Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dave Berjeski, the Common Superman...

This story is in tribute to a very dear friend, now deceased, whose daughter is compiling stories about him for her sister.

It was a hot summer afternoon in 1974. It was Detroit and the 13th Precinct and we were cops protecting the lands and the citizens on a shift filled with young guys on fire. My name is Larry Fowler and I was partnered with Mike Cardinal, as usual. Mike and I had grown up together in Dearborn and found ourselves together after stints in the service. It was synchronistic and we were perfectly matched. Mike the logical and Larry live on the edge.

We worked with a gentleman - and he was - named David Berjeski. David was a big man, a little bit crazy and one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. He and I hit it off from our first meeting and became solid friends quickly. There were some guys who didn't care for Dave because he was bigger than life and a force to be reckoned with. They just didn't understand him and it was their loss. I understood him and loved pretty much everything about him.

This day, we were working our regular scout car, 13-4 and our scout car area encompassed Woodward to the west, I-75 to the east, Highland Park to the north and Arden Park to the south. It was an area that had everything, just like the rest of the precinct. It had ghetto and dark alleys, it had mansions and high rollers. It was retail, it was wholesale and it was a drug dealing heaven. Detroit's first gangs started up in our scout car area and it was the funniest thing: West siders never crossed Woodward and East siders respected the same boundary. We believed that the west siders feared the east siders and never the twain should meet.

Dave was working a one man car, 13-41. It's seems a little crazy that we even had a one man car in our precinct. Detroit had just earned the moniker "Murder City" and the 13th precinct led the place in homicides that summer. It was a pretty dangerous place. The concept of the one man car was that of a report unit. The cops working it were tasked with taking reports on B&E's, larcenies, trespassing and all the other misdemeanor/after-the-fact type crimes. The one man car was essentially prohibited from responding to active crimes or other violent type activities. This policy wasn't always followed to the letter. Especially by Dave.

On the radio we heard, "13-4, the National Bank on Woodward, robbery-in-progress." "Roger that" we responded and took off for the bank. We weren't that far away, two minutes maybe. It was a high adrenaline run, the kind we lived for. Of course, you never knew if it was false or not, and you wouldn't know until you found out first hand. We treated them all as in-progress, live runs and had policy driven approaches, planned out to the letter.

As we got there and parked down the street, we could see another scout car parked on the other side of the bank. Who the hell was that, we wondered, and how the hell did they get there so fast? It wasn't long before we found out. As we walked carefully up to the side of the bank, Mike went to the rear and I stayed at the front. We saw no activity, heard no sounds and it appeared that everything was normal. No one had called in that they were there and no one gave a situation report. I looked over and saw 13-41 on the blue bubble sitting on the roof of the other scout car. Oh, shit, I thought, it was Dave.

I leaned around the corner of the building and peeked in the window. What I saw almost made me fall to my knees. Inside there were people laying all over the floor. No tellers were in evidence and standing in the middle of the room, a huge gun in each hand was Dave, looking around calmly as if nothing were out of sorts. Dave always carried two guns, as most of us did. Our primary weapon and a smaller back up gun. Not Dave. Dave carried two massive .44 Magnums, one in his holster and one in his belt. He had both of them out now.

"Radio" I called, "Everything is under control" as I knew it was. I tapped on the glass and Dave looked over at me. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "It's just me, man." I smiled back and shook my head. I wasn't really surprised and actually, I found it funny as hell! Just about then, Mike burst through the back entrance and stopped in his tracks. I saw his eyes widen, then a grin come to his face. It was all cool, Dave was in charge.

Dave had responded to the run against policy. Way against policy but we knew Dave. He wouldn't go in blindly but would calmly assess the situation and make decisions. As he entered the bank carefully, he couldn't see anything amiss, much less armed robbers taking over the bank. Since he was by himself, with no backup, he decided to take control and ordered everyone in the bank down on the floor. No one argued with him and got down quickly. If there were robbers in the bank, they wouldn't go down quietly.

"Radio, everything is under control, no robbery in progress," I called as Dave allowed everyone to get to their feet. He explained about the radio run and apologized for the inconvenience. Mike and I could barely stop from laughing out loud. We would later.

The whole incident was caught by the surveillance cameras in the lobby. It wasn't long before a still picture taken from the tapes began to circulate. It showed Dave standing there, a fierce look on his face, waving those two 44's. Dave was now a legend. And that is how I will always remember him. A great cop and a rebel, for sure, and certainly not a man who would shy away from personal danger. If you can't tell, I loved the guy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The VA Jungle...

It's pretty tough to admit this but I've been hooked on painkillers since 1975. Oh, the pain is there; my body is a temple that looks like the Parthenon. Too many car and motorcycle accidents for four men. Broken bones, knee shattered, ribs cracked, neck broken and I've been knocked unconscious at least 7 times. So I've been taking narcotics to ease the pain for a long, long time. Trouble is they're hard to control.

