Volney? I wish I could call you one last time and say to you: “Is this the party to whom I’m speaking?” And we would laugh with each other at the absurdity. Words matter. As a competent Doctor, historian, and published biographer and author, Volney Steele knew that. He was careful in what he said, how he said it and when he said it. His words and works had value. He was…and is…my friend. And I am blessed beyond my ability to express just how much he came to mean to me in such a short period of time so late in our lives.
Everyone knows Admiral Chester Nimitz’ words about the inestimable sacrifices and capabilities demonstrated by Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen in the WW II battle of Iwo Jima: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue!” Volney Steele wasn’t there; he was still in Medical School. But shortly after that battle, Volney was commissioned a U.S. Navy Doctor. He served at sea and ashore, never in combat; but he did practice his newfound medical skills on injured and ill servicemen. And he witnessed the impact of combat on them. Though he told me he felt guilty about never having felt the experiences and sting of war on the battlefield, he never forgot the aftermath he witnessed in the men.
One of the first wounded warriors I discussed with Volney, when we were building up the concepts and capabilities that have become embodied in Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation, was a profoundly injured Marine whose survival and initial hospital care had been featured in the December 2006 National Geographic Magazine: Corporal Tim Jeffers. Tim’s legs were cut off above mid thigh. He was missing part of a hand. And he had severe traumatic brain injury from a penetrating shrapnel injury to his skull and brain that resulted in loss of a huge chunk of bone. He was so light sensitive he could not be in direct light, and he sat in a darkened room in a padded wheelchair with a leather helmet on—rocking back and forth to ease the ever-present discomfort and pain. Even as I talked with him I reflected: “We didn’t do you any favors by helping you survive…in any previous war, you would most likely be dead on the battlefield.” But meanwhile my fellow Marine, Rico Jones, engaged him in a suddenly animated, laughing discussion about high school baseball, and how his Winchester school had flat surprised and whipped Rico’s heavily favored Mission Viejo team for the championship. I swore to myself right then and there: I would get him to Montana eventually to learn how to fly fish! A year and one-half later, we did. Dave Kumlien taught him and “hooked” him up to some big, colorful browns on cold, beautiful spring days on the Madison and the Yellowstone rivers with Dr. Doug Alvord as his companion. Richard Dunn gave us his large home to house the wounded warriors; and I carried him up and down stairs like he was a combat pack. Volney ate every evening meal with him and listened to his stories. My wife Jean and her volunteer “Moms” unconditionally loved him; and because he called himself a “carnivore”, they fed him a steady diet of steaks sprinkled with hugs while Tim seasoned everything with pills from 11 different pill bottles. Tim loved it! Volney smiled. He knew what we were doing was worthwhile “medicine” that sticks!
I was recently in Seattle during my wife’s pancreatic cancer surgery and while she was asleep, I took a walk to a very fancy Starbuck’s Coffee Roastery where you can watch the whole process of converting fresh bags of great beans into equally great coffee. There on the counter while sipping some of their exquisite—and expensive—Pantheon Blend #2, I noticed a book for sale: “For Love of Country”, written largely by Howard Schultz, the CEO and Founder of Starbucks. It was a signed copy at 20% off, and I had some time, so I bought it. The book is about “what our veterans can teach us all about citizenship, heroism and sacrifice.” Recently, I had learned on CBS News about Howard Schultz’ and Starbucks’ commitment to hire 10,000 veterans. In his book, Howard Schultz reveals how he knew nothing about the military, being totally consumed with his business. And then, serendipitously, he had a rapid series of encounters with veterans including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, wounded warriors and the military that in the end left him profoundly impacted and ashamed of his ignorance. One of the stories he tells is about a Marine Officer, Nate Krissoff, who is killed while on patrol. His father, Bill Krissoff, a 60-year old orthopedic surgeon is so moved to do something relevant to honor the loss of his son that he fights to be allowed to join the Navy and serve as a Battalion Doctor. Initially and emphatically told “no”, with the unexpected help of President Bush, he is successful in his quest and is ultimately deployed to Afghanistan, where he spends his time patching up desperately injured Marines and Navy Corpsmen to be shipped to Germany and on to stateside hospitals. One day, he treats a desperately injured Navy Corpsman, James Raffetto. Raffetto had stepped on an IED and lost both legs and an arm. He was “…just a pile of bloody flesh atop a gurney.” Dr. Krissoff thought to himself: “What am I doing? Are we saving people who are going to have no life?” Fast forward: Raffetto not only survives, he thrives…and a couple years later, Dr. Krissoff gets to correspond with him through phone calls back in the States. As amazed as Krissoff was at Raffetto’s recovery, Corpsman Raffetto has the last word on the subject: “To join the military at (age) sixty, (not accepting no as an answer)—wow. You can be a war hero even if you never fired a weapon in combat. What (Krissoff) did—now that’s uncommon valor!” You can see where I’m going with this.
