A number of years ago, more than I care to count, I fell from an Army helicopter and broke both arms and both legs. I wasn’t in the Army, though. I was a search-and-rescue volunteer living in the Colorado Rockies. On the day I fell, teams from around the state had gathered to practice airlifts with one of the Army’s Chinook helicopters and its crew.
The S&R volunteers took turns being strapped into a jungle penetrator and then being lifted into the belly of the bird. A jungle penetrator is a 90-pound steel cylinder with three bars that fold out to form a makeshift seat, used extensively, I believe, in the Vietnam War. When it came my turn, the sergeant helped to strap me into the penetrator and to hook the penetrator to the cable. He then gave the go-ahead. I traveled upward about 35 feet when the cable shook and shimmied and I was suddenly flying free.
The rest is search-and-rescue history.
During my recovery, which lasted well over a year, numerous individuals suggested that I consider legal action, presumably against the Army, although the county where I volunteered might also have been one of the suggested targets. But I didn’t see that as an option. Workers’ comp covered my medical expenses. My body did the rest, though a great deal of the credit goes to the medical community and to the folks in the community where I lived. Mostly all I suffer now is residual aches and pains. But I’m in my 50s, so that pretty much goes with the territory.
I don’t bring all this up, particularly the litigation part, for recognition or pats on the back or a sudden infusion of cash—not that a little extra money wouldn’t be appreciated. I bring it up because I was reminded of these events recently when I read that a Connecticut attorney might try to sue the state for $100 million on behalf of one of the survivors of the Newtown shooting.
The reason, according to the lawyer, was not about money, but rather about improving school security and living in a safer world. I assumed that meant those benefiting from the lawsuit’s windfall would be donating their cut to help bring about these changes.
Yet the potential for nonprofit profit-sharing was not the first thought that occurred to me upon hearing about the possible litigation. Rather, I focused on the fact that only two weeks after the shooting someone was already stepping forward to sue. And that’s what made me think of my own experience and the preponderance of opinion that had encouraged me to do the same.
What is it about tragedy that some would seek to turn it into opportunity? Do we have so little capacity to accept that bad things can happen that the only way to respond is to lash out? Or does it have more to do with a belief that the opportunity to profit is fundamentally ingrained in the American dream and therefore trumps all other considerations?
When I was confronted with the possibility of litigation, I found the idea fairly ludicrous. I knew what risks I was taking when I volunteered. Why should I be assigning blame now? And what would litigation mean to other search-and-rescue operations? Would the state’s S&R teams be less willing to take chances to save lives? Would the Army refuse to help local S&R efforts should someone become injured or lost?
All of which leads me back to Newtown. If the State of Connecticut has to shell out $100 million, plus all the related legal expenses, that money has got to come from somewhere. Even with their $40 billion budget, they already face a $365 million shortfall. Where will they come up with the extra cash? The already shrinking school funds? Other critical services?
Throughout our lives, we’re presented with choices—and sometimes those choices are whether to act in our own self-interest or in consideration of those around us. Sure, the world is seldom so black-and-white, and our actions have ramifications whatever we decide. And there are certainly times when litigation is warranted. Yet there are moments too when we’re presented with clear options, when we know that we can either act with compassion and concern or act according to our desires and ambitions. We’re going to screw up, certainly. We screw up all the time. I screw up all the time. But that doesn’t make my options any less clear. And when I hear about such things as the lawsuit in Connecticut, I grow concerned that self-interest might be winning out altogether. Even the fact that the attorney has now dropped the suit doesn’t ease my mind a great deal.
But then I think of those Sandy Hook heroes who put their lives on the line to save the schoolchildren. And I think about the teachers and nurses and counselors and social workers and first responders and emergency workers and firefighters and police officers and soldiers and the countless others who’ve given their time and their lives to make the world better for the rest of us, and for a moment, I can forget those who would capitalize on tragedy and despair, and instead be grateful that there are still people out there who inspire me and encourage me and fill me with hope and admiration and the willingness to do better next time I’m faced with a making a decision.