In Mass., injured veteran gets a small-town homecoming

May 26, 2013

He eyes the parade float from the front seat of his minivan. It is larger than he expected and covered with small blue stars set on a field of shimmering white plastic. Mounted on the back is a sign that reads: “WELCOME HOME MSGT JOE DESLAURIERS USAF.”

“You okay to go on the float?” the parade chairman asks. Deslauriers takes a deep breath.

“I’m not crazy about it,” he says. “But you do what you gotta do.”

Even before he learned about the float, Deslauriers, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan, was uneasy about serving as the grand marshal of his home town’s Memorial Day parade, which in Bellingham is always held a week early. The holiday, after all, honors dead servicemen. “It is about people who have paid the ultimate sacrifice,” he said, “not people who have paid a half-assed sacrifice.” He hated the idea of being on display atop a float while hundreds of people gawked at him.

Deslauriers, 34, has come to Bellingham with his wife and 17-month-old son from Bethesda, where he’s still receiving medical treatment for his 2011 injuries. After the Memorial Day parade, he is hoping to talk to Boston Marathon bombing survivors about life as a triple amputee. He wants to tell them how hard it is to get used to strangers who fix their eyes on his missing legs or look away in disgust. On his worst days he wants to slap these people.


Memorial Day 2013: Stories of the fallen. Share your own using #mytribute.

“One, two, three, push,” says Deslauriers’s father. He and a friend grunt and heave Deslauriers’s wheelchair up a rickety metal ramp and onto the float’s white stage. A beefy man in a black T-shirt pulls out a whirring electric drill and bolts Deslauriers and his wheelchair into place.

“Joe’s all set,” he yells.

Deslauriers stares straight ahead. His wife, Lisa, who is sitting next to him on the float, straightens his tie and tugs at his shirt, which is riding up under his blue Air Force uniform. The sound of bagpipers practicing “Amazing Grace” vibrates through the air. Deslauriers looks down at his prosthetic arm and notices that he is still wearing the rubber, saucer-size disk that he uses for pushing his wheelchair and scooting across the ground. He twists it off and replaces it with a decorative hand that has been specially painted to match his skin tone.

Just before Deslauriers starts to move, the parade chairman stops by one last time to apologize for the float.

“I didn’t want to embarrass you or anything,” he says. “We just wanted to recognize your sacrifice and your Silver Star.”

“I appreciate it, Jimmy,” Deslauriers replies.

Part of the parade

Deslauriers’s father, Joe Sr., marches at the front of the parade on achy knees, sweat seeping through his black fire department dress uniform. In a few days, he will turn 60 and retire, ending his 34-year run with the department.

For as long as Deslauriers can remember, the town’s firetrucks have blown their horns as they pass by the Deslauriers’s family home — just a way of saying hello in a little town.

“Do you think they’ll keep doing it after your dad retires?” Deslauriers’s mother had asked him over breakfast that morning.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Deslauriers replied. “They’ll keep doing it.”

On this day, the red fire engines, freshly washed and gleaming in the midday sun, inch down the street behind Joe Sr. A small knot of white-haired men in red Marine Corps caps is next, followed by honor guards from each of the military services.

Then come Deslauriers and his wife. As their float turns onto Main Street, Deslauriers spots Michele Fay, who is sitting in her wheelchair amid a crowd of cheering people. Ten days after she graduated from Bellingham High School, Fay dove into a swimming pool and broke her neck. That was 2001.

Now Fay is slumped in her chair and has splints on her wrists and ankles to keep them from curling inward and cramping. After Deslauriers’s injury, they reconnected on Facebook.

Deslauriers catches her eye, and his shoulders, which had been tense with worry, relax. He raises his prosthetic arm and smiles. “Hey, Shel,” he calls out as she watches him pass by, “I almost forgot to put on my hand.”

In front of Deslauriers, the firetruck sirens are blaring. Behind him, the Bellingham High School band is playing marching tunes. The parade continues down Main Street past houses with peeling paint, overgrown gardens and worn roofs. The locals watch from lawn chairs set in their front yards and line the town’s cracked sidewalks. Deslauriers and his wife swivel their heads from one side of the road to the other. He spots faces he hasn’t seen since he was 17 and left Bellingham for college.

“Thanks, Joey,” screams Marilyn Floyd, the mother of one of his high school friends. “You’re looking good.”

“Good to see you,” he calls back to her.

Deslauriers barely lasted a year in college before quitting to enlist. He wanted to be a firefighter like his father, but the Air Force recruiter didn’t have any open slots for that job, so he signed up for explosive ordnance disposal, which came with a signing bonus and a little extra rank. He did four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, searching out and defusing buried bombs before he was wounded in 2011. Both legs were severed above the knee. He lost his left arm below the elbow.

The crowd thickens as the parade rolls past the town’s water tower. Behind Deslauriers, the high school band has launched into an off-tempo rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” “The trumpets are a little weak this year,” he jokes to Lisa. She laughs and rubs his shoulder.

His float pauses by the 211-year-old town hall, where a chaplain leads a prayer, and then hangs a left by the Patriot Bar & Grill, which advertises Friday and Saturday night karaoke.

