff, “Shurvon, give me a thumbs up, please give me a thumbs up.” One day she saw the tiniest shift of his right thumb.”
How can we remember this scene and have any respect for ourselves? Americans will not shirk, then, from the hard decision to forget it utterly. For those interested, Shurvon Phillips was finally taken, after pleading from his mother and letters from the military lawyer she had hired, to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago run by Dr. Felise Zollman. There, some things changed for Shurvon Phillips:
For more than a year before his arrival at R.I.C., Shurvon was treated by the V.A. hospital in Cleveland, sometimes as an inpatient, when infections and a crisis with his feeding tube imperiled his very survival. And Zollman is careful not to critique the work of the Cleveland staff. But she suggests, as many doctors and advocates for wounded soldiers have argued, that the military medical system just wasn’t prepared for the prevalence of brain injuries among its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and that T.B.I. units like hers have gained a complex understanding of the brain’s capacity for healing through long concentration on civilian injuries. Traci Piero, a nurse practitioner at the Cleveland hospital and the coordinator of Shurvon’s care there, both before and after his time at R.I.C., told me that in the spring of last year, the Cleveland staff considered reducing Shurvon’s physical therapy to a maintenance level. This would have meant abandoning the attempt to help him toward some degree of autonomous movement and focusing simply on preventing bedsores and keeping the muscles in his inert limbs from tightening more than they already had. It was a consideration born of futility. Piero and Dr. Clay Kelly, the hospital’s chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation, explained that Shurvon had hardly progressed from when he first arrived at the Cleveland facility after five months at the V.A.’s Minneapolis polytrauma center; he remained in a nearly vegetative state and was seen as having, in the words of an evaluating neurologist at the Cleveland hospital, “little hope for improvement.”Mainenance level. Some fraction of a full life. Veterinarian’s guesswork. Words to remember – to forget – as we celebrate our national capacity for oblivion today.
But by a system of nostril-flaring mastered with his speech therapist at the Cleveland facility, Piero recounted, Shurvon became able, last spring, to respond reliably to yes-or-no questions; Piero said that this breakthrough dissuaded the team from diminishing his physical work. Commander Bailey, Shurvon’s advocate, told things differently. The decision against cutting back Shurvon’s physical therapy was made, he said, in response to desperate pleading from Gail and some urgent lobbying of Bailey’s own.
When Shurvon came under Zollman’s care, he was taking a narcotic painkiller, Fentanyl, prescribed for him by the Minneapolis center and by the Cleveland team. Fentanyl suppresses the function of the brain, Zollman said, and may stunt recovery in T.B.I. patients. Kelly, the Cleveland chief of rehabilitation, who is closely involved with Shurvon’s treatment now but didn’t work with him before his months at R.I.C., referred to case notes and told me that Shurvon’s grimacing (or what grimacing his frozen features allowed) had indicated pain and that the narcotic had been necessary to address it. He compared caring for someone as noncommunicative as Shurvon to a veterinarian’s guesswork. But Zollman managed to communicate with Shurvon well enough to determine that he could do without the Fentanyl and weaned him from it. She weaned him, as well, from the Valium he’d been given, partly for anxiety, by the teams in Minneapolis and Cleveland — Valium, too, dulls the workings of the brain. She prescribed a drug to enhance alertness and cognition. And she started to direct a program of therapy that, she hoped, would give him some fraction of a full life.”