Since I'm 100% disabled from Vietnam, the VA sends me my meds by mail and half the time they're late. Every time the pain meds are late, I have to deal with withdrawal symptoms till they get here. Let me tell you, it ain't no fun at all. Sometimes they're a week late, three days late, once it was two weeks! Whatever the case, I keep going back to them.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago I said enough is enough and I'm going to get help to deal with this crap. So, I called my doctor at the VA, who is 60 miles away, and told him that I needed help. An inpatient program somewhere. He said that he would get right on it and would call me back as soon as he knew something. No more than a couple of days he told me. He said that he would put his most efficient nurse on it, too.

Five days later I hadn't heard a thing, so I called. In the VA you can't call your doctor directly, you have to go through a communications center who then relays the message. It's a real pain in the butt, especially if you've got a problem that needs immediate attention. I explained that I needed to talk to my doctor, and that he was supposed to have called me back a few days ago. He took down my information and said he'd send a note.

The next day, around dinner time, he called. He said he was sorry for not getting back to me but things were busy. Whatever. He explained that he'd done some checking and that the Battle Creek VA hospital had a program that fit my needs. They were going to call me, he said, and that I should hear from them shortly. I thanked him and hung up. I told my wife what was going on and she said that she was proud of me. That meant a lot.

A week and a half later, today as a matter of fact, a nurse at the hospital called me. She informed me that she would be conducting an intake interview that would take about half an hour. For about that long she asked me questions about my health, my meds and my life in general. It was fairly in-depth. After I explained to her about my back, that I couldn't walk more than a minute at a time before the pain became excruciating and my legs went numb, she hesitated. Do you mean that you can't climb stairs then? I laughed and said, in your dreams! We had developed a good rapport by then.

I waited, listening to the silence on the other end. Finally she said that she would love to help me but they had no beds on the first floor. There were several flights of stairs that I would have to climb. Since I would be unable to do that, I couldn't join their program. I asked her, do you mean that because I am, in essence, crippled, I can't receive treatment for a drug addiction that they, the VA, had supported for years?

Just a note here: the VA is very supportive of the troops and gives us all the pain killers we want. It keeps us quiet. Just like in Vietnam when the CIA - with Air America - was funneling heroin through the Viet Cong to our soldiers. To keep them quiet so they wouldn't upset the apple cart with protests against the war. It worked, pretty much. But, as an MP, I had to respond to near riots when the government insisted on detoxing the troops they had hooked on heroin, over a three day period. Cold turkey. It was horrible.

Anyway, she said again that she was sorry and there was nothing that she could do. I asked her, what about the troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan missing limbs or other horrific body injuries? Would they, too, find no help when it was time to quit the painkillers? I listened to silence again. Mr. Fowler, she finally said, it was nice talking to you and then she hung up. Denise and I just looked at each other in shock. We didn't know what to say!

We live in a remote area of northern Michigan, twenty miles in every direction (except east to Lake Huron), away from civilization. There are no AA or NA programs up here and I would have to drive 120 miles round trip to find one. The only detox programs are private and very expensive, far beyond our ability to pay. The VA has done it again, we said. On our own once more.

For those of you who have never experienced the Veteran's Administration, it's a wonderful thing (we need a sarcasm font here) that is dedicated to serving our veterans. When you apply for benefits for service related disabilities, they automatically turn you down and tell you that your records don't exist. I spent five futile years trying to get mine until a friend told me to call one of the advocacy groups, who would represent me. I called the Military Order of the Purple Heart and six months later I had my disability authorized.

We all care about the troops fighting two wars, but we should be very concerned about the treatment they're going to get when they get home. Oh, yeah, the news reports show amputees working hard with a support crew, to enable them to lead a good and productive way of life. But that's the media. The reality is much different. Much worse.

There are not enough VA hospitals, especially for those vets who don't live in a major city. To get any treatment or evaluation, I have to drive 300 miles to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Driving distances is pretty hard on me so I avoid it as much as I can. Some vets have 1500 miles to go to reach a treatment center.

The point I'm trying to make has nothing to do with me. I'll figure it out and Denise and I will do this on our own. Once I get past the first week or two it's going to be no problem. The point is the VA and the way they treat vets. They have hundreds, if not thousands, of policies and regulations that they never tell you about. When you don't follow procedure because you knew nothing about it, they say tough, you should have asked. Asked what? I didn't even know there was a question!

I want you to speak up about this if you have a chance. If you know a veteran who is trying to fight through the system, have them call me. My number is 989-734-2908. With luck maybe I'll be able to help them. I always count on spirit (luck) to guide me...