I’ve Spent My Whole Life Coming To Terms With The Fact That My Father’s Military Service Caused My Disability

The months of October and November bring a lot of emotions for me. October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month and November is my father and mine’s birth month along with Veterans Day. All these important celebrations may seem like they don’t connect but they all explain who I am and why during this time of the year, I tend to struggle with my identities. 

To understand it all, we need to start with my father and Veteran’s Day.

Photo Courtesy of Andrea Lausell

My dad was born November 1, 1945, in Bayamón, Puerto Rico and grew up in Lower East Side Manhattan. He was a funloving Bori in New York who loved his family and island but also got into a lot of trouble from time to time. The trouble led him to the United States Marines Corps and a few years later he was being deployed to Vietnam like many Puerto Rican men of the era. For many people who have family members that have served, they feel a sense of pride but for myself, I’m torn. I’m proud of my dad but as I got older I found myself not agreeing with the war and more specifically hating the Vietnam War because it caused my Spina Bifida. 

Like many of the men who served in the Vietnam war, my father was exposed to a chemical known as Agent Orange that would affect his health for the rest of his life.

Photo Courtesy of Andrea Lausell

The chemical used to clear out vegetation in the country but it also was known for having horrible side effects for those that came in contact with it. My dad, who was one of the many soldiers to do so,  began to suffer various complications from it soon after the war. In 1992 (the year I was born) it was proven that Agent Orange could cause Spina Bifida in the offspring of soldiers who’d been infected by it. That year, I became one of those babies.

When I was born, it was a complete surprise to my family that I had Spina Bifida.

Photo Courtesy of Andrea Lausell

All the tests parents get to tell if a child was going to have a disability came out negative, so you can imagine how surprised my parents were when I came out. While my Abuelos were praying at misa to understand why this happened, my parents turned to the Veterans Association for answers. It took ten years of my life for the VA to accept with all the medical evidence that my Spina Bifida was caused by that horrible chemical. But in those ten years, I watched my parents struggle to pay hospital bills out of pocket for my already expensive twelve back surgeries. I watched my dad as he grappled with the realization that his military service was the cause of the pain I was enduring in the hospital, and I felt my anger boil over as a child as I blamed and told my dad this was his fault as doctors held me down for procedures. 

Still, in between the hardships of our very medical life, my dad, family and I had moments of joy.

Photo Courtesy of Andrea Lausell

We decided to embrace my Spina Bifida and learn as much as we could. My parents became of my voice when I couldn’t stand up for myself, at making sure I was treated fairly and got the accessibility needs that I needed. We also celebrated my Latinidad, that me being a CubaRican is what makes me strong because I have to powerful islands running through my veins. We used our cultural pride as a way to help me get through tough hospital trips. Even though the Vietnam War was the direct cause for my Spina Bifida, we also learned to celebrate my dad for making it out alive. Still, every year, when October and November came around, the negative emotions about all of this came creeping back.

When October came, as my family and Spina Bifida Community celebrated our lives with Spina Bifida Awareness Month, I couldn’t help but think that if my dad never went to war, this month would just be about Halloween for me. Not about the memories of long hospital trips, hearing my mom cry in the cot next to my hospital bed when she thought I couldn’t hear her, or the times I yearned to go to school to be with my friends. Spina Bifida Awareness Month is supposed to make people aware of the disability, and specifically to celebrate the strides we’ve made as a community.

Photo Courtesy of Andrea Lausell

For a long time, it made me angry because October reminded me of the trauma I’ve endured. Right after the emotions I faced during the month of October, November came and with that came even more stress. I’ve always felt November should be an exciting month for me. My dad’s birthday is on the first, and the thirteenth is my own. Still, tucked right in between those two days worthy of celebration is Veterans Day which has always served as another reminder of my dad’s service and how it caused my disability.

Veterans Day used to anger me because my dad’s service is a reminder that the scars on my body were because of his involvement in the war.   For most of my childhood to my early twenties, I’ve loved and hated these two months. I’ve kept in a lot of resentment and anger over them that I never really worked through until most recently. A few years ago I decided that instead of sitting with my anger, I came to accept it. Accept who I am, accept that my dad’s life and military service was his path that I had no control over and that’s okay. I’ve made October enjoyable for me by creating #SpinaBifida, a series on my YouTube channel where I’ve built a supportive Spina Bifida community that learns from each other about our disability. More specifically, it is a place for Disabled Latinx to feel safe to express their emotions about their disability and how it plays a role in our culture.

These days, November is still a little difficult for me as I still don’t engage much with Veterans Day, nor do I think I ever want to. But instead, I focus on celebrating my dad and his life and celebrating the wonderful disabled life I was given. My dad and I couldn’t control the circumstances that defined our lives, but we can embrace them and accept them for what they are. For me, that means embracing October and November head on, even if I still stumble from time to time.

Read: Little Latina’s Generosity Inspires a Movement With Her Cozy Collection

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