Many of you have known Volney in one or more of his incarnations far longer than I have. I met him in 2003 at an MSU LIibrary “Distinctive Dialogues” fund-raiser. Jean and I took to him immediately; and we bought his book: “Bleed Blister and Purge”. Then in August of 2006, during a therapeutic fly fishing trip to Scott Lake, Northern Territories, Canada, in the serenity of the evenings, Jean and I discussed the possibility of bringing wounded warriors to Montana for recreational therapy and learning how to fly fish. We talked about the feasibility—and relevance—for hours; and it became apparent that, if we ever did such a thing, it would likely change the vector of our lives. So returning to Bozeman, I sat down in my basement for several days, researched, gathered facts, and wrote a military-style “staff study” to figure out what was needed, alternative ways to do it and choosing the best course of action. The study sat for four months. Returning from a visit to Naval Hospital San Diego after Christmas, 2006, I read an opinion about an idea Volney Steel had to bring wounded warriors to Montana to teach them how to cope with their injuries using the therapy of fly fishing. Jean and I were at lunch a few days later at “Over Easy” and Volney was catching hell from his fellow curmudgeons at their regular table: “Volney, that’s a crazy idea. It will never work. Too dangerous. Too expensive. Where will you get the money? Too many non-profits in town already. Enough people won’t support it.” And on and on…all good-natured ribbing of course. I walked over uninvited and interrupted: “Volney Steele, do you remember me, Eric Hastings? That’s the best idea I’ve read recently. Come to my house after lunch for coffee and I’ll show you how we can do it!” He came, sat down, read the study, cogitated while eating a plate of cookies, drank several cups of coffee and said: “What’s next?” So we started Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation with the help of a lot of friends and a lot of hard work and a little bit of money. Volney was 85 years old, still serving his fellow servicemen and their spouses and their families.
We are all blessed by the legacy of Volney’s values, uncommon in their totality: empathy; hopefulness, joyfulness, love, literacy; laughter; friendship; rigor; endurance; intellectual curiosity; righteous indignation and self-discipline. Volney’s life is a life that mattered deeply to so many: his family; his friends; his patients; his peers. The ripples from his actions and his influence continue to spread outward: his remarkable and unique involvement and role in not only the birth but particularly the development of WQW Foundation. His personal values are reflected in the Vision, Mission and the operational execution of the Foundation’s work. His values, his empathy—spread like an inkblot throughout the Warriors, the volunteers, the donors and the staff. How many of us would even contemplate such an endeavor at age 85? And then, to ensure none of the lessons learned are lost to the broadest of audiences—the American people who sent the warriors to war in their name—how many among us would at age 89 become enmeshed in an important, rigorous research and writing project titled: “Rising Out of Chaos: How the Battlefield has Shaped Modern Medicine”. The study spans 4,000 years of war and medicine. My mind boggles at the mere thought of such a project.
Volney Steele: an uncommon man, of uncommon empathy, energy and rigorous application of duty—uncommon valor. His legacy still serves. And Volney,”…you’re the party to whom I’m speaking.” I can summarize all my B.S. in one sentence (I know you are grinning now Volney): You loved the troops, you were present in their continuing “fight”, and as a consequence, the troops loved you. Semper fi, my friend!
– Eric Hastings, Col USMC Ret.