The guy had no legs. Just stubs and a sign that said, “Please help.”
He sat on a ripped piece of cardboard on the filthy sidewalk, breathing in diesel, staring straight ahead. Every great once in a while someone tossed a small bill. Most walked by.
I don’t remember if I helped. I’d like to think I did, but I’d be lying if I said I recalled giving money or even a smile. In the presence of so much need, I, too, developed the ability to desensitize and walk on by.
What I remember is this–in a place where I was expected to pass without noticing, I saw him. Time stopped. I looked again. And again. And again, until I could figure out what was wrong.
It wasn’t the obvious–the kid was missing his legs. That was wrong.
It wasn’t that he was suffering alone. That was also wrong.
It wasn’t even that the people on the street were passing without helping that was bothering me, though it was most unforgivable of all wrongs.
The guy with no legs was my age.
If not my age, then slightly older… like an older brother or cool older cousin.
In another time, he’d have taken me to a concert even though my parents didn’t approve, or told stories about college. He’d have shown me fun things to do or snuck me a beer and taught me how to get around the system.
Instead, he was forgotten–a twenty-something year old veteran begging for change on a city street while everyone averted their eyes. It was Moscow, 1993. He had served in the Soviet-Afghan war. A ruble or two was his thanks from his grateful nation.
I’d never seen a young veteran–only older veterans, mostly men. Grandfathers in military-insignia baseball caps at the VFW and younger Vietnam-era veterans wearing combat patches.
They told stories about their fallen comrades, storming the beaches of Normandy, the war in Korea, losing brothers and friends in Guadalcanal. Some got plucked from college to go to Vietnam. They questioned the draft yet served. Not all returned. The ones who did lost their closest friends in the beaches, forests, and jungles, but since soldiers don’t leave each other behind, they became living memorials, keeping men and women alive for all ages.
They’d either flood us with war stories, or never, ever mention it at all.
Those were the soldiers and heroes I knew as a kid. They led twenty-one gun salutes on Memorial Day and marshalled the parade. I never imagined them being young.
Until the day I saw that veteran sitting on the street.
Now, it’s two decades later. I’ve grown into adulthood through two wars and a conflict that never ends.
I sent care packages, snuck alcohol and beer through postal checkpoints into dry countries, and wrote way-too-long letters later emails, but I never served. For that, I’m sorry. I think everyone should serve. People I know have served all over the world, some several times over.
Because of this, the fallen are getting younger and younger. We are seeing more of them.
“I only lost three people in my unit…” said one soldier, 23 at the time. “I was extremely lucky.”
The fallen rest in cemeteries–memorial stones decorated each year with flags, flowers, and wreaths. We honor their sacrifice on Memorial Day while their friends wait in line at the VA and their families bear the weight of their loss.
Today, I thank the families who endured multiple deployments only to answer the door for officer in a Class As or dress blues with news they never expected to hear.
The fallen are your kids, neighbors, cousins, students, parents, brothers and sisters, coworkers, and friends. They did the work no one wanted to do–work that must be done. They live on in our freedom. Their families deserve everything the nation can give.
I remain eternally grateful.
I was watching the news last night.
“It looks like it’ll be a rainy day here in New England and up the Midatlantic from DC to Boston,” the weather person said. “You’d better pack up those hotdogs and hamburgers, your Memorial Day picnic’s going to be a washout with torrential rain all day Monday carrying into the week.”
Hotdogs and hamburgers.
Memorial Day Sales.
America’s three-day weekend–quite ruined, to be sure.
I’m glad for the storm. It’s perfect–Mother Nature and God joining forces to weep for every lost soldier and the families they left behind–little children growing up with framed pictures and memories instead of a mom or dad tossing a ball, parents and spouses who planned for holidays, memories, and joy but ended up with a folded flag.
Mother Nature and God reminding the nation to be grateful–if we can’t do it with a parade and a twenty-one gun salute, then so be it… send a flood.
I wish I remembered whether I’d done something nice for the veteran on the Moscow street, even if he was a soldier in another war. But today, I try to do better for our own men and women in uniform–and their families. I hope our nation will, too. Not just today–every day, because every single day whether I am awake or asleep someone is out there keeping me safe.
I thank every family who has made the ultimate sacrifice so I may be free.
On behalf of a grateful nation this Memorial Day (and year-round):
Here are some organizations doing work for wounded and disabled veterans and families of those we have lost. Consider lending your support–either by donating time or treasure to any one of these or any of our regional and national organizations helping veterans and their families.
Red Circle Foundation: “Government and other charitable funds would have taken weeks to months to reach these families. We responded in just hours.” Red Circle Foundation is designed to help immediately, because in times of crisis, the last thing someone needs is red tape.
American Dream U: American Dream U provides mentors, job retraining, network, online courses, and events for returning veterans, giving them opportunities in tech and entrepreneurship when they come home.
Wounded Warrior Project: I have a friend who credits this organization for saving his life and marriage. WWP helps with long-term rehabilitation, adaptive technology for vets, athletic events, and support.
United Service Organization: for 75 years, the USO has done everything from bring care packages and top-level entertainment to our Armed Forces in the field to supporting families back home. Today, their MEGS system provides entertainment and mobile gaming to even the most remote locations, while caregiver seminars offer support and services for those tending to our returned wounded veterans.
Veterans of Foreign Wars: The VFW is the nation’s oldest veteran’s organization, formed just after the Spanish American War. They’re still active today, promoting patriotism, donating thousands of volunteer hours, and stepping in locally
Photo: First Sgt Katie Maynard at October 24 2013 service at Arlington National Cemetery for six US Marines lost a CH-53 helicopter crash on January 19, 2012, Afghanistan. The six US Marines who served our nation: Capt. Daniel B. Bartle, Capt. Nathan R. McHone, Master Sgt. Travis Riddick, Cpl. Joseph D. Logan, Cpl. Kevin J. Reinhard, and Cpl. Jesse W. Stites. For you, and to your loved ones, we remain grateful. (DoD photo: by Cpl. Mondo Lescaud, U.S. Marine Corps.)