To all my veterans, those known to me and unknown, who served in combat or a safety zone, please forgive me for taking a different route to pay tribute to you today. I am writing about what I know about: what it’s like to know a combat vet. But my heart honors all of you with great pride and humility.
Whenever Veterans Day comes around, I always feel inadequate at showing my respect and appreciation for your willingness to serve and defend my freedoms and liberties. This year, in writing about something I experienced, I hope you will see the tribute to you. It is time those you love are acknowledged, out of respect and honor to you. In other words, dear combat veteran: I’ve got your loved ones’ backs covered on this, your day.
This is my tribute to you for 2012.
To the spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent, sibling, friend of the veteran to whom you had to say good-bye: this is an open letter to you, a tribute to your courage and pain. For you see, I too, was left behind once.
Although my veteran was a man and use the pronoun he, it is meant to include all the shes as well.
Dear Loved One Left Behind:
Yes, there is hope.
I remember when I was getting ready to be left behind. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor and even though it was linoleum and a warm day in late summer, the floor felt cool through my shorts. The three days they had given us to be together were passing frighteningly fast. That was barely enough time to say hello, much less good-bye.
My vet was near me in the living room starting to pack, his duffel bag and gear all spread out on the couch and on the floor in front. He was meticulous about everything. The pants had to have creases, the shirts had to be rolled just so. The duffel bag seemed to swallow everything he put into it, without stretching out even the least little bit.
The army green was so drab looking. Everything was that same dull color, just in different shades. The blanket was hideously rough, I thought. It was so thin, how could it possibly keep anybody warm and did it have to be so rough? Why couldn’t it be soft, like a blanket is supposed to be? The army couldn’t even get that right.
He stopped his packing long enough to look at me and smile. For a brief second I felt odd. This was all wrong. Something wasn’t right. Why did he have to leave? Why couldn’t I go with him? How could he sleep at night with that horrible blanket?
I was beginning to get a bit edgy. Who’ll see me if he’s not here to see me? My heart was getting rolled up and put in the duffle bag, too. I needed to be seen again. He had to come back. How the hell can life stay so fragile when it takes so much strength to live?
I heard him call my name.
“I’m coming back, you know.”
Well, of course he was. Why wouldn’t he? I nodded.
Everything was going to be okay.
We all know how important keeping in touch with our veteran is, and it was the same with me, only then we didn’t have Skype or the Internet or phones. We had to rely on hand written letters. Our news didn’t come directly from our veteran, it was from the newspapers and TV.
I had started paying more attention to the news broadcasts. Every time the news went to the war, I tensed up, afraid to move. I was riveted to the screen. A helicopter was landing and infantrymen were jumping out, rifles ready. They raced off into the bushes and trees. I searched and searched for the faces, wanting to see my veteran, but afraid I would and he would be down. These days I see the same thing, only now the veterans are rushing into stone buildings and cemeteries and hillsides.
I tried not to watch the news but no matter how hard I tried, I was forced to see the war that had my veteran. The war that was so ugly and terrifying, that was supposed to be noble and worthwhile and saving our country, but didn’t make any sense to me. I was mesmerized by the reporting. I hated the faces of our soldiers – they all looked so strained and old, even though I knew most of them couldn’t be more than in their twenties. It was like watching them die in stages and not being able to do anything about it.
Sometimes a body would be lying dead on the ground and I’d panic. Was that my vet’s watch on that body’s wrist? No, no, he didn’t wear one like that. Or I’d see a wounded soldier on a stretcher, being carried off a field. The boots! He had boots like that! Oh for crying out loud, all the soldiers had boots like that.
In our small town, neighbors would drop in if they had a few minutes, which was often,
just to say hello and share a cup of coffee, to show my family support while our vet was gone. In spite of knowing this, every time we heard unexpected footsteps on the porch, we froze. I had been told that the army sent their own personnel to the homes of the dead soldiers, to tell the families. I wondered what it would be like to have somebody in a uniform show up at your door, a stranger reporting to you that they were sorry, but your husband/wife/partner/son/daughter/brother/sister/friend was killed serving his/her country. What would we be doing? Did they go out only during the day? Were we safe at night from them? Did they ship bodies in wood coffins? Would I be able to see him alive again, like
With each unanticipated step across the porch, we stopped and listened with grave,
frightened hearts. Were they heavy steps, like somebody makes wearing army boots? Did the death deliverers come in pairs? We thought they did, but we weren’t sure. Was there one pair or two? Then suddenly a neighbor would be standing in the doorway, peering in, smiling.
“Anybody home?” they’d yell quite cheerily while our hearts flew across the room and smashed against the wall.
Oh, dear God! you screamed inside your head. How much more of this do we have to take and when can he come back home for good? Oh, dear God! you cried in total torment. Please, please, please don’t let him come home in a flag-draped coffin! Please, please, please!
Smiles would be dutifully placed on our faces and we would force ourselves to breathe slowly; couldn’t let anybody know you went berserk there for a second.
