A Bit About Two Veterans


They are zooming toward us like cannon balls, screaming past the black diamonds, on plastic seats attached to a single ski. They are butt-slaloming. Meantime, my co-worker is being a butt.  He’s complaining. He’s rude to guests. He’s yelling at me. He is miserable, but I am thrilled as I watch my new friend, Lt. Colonel Greg Gadson shush past. He is followed by a tall guy in a red jacket on real legs, on two skis. This, I learn, is Lt. Colonel Chuck Schretzman. My insides are warm, but my hands, face and ass are freezing. The cold shoulder from the videographer who is apparently suffering from some sort of altitude dementia, does not help. We are on the side of a mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado shooting a story about wounded warriors learning to ski.

Schretzman and Gadson met on what they call the “friendly field of strife,” in the early ‘80’s at West Point. They were both defensive ends, vying for time on the turf. From that competition, grew a life-long friendship. Weddings, kids, many deployments and one downhill run later, they ended up here, with me, at the bottom of the mountain.

Schretzman is tall, broad, blue- eyed and blonde- the opposite of Greg. Pretty stunning, actually. I chat with him, while trying to mask my colleague’s impatience. It’s like trying to casually shake a lobster off my hand. We’re chatting when Schretzman leans closer and says,

“Do you need me to talk to that guy?”

I’m embarrassed and say no, and wish I had a 2×4. But I’m also impressed by his observation and kindness.

Then it’s Casino night at the lodge and Chuck buys me a beer which I nurse for hours.  The next day we’re back outside and he yells from the lift.

“Hey are you still drinking that beer?”

Mr. Grumpy and I finish shooting that afternoon and go inside. I see Greg and Chuck sitting alone at a table. I grab beers and sit down. It’s only then I notice the tears streaming down Greg’s face. They are looking at photos of the blown-up Humvee.  I don’t want to intrude, but I don’t want to chicken out. So I sit. I give Greg a hug, which seems stupid and futile. Like that’s going to fix things.

But I learn about staying.

I’m sitting at my desk at the Pentagon Channel and Chuck calls to tell me that Greg is going to the Super Bowl and will be talking to the New York Giants before they head out onto the field. It takes me a few weeks to get the whole story. Greg had been speaking to the team all season, about teamwork, about thinking of nothing but the guy next to you, about the reason he is alive was the guy next to him. He talks to them the night before the playoffs at Green Bay. And they win. And then, the New York Giants, against big odds, win the Super Bowl. Because they had this lucky charm. It’s just this freaking great story.

I know very little about the military, and nothing about football, so I figure I’m the perfect person to write this story. And I ask Greg if he minds being the subject of a book. It takes him a while to say yes.

I spend the next couple of years interviewing his mom, his dad, his daughter, his friends, his doctors, therapists and teammates. I even get to talk to Michael Strahan and Coach Tom Coughlin. It takes me months to find soldiers who blew up in that Humvee. Kim, his wife, does not want to talk but emails wonderful excerpts from her personal journal. I learn about battlefield medicine, the golden hour and how to annoy Army public relations folks. I become exceptionally good at annoying public relations folks.

I talk with Chuck about the moment he heard Greg had been hurt- how he’d just picked up his keys and got in his car. Chuck told me about meeting Greg’s wife, Kim at Walter Reed, and watching Greg be wheeled, unconscious, on a stretcher, to the ICU. He told me what Greg’s legs looked like, before they were amputated. Best of all, he told me the story of Greg coming to, a few days after arriving at the hospital, as Chuck stood over him reading letters from West Point teammates. Greg had simply opened his eyes and said the words, “Golden Rule.” Chuck was baffled, so then Greg blurted, “Be on time!”  It was their West Point football coach’s golden rule – to be on time.

Eventually I feel like the book is done. It ends with the Super Bowl victory. I am an okay writer, but terrible at marketing and as time passes, so much more happens. Greg’s in a movie called “Battleship,” he goes to the Olympics in Beijing, he becomes a model for Ossur, which makes prosthetic legs so he makes a lot of Zoolander jokes. He admits to having suicidal thoughts, in his early days of recovery. And I feel like I need to re-write.

So I keep talking to Greg about things, because by now he is my good friend. And he calls one day to say something is wrong with Chuck. Then he calls weeks later to say Chuck is fine. Then he calls after that to say Chuck has ALS.

It is now Greg’s turn to be the rock. For Chuck and for his wife, Stacey.

I know nothing about ALS. Except that so far, no one has survived it.

So, I am the perfect person to write this book.

At least I’m going to try.

Chuck and me at Greg's - Copy

Talking with Chuck.  Photo by Greg.

My Captive Audience

Photo: Gregory Gadson

Well. I never thought I’d be doing this.

I am not cuddling a cat, sewing my own clothes, or kissing a girl.

I am standing in line at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp for women, waiting to be frisked.

I am going to visit my friend.

It is Mother’s Day.

