This is a couple days late for Veterans day, but I've been thinking about it for a couple weeks now and not known quite what to write.
A few weeks ago I read a fictional account of Iraq war veterans called Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. It was one of the most thought provoking books on war I have ever read. I'm not sure I could glowingly recommend it to a wider audience as it was also the most profane book I've ever read. But, I guess that's to be expected when it's told from the point of view of a young soldier.
Billy and his colleagues are back in the US on a victory tour after their heroism at "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal." They are paraded around the country and hailed as heroes at various events, including a halftime show at an NFL game where they're brought up on stage with Destiny's Child dancing around them.
What struck me most was Billy's reaction to folks who would come up and talk to him and express gratitude or want to discuss the war. The writing was superb. Billy would zone out during these conversations and only hear key words that seemed to be repeated by everyone he met "thankful, honor, nine-eleven, terrorist, grateful, Osama...." The thank yous seemed so empty coming from people who could never dream of understanding what he'd just been through, or how it felt to lose a close friend right in front of your eyes, or how it felt to destroy a person.
They'd thank him, then move right on to their beer or huddle back in their expensive coats against the cold, while Billy was lost in thought, re-living his terrible experiences.
All this time, Billy and his colleagues are also trying to negotiate a movie deal. The money their agent has promised them is going to solve all of Billy's problems (or help solve his parents' problems). He's got nothing, and his parents will lose their house if the money doesn't come through.
[Side note: I'm revealing so much of the plot because I feel like if you read it, you'll get lost in the writing and the emotion of it all and not care as much about the spoilers.]
It all really got to me. How do we sufficiently thank these young kids who are dying for us? How do we we let them know how important we think they are? How do you convey your gratitude and patriotic emotion without being so empty?
How is it that these injured (mentally and physically) boys are not taken care of when they return home? We can't erase their experiences, but can we ease the transition back into "normal" life?
All these questions had been whirling around in my head for weeks, when Adrienne invited me to an anniversary party at Urban Country in Bethesda. We arrived without knowing that the evening was also a benefit for the Wounded Warrior project.
I had such trouble keeping my emotions (and water works) in check that night.
I'm grateful to live in a city where I can see so many active military members on a regular basis. I'm glad that when I do it makes the war seem closer to home. It's so easy otherwise to just push it out of my mind.
We met and talked with soldiers who are currently recovering at Walter Reed. Some in wheel chairs, some without legs, some without a jaw, some with pins sticking out of their feet. All under the age of 30.
They were so kind and so impressive. It made the war come so close to home. My heart just ached for them.
I felt like I was living my very own Billy Lynn.
How could I express gratitude in a way fitting what they'd done? How would it sound to them for me to be saying I felt "so patriotic"? Would it sound to them as empty as it felt to me? I don't know the words to do justice to my gratitude.
I love words, but sometimes they can be so confining. When it comes to emotion, there are never enough to so finely describe how you feel.
What I know is this. Although I don't have the words (or the capability to be eloquent with the ones I do have) to thank the men and women fighting for our country, I am so grateful for their sacrifices. I am grateful for their optimism and faith in the greater good. I am grateful for their bravery. I am grateful for their tradition and honor. I am grateful to the families that support their sons and daughters when they're so far away.
The night was to benefit the Combat Soldiers Recovery Fund. It is a Maryland-based non-profit that provides funds to soldiers recovering at Walter Reed. The woman who runs it does it for free so that 100% of donations make it to the soldiers. The soldier is given a check and is able to do with it whatever he wants (fly his family out to visit him, buy Christmas presents for his children, take his wife out for dinner, buy a new prosthetic leg...). As one of the soldiers I met said, "it is a check, yes, but it is also respect. To be trusted to do with the money what we want shows more respect than most charities." If you'd like to donate to the fund, you can do so here.