I'm going to tell you about the death of a cut-short-in-life guy, Jimmy Chastain. It's a story set among the purple ridge lines of North Georgia. It's a story of Jimmy's young bride and now widow, Stacy.
If that was all there was to the story, it would still be worth telling. Jimmy's tale has another dimension, however. It's the story of how this nation's leaders talk loudly about supporting our men and women in uniform -- and then abandon veterans once the bands stop playing and the microphones are turned off.
I met Stacy Chastain four years ago. She was the editor of Blue Ridge's twice-weekly paper, the News-Observer. Stacy's columns sparkled with humanity and warmth.
Blue Ridge is a fascinating clash of cultures. On Sunday, throngs of Baptist preachers thunder about the evils of homosexual marriage, yet a downtown economic revival is largely rooted in the hard work of gay businesspeople.
Bedrock conservatism is showing cracks in Blue Ridge. A large billboard on Ga. 5 just north of downtown proclaims "Bush Lied." News-Observer letters to the editor are increasingly anti-war.
In short, Blue Ridge is the South.
What happened to Jimmy is a parable of our times, and it echoes the just-below-the-surface turmoil in Blue Ridge. It's also a variation on the old doggerel: "You're paid to stop a bullet/It's a soldier's job, they say/And so you stop the bullet/Then they stop your pay."
In 1991, Jimmy had gone off to serve his country in the first Gulf War. Stacy recalls, "He was a die-hard Republican." Years later, as he faced death and his lungs were painfully congested, he'd complain about an elephant sitting on his chest. "I'd joke with him that if he'd become a Democrat, he wouldn't have that problem," says Stacy.
Part of his job in the Gulf was handling toxic chemicals. Stacy, Jimmy and most of the doctors with whom they'd spoken said "hazmat" became the "bullet" Jimmy stopped.
When Jimmy came home, he restarted his excavating and grading business. His last project, in 2001, was Fannin County's Veterans Memorial Park, now his final home. In 1993, he married a friend's younger sister, Stacy.
Four years ago, a massive stroke felled Jimmy, almost completely paralyzing him. The Chastains emphatically believed toxic materials in Iraq were to blame.
What ensued was a torturous odyssey of hospitals and nursing homes. The high point of his life became Stacy reading to him. One of his regrets, when he knew death was near, was that he hadn't learned what finally would happen to Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort.
The Veterans Administration did its best to exacerbate Jimmy's tragedy by making it difficult for him to obtain consistent treatment in a single hospital. After trips around the state to different health care facilities, he finally was moved to an Ellijay nursing home. Life still burned in Jimmy; he was this year's grand marshal of Gilmer County's Apple Festival.
In the last few months, however, he fell into daily agony. The only alternative was mind-fogging drugs. "That's just not Jimmy," Stacy says.
He consulted a minister. "I just didn't want the preacher to tell Jimmy he was going to hell" if he decided to, in effect, pull his own plug. Over the last year, a frequent visitor was U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. "Every time I went through Ellijay, I'd stop and see Jimmy," the senator says. "I hope that I gave him some strength and courage."
Isakson had a flag flown for him above the U.S. Capitol. Stacy says the flag had immeasurable value for Jimmy -- one of his last wishes was that it adorn his casket.
On Nov. 6, Jimmy made the decision to stop further treatments. Six days later, he died.
Stacy left the News-Observer a year ago. She now volunteers at a battered women's shelter and monitors advertising for a research firm. But her real occupation is appealing the VA's denying of full disability for Jimmy. The government has eroded veterans' benefits, and has tried to ignore the links between soldiers' post-war illnesses and hazardous material -- from the chemicals Jimmy handled to depleted uranium shells.
Stacy told the VA she is going to continue appealing the agency's recalcitrance. "The lady at the VA said to me, 'Why appeal? Your husband is dead.' I told her, 'I'll continue his appeal so the next guy doesn't have to go through what we've gone through.'"
Group Senior Editor John Sugg wrote about Jimmy and Stacy in 2003. The article can be found on www.johnsugg.com.
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