The sun has been rising over the asphalt for more than two hours.  Every once in a while a guard yells out instructions. Have your ID ready.  No chewing gum.  Carry only your car key. And you know that lady yells that stuff 3,276 times per weekend.

“Did you fill out the form?” a helpful prison mom asked me.

“I didn’t know there was another form,” I answered, form-weary.

I checked the final set of boxes.  No, I was not carrying a firearm. No, I was not a felon. Yes, I was acquainted with the prisoner before her incarceration.  This was not a blooming Internet romance.

“Once you are through that first set of fences, be sure you stand ten feet away from everyone else in line,” a pleasant Midwestern couple advised.

I would be more alone.  This made me happy.

Not that the line was all that salty. It was a surprisingly put-together crowd. There were mothers visiting their daughters. Daughters visiting moms. Dads brought little girls with fancy store-bought hairdos.   Each of their females wore beige, not orange.  Each of their females was at her bunk, waiting for the phone to ring. Each of their females could be greeted with one regulation hug.  None of their females had done it.

Having finally reached the point of pat-down, I was told to pat my own ass.  It seemed a lot like checking my own box.  Do-it-yourself security.

I patted, signed something else, then waited.

It was only about ten minutes before my friend emerged.  She looked good.  No, great.  Really, really great.  We regulation hug.  I think “prison becomes you,” but I don’t say it. She calls prison “mean fat camp,” but Jillian Michaels wouldn’t have lasted a day in here.  My friend is down more than 30 pounds.  We rush the vending machines, which will provide our only source of sustenance for our time together.  I think of all the big, fat Greek meals she’s cooked.  I think of the pea soup, and what have you that she would leave outside my door.  We futz about looking for two empty chairs.

We sit, and it’s loud and we are literally and figuratively guarded in these close quarters. Everyone is extremely polite, including me.  I’m puzzled until I realize it’s just not a crowd where you want to push the envelope. The question wouldn’t be on the form if no one ever tried to pack in here.

After an hour she has to go into another room for a head count. In case I had hidden a firearm in my self –patted ass pocket and had quietly busted her out.  Would I be in more trouble for helping an inmate escape…or lying on the form.

Now we are permitted to go outside. We find a bench in the sun, and sit, snacking. And then the noise, the people, the fence all fade. We are in her living room, in our shared Adams Morgan apartment building, where I’d spent countless hours, over many years, gossiping, drinking wine, she cooking, me eating. We have a lot of catching up to do.

She tells me she has opted to stay in the transitional unit so she gets different roommates frequently.  The last one had a perfect blonde bob.  Until she turned her head. The other half of her skull was shaved and covered in tattoos.  A half-cap. All Wisteria Lane on one side, Jack’s biker bar on the other.

I remember that she hates beige.

She tells me her brother sent her a book called “Eight Minute Meditations.”  The thing about prison that bothers her the most (besides the being locked up part) is the noise.  She says there is always someone yelling. She seeks the quietest corner she can find and remembers her serenity mantra, “ShutTheFuckUpShutTheFuckUpShutTheFuckUp.”  She says it works.

I worry out loud about her occasional temper.

She says she only got angry with another prisoner once.  The woman was trying to explain to her that those incarcerated for participating in the drug trade lived by higher standards and morals than those white collar criminals who’d pocketed other people’s cash.  Because buying and selling lethal street drugs is an honest business, no matter how many people wind up dead. This. Got under her skin.

We discuss her childhood friend whom I’d dated, her family, my family, her husband and her 10-year-old daughter.

I do not want to bring up the obvious comparisons to the popular television series. But she does. Because the Russian character, Red, is based on a former Alderson inmate, who is not actually Russian, but Greek.   So when the woman violated her parole and was sent back to Alderson my friend sat with her at lunch one day. And she leaned over and spoke to the woman in Greek.  And there in the lunch room of the women’s prison, together, they sang a little Greek song.

She tells me about the corruption.  She talks about abuses of power and green, watery sandwiches on Thanksgiving. I avoid topics like cool cocktails and good food. We try to remember how long it had been since I moved out of Adams Morgan. We talk about when she will leave “camp.”

I look at my feet which are red and puffy. It’s hot and the vending machines are out of water. We decide to go in and check the time.  Visiting hours end at 3pm and I figure it’s about noon.

But it’s a few minutes ‘til 3:00.  We had talked for six hours straight.

As of today, there are 27 bottles of beer left on the wall.  That’s how she’s counting. And she knows she’s now a short-timer as fellow inmates are asking her for her stuff.  So far she has given away yoga pants because they are too hot and a bra, because it is too big. Weight loss for women is universally unfair.

I don’t even really understand, much less care, what my friend did or didn’t do, to get herself admitted to mean fat camp. It was a white collar crime.  A white collar mistake.  A white collar disaster.

And now, there is less than a month of e-mailing left.  She will come back into the world and I pray, pick up where she left off.

The irony with us is that while she’s been in prison we’ve been much more in touch.  We’ve been great pen pals. We writers like a captive audience.  And soon, she will no longer be that. And that part of prison, I will miss.