I’ve recently found that I embrace conversation with prior military service members about the things they, we or I did while in the service. I’ve also come to realize that not just the military service members are the only ones with stories to tell. These stories are not only worth hearing, the stories are also worth telling.
Just listen to Mary Gauthier’s “The War After the War”. The story reflects on the struggles of family members of those service members after their loved one had returned home with the hurt and the pain; and learning some of the service member’s triumphs and some of the service member’s hardships and anguish. It’s hard to hear some of those stories. What I find even harder to grasp, are the real struggles both service members and their families face without resolve. Dennis was a service member that taught me how to listen . . . how to look that service member in the eye, and listen. And don’t forget to thank them for their service.
My close friend and I had recently visited a popular desert retreat for those persons wishing to escape Los Angeles or the surrounding areas of Southern California. This desert retreat is frequented by musicians from around the globe desiring to have their music heard in a small venue that is a popular day-travel destination for those persons wishing to escape the grind of the big cities. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown, located in Joshua Tree, California is just that place, or at least it is one of those places. There are more places like Joshua Tree around the country, but Joshua Tree can be described by some as being a magical place where you can “smoke a little weed, eat a few edibles and walk around hallucinating at rock formations” as jokingly envisioned by my son. There is not much out in that area, although there are some nice places too. Homes are inexpensive, properties are vast and expansive; yet the living can be very harsh, sometimes with long running temperatures well above 100 degrees in the summer time.
The area around Joshua Tree was described to me as “free land”, describing when the government allowed homesteads to be grasped by those desiring to squat on whatever they could capture and ultimately hold on to. Yes there is much property that has a concrete pad with little remaining other than a door and maybe a roof. As one resident couldn’t live and survive in such a harsh environment they would move out deserting behind whatever they couldn’t carry with them, leaving whatever behind for the other residents in the area to pilfer. It’s kind of an eerie place.
I met Dennis this evening outside of the venue. Dennis described himself as a Veteran. Dennis was drinking a beer and wasn’t sticking around to see the show because he can’t afford to see all of them, but he lives just down the road. Dennis was talking to me in a fashion that I can only describe as foreign. His speech was not slurred, but it was hurried, stumbling over phrases and sentences as he attempted to explain his time in the United States Navy and his use of the Veterans Administration compensation and heath care system. It wasn’t until he described his days on a Navy ship that I began to discount this guy as being mentally ill and bothersome to me and my friend. Then he began to tell stories that I understood. Stories that I had told. Stories that he and I shared about similar experiences while, as Mary says, “serving something bigger than ourselves”, for someone else. Stories about serving at sea on board Navy vessels away from our families and loved ones. Stories that I tell about sitting on the deck of the ship watching whatever the ocean had to present as our ships explored the globe. It was then that I realized that Dennis may have mental issues, but then I think about the mental issues that I have. About the deep thoughts and feelings I haven’t yet expressed to my therapist. Who am I to be judging Dennis? I am now his friend, his shipmate, his escape. All he wants to do is tell his story, for someone to have an ear that can relate to his experiences. All he wants to do is have a friend and someone to give him feedback about his life, to share a similar laugh, a familiar joke, a soothing story . . . and maybe just someone to tell him, “it’s ok”.
I have other friends that I had met on my travels while in the Navy. Some of those friends are not close. Some of them lived in countries across the globe. Some of those friends I have lost contact with. Some of those friendships are just like the memories that have now faded, yet are far from being lost.
I once met a Chinese bar owner while visiting the British-ruled Hong Kong years ago. He and I shared not only the same birthday and were the same age, but he also shared his home with me. For years we traded birthday cards. For years we stayed in contact. Even through just that moment of a smile that we had knowing a friend was wishing us well on our birthday from across the globe . . . half a world away.
I have gained friendships from others throughout time and from across the globe. I really don’t have many local friends near me. Mostly I have only my wife, that I now better understand what she goes through after hearing Mary’s song. I don’t have a bunch of war memories or stories like some might believe. I don’t have stories of the twin towers falling atop of me like my friend Joe Torrillo, a FDNY firefighter, being buried alive twice from the falling towers of 911. Yet Joe and I have a belief that our nation will regain its patriotism and get closer to fulfilling my vision from many many years ago, that there will be another military age. The same type of military age similar to that during the Second World War, where this nation planted victory gardens waiting for their loved family members to come home. A military age where most, if not all, of the American society embraced our soldiers. A military age nothing like the way our Vietnam Veterans were treated. Our current wars being fought abroad in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan are being downplayed by social media outlets similar to this, where people can hide behind their faceless comments and skirt their responsibilities to register for the draft. Our current wars being fought over gun control because of mental instability not being recognized and afforded the counselling they need.
Let’s look at our war heroes. Let’s look at our ancestors. Let’s look at the fireman that saved our home, our mother, our father from the burning home that tore us down. Let’s look at the cop who pulls us over for an expired registration on our vehicle. Let’s understand why we yelled at him or her. Let’s think about the Gold Star Family that just lost their military son; about how we didn’t know the Gold Star father was also that cop.
Let’s think about what we can do for Dennis. Let’s talk to him and listen for a moment to what he is asking us for. He’s not asking for much since he has learned to adapt and survive on what he has, where he’s at.
Listen to Dennis.