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

August 04, 1985|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

CERRITOS — 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.

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