Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Take Time to Talk to a Veteran

Take Time to Talk to a Veteran
Copyright 2102 by Lori-Ann Willey

I THINK FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, a stranger to me, knew without a doubt that I was not my identical twin sister.  Usually, I am mistaken for her and her me, so this was an unexpected surprise, and a nice change.  Paul and I were 3 hours south, and at the Togus VA Hospital where the thought of this blog originated.  Though the topics will change, there is an important link between the two…or at least I think so.

As I walked through the main entrance of the lobby to leave, my eyes drew to a man lying on a wide windowsill.  I glanced over, but continued walking as another man spoke to me as I walked by.  He said, "Do you have a sister in Bangor?" I took a couple steps toward him and squatted down below his face level as he was sitting in a chair. "Yes, I do." and gave a big smile. He nodded in agreement. Then I continued, "She is my identical twin sister.  Her name is Lora-Jean." He shifted the book in his hands and looked over at me, nodding approvingly with a nice smile in return, then quickly looked back down at his book. I was probably too close for his comfort, but out of respect, I wanted to be more face to face while we talked.  As a result, I was kneeling directly beside his chair, hand resting on the armrest.  He had my undivided attention.  He was a Veteran sitting by himself.  "Who should I tell her I met today?"  He quietly mumbled his name to me.  I could not quiet catch the last name so I asked for it again. We both exchanged smiles then told him, "I'll let her know I talked with you.”  He glanced at me, and then looked down at his book again very reserved-like, "Thank you”.  As I stood up, his whole body flinched, which reminded me of an abuse victim or of someone who had experienced something horrible in the past…almost instinctive, yet flashback-like.  I did not call attention to his jumpiness, but simply said, "Have a good day”. He replied, "You, too." without ever looking up at me again. 

I was impressed as hell that he knew for sure that I was not my twin, an identical twin at that. This told me that he knows my sister rather well. But... I could not help wonder why he reacted to my movements.  I walked away feeling badly inside that my actions caused him to flinch the way he did, and then started to wonder what in Hell he experienced in the past that caused him to be so jumpy.  What had he experienced while serving our country?  What set him on edge so badly that even now he flinches at a simple hand movement?  This is how I am.  I have an issue with pondering too much, but still.  I have a curious mind.  My photos, wounds, and experiences can attest to that.

Many people do not realize the struggles many of these Veteran's go through on a daily basis.  Even now after days, weeks, months, years, and for many of them, decades, they can remember their first step back on American soil.  I admit that even I do not know of their struggles, but have sat, observed, and listened to many of them talk to each other, to me, and to my husband.  Some, it is obvious, that they wish to share.  Maybe it is self-therapy.  Maybe it is teaching the younger generation.  Maybe it is none of that.  Maybe it is “just” talk to help fill the time gap until their appointment time.  Whatever the reason, my ears are always anxious to listen, and I sense that they appreciate that above all. 

A typical conversation usually starts out by one Veteran asking another which branch of the service, followed by years in, followed by deployment, and/or stationed locations, then onto their job titles.  One thing I find interesting is that none of them seem to ask each other about which wars they were in.  Maybe, for them, the dates in service and deployment locations tells all that is needed to know, but for someone like me, I am left wondering, and usually I don’t ask, but continue to listen to what they have to say instead.  Other almost avoided topics are why they are missing a limb, where they were shot, mortar injuries, etc.  Nevertheless, when one speaks up about such things, the tone of the conversation dramatically turns, and it appears that the entire room within hearing distance stops to listen.  I am one of them.  The stories are somber, but captivating…and real.  I always walk away with more of an appreciation and admiration for those who have loyally served our country.    

Those who have gone to war to defend our country have seen so much more than we ever will, even on the roughest streets of the roughest cities.  However, is that a fair assumption to make?  I guess it is relative.  However, they HAVE experienced that stuff, FOR us!  They, in many ways sacrificed for the rest of their nation, for their family, friends, and for far many more strangers than they can count. I cannot fathom why our Veteran’s of the 1960’s were so poorly treated upon their return. That makes no sense to me.  They did not deserve such disrespect then, now, or ever! 

I heard horror stories from my own friends who came back really messed up from being in Desert Storm.  One would tell of his experiences in the foxhole while missiles flew overhead, lit the nighttime skies, and rumbled their bodies relentlessly for hours, days, and weeks on end. He choked back tears as he spoke, but his eyes filled with them.  His eyes themselves relived the horror as he recalled what he experienced.  He was seeing and feeling it all over again.  Then, he told me how he had his own gun up to his own chin ready to pull the trigger…his buddies in the foxhole pulled his gun away from him.  He said, 'I just needed it to stop!’ As far as I know, he suffered no physical injuries, but emotionally he was a mess. This one story may seem minor in comparison to another Veterans story, or what many other Veteran’s can recall, or ever want to recall, not to mention the physical injuries they also have to live with on a daily basis.  However, I am certain that their experiences live within them every day, and each memory and injury is relative.  One experience or injury should not be dismissed, ridiculed, or taken lightly over the experience of another. Ever!   

I remember another story.  A teacher that I used work with went bird hunting one fall day with two other men, when one up and fired shots at a bird.  The Veteran dove to the ground and started whimpering like a baby, an abandoned child, a sad child.  He said it was an awful thing to see a grown man curled up in a ball sheltering his head, crying, and screaming uncontrollably.  As the teacher retold the story in his own quivering voice, he ended by saying, “I will never forget it”.  He told the story so heartfelt that I, too, will never forget.    

Yet, while sitting in a waiting room at the VA, most of the Veteran’s always seem to smile and nod, and I always enjoy talking with them as we sit in waiting.  Some are funny...I mean REALLY funny. Some are cranky, probably with good reason, too. Some can be heard struggling to breathe, some without limbs, some without an eye, some falling asleep and slumped over in their chairs.  It is the slumped ones that I watch, because I always wonder if they are still alive or not;  I do watch for breathing movements. Many Veterans sits there waiting alone, patiently waiting to hear their names called.  However, most, will laugh and joke and I enjoy sharing that with them. They seem to appreciate that bit of communication and attention. Remember this; they always appreciate being thanked for serving our country.  

I have always loved "old people", but old people who have served our country always gets my attention more quickly.  I find myself longing to hear their stories, or just sit and talk pleasantries. Sometimes, they, like all of us, just need to hear that they are appreciated once in a while.  Next time you see a Veteran, do yourself and them a favor… thank them, and watch their face light up in recognition. I promise you, it will be very rewarding experience for you both.  

If you are read this as Veteran or still in the military of any branch, or serve in the field of health and protection and rescue, I want to THANK YOU! 

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