I was just a child when I first noticed him, marching up and down my city streets, saluting cars as they drove by.
Sometimes he wore a black suit, dark sunglasses.
Usually though, he wore his uniform, pressed to perfection, and I could see the creases from the corner of my eye.
His breast was a sea of color, ribbons and medals proudly marking his military achievements against the muted khaki of his shirt, and even though I didn’t know what any of it meant, I knew enough to recognize that he looked like someone important.
And always, those dark sunglasses.
At the time, I interpreted his waves and shouts as those of a friendly man with too much time on his hands.
But as years passed and I got older, I began to recognize that his stride seemed too frenzied, his voice strained, his salute demanding, defiant, determined to make anyone in his path stop in their tracks and take notice.
One day, after I had already become a wife and mother, and after seeing him from behind the perspective of car windows for nearly 20 years, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with this man in the pasta aisle of a local grocery store -this stranger who had somehow become a fixture in my life,
He was so close, I could see every wrinkle on his face, deep lines marking a life filled with squints and frowns and that half-smile I had grown so accustomed to from a distance. I was surprised to see he had no teeth, his mouth sunken in, his bald head just as shiny underneath the fluorescent lights of the store as it was beneath the illuminating glow of the sun.
I couldn’t see his eyes behind the black lenses of his shades, but his head moved up and down as he took me in and I stood there, frozen, fascinated, flustered.
And then, in a split-second, his arm snapped into position and with only mere feet between us, he saluted me, face- to- face.
I opened my mouth to speak and it was then that he began yelling at me, barking incomprehensible orders, his toothless mouth contorted in anger, his voice rising higher as the gravity of whatever situation he believed us to be in was becoming more and more urgent by the moment.
Before I could react, respond, he turned on his heel and began marching purposefully down the aisle, saluting and barking at anyone and everyone all at once and I could feel the discomfort of the other shoppers multiplying exponentially as he made his way through the store.
But my own discomfort came from watching as everyone turned away as he approached, the way they retreated as he drew near. Here, among the shelves of the discounted bread and canned club card clearances, this man’s decorated military uniform didn’t matter. Here he was a viewed as a menace, a disturbance in an otherwise peaceful slice of society.
Minutes later I watched as the store manager, along with several employees, gently approached him, gently asked him to leave, gently escorted him through the automatic doors.
Gently, through their actions, tell him he didn’t belong.
Our servicemen and women, who dedicate their lives, risk their lives, give their lives to protect and defend this great country of ours deserve our respect, long after their active duty is over. As a nation, we have an obligation to care about these individuals not just when they’re strong, and armed, and stationed overseas or engaged in combat, but long after they’ve returned home, haunted by the things they’ve seen, healing the bodies they sacrificed for us, their lives forever changed by experiences the average American will never be able to imagine, let alone comprehend.
We honor those who have died, embrace those who have endured, but we must also not forget about those who continue to suffer, whether physically or emotionally, from the aftermath of fighting a war. They are often the ones caught in an unforgiving limbo, suspended in time, tortured by the pain they feel, and the things they’ve seen while trying desperately to forget them.
That day in the grocery store was the first and last time I would get so close to this man, but I continued to watch him from my car window as he made his way up and down the neighborhoods that wound through the city we both shared.
I felt so helpless, so useless, knowing that in some ways he had been left behind by the very nation that he once defended, knowing that he must have done some brave and remarkable things in order to earn those beautiful ribbons and medals that proudly adorned his perfectly pressed khaki uniform, knowing that I should have said thank you as he stood in front of me in that pasta aisle, and saluted him with my heart while he saluted me with his hand.
And then one day, I realized I hadn’t seen him in weeks; months maybe.
I waited, but the weeks and months turned into a year, and I finally resigned myself to the fact that he was gone.
Gone, but not forgotten.
Because even though I knew so little about this man, even though I had no idea about the details of his life,
he had, in his own profound and permanent way, forever become a part of mine.
Thank you to all of our servicemen and women: the past, the present, and the future heroes of our great nation.