Veterans are often lauded and often left behind.
As the 44th President of the United States settles in, there are a host of priorities. Among them are immigration, reproductive rights, gun rights, health care, defeating ISIS, tax reform and, yes, veteran’s issues.
As the rhetoric heats up on both sides of the isle, Todd hunkers down, trying to stay warm.
He represents one forgotten demographic: vets who bring war home (and this three days before Veteran’s Day). Their duty done, they re-enter the civilian world but have a hard time re-entering life.
Veterans Have a Story
I find Todd passed out in alleyways between downtown buildings or at the back entrance of Starbucks. Mostly he walks, occasionally stopping passersby with a modest plea, “Brother, have you got a dollar?”
One morning our paths cross. “Brother, have you got a dollar?”
I don’t but I do have my phone and a Starbucks app. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
“Sure, thanks man.”
On the way I ask him where he is coming from today. Instead he repeats the well-worn story I had heard many times before. “I served in Afghanistan. And now look at me. This is what you get for serving your country I guess.”
A sad story if it’s true. Many are.
Approaching Starbucks he stops. “I’m not allowed in there.” I think I know why. So I grab him a coffee with extra cream and sugar, pass it to him and walk off into my life.
We all know someone like Todd. They went to war and came back changed forever.; unrecognizable to their families, unemployable and friendless. We wish we could help but don’t know how.
We have our own problems and theirs are too hard to figure out. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a name given to the many ways a few years’ deployment can disrupt the rest of life. Joe is an ex Marine with a theory.
“Upon returning, the gratitude expressed is often shallow and ineffective, or self-serving (I’m thinking politicians and businesses). Add to this the struggles to find a job, proper healthcare and the financial woes…it’s a tempest in a teapot!”
So we walk off into our lives and wish them the best.
Back to Todd though.
At seventeen he enlisted. Reared on John Wayne war movies, he was ready to be a soldier.
He served four years in Afghanistan with Big Red One, the 1st Infantry Division of the United States Army. One defining mission defined his life forever. Now 52, Todd barely reflects on the day his unit engaged hijackers…
“I didn’t bring nothing back but two bullet holes in my leg. Lost two brothers… 11 kills in the process of saving 130 people on an airliner. 1979-84.”
I ask, “What advice would you give to those who want to help vets?”
“I know how to survive. I’m a soldier. I don’t need any help.”
So I go in another direction. “How did it change you?”
“I killed eleven people over there. I don’t want to talk about it. I blew them away. Eleven Afghanis hijacked the plane, a 747. My Aunt has my medals.”
I float the idea of moving to a veteran’s care facility for the winter where they offer programs for those who struggle with addiction.
“Naw. I want to stay on my own streets. I tuff it out. That’s what soldiers do.”
As Todd disappears onto his streets I wonder how much of his story is true.
Does it really matter?
Yes and no. If it’s true he’s a hero and deserves a better-late-than-never hero’s welcome. If it’s a lie he should be ashamed of himself for hijacking a hero’s reputation.
Either way he represents thousands of stories that are true. Wherever we come down on the question of War, we should all get behind its victims.
While politicians bluster about how they will keep us safe from the enemy, those who are victims struggle to survive the day. They are the collateral damage of war, the forgotten ambassadors of the nation.
As John Wayne’s character, Captain Torrey, said, “All battles are fought by scared men who’d rather be someplace else.” (In Harms Way).
Point taken. But sometimes the scarier part is coming home.
(Part 2 next week)
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