Today I was lucky enough to get an invitation to visit a retirement home, to see and talk with some veterans who live in the home who were interested in talking to other vets. I know a veteran who was part of organizing the group of people going, and he said I would be welcome to join them, so I did.
I am not a vet. Nobody in my immediate family has served. But we identify as a Navy family. My grandfather was in WWII in the Navy, and I have some relatives whose kids went into the Navy as well, some are still serving. My son’s grandfather was also in the Navy. They had a Veterans Day assembly at his school and kids were invited to bring a family member who was a vet for the performance by first graders, and my son lamented that he didn’t have anyone he could bring. “I could bring Pa, I guess,” he said, “But they would have to have a wheelchair for him.” His grandfather is advanced in age and suffers from severe dementia as well as very fragile health, and the facility he lives in is an hour away. Travel at this point in Pa’s life is pretty impossible, and certainly not for a school event like this, which would only last an hour or so. But I thought it was nice he thought of his grandfather, like I thought of mine on Veterans Day.
I dressed up for the visit; way up. I knew nobody else would probably be dressed up, but I was thinking of the probable age of the fellows I’d be seeing, and how it’s probably been a really long time since they saw a pretty young girl (well, I’m a young girl to them still, even at 48) in a dress, with lipstick and her hair done, and I wanted to look nice for them. They deserved it, I thought, even if all they did was get to look at me and think of their younger days with some moments of remembrance that would bring them joy.
I met my friend and his posse, all veteran guys and their wives/girlfriends. Vets have an instant ease around each other, even guys who are much older who have never met before. It’s a camaraderie and club membership thing that nobody on the outside can ever really understand or get, and I respect that tremendously.
We walked to the main building and then in to retrieve four of the older guys, who we were going to walk outside to another building, where we would all meet up with other vets. These four needed special assistance so we were retrieving them to help them over. I grabbed one fellow’s wheelchair and tried to carefully commandeer it across the parking lot in my high-heeled boots and stretchy dress. At one point, we bumped up against a lip coming out of the parking lot and we bumped over it hard enough that my passenger lurched forward. I instinctively reached out and pulled him back, the same instinct that drives similar moves with my child, and I thought about how much things change from birth to death, how we are given to our mothers or other (usually) female caretakers, we then live our independent lives once we grow up, and then again, when we are old, we are likely given over to female caregivers, such as were all the women working in this facility, and angels, every one of them. Gregarious and tireless and fearless, with a ready napkin for someone with a coughing fit, to nitrile gloves in the pocket for handling and serving the snack food that was put out, cookies and punch and little cubes of cheese.
A young family was there with three small children, and the littlest two, girls, handed out little thank-you cards that they had signed inside with their crooked writing. They placed the cards in front of each guy and then reached out their little hands to shake the guys’ hands. It made me tear up.
I was content to be what I hoped would be pleasant window dressing, able to offer a joke or a helping hand or whatever anyone needed, but I didn’t know what they might want or need, so I just tried to be present, and listen.
The men sat around a big, square table, the younger vets mostly standing. The ones in poorer health were in the back of the room, in wheelchairs, some who needed more constant care with their attentive caregivers nearby. The younger vets praised the older ones, said they were there to listen if the olds had stories they felt like sharing, and whether they did or not, they just wanted the older guys to know they weren’t forgotten, that their service meant a lot to everyone in the room, and in our country. “And to some,” my friend said, “As I know some of you never, ever had a chance to hear it, ‘welcome home.'” I thought of the terrible reception home some soldiers have gotten and it made me feel so bad.
I am a peacenik. A hippie. A liberal. I am against wars of all types, and think they solve little to nothing. I think wars are largely fought for stupid reasons created by stupid men with big egos who get out of control when too many people think their particular brand of stupidity is worth supporting. I went to Kent State, and we all know what happened there, and though it was 17 years after that when I arrived at the school, we all still visited Daffodil Hill and the quad, touched the bullet hole in the metal statue outside Taylor Hall. The parking lot where some of the dead kids were found was the one outside the windows of my dormitory. The incident there is never too far from anyone’s consciousness. So why was I here? Honoring these vets?
It would be hypocritical not to, in short.
I’m an artist. I’m all for self-expression, standing up for what you believe in. A support of human rights and justice and equality. Ironically, this is what many veterans fight for, even if they only joined up for the GI bill benefits or because the other avenue was a dead-end street at home that only leads to ruin or early death by drugs. I looked around the table at these guys – WWII veterans, a lot of them, but also Korean and Vietnam. By a show of hands, they indicated who was with which branch, many quoting their division and unit. A man in his 70s talked about being in artillery, and a young vet joked how there’s always someone in grenade class who pulls the pin, throws the pin and keeps the grenade. They all nodded and some chuckled knowingly. Another talked of serving in France, and the guys all talked geography – where in France, up through Luxembourg, into Germany.
It wasn’t lost on me that a lot of these guys sitting around the table fought Nazism, and that there were multiple thousands of white supremacists who marched in Poland last night. I wonder if they are aware of the desperate and horrible nature of things in the world now, despite their amazing best efforts. In a way, I hope they aren’t. I looked hard at the Vietnam vet across from me, and thought of the guys I’d gotten to “know” by watching Ken Burns’ excellent Vietnam documentary on PBS earlier this year, which really explained a lot about the war that I didn’t know, from all sides; the soldiers’ sides, the peaceniks’ side, and the side of members of both NVA/Viet Cong and South Vietnamese forces, who are all just as proud in their remembrances of war as our veterans are, but all old enough to also see the futility of the lives lost.
The men told their stories, young and old, and I gave them my full attention and respect. I looked at their hands, their faces, their clothing. I could see some who were likely devilishly handsome when they were younger, and some whose faces had aged so much they had returned to an almost childlike state in their expression, and I could see the little boys inside there. Like my child, these men probably played basketball with gusto, or threw a football around when they were young. They slung shoulders around their friends and ate junk food and then, when they got older, they were called to serve by something internal or external, and so they did. Proudly and bravely.
It is bravery I do not possess, one which I am grateful for, even when I have disagreed with the reasons behind the action. They went representing and defending our way of life; my ability to sit right here where I am and do what I am doing today, decades after those actions were over. And others, men and women, are serving right now for the same reasons.
I hope just for a few moments, they felt that brotherhood once again in that room today. I cannot ever enter it or fully understand it, but I am lucky to have witnessed it and feel awed in its presence.
Thank you for your service.