He stood there knee deep in the slow current of the river. The sun darkening his skin, a smooth flat rock rotated rhythmically in his hands. He didn’t look at me as I sat quietly on a sun baked boulder, feet dangling in the water. In a deep quiet voice my friend told me a long story, a story about a bronze medal, a story about a GPS coordinate tattooed on his ribs. He told me about disobeying direct orders. About the carrying of friends, one by one up the mountain to safety. The best friend he lost and the ones he was losing – carried them all.
And a medal for bravery can hang heavy with loss and feel nothing like a reward. And hometowns and old familiar faces can feel more foreign than any base camp and battlefield a world away.
Had he looked up he would have seen my eyes swimming with tears. Although he couldn’t have seen how my heart ached for him. He couldn’t have felt my throat choke with a strange mixture of gratitude and grief and pride.
His story didn’t have a twinge of the beer soaked tales of glory days we associate with men who have served in battle. It was a story hard to hear, and hard to tell. A quiet memory, a faint picture of blasts that damaged bodies and left war torn hearts unhealed. A story of things eyes should never have to see, burdens not meant to be carried.
And you wonder if the greatest challenge is not in surviving a war, but in surviving a life after war.
The darkest edges of my fears, haven’t touched the bitterness of what he knows is possible, what he has seen is possible. I become ashamed of my stable life, of my innocence, of the shortsightedness of my worries.
And he fought to protect that for me. He fought to protect that for a lot of people he’s never met. It’s not a burden that was left on the battle field – it’s a burden he carries while he works, and while he plays there in a quiet mountain town.
And he looks up and reads my face all wrong. He apologizes. Apologizes for a story that tucked the sun behind the clouds over a deep pool in the Merced River.
And it’s me who should be apologizing. For not looking people in the eye a heartbeat longer when they say they are fine. For not being still long enough for them to tell a story that chokes them by day, and keeps them awake by night.
I think that we forget that stories like these can only rise to the surface in the stillness, in the quiet, in the wide open space.
And they are stories that need to be heard, and met with eyes willing to not look away. Because you never would have known that there’s a calendar full of dates that haunt him. Or that when he absently rubs that tattoo on his ribs it signals an ache in his chest. And that beer too many isn’t to take him away but to bring him back to where he is now.
You’d never know it to look at him.
We never really know the men tapping into unknown reservoirs of bravery, the men put through the fire, emerging with a steely selflessness.
And how many more stories are left unread, unwritten, unheard because we fail to acknowledge that the sights they’ve seen can sear a mind, and still leave the skin untouched.
Why are we not helping them? Why do we not offer to shoulder some of their burdens, until they find their footing again?
To the naked eye, we appear to be in short supply of heroes – because when they come back to our communities, our towns, our colleges, our churches, our bars, they’re not recognized.
There’s a clamoring in our country, a deafening shouting match for wrongs to be made right, a desire to be heard. More often than not the deepest wounds, those in the darkest recesses of struggle are silent. What if we diverted our focus from the frenzy to see the silent grief in a single man’s eyes? Grief not given a voice, grief born bravely and brokenly.
The wounded in our lives are all too frequently walking instead of wheelchair bound. Samaritan’s Purse, Operation Heal our Patriots devotes it efforts to ensuring these men don’t lose their families, their marriages, their sense of purpose when they tread civilian soil again. The Mighty Oaks Warrior Program combats the greatest causality of veterans – of being forgotten.
Because we’re called to show thankfulness for an undeserved mercy. Called to help someone up, who has taken a bullet for you regardless of whether you asked them to or not. You can say you are for peace but it sounds hollow when you deny it to those who have sacrificed their desire for peace to ensure yours.
Our streets are haunted with the walking wounded who pass before our eyes without triggering our compassion, without touching our hearts. And it turns out the battle scared hearts aren’t the calloused ones. A war doesn’t end when the troops are called home – it ends when the men who offered it all are given it back.
Before the wave of flags and BBQ’s and hopes for the summer ahead – Men are called up to be honored in church for their service to our country, age standing at attention. And a slide show of their younger selves rolls behind them with names, and years, and battles fought. And you wonder how many young soldiers will make it there, to not only have survived a war, but to have survived a life after war.
It’s our responsibility to memorialize the fallen and our job to fight alongside those who didn’t – in the war of returning home.