I’ve never done anything for a veteran before. Not intentionally. Maybe let a serviceman or woman cut in line at the airport, whispered a “thank you” under my breath, gave up the window seat on a flight. But really nothing of value. Nothing worth noting.
Until this Tuesday.
I was part of a community service project that donated time and labor to a Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles. Some of my peers fed wounded vets, others spent time at bedsides. Some painted curbs and washed cars. I worked on helping restore a Japanese Garden donated by vets to vets in the 50s.
The Garden butted up against a golf course and our hosts, 3 grizzled vets, told me about a much older vet, now 93, who frequented the course. They told me the older man recalled sitting in those same Japanese Gardens in the early 60s, legs amputated, pondering his future, his masculinity, his humanity. Now the old man refused to use a golf cart: he preferred to walk the grounds on his prosthetics. The vets said they reclaimed the Garden for him, this older peer: they wanted to give the opportunity for current wounded vets to reclaim their lives, their humanity.
But the Garden hadn’t been touched since 1985.
1985. Think about that. I was 12 years old. Back to the Future was out. Reagan was in office. The Challenger hadn’t exploded yet. The Cold War was still being waged. 6 weeks before we arrived our hosts cleared out much of the garden, chopping, slashing, digging. They’d cut down bamboo that was 30 feet tall, cleared fallen logs that were 10-15 feet long, banished coyotes. Fountains had been reclaimed from 3 feet of mud, cleaned and repaired. A concrete creek was retrieved and reactivated. All they wanted us to do was move the branches, the bamboo, the piles of brush, leaves and vines—the evidence of neglect—from one end of the garden to another. We were cleaning up after them.
My time at the Garden was one of both humility and outrage. I’d watched these men, the servants of our beloved country, battle nature to take back something that was given to them. And they’d done it without complaint, without backhoes or woodchippers or a crew—hell, without trashcans until 20 minutes after we showed up—they just did it. They did what was necessary when the rest of us didn’t. They did what millions of service people have done since before our country was a country: they made it happen.
They made it happen in an era where military service is used as a tool or a pawn in political games but rarely given the respect it is due. They made it happen in a time when hundreds of thousands of veterans live on the street and millions live in poverty; when nearly half of returning veterans need help finding employment,; when their active duty pay was threatened, during 2 wars, by a political game of chicken. They’d done it despite of their own injuries sustained in service to our nation.
So I moved mounds of dirt and bamboo stalks 6 times my height. I dragged branches and tree limbs from one end of the Garden to another. I did whatever my hosts told me to do. I didn’t say a word, didn’t sound a single complaint, and after a hot, sweaty, dirty two hours, I left.
And these great men had the audacity to tell me thank you.