I'm going to tell you about the death of Jimmy Chastain and the fight of his young widow, Stacy. It's a story set among the purple ridge lines of North Georgia, but it could be anywhere in the blue-collar South. It's a tale of how this nation's leaders talk loudly about supporting our men and women in uniform, 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. Among the bland, small-town news stories, Stacy's columns -- stories about real-life people -- sparkled with humanity and warmth.
Blue Ridge is a fascinating clash of cultures. On Sundays, 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. It's a town where indigenous mountain folks uncomfortably rub shoulders with second-homers each Saturday at the Swan Drive-In.
Bedrock conservatism is showing cracks in Blue Ridge. A billboard on Georgia Highway 5 just north of downtown proclaims "Bush Lied." News-Observer letters are increasingly anti-war.
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 went off to serve his country in the first Gulf War. "He was a die-hard Republican," Stacy recalls. Years later, as Jimmy 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, sobs interrupting about every third word.
Part of his job in the Gulf was handling toxic chemicals. Stacy, Jimmy and most of the doctors they've spoken with say "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 Stacy, a friend's younger sister. He loved his dogs, spending time outdoors and watching Animal Planet.
Four years ago, a massive stroke felled Jimmy, and almost completely paralyzed him. The Chastains blamed toxic materials in Iraq.
What ensued was a torturous odyssey of hospitals and nursing homes. Jimmy's vision deteriorated. The high point of his life became Stacy reading to him. One of his regrets, when he knew death was near, was not learning what 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 facilities, he finally was moved to an Ellijay nursing home. Life still burned in the gregarious Jimmy; he was this year's grand marshal of Gilmer County's biggest shindig, the Apple Festival.
In the last few months, Jimmy 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. In the last year, a frequent visitor was US 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 US 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 decided 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; her day job is monitoring advertising for a research firm. But her real occupation is appealing the VA's denial of Jimmy's full disability. The government has eroded veteran's 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, after Jimmy's death, told the VA she would 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.'"
Senior Editor John Sugg wrote about Jimmy and Stacy in 2003. The article can be found on Sugg's blog at www.johnsugg.com.