Friday, November 11, 2011

Happy Veterans Day. Really.

We love us our veterans, don’t we? As a peacetime veteran, I’m all about Veterans Day. I didn’t spend several years of my life hanging out in a uniform so I could get a day off once a year, which was just as well since it was many years before I had Veterans Day off. And I wasn’t in when there were conflicts and wars, only pretend let’s-get-ready-just-in-case practices. It was no big deal for me, because I am lucky.

But here it is Veterans Day again, as it rolls around each year, and I want to thank everyone who served. So there you go.

Last week I was in Portland, and on my way home. One of the freeway entrances that I frequent often has people on the corner. Cardboard signs abound, pleas for help, and sometimes cardboard artwork. The clientele differs. Sometimes they’re young and healthy looking, and I wish they had other options than to stand on a corner and wait for people to hand them money.

I know, I’ve been told many times that “they” make more than I do, that “they” could work if they wanted to, and that “they” will just spend any handouts frivolously. I don’t hand out money, but that’s mostly because I never carry cash. And I don’t carry cash because I probably would hand it out. And then there would be none left for me. I wouldn’t hand it out to everyone, but there are times when I see someone and I think, “I wish I could give that person something.” But I can’t do everything I want to do.

On this one day there was only one person on that corner, and he was old, and thin, and his sign said he was a veteran, and he was homeless. He couldn’t move very well, but there he stood, with his cardboard sign, inviting anyone to stop.

Was it true? As far as I know. People have said I should be more suspicious of others, but I’m not, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. He looked like a veteran, worn out and used, and then discarded because, well, he’s no longer much use to us, is he? He can’t be sent overseas to fight, and he can’t be put to good use, so there he is, on the street corner.

“He doesn’t have to be homeless,” people say, but I don’t know. I do know that many are homeless, and many have problems that aren’t addressed because there isn’t enough money to take care of them all, and we easily assume that their problems are because of who they are, not because we’ve let them down.

He reminded me of Fred, my once hospice patient who was also a veteran, until he retired. He went to war, he came home with health issues, and as he was dying he was still awaiting word on whether his exposure to Agent Orange qualified him for disability. He was dying from a respiratory disorder, but the VA said it wasn’t their fault – it was his own fault for smoking.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know.

I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as I would like to be. I don’t have answers, only questions.

On this one day I had a ten dollar bill in my wallet. This happens very infrequently. I pressed the little button on my fancy car that tells the window to roll down, and the man with the sign hobbled over to me. I handed him the ten dollar bill, and then he grasped my hand firmly in his, and told me to enjoy the day, for it was sunny, the sky a clear bright blue. I told him to enjoy the day also, and he smiled, and then the light changed. He hobbled back to his spot, and I drove onto the freeway, lighter for the loss of ten dollars.

Sometimes being lighter is the best thing that can happen to us.

People will say, “He’ll only spend it on booze, you should never give them money,” but I don’t really care. Get this: I don’t even care what he spends it on. That’s his business, not mine. I’m not his mommy, I’m not even a social agency. I gave him a gift of ten bucks, and what he does with it is up to him.

What we do speaks volumes about what we think of our veterans, and no matter what we say, it’s our actions that tell the truth, not platitudes.

My nephew recently came home from war. I want to thank him, and tell him I love him, and I hope he never needs to rely upon the government, for it may let him down. But that doesn’t mean people will. The government is one thing. People are another.

People are what I still have faith in. 


  1. One day I was on the way home from where ever. There was a homeless guy, much like your guy. Didn't give it a second thought.

    I pulled into McDonalds for lunch. Instead of ordering the Big Mac meal, large, I ended up ordering four of them. I ate one and as I drove by the homeless guy, I gave him the other three. Tears came to both our eyes.

  2. Great thoughts. Faith in the individual