It isn't Veteran's Day, but today I'm thinking about a few soldiers.
Last night Chris was reading through various news websites and called me over when he came across one website's photo of the day. It was taken at a memorial service for a fallen Army soldier, killed not too long ago in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb. We didn't know him. We did, however, know the man wheeled to the front of the room, saluting with tears burning down his face, and the woman pushing his chair, his wife. Even in a partial body brace and device holding his head up, this man's anguish took over his whole body, and brought me to tears in the comfort and safety of our living room. It was difficult to look at, because this is the first time we've actually known someone seriously wounded by war, and that connection suddenly made all the madness very personal.
Working with and among military communities, we've known many people who have and will deploy to fight for their country. Anyone who comes through such intense and violent experiences must carry some wounds. Everyone we've known until now has come home safely, though not without difficult images burned into their minds, no doubt. We had known this couple from the photograph in another place. I'd even begun to make plans for getting together when it looked for a while like we'd all be moving on to the same new location. But circumstances took them in another geographical direction, and that was that. It is the nature of this lifestyle to run into old friends clear across the world, we just hadn't expected to see them again in this way.
As a non-military person whose only ties to which had previously been through a grandfather, now passed on, and a cousin I haven't seen since I was a kid, it was easy to maintain a certain distance from the stress of "living military." The faith a family must have to say goodbye when their loved one leaves with no guarantee of return; the strength a person must have to see what they see and do what they do in the face of terrible war, and that which the family and friends at home carry to get through the days of unknowing; and being devoted to something they believe in enough to carry on with love and pride. Most people we've only known after their deployments, and some share stories and others don't. A good friend of ours deployed last year and that was the first time I felt real and deep worry, because I know him and his family, and that dipped into my actual life. I listen to my friends whose husbands have deployed or will soon and I feel for them, their apprehension, their struggle, but I know I will never truly know their fear nor their strength in this way. It is a life they've signed on for because their partners did, and although they remain behind when duty calls, they are fighting the battles every day alongside every person in uniform, just on a different front. It is one of the many reasons I love them and have such respect for them. It's so much easier when you don't know anybody "over there."
The man in the wheelchair survived an attack that took two of his brothers in arms. He is lucky. He got to come home to his family. When we first heard he'd been injured it was jarring, and we quickly jumped onto FaceBook to see some welcome home pictures his wife posted, their daughter hugging her father tightly in his hospital bed with damp eyes and pink cheeks. We couldn't believe he'd been hurt, though I'm not sure where the logic was in that. But we know him, I remember thinking. Relieved he'd come home alive, I suppose we just let the current of every day life carry us on. But this photo did something different. I'm having trouble dislodging the weight of it from my chest. It's one thing, I believe, to look at pictures of someone bandaged up in a hospital bed with a smile on their face because they're surrounded by family and happy to be home. It's quite another to witness the naked anguish gripping someone when faced with a pair of empty Army boots set upon a table. Seeing the sorrow makes it more real to someone who's never been there, and my chest constricts as I type this because of it.
I'm not really sure what I thought it might accomplish, but I felt moved to write about this today. When Chris and I first began this journey together far from home, we were the last people who would have expected the two of us to be associated with the military, let alone government. We, you see, were a regular couple of liberals who didn't believe in, nor support war or many of the decisions our government made. And while years down the road, we still don't agree with everything that goes on, we have a better understanding of the most important part of the American military: the people. People are not their government, the same as you are not your boss (unless you are, in which case, bravo!). People are living, breathing, hurting, growing, learning, loving beings who all strive for basically the same thing - to be happy and to be loved. Safety is a part of that. Peace is a part of that. Freedom is part of that, and not just the freedom usually spoken of in times of war and defending our country, but the freedom to live and be however fulfills one's life. I think it must be easy for us to forget the people in the dust clouds of the fighting, otherwise we wouldn't need so much reminding.
I didn't know the man whose shoes sat on that table in the photograph, but I hope that he will rest in peace wherever he is. As for our friend who came home a little broken, and everyone who comes home or welcomes a person in uniform back...for all of us, I hope that someday we may live that way.