Yesterday I attended a veteran services event at a local AmVets post. I met a bunch of new people and saw a few familiar faces as well. Mostly this was an information sharing meeting where folks from the VA and the WADAV came and presented on changes to their programs and systems.
At the end of the event, there was time for Q&A. Most folks asked technical questions about what they’d just heard.
There was a young man sitting just a couple of feet from where I was standing, behind me to my right. We had made eye contact at one point and he smiled big and nodded a hello. At one point he rose and raised his hand to ask a question. I could instantly see the urgency in his eyes. Urgency but with fear. It’s a look I’ve seen before in people who have a story to tell and are speaking up for the first time in a room full of strangers. Despite this, he patiently waited for the microphone before he began speaking. He told us he’s a combat veteran, multiple tours in different theaters of the Global War on Terror. He told us that he came home and started suffering from depression and anxiety and panic, that he called the VA for help and finally got in to see a doctor. He then waited. And waited. Eight months went by since that first appointment.
“I told the doctor I wanted to kill myself. I told him I had a gun and I was going to put it in my mouth and pull the trigger.”
He looked the officials from the VA in the eye and asked them why that happened. Why did he have to wait so long? How many other veterans like him were forced to wait and decided it wasn’t worth it?
The air in the room was thick. His questions hung there as he looked at them. The best they could muster at that moment was an apology and a promise to follow up. Being right next to him, I offered him my card and told him to call me, that I’d help him get answers.
I remember feeling disappointed that he didn’t get a better answer from the VA folks or some assurance that they’d help him, and do something to make sure that never happened to anyone again.
When the event wrapped up I did the usual rounds, the regular introducing myself to people and handing out business cards routine. At one point, from across the room, I noticed that young veteran. He was surrounded by about 10 people. All fellow vets. I saw a couple of hugs. Some laughter. Cards being handed to him. Instantly, he had a tribe that will have his back no matter what. All it took was a word and his fellow vets jumped up to embrace him, to bring him in.
That’s what veterans do. I see it everywhere I go and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. We take care of each other. When it comes down to it nothing else matters but you served and I served and we take care of our own because that’s just what you do. We don’t really know any other way to be.
It’s a little sad to me that we live in a time where a simple act of compassion comes as a surprise. Where a gesture of love to a stranger, borne out of a basic human connection, is an anomaly. Throughout my years in politics and community work, I’ve witnessed too many people speak out about the traumas they’ve endured, hardships they’ve experienced, and abuse they’ve been a victim of only to be gaslighted, pushed aside, and ignored. We can begin to change that by listening to each other a little more, by focusing on our similarities and not on our differences, by rejecting those who tell us that we should fear and hate each other, and by standing up to abusers and bullies.
Like those veterans in that room yesterday. There was no litmus test as a condition of their support. They didn’t ask who he voted for or where he prays. There were no conditions placed on their compassion. They saw one of their own in need and they rose. They stepped up, once again, to serve.
Let’s follow their lead.