1 on 1 With the Air Force : Military Basketball Star Who Gave His Knees for His Country Hobbles a Bitter Path

Times Staff Writer

Willie Harris went to war the day he was discharged from the Air Force.

While many of his military buddies went to Vietnam in February, 1967, Harris went home to Los Angeles to prepare his own battle.

"My job in the Air Force was to play basketball, to win games and prestige for my base commander," recalled Harris, who enlisted in October, 1962, and was eventually stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, just west of Albuquerque, N. M.

"Then I hurt my knees," he said. "But that didn't stop them from using me. They pumped me full of cortisone and sent me back out there, week after week after week."

Once a promising player who starred for three years on an Air Force team, Harris left the service in pain, his knees aching like those of a man twice his age. He blamed three years of military-approved steroid injections in his knees for the crippling condition. He was bitter, and he vowed to be repaid for his career-ending affliction.

Eighteen years later, Harris, now 43 and living in Cerritos, refuses to surrender despite overwhelming odds. His fight with the Air Force goes on, and so does the anger.

"This damn thing has affected me, my kids, my wife . . . . Too much damage has been done," said Harris, running a finger along a zipper-like scar on his right knee where doctors have tried to surgically slow the rapid deterioration of his joints, an arthritic condition that someday may require a wheelchair. Harris contends the injections accelerated the breakdown of the joints.

"After all the hurt, and the letdowns I've had," said Harris. "I've become a very hate-filled man."

Though Harris receives $18,000 a year in disability, he feels that does not begin to compensate for having been left crippled. He clings to the slim hope that somebody will hear his cries and rally to his cause.

He is a towering 6-foot, 8-inch man, built solid, like a steel bridge support, and who must duck when he walks through doorways.

These days, he shuffles more than he walks, his mobility hampered by a pair of seven-pound metal braces he wears on each knee. Negotiating the stairs in his two-story home is a slow ordeal for the man who once scored a record 56 points in an Air Force championship game. Standing for any length of time is now a luxury.

"A man at his age should be able to run around, play ball with the boys and do things with his family," said Kanu Patel, an Orange County orthopedic specialist who examined Harris earlier this year. "He has the knees of a 65- or 70-year-old man."

Even with braces, Harris received tryout invitations from seven pro basketball teams following his military discharge. But Harris' knees could not support his dream and the first and only tryout in the summer of 1967 lasted less than a day.

Since then, Harris has struggled through months of severe depression, alcoholism, five knee operations and a fragile marriage. He receives a $1,500-a-month disability check from the Veteran's Administration to support his wife and four children.

But Harris wants more. He wants to sue the Air Force for "18 years of anguish and lost income" he blames on the cortisone shots.

$28 Per Month

When Harris was discharged, he was given a 20% disability rating and $28 a month. Several years later, the Air Force changed the rating to 30%, a decision that entitled the Mississippi native to a one-time-only payment of $3,500. A year later, the Air Force notified Harris that he had been overpaid and asked him to send back $2,200. He never has.

"Sure I wanted to play (when he was injured). Bad, real bad," he said. "I trusted them and accepted their word that cortisone was safe. Then, when I just couldn't play anymore, when the pain was too great, they discarded me, like a spent cartridge.

"Now, they're going to pay. Even if I have to go to Washington in a wheelchair, I'm going to picket. I'm going to raise hell. I won't quit. I can't quit. I want someone to hear me."

Ironically, one of the military's biggest boosters, Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove) has come to Harris' aid.

After sending dozens of letters to lawmakers, including three to President Reagan, Harris found a willing listener in Dornan, an outspoken conservative who is widely known as "B-1 Bob" because of his unwavering support for such defense projects as the controversial B-1 bomber.

On Friday, Dornan introduced a bill in Congress that may pave the way for Harris to eventually sue the Air Force for alleged medical malpractice. The same day Harris entered the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach; he will have surgery Tuesday on his left knee, his sixth operation in 10 years.

Private Relief Bill

Dornan's legislation, known as a private relief bill, must be approved by both the House and Senate and signed by the President before it becomes law.

At best, it is a long shot. In 1983-84, an estimated 180 private relief bills were introduced in Congress. Only 15 became law, according to House Judiciary Committee records.

"Only a handful make it through Congress to the President's desk," said Brian Bennett, chief of staff in Dornan's Capitol Hill office. "Honestly, this a gamble, and we've told Willie that from the start."

In 1982, the Air Force denied Harris' claim for more compensation. They claimed his heredity and size contributed to his arthritic knees.

