Next Monday is Memorial Day in the United States. Our colleagues in other countries celebrate similar days throughout the year. So, today we pay tribute to our veterans – those that willingly served to keep us free. To highlight the plight of many of these veterans, we take a look at the story of Joe, a veteran of the Viet Nam war era.
I’ve known Joe for quite a long time. He is most often, these days, found sitting outside the coffee shop down the street from where I live. Joe is unemployed, homeless, and depends upon the generosity of others for the basic needs of his life. Joe grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois. He was a good student, was well liked, and, according to his parents and teachers, had a bright future. Joe was a good athlete and his favorite memories are playing baseball and basketball for his hometown high school. Joe often thought he would go to college and become a teacher.
However, the military had other plans for Joe. He grew up when the military draft lottery was still in place. In those days, every date all year was placed in a bin and someone from the draft board pulled out the dates one-by-one until all were pulled. Then, for every 18 year old male in the US, a draft into military service was held, starting with the first date drawn, until enough new soldiers were entered into the military. Typically, 18 year olds with birthdates in the top 150 or so knew they would be drafted. Birthdates drawn above that were fairly safe in that they would not be drafted. In 1968 when Joe turned 18, his birthdate draft number was 38. Thus, he was drafted into the Army.
In 1968, the War in Viet Nam was still going strong. So, Joe found himself heading to the Far East on his 19th birthday. Joe had never been beyond Missouri in his entire life, so the trip to South Viet Nam was both exciting and dreadful. But, he served the best he could. In his 8th month in Viet Nam, Joe was on patrol with his best friend when they stepped on a land mine along the road. Joe’s friend Bobby died instantly. Joe was badly damaged and required 4 surgeries to regain his ability to walk and the use of his arm. He was honorably discharged in 1970.
Joe spent the next 40 years hopping from one job to another. He tried college for one semester, but just could not concentrate long enough to stay in class. His war injuries kept him from many jobs that he knew he could do. He had no significant skills, so he ended up working at whatever menial job he could find. He became homeless in 2006. By then, he had been hooked on drugs originally intended to alleviate his pain. Most of his family had died or he had last track of them. He never married. For the last ten years, Joe ate leftover food from dumpsters, begged for coffee money, and slept wherever he could remain dry and relatively warm.
Growing up, Joe never intended to end up on the street. He had the greatest of intentions. He was glad to serve his country, but a part of him died that day Bobby died. He has remained a patriot all these years, but he feels he let himself and his family down because he was never quite able to fully shake the injuries – mental and physical – he incurred in Viet Nam. He is sad that he has never met his nephews. And, he is sadder yet that they probably would be embarrassed to even say they were related to him.
By the way, my name is Joe and I might live just down the street from you. If you get a chance, please give me a hand. And, please don’t think harshly of me. I did the best I could. I just wish I could have done more.
Joe is a veteran that sacrificed much to heed the call to serve his country. And, his story is not so unusual. Many, perhaps most, of our veterans returned home different than they were when they left to serve. Many never returned.
I am honored to be the son of a World War II veteran, the grandson of a World War I veteran, the uncle to a current Army Colonel, and to have several brothers-in-law that served during the Viet Nam War time. None of these men talked about their time at war much. However, they each served proudly and with honor. Today, my hat is off and I extend my most sincere thanks and honