Posts Tagged ‘veterans’

Care Package

Hand out or hand up?

He could be lying. That’s the thing: we just don’t know.

In the two and a half weeks we’ve been driving to and from a city 150 miles from where we live, we’ve seen him less than half a dozen times. A small, worn man on the shoulder of the highway ramp holding a sign that says “Homeless Vet. Anything will help.”

There are four ramps at the intersection where we see him: two eastbound, two westbound, two exit, two entrance. He rotates among all of them to better his odds, I suppose, and because there’s a lot of construction in that area.

I’d guess him in his 60’s, maybe older, his beard is white and I can’t see his hair because he wears a cap with a hood pulled up over it. He’s hunkered down on the gravel, his gear on his back, his sign out in front, his gaze stoic.

“What’s the story on the homeless vet?” I ask at the gas station where we stop every day.

All of the regulars acknowledge they’ve seen him but nobody knows anything because none of them have stopped to ask him.

“Do you think he’s really a veteran?” the clerk asks me.

It bothers me that we don’t believe him. I’ve heard the stories same as you have about unscrupulous grifters conning sympathetic do-gooders out of their hard-earned money. My husband and I discuss it during our daily trip.

What kind of proof would make a person believe him? His military service records? An eviction notice? An empty wallet with a faded picture of him in uniform? Who would really ask him for it?

Is he making a statement? He doesn’t wave the sign or shout anything or directly approach any vehicle. He stays away from the traffic lights (a good idea because the intersection is always busy) and he must not be bothering anyone because even law enforcement drives right past him.

Why would he do it if he didn’t actually need help? It’s getting colder in South Dakota and on several recent days, the winds have been gusting over 50 miles an hour. He’s out in the open, on the side of the road. Aside from the weather, he could get run over or have things thrown at him or even be dragged into a vehicle and robbed of what little he has. Why take the risk of being out there if he didn’t have to?

On today’s drive, we made a decision. If he was on our ramp today, we’d stop next to him, thank him for his service to his country, and give him something.

We saw him but not on our side. The construction crews were grading the shoulder by the overpass and he was across the intersection on the eastbound entrance ramp, the opposite direction of where we were headed.

We have four more trips to make and if he keeps his usual rotation, he’ll be on our ramp one more time.

Yeah, he could be lying. And here’s the thing: how much does it matter?

Would you stop and give him something? Or look the other way and keep going?

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Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

He’s a World War II veteran, in his 70’s,
and like many of that era, unfailingly polite.
“Please” for more ice chips,
“Thank you” for the bedpan,
“My apologies” for hitting the call button by mistake.
The lone occupant of a room with two beds,
he takes the one by the window
so he can watch the traffic.
He barely dents the mattress, is thin but not bony,
skin wrinkled but not pale and delicate.
He’s golden brown, a boy of many summers,
the same shade as my grandfather who’s a farmer
and I wonder if this man’s the same.
His hair, what’s left of it, is coarse and white
and his blue eyes are pale yet alert.
But it’s his arms that I study as I check his water pitcher.
They rest atop the sterile white coverlet like
fading portraits on a clean canvas.
Forearms covered in pictures, tattoos whose clear outlines
are muddied, the colors bled from age and the elements.
There are dates and a woman’s name,
a pin-up girl like the nose art of a bomber,
a dragon’s head that now spews a dim spark of its former flame.
While the old man sleeps, I try to picture him
as a strong young man whose eyes are clear,
whose heart pumps steadily, whose bare arms are unadorned.
Yet to travel to those places and see those things
that prompt him to wear his history forever on his skin.

Every day from my office window I see three American flags. One flies over the American Legion Post #8 cabin that sits on the banks of the Missouri River (with the flood, unfortunately, it’s temporarily relocating to higher ground). One flies over the outfield at Hyde Stadium, the baseball field across the creek from my office building. And one flies over a hometown bank one block down from where I work.  All three are perfectly framed in my window, waving in unison.

I have a similar view at home, thanks to my neighbor.  A military veteran, every morning he raises the flag on the big flagpole next to his driveway, hoisting the colors into the sky above him where they’ll proudly fly until dusk.

These flags, and many others in similar locations, fly every day, regardless of the date or the weather. At full staff in times of pride and celebration, half staff in moments of remembrance and honor. Every day, without fail. Should we celebrate Independence Day every day? From what I can see, we already do. Happy 4th.