Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veteran's Day / Armistice Day

This is what I posted on my lame Facebook wall today, but I need to elaborate a bit (which is difficult to do on Facebook actually).

At this very hour, 92 years ago, solders put down their guns, took off their gas masks and left the trenches after not having moved much in months. They spent the following years cleaning up, rebuilding, and trying to move on. That's what today was originally about. It's not about hanging flags out, or bumper stickers, or t-shirts or posting famous quotes. It's about the sacrifices they and their families made to push mankind farther in the right direction.


However, reflecting over my past week of driving around the fine city of Virginia Beach, I had to bring this into a larger context.

How much do "we" really appreciate or value the service of our armed forces folks?  I mean "really".  Not lip service or gestures like bumper stickers, flags, buttons, t-shirts, ball caps, email signature footers, yard signs, ribbons, and so on.

Aside from your immediate family, close friends, neighbors and co-workers, what other veteran's do you come in contact with?  How can you tell?  Can you look at someone in the Mall or at the park and tell that they are veterans?

Then I had to contrast this with how I've seen the public respond to seeing a homeless veteran by the road, or on a bench, or sleeping behind a strip mall loading dock, or wandering down a sidewalk.  If I had to produce anecdotal statistics (ah, yes, you know how I love statistical analysis…) I would venture to say that 90 percent of folks respond by not responding at all, acting as if the homeless vet doesn't exist.  Out of sight.  Out of mind.  The other 10 are a mix of hostility or frustration.  Usually barking out comments like "get a job!" or "bum!" and so on.  I've seen people throw trash at them.  In fact, twice I've seen people with "Support Our Troops" stickers and the Christian fish sign on the back of their SUV demeaning some vet in a wheel chair sitting on the median at a busy intersection with a sign asking for money or food.  Great example.

Let's trade shoes for a minute and analyze this wonderful American behavior for a second or two…

Granted, most "veterans" statistically have not seen major combat action. Some have, for sure.  That's a given. But the vast majority served either in peace time, in combat but not immersed in bloodbath situations, or in non-combatant roles: desk jobs, clerical, logistical, bureaucratical, and so on.  But from my limited encounters with homeless veterans I've found that about half of them saw major combat, the other half either did not, or were mentally unbalanced and imagined they had served in the military (when they likely had not).

From the age of five (5) until about 23, I spent most of my weekends with my dad.  He was a physician at the Veteran's Administration hospital in Hampton, VA for thirty one years.  He ran the Domiciliary for a long time as well as being the attending physician, chief of staff, chief of ER operations, and several other roles.  I got to meet a lot of his patients.  A LOT OF THEM.  I spent a lot of time listening to them while feeding squirrels or fishing off the seawall that surrounds the facility.  I heard stories about WWI, WWI, Korea and Vietnam, as well as a dozen incidents or conflicts that nobody will ever know about (officially). 

They gave up a lot.  They get very little in return.  You might think they are showered in appreciation and special favors.  They are not.  And even if they were showered in special treatment, do you think that can possibly erase or undo memories of horrific things they've seen and been in the midst of?  Really?!  "Here solder, a shiney new prosthetic leg for you - now run along and have fun"  or "Here's two free movie tickets to show our appreciation, enjoy the show!".  Not quite the magic elixir of memory cleansing.  I don't need to share any graphic horror stories to make this point.  It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain.

In short, nobody expects you to interview every homeless person to assess their veteran status.  Nobody expects you to flip a switch and condone homelessness if you do not already feel concern.  But I do ask that you slow down and be a little patient when forming judgements and opinions based on what your eyes reveal.  Everyone has a story and a reason and reason to be alive.  You don't have to give money or food.  Maybe you can spare a pair of gloves or a sweatshirt or a happy meal.  Maybe you can spare a conversation.  If they are attacking you, that's one thing.  But when they're in a passive disposition, in a wheelchair, on the ground, laying, sleeping, hold off on gathering your angst and resentment.  If we're not out to help each other then what are we here for?

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