The Clearing Round
A column intended to inform and stimulate thoughtful conversation about returning home from military service.
Your comments, constructive criticsim and thoughtful responses are welcomed.
The Clearing Round
Honor Flight – First Musings
Just before midnight on July 4, my son drove me from our Columbia home to the Marriott, where 108 other veterans and I would meet our hosts and guardians for the 47th Central Missouri Honor Flight. Misgivings I had held for years about taking this trip quickly had been washed away two weeks before in the orientation meeting. Rampant positivity and overflowing good will set the tone for the orientation and were on full display again on the 4th. They were to remain during the day and be the signature of the shared veteran experience. Over and over again we were told that this was our day, and the way people had chosen to say, “Thank you for serving us and we’re sorry we didn’t welcome you home long ago.” At different points for all of us, we began to believe it, and then we began to accept it.
The trip was very positive, healing, and very emotional. It has entered my personal archives as one of the best days of my life. It was a life-changing day. The emotional highs during the trip were fast and profound. Time will be required to sort through and fully appreciate that amazing day, but, as quickly as possible I wanted to post my thanks and appreciation to the scores of volunteers and hundreds of donors who made the miracle happen. I am in awe of what you did and the way you did it, and will retain my gratitude so long as my aging memory bank is on recall. Other blogs about this experience will follow.
Behind the countless volunteers, both seen and unseen, during the trip, were the unspoken kindness and generosity of the many Missourians who donated money for this amazing gift to veterans. We were told before the trip that this was the 47th Honor Flight, and that the 109 of us would push the total number of Missouri veterans who have made the flight to more than 3000. Twelve of us were Korean War veterans, and the other 97 were Viet Nam era veterans. Since 2009, more than $3 million has been donated for this work.
The thought that is resonating most strongly with me today is gratitude. My work with All the Way Home, trying to motivate civilians to help heal the invisible wounds of war -- moral injury, soul wounds, and Post-Traumatic Stress -- that are carried by combat veterans and those who work most closely with them, often has been frustrating. I’ve sometimes wondered if anyone cares.
Sitting in stunned amazement with the other veterans as we traveled back to Columbia from Lambert Field on Wednesday night, I had no doubt that many Mid-Missourians care. The trip from Kingdom City to the Marriott was beyond description. More than 400 motorcycles joined our small convoy at Kingdom City, the cyclists waving and gunning their engines as they sped past us in the left lane of I-70. American flags flew on almost every bike. Every exit/entry ramp was blocked by Missouri State Highway Patrol with flashing lights. There would be nothing but the buses full of veterans, the cyclists and the police sharing the road for the final 25 miles of the trip. The moderator on the bus told us with pride in his own voice, “The Missouri State Highway Patrol wants you to know that tonight, you own the interstate between Kingdom City and Columbia, and we are here to thank you, honor you and take you home.” Fireworks were frequent, and were almost non-stop once we approached Columbia. Motorists and others lined the road, waving flags, flashing headlights and setting off fireworks. The three score wizened, graying veterans on the bus, who already had bonded through the shared memories of long ago and the healing events of the day, shed tears, sighs, and spontaneous shouts and grunts of excitement, surprise, thanks and awe. What a ride! What an experience! What a day! What a community!
A prevailing, shared thought throughout the day had been wonder and disbelief that it had been nearly 50 years since our youth was halted and forever clouded by our participation in the military during the time of a hugely unpopular war. Unspoken was the sad realization that for many of us, particularly those of us who were in combat, those five decades were lived with a shadow on our hearts and souls. During that 25 mile ride from Kingdom City, I felt it, and I know my brothers did too . . . “Finally! Finally, I am home again. Here, at last, are the people we went for, and tomorrow truly is a new day.”
What it is like to go to war
It’s me here...
The boy from the old days, the returning soldier Carrying the rain on my shoulder...
it’s me here
Please don’t stay distant and please don’t look at me that way even if I bear a wound on my body
I am whole with an unchanging heart.
(Tran Quang Quy)
Signs of the spirit
As I have grown in age and in faith I seem to see spiritual signs in my life more frequently than I used to. Considering some of the experiences that I have survived, I attribute this to heightened spiritual perceptiveness rather than a heightened level of intervention.
Recently I was walking the dog at dawn, as is our custom. The day before had been a dark one, both physically and spiritually. My wife Liz had just had spinal surgery, which had been scary for both of us. For several days her recovery at home had seemed to go smoothly. She wore her cervical collar day and night, stayed quiet, and was careful to limit movement of her head and neck. On Halloween, the smooth recovery crashed. She spiked a fever, and suffered with flu-like symptoms. When she was discharged from the hospital, the nurse had briefed us on “the magic number” of how high a fever could get before it became an emergency. She hovered right at the edge of that number. Neither of us desired a trip to the Emergency Room on Halloween night. Around noon we decided that she could try coming out to the kitchen for some of the homemade chicken soup that a friend had sent in. She got through about half of the small bowl that I had warmed for her, and then she announced that she would use the bathroom and then go back to bed. When she finished she stood at the sink to wash her hands while I hovered nearby. I saw that she had not pulled her pajama pants all the way back up, and I stepped behind her to gently tug the waistband up into place. As I was doing this, she suddenly fainted from the fever and collapsed as dead weight into my arms. I was perfectly placed to catch her under her arms and guide her gently to the ground. I had to step out of the bathroom into the hall to do this, for in the small bathroom any other direction would have her impacting the sink, the toilet, the tub, the radiator, or the wall. Any of those options would have been disastrous, with a fused vertebrae in her neck in the earliest stages of healing. I offered to carry her back to bed, but the moment had passed, and she was able to rise to her feet and walk back to bed with my assistance.
The afternoon passed slowly. I did my best to care for her, knowing that I could give better care at home, especially on that night. As the time for the observance of Halloween arrived, our daughter Megan came over to help, so that I could mind the front door without leaving Liz unattended. I am aware of the Celtic origins of our Halloween as Samhain, the time when the veil between our world and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. The ancient Celts dreaded this night, and they would stay awake all night fearing trouble from their dead enemies. This fear is where the practice of wearing costumes on this night originated. I have always perceived a dark edge around the holiday, and Liz and I have always tried to keep the focus on the positive aspects of it. The kids were polite, the costumes ran the gamut from charming to creepy, and I was happy to hand out the store of candy that we had purchased for the occasion. The night seemed to drag on, between checking the fever and checking the front door for ghouls, fairy princesses, and ladybugs. At last, official Halloween was over, and the fever broke soon after. Rain moved in. We changed the clocks and went to bed hoping for the best through the rest of the long night.
The morning dawned clear and beautiful. I headed out with my Shiba Inu “Kit” for his morning walk. We covered the miles at a good pace, and I wondered how long it would be before the hanging skeletons, front yard graveyards, and spider webs would be gone. As we came full circle to our own driveway, I was stunned to see a four-point buck standing on the corner at Lee and Corydon, incongruous in such an urban setting. I have grown up in the neighborhood, and I have seen deer before. Mostly does and fawns, but this felt different. He looked majestic, with the rising sun giving him a golden glow as he looked me in the eyes. I felt a wave of peace and assurance. He took two steps toward me, still holding my gaze. I had a feeling that this storm was over. Others would come, but for now, we were alright. I was reminded of St. Patrick’s Blessing of the elements, known as “The Deer’s Cry”
I arise this day, through the strength of Heaven.
Light of Sun, Radiance of Moon. Splendor of Fire,
Speed of Lightning. Swiftness of Wind, Depth of Sea.
Stability of Earth, Firmness of Rock.
It was a new day. We were moving forward again, and we do not walk alone.