"The available medical evidence fails to establish a connection between any cortisone injections you received . . . and your present condition," wrote Col. R. R. Semeta, the officer who reviewed Harris' compensation request.

Because Harris failed to appeal the ruling within six months, the case was closed.

Moreover, as a military veteran, Harris could not sue the federal government because of the 1950 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the Feres Doctrine. It holds that a serviceman cannot sue the government--even in cases of medical malpractice--when injuries arise from military duty because Congress provides other forms of military and disability benefits.

Allow Appeal

Dornan's bill would waive the statute of limitations and allow Harris to appeal to a federal District Court the Air Force's 1982 decision not to grant more compensation, Bennett said. As long as that statute of limitations stands, Harris cannot appeal the decision on his disability payments or try to challenge the Feres Doctrine by suing the Air Force for malpractice.

But Richard Fox, a Century City attorney who specializes in military cases, said it's likely that any malpractice suit Harris brings against the Air Force would be dismissed because of the longstanding Feres Doctrine.

"No matter how compelling the case, most judges would toss the case out," said Fox, who helped change Harris' Air Force disability rating from 20% to 30%.

"What veterans like Willie don't realize is, you can't win. The system doesn't allow them to," he said. "It would take an act of Congress to change the Feres Doctrine . . . . The tragedy is, good men like Harris continue to wage a futile fight."

Despite the odds, Harris wants to press his case, believing he has the medical evidence to support his claims of malpractice.

In March, 1983, Dr. Pamela E. Prete at the Long Beach Veterans Administration Hospital, wrote: "His avocation (basketball) plus multiple steroid injections in the knees exacerbated his severe knee disability." In the same evaluation, Prete diagnosed Harris' condition as "osteoarthritis," a degenerative joint disease."

A decade earlier, Dr. Arthur Retig wrote in a Veterans Administration discharge summary:

Injections 'Harmful'

"The condition appears to have been (military) service-aggravated since there is reasonable evidence that repeated cortisone injections . . . may be harmful."

(Prete and other physicians who treated Harris at the VA Hospital referred questions to hospital officials who declined to discuss the medical aspects of the case. Harris said he goes as often as three days week to the Long Beach facility for therapy, including whirlpools and weightlifting.

(Spokesman Lewis Stout said that Harris is driven to and from the hospital in a special van, and that all treatment, exams and surgery, is free because he's a veteran.)

Harris estimates he received nearly 100 cortisone injections during a three-year period after he injured both knees in a tournament at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Fla., in February, 1963. Basketball is big time in the Air Force, with regional conferences and interservice championships.

Playing for the Kirtland team in Cocoa Beach, Harris was in the middle of a fast break when a teammate passed him the ball. While in midair, an opponent submarined him. Harris and his 225-pound frame crashed to the hardwood floor, knees first.

Despite the pain, Harris said Air Force doctors assured him that cortisone would reduce the swelling and discomfort in his badly strained knees and he could play the following weekend. Harris consented, and the injections began.

"We'd play our games on Friday and Saturdays," Harris recalled, "so every Thursday I'd stroll over to the doc's office on base, walk right in, and get the injections.

Masking the Pain

"At first my knees went numb, but the next morning I felt like I could run a hundred miles. No pain," he said. "What I didn't realize was, the cortisone was masking the pain, and I was damaging my knees for life."

Because of the cortisone shots, Harris was able to finish out the 1963 season, and play the next two. But the pain in his knees never really went away. By the fall of 1964, he was wearing metal braces when he played, and his mobility suffered.

Despite helping Kirtland win a string of prestigious Air Force tournaments, Harris worried his career might be in jeopardy. Because of his knees, he passed on a chance to try out for the 1964 Olympic team, and by the start of the 1965 season he was playing fewer and fewer minutes.

"They knew how much I wanted to play," said Harris, who perfected his game as a child by playing long into the night on the Lexington, Miss., plantation where his family lived. "They knew I had hopes of making the pros . . . . And in the end, I was an unwitting partner in the destruction of my knees."

Harris' glory days are behind him, the nights when he would dunk basketballs to the cheers of his Air Force mates.

Orthopedic specialist Patel believes Harris may have to wear some type of prosthesis, such as surgically implanted knee caps to prevent the total loss of movement in the joints.

"I've been crippled since 25. That's why I've got to fight," Harris said. "What if I wake up one morning and I can't walk. I've got too much pride to let someone take care of me.

"I think about all those $900 hammers the military buys and $500 toilet seats. Then they say they can't help veterans, veterans who have been mistreated. It really hurts to love your country, then watch that country turn its back on you."

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