Today being Flag Day, I dedicate this to all
who have served, fought, suffered and died
under it to keep us free.
There are husbands, brothers, sons, fathers, sisters, daughters, mothers…these veterans are all around me here at the Portland VA Hospital. I love to accompany my husband when he must pay a visit, because these men (and a few women) are honored and given dignity here. Their physical and mental wounds are attended to--wounds incurred when they said "Yes", or were drafted, and walked into the unknown horrors of war to serve their country and to protect it.
Many came home shattered, often to cruel remarks from shallow-thinking individuals. Some were so deeply "knifed" by sharp tongues and bitter attitudes, that they went into hiding, unable to face another "war" at home where they found themselves the "enemy" of those they had fought for. We see them still, wandering the streets of our cities, homeless castoffs of a society that never learned it is shameful to kick a man when he is down; a society that is not truly thankful for the freedoms we have enjoyed, nor aware that freedom is a fragile privilege that can be lost. These very men paid the price; some no longer amongst us paid the ultimate price.
Today I sit in the vast lobby, humbled. Most of these bodies are no longer young and strong, some are hollow-eyed, many walking with difficulty supported by canes and walkers, others gliding along in wheelchairs, often being pushed--they are weary, and some look harassed. And yet, in the midst of pain, there is a deep camaraderie as they sit and wait, sharing a word of understanding with each other, a pat on the back, speaking a language foreign to us who have never "been there".
Many from World War II have passed on now--they have been called "The Greatest Generation"--but a few survive, stooped and frail, their years of suffering stamped on their frames. I ventured over to talk to one of these "Greatest" in a wheelchair and grasping his cane. He smiles, shakes my hand and tells me his name is Ken. I was drawn to the sweetness in his face and wonder what his history might be. Almost before I could ask, he tells me he was part of the Bataan Death March. Leaning closer and grabbing his gnarled hand, he speaks so gently and softly I can barely hear, "We just kept walking and walking and walking…" For six tortuous days these men from various countries were force-marched by the Japanese through terrible heat, with no water, food, or shelter. Some have said, "War is hell", and I believe there is profound truth in those words.
Those who survived saw many fellow soldiers die and witnessed atrocities beyond description; but they plodded on, the will to live carrying them forward, needing often to lean on each other. Remembering this part of history, I had to acknowledge that there was something in Ken that hadn't been extinguished in the face of those frightful days.
Chuck, a Vietnam Vet, stayed by Ken, sensitive to his needs. There was that closeness between them of shared private pain, experiential knowledge of a land I could not enter. I counted it a privilege to shake their hands and thank them for their service to our country, and then I moved on.
As happens with every visit to the Veteran's Hospital, I became aware it was hallowed ground, hallowed through sacrifice, through gallantry, through love of home and country. These words and what they represent are seen by some today as old-fashioned, sentiments for sissies; but after my experience here, I know I could never agree with them. Anyone even entertaining the thought of burning the United States flag, or bringing harm to these veterans in any way, would not feel comfortable here…the presence of these men (and women) would shame them. And, the absence of others, not forgotten.