Perhaps because it’s a day to honor veterans, I find myself thinking back to an encounter I had on a street in Brooklyn a couple months ago. The guy had a hole in his head where his left eye used to be and he had burn scars up and down one arm.
I was puffing on a cigar, so he approached me for a light. Then he told me he had been maimed in Afghanistan during military service. He asked for some change so he could get a train to somewhere; can’t remember where. He told me he was in New York looking for work and was stranded without money.
I gave him the change I had in my pocket and he was gone.
Was he telling the truth? I have no idea, and I don’t really care. He just looked like a guy in pain who needed a few quarters to survive the next few hours, and that’s all that mattered at the time.
It also reminded me of all the homeless veterans I’ve seen in my hometown of Haverhill over the years. There’s always evidence that the guy on the street is a veteran. There are the service tattoos and the jacket patches. Many of them saw things that were hard to live with, and they were rendered mentally ill. Instead of getting help, they wound up on the street because they couldn’t hold a job or stay off drugs and booze.
It would be high-minded of me to say we need to do better for our veterans. But it’s been said so often it’s pretty much lost it’s meaning. We like to praise our veterans on Veterans Day or July 4. But once the holiday is past, we go back to treating them like shit. Because they’re homeless and, as a result, they’re dirty, scary and unpleasant to those who have lived far more comfortable lives. And, don’t you know, we LOVE to judge people even though we know nothing about them.
I single myself out for ridicule, because back when fear, anxiety and addiction had me by the balls, I used to walk or drive the other way when these guys approached.
I’ve had my struggles. We all have. But I have no idea what it’s like to be on a battlefield.
I do know that a lot of people — good people who have sacrificed for God, country and family — have taken tragic turns in the line of duty. It’ll always be this way because life’s unfair.
Do these guys deserve better from the rest of us? You bet your ass they do.
When someone is on the street and hungry, we like to say they did it to themselves. Or we say we gotta help them and then do nothing. I’ve done both.
They did drugs. They stole and lied to people.
But the fortunes of man are never, ever so simple.
There’s always something in the history of each of us that shapes the decisions we make and how we live otherwise. I’ve made many bad choices in my day. But God’s Grace has carried me through.
May the vets on the street find that same Grace.
Most of all today, I’m thinking of the guy I bunked with and was on team with for last month’s Cursillo retreat.
He’s a Vietnam vet who has been through the wringer over the years. He saw terrible things in Vietnam, and he came home to people who were spitting on soldiers instead of praising and thanking them.
He has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that has also cost him dearly. I thought it was appropriate that a guy with PTSD would be rooming with Mr. OCD. We had a lot of laughs over that.
But here’s the thing: This guy doesn’t bitch about his lot in life. He’s retired, but he spends his days helping fellow veterans.
And he’s active with the Cursillo movement.
The tragedy of service bent him in every direction. But it didn’t break him.
There’s hope for all of us.