In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
"We who have seen war, will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young."
— Joe Galloway in We Were Soldiers Once...and Young
This Veterans Day, I had the honor of joining about 50 Americans and an equal number of French citizens at a very humble wreath laying at the Meuse Argonne American Cemetery and a memorial in the nearby village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. We made the four hour plus trek from Stuttgart and the rumor going around our small group was that a four star General was flying in for the ceremony.
The grey skies were thick with fog and the mud squished underneath me as I wandered through row upon row of graves. Knowing each white cross was actually a person, my feet were propelled by a sense of duty to embrace the unique identity of each cross. Over 14,000 stories that ended before they had a chance to be written spread over the grounds like crumpled up drafts of an important letter.
The Meuse Argonne American Military Cemetery (France) contains the graves of the largest number of American soldiers buried in Europe (14,000+ graves).
My mind wandered: Who were you? Who loved you? What suffering felled you and were you alone when your heart beat for the last time. Can you feel that someone still cares for your mystery?
In thinking about the question of what the average person can do on Veterans Day or any other day to help a veteran, my heart is led to share a very simple idea that resulted from a quiet moment I experienced many years ago during a telephone conversation with a battle-hardened Marine. It was close to anniversary of the death of two of his fellow Marines, and I'm guessing this was the reason he was compelled to open up about another horrific memory. He related the story of a young Marine wounded in battle that he came upon during a hellish firefight.
The wounded Marine was just a kid really, not too far out of high school. He lay on the ground, bleeding profusely from a severe facial wound, and his jaw essentially hung by just a few threads of sinew because of the way he was wounded. When he was picked up to be rescued, he attempted to ask my friend to leave him there to die. Understanding the severity of what happened to his face, he was trying to express that he did not want to live in such a condition. The problem, of course, was that his jaw couldn't move to speak because it was hanging by a few flaps of skin. So this poor kid was gurgling on his own blood and wagging his tongue trying to talk.
I was silent as I listened to this story, unable to say anything. I was horrified and so sad to think of their mutual suffering. I listened attentively, my heart absolutely aching. Tears streamed down my face and I tried to control my breathing — to conceal my soft weeaping. The Marine was in a bit of a daze, like he was living that moment all over again and talking to nobody in particular. I was so wrapped up in imagining the raw brutality, the sight, the sound, the undeniable reality of it all, that it took me a moment to realize he went silent.
"Are you crying?" he asked.
"Yeah," I whispered.
He paused for a moment and then said, "Thank you for crying."
I know what he meant by that — thank you for caring.
Sometimes, the best thing we can do is care that someone lived that kind of reality and knew those kinds of moments. Sometimes, all you need to do is listen to their stories and be thankful inside that you have none of your own to wake you up at night. Sometimes, I think it's more important to care in a way that makes you a little bit uncomfortable.
That four star General who was supposed to come to the wreath laying in France was actually General Carter Ham, Commanding General of USAREUR (U.S. Army Europe) and Seventh Army (he's the big guy over here). Well, he never did swoop in by helicopter because the fog was just too thick. I assumed he would just cancel.
General Carter Ham, Commanding General of the USAREUR (U.S. Army Europe) and Seventh Army
But you know what? He drove. He drove in his dress blues all the way from Germany to France to a tiny, unpretentious wreath laying ceremony in the middle of the Western Front that was completely devoid of pomp and circumstance. He drove because it really does matter that we go out of our way to show we care.
Every veteran, dead or alive, has a story worth slowing down to remember.
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