I’m a homeless veteran. For two years, like more Mainers than ever before, I’ve lived on the edge. Food stamps. Clothing vouchers. Rejected employment applications, trips to shelters. And always, shame.
The Saturday before last, I went to the Togus VA hospital to attend a homeless veterans “stand down.” It was a full day of outright gifts, medical exams, social service referrals and overall kindness.
I went with my armor on. I had a wall up to contain despair, anger and fear, and to keep out hope. I came into the place with an eye to make use of any offerings; I was full of a street-wise cynicism. I had a siege-survivalist mentality I only now recognize.
I made the rounds. Medical help. Housing, food, job and tax help. There were gifts of new clothing, eye exams, haircuts. So many people offering their cards and numbers saying, “Call me. I can help.”
There was no judgment in any face. No irritation or contempt. No one looked away.
But I didn’t believe it. How could these bright and successful professionals understand? Or really care? I would take what I could get and leave before I inevitably wore out my welcome.
The day wound to an end. I was headed for the door laden with new clothes and food, running through my mind the possibility of pawning the new boots for gas money. And as I passed a window, I saw him.
He was an old man. His white hair stood out in unkempt tufts over his red ears. He wore a ball cap that said “WWII combat vet Iwo J.” His mismatched, tattered clothing hung on him. He held unsteadily onto a walker, and as he shuffled forward a young woman (a granddaughter?) took his elbow.
I followed his eyes as he looked to the left.
And there, 10 feet to his side, seven young men stood in perfect formation. Each was at attention, uniforms impeccable, their backs like rods.
Suddenly, a guttural bark, and all arms snapped up as one in salute. Their forearms were as straight as spears. Their eyes were on the old man. Each face fierce. Each man a soldier. Each boy the same age the old man had been when he went ashore at Iwo Jima and almost died.
The old man looked at them. He stood briefly, then crept slowly past. His brothers held their salute, then again, a snap of arms down.
It was only a moment, but it was the moment my shame and cynicism fell away. I went into a bathroom and wept. I weep still from time to time.
And so, to all the men and women who gave that Saturday, unpaid, a day they could have been home with their families, thank you. Thank you for clothing, for food, for medical care, but thank you most of all that you remembered, and in so doing gave back so much.
Laurie Ellis served in the Navy from 1977 to 1982. She repaired aircraft simulators and the computers that ran them.