You have to keep believing in your heart that everything will be okay.
One night I got down to the relaxing business of making chocolate chip cookies. Two relatives were in the next room, chatting. I sat down to stir the cookies, mixing in the flour a little at a time so the consistency would be just right. I hadn’t intended to listen to them, as I wasn’t much interested in the family gossip. But a name caught my ear. It was my vet they were talking about.
“I’m so worried about him,” I heard one say.
I mixed in the salt, just a tad.
“It’s such a horrible war. Did you see the news on TV the other night?” she asked.
I knew what she was talking about. I had seen it, too, wanting to run from the room but nailed to my chair. A helicopter was dropping off soldiers again. The grass was higher than any grass I had ever seen. The trees were everywhere. How did they find any room to land? But the copter hadn’t landed, it just hovered. Didn’t it hurt their legs to jump out like that?
“I know, I know,” replied the other. “It’s terrible.”
I stirred the dough again and again, the flour disappearing into the buttery batter. The soldiers had jumped out of the copter so fast. They looked worried. They had barely hit the ground and scattered. I had searched the faces of every one again, trying to find my vet and terrified I would. That one in the corner of the screen that you couldn’t see too well – was that my vet, do you think? Would he be jumping out of a copter? Why didn’t he just tell me where he was and what he was doing?
“I kept looking for him in the news,” she added.
I grabbed the bag of chocolate chips, finding it hard to stop my fingers from trembling. I concentrated, frowning at the bag as I struggled to tear it open. It was usually so easy.
“I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to him,” sighed the other one.
The bag tore open and I dumped the chips into the bowl, dumped them fast, just like those guys getting out of the copter, just like those guys running and scattering…my chips were scattering all over the top of the batter. That won’t do. They shouldn’t be out in the open like that. They shouldn’t be seen!
I set the empty bag down and grabbed my spoon, stirring as fast as I could, mixing up the chips as fast as I could so nobody could see them, so nobody could find them, so nobody could shoot them and kill them.
“I don’t think he’s going to come back.”
My hand stopped. The chocolate chips stayed in the batter where I had hidden them.
“Don’t think like that!” admonished the other.
“I just have a feeling he’s not going to make it.”
I stared at the batter. I wanted to see my vet on TV and know he was safe. I didn’t want to see my vet on TV and know he was in all that hell. I wanted to touch his face again, to know he was alive. I wanted to believe he would be okay, he promised me he would be. I wanted my relatives to believe he would be okay, to believe it, all his friends and all my friends, everybody; because if everybody believed it, it would be true and he would be back safe and unharmed. But there was that comment, shattering my thin walls of hope like glass, the tiny shards ripping my heart from my chest.
I quietly set down the bowl. I stood up and walked softly out of the kitchen. I blinked tears as I walked around the corner. I choked down bile that had climbed into my throat. I hit the steps sobbing, taking two steps at a time to reach the safety of my bedroom. I threw myself down on my bed and gave in to my anguish.
Don’t say it, don’t say it! I yelled in my mind. I had nothing to hang ontoany more. My vet wasn’t there to tell me he would be okay, and if my vet wasn’t there, nobody else was either.
After I had stopped crying I stayed on the bed and thought long and hard about my vet. I made up my mind. I wasn’t going to change it, ever.
Nobody…nobody…was going to say out loud that my vet might not come back, I’d see to that.
I wiped the tear streaks from my face, put my chin up and walked downstairs to finish those cookies.
I decided to send some to my vet.
So you see, dear loved one left behind, I understand the quiet sacrifice, the noble suffering you, too, endure.
I know to you, as it was to me, the flag becomes even more important. I see it now as more than a symbol of our country. I see it as a symbol of the suffering of those of us left behind.
The blue relflects the sadness that you felt at the separation, the sense of deep loss you can’t really share.
The shapes for each state should not be stars, but hearts; for each veteran from each state loves his home enough to be willing to give the ultimate sacrifice: his or her life.
The red is the blood of the wounding and the deaths you have had to face, or shared with others.
The white…ah, the white…now there, in the white, is redemption.
White shines as the color of purity…purity of purpose, of honor, of nobility, of the sincere belief that your veteran will survive the day and will come back home, to you. Or, it is also the purity of knowledge that the spirit of the fallen will never die; it will be carried on in the lives and genes of those who follow after. Their spirit breeds heroism in the hearts of those left behind and those coming after. Those who have fallen have not fallen in vain. White is the light of impeccable hope that underlying all the violence in life is the thread of beautiful love for another, connecting us all and putting meaning into our lives.
I have seen it time and time again in our flag. It is there, streaming out from the sadness of loss. It is there, along side the grief of wounds and death. It is there, because it is real. Embrace it. Always keep it close to your heart, no matter what.
Yes, there is always reason to hope.
To all the veterans on this your day, and your loved ones, thank you for your services to our country.
— ( c) St. John 2012