For Veterans, A Holiday Here and There Isn’t Enough

Funny thing about holidays where we honor veterans: Everyone puts those who have fought for our freedom on a pedestal for the day, then the next day some of us go back to treating the same people like garbage.

Mood music:

Flashback: September, 2010: I’m walking the streets of Brooklyn on a beautiful night, and a guy comes up to me. He has a hole in his head where his left eye used to be and burn scars up and down one arm.

I’m smoking a cigar, so he approaches me for a light. He tells me he was maimed in Afghanistan during military service and asks for some change so he can get a train to somewhere. He tells me he’s in New York looking for work and was stranded without money.

I give him the change from my pocket and then he’s gone.

Is 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.

Flashback: Late April, 2011: I’m on Facebook one afternoon and I see a friend commenting that he’s disappointed that some of his friends have decided to “like” a page that makes fun of a fellow known in Haverhill, Mass., as Crazy Mike.

In any city there’s a guy like “Crazy Mike.” The stereotype is usually a long beard, ratty clothes and the fellow is usually living on the street. He talks aloud to no one in particular and falls asleep on playground equipment. People like to laugh at him.

A lot of these so-called crazy guys are homeless vets whose luck ran out somewhere between the battlefield and the hard re-entry into society.

After a few seconds of thinking this through (admittedly, a few seconds is never enough time to really think things through), my temper reaches full boil and I pound out a blog post called “Liking The Crazy Mike of Haverhill Page is Sad and Stupid.”

Discussion follows online, with a big question being if Crazy Mike was in Vietnam and, as a result, sick on the streets with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One reader insists he is indeed a veteran, and that other homeless people keep stealing his medication. Someone else says she knew the family fairly well, and that Mike is not a veteran. He’s simply a guy who has a serious mental illness.

To me, it doesn’t matter if he was in Vietnam or not. Instead, two realities have my mind spinning like a top on fire.

One is that a lot of people assume he is a veteran, but treat him like shit anyway.

Another thing is that there are a lot of homeless who ARE military veterans, and most days we don’t give them more than a few seconds of thought before we walk on by.

It’s almost as if we honor them on holidays to make ourselves feel better about being the assholes we often are.

I say this as a guy who is admittedly one of those assholes. I’ve made my share of fun of people like this, and in the rear-view mirror, looking back at my own struggle with mental illness, it makes me feel ashamed.  Back when fear, anxiety and addiction had me by the balls, I used to walk or drive the other way when these guys approached. It makes me the last guy on Earth who would be fit to judge others for poking fun at someone less fortunate.

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, Memorial Day or July 4. But once the holiday is past, we go back to our normal behavior. 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.

Let’s face it, folks. We need more than the occasional holiday to treat these people the way they deserve to be treated.

And with that, we can all go back to our holiday cook-outs.

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