A DAY AT THE V-A
The Bay Pines V-A in St. Petersburg, Florida is huge.
The reception area where I spent a lot of time was enormous. Plastic chairs line the walls while the center is reserved for a card table with a half-completed jig-saw puzzle. I never saw anyone actually working on the puzzle, but there it sat with dozens of pieces left to be married to a larger picture.
What I did see were men … all men … sitting with infinite patience. Ninety percent of them wore ball-caps with unit numbers or campaigns. They came from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. The physically wounded were easy to spot; all you had to do was match the ball-cap with the wound and the wrinkles to figure out where and when their lives changed.
WWII vets sat pretty much with other WWII vets … same-same with Korean and Vietnam vets. It was just a natural generational pecking order.
One day in 2004 a young man appeared in the waiting room. He headed to the only available chair bracketed by two WWII vets … a Marine (Ball-cap:” Tarawa”) and a soldier (Ball-cap: “101st Airborne”).
The kid was in bad shape. He had terrible … no, awful …head wounds. He was holding a paper cup of water. He babbled and drool dripped onto his sweatshirt.
In “The World” … as we Vietnam vets referred to home … folks tend to shy away from babbling, drooling people. The two WWII vets simply sat there. Occasionally, they would shoot looks at each other as the kid between them ranted and shook.
You could almost hear his bones banging. The kid tried to take a drink of water, but like an old vaudeville act he experienced a “drinking problem” and dumped the water into his lap.
One leg began to jump and down; his head whipped back and forth. He basically devolved in front of our eyes.
The room watched and then the most remarkable thing happened. A dozen vets representing 60-plus years of American war stood up and moved their plastic chairs to encircle the kid. Not a word was said. WWII, Korea and Vietnam came together to surround Iraq or perhaps Afghanistan.
There was an almost Biblical laying-on of hands. Ancient vets who could barely move found a way to touch The Kid.
No word was spoken.
The rest of us in the room just watched. There was no judgment, no gallows humor, no nothing. There was also no turning away. We were privileged witnesses to a healing.
Sometime later, a nurse in scrubs appeared. She knelt before The Kid, took his hands and whispered something to him. And then she gently kissed his terrible scar.
One hundred men cried that day at the V-A in Bay Pines, Florida.
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