“Love you,” screams a voice from the crowd.

“Love you back,” Deslauriers yells.

Two miles from the starting point, the parade ends and the float slows to a stop. Deslauriers’s father, flushed from the walk, limps toward his son.

“You all right?” Deslauriers asks.

“I’ll duct-tape my knees when I get back home,” he says.

Deslauriers yanks out his decorative hand, pops in the black rubber disk and slides onto the floor of the float, where he waits while his father sets his wheelchair on the sidewalk. He rests his good hand on his father’s shoulder and lowers himself carefully back into the chair.

“That was different,” his father says.

“It was nice,” Deslauriers replies.

‘He’s been through a lot’

After the parade, the crowd gathers on the town green for a ceremony. The Bellingham High School choir sings the World War I-era poem “In Flanders Fields” and recites the names of the town’s war dead dating to the Civil War. There are speeches, war stories and more prayers for the dead.

The parade chairman hands Deslauriers a floral wreath to set on the town’s granite World War II memorial. His mother, Muriel, watches with her friends from the town bagel shop, where she has worked for the last 13 years. She has short brown hair that is flecked with gray and holds an unlit cigarette in her hand.

When she saw her son for the first time after his injury at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, his face was so swollen that he was almost unrecognizable. An intravenous tube was hooked up to his neck. Muriel wondered what her son would think when he woke and saw his parents by his hospital bed.

“If he’s seeing us he’s gonna know he’s really in the crapper, because we never go anywhere,” she worried.

Now as she watches him pushing his wheelchair down the sidewalk toward the memorial, she is the happiest she has been since his injury.

A lone bugler plays taps, and a light rain falls, coating her glasses. Her eyes follow her son until he disappears into the crowd clustered around the memorial.

“My boy,” she says.

“He’s been through a lot,” says the baker from the bagel shop.

“But he’s here,” she says.

A new home

The next day, Deslauriers learns that his trip to see the Boston Marathon bombing survivors has been canceled. Only five amputees are still in the hospital, and they are all too tired for visitors. “As much as I wanted to meet them, I felt like I was imposing,” he says. “Sometimes you get so sick of people coming to visit and tell you stuff.”

Deslauriers’s memory of those first weeks after his injury is still fresh. His doctors had started him on a Dilaudid drip that delivered one milligram of the medicine every eight minutes or as fast as he could push the pain button.

“It still felt like elephants were pulling on my legs,” he says.

When he complained, they switched him to a stronger painkiller that made him hallucinate. He dreamed that the buried bomb had blasted him into a tree and fellow troops were scaling its branches to retrieve what was left of his mangled body. During his waking hours he would imagine that he was on a Navy hospital ship, floating on a wide, empty ocean.

With the Boston visit canceled, Deslauriers, his wife and parents decide to head into Bellingham for lunch. Midway through the meal he gets an e-mail with the blueprints for the new house that he and Lisa are building with the help of a veterans’ charity. The house will be built in Destin, Fla., where Deslauriers spent much of his Air Force career and where, before his injury, Lisa taught first grade.

Lisa feeds their son pieces of chicken while Deslauriers tries to decipher the plans’ unfamiliar dotted lines and squiggles on his small smartphone screen. “All that right there is wetlands,” he tells his father. “It can’t ever be developed.”

Joe Sr. squints to make out the image. He can’t really see it without his reading glasses.

Deslauriers can’t take his eyes off the screen. Later that day at his parents’ house, he pulls up the blueprints on an iPad. He and Lisa are in the front yard by the flagpole his father fashioned out of a salvaged supermarket parking lot lamppost. It is dusk, and bats are circling and swooping overhead. His son Cameron is rolling a muddy basketball in the grass.

Lisa drapes her arms around his shoulders and studies the blueprints with him. “It looks like he put French doors off the master suite and the breakfast nook,” Deslauriers says. He points out the plans’ dotted circles, which designate five-foot-wide landings, large enough to spin a wheelchair.

Deslauriers’s father finishes off a cigar, a few feet away. The mosquitoes have started biting, and everyone decides to move inside. Deslauriers struggles to get his wheelchair up the rickety metal ramp that his father has set on the house’s stone front steps. “Joey, don’t worry. We’re going to get a better ramp,” his father says. “I know plenty of carpenters.”

Deslauriers’s great-grandparents bought the drafty wood shingle home in 1945. His parents moved into the converted attic in the early 1970s and have been there ever since. Deslauriers’s father helps him down from his wheelchair and he scoots up the carpeted steps to the attic, using the rubber disk on his prosthetic arm to lift himself to the next level.

“Joey, you want me to walk up behind you?” asks his father, who is worried that Deslauriers will slip and fall.

“I’m okay,” the son replies.

Inside he turns on the Red Sox game. They are losing 4-0. His mom is making pork and rice, and his 16-year-old niece is doing her homework at the kitchen table. Deslauriers and Lisa look again at the house plans on a laptop. They have already started talking about a second child. “That will be the kids’ bathroom,” Deslauriers says.

It is another early Memorial Day weekend in Bellingham. This year Deslauriers is dreaming of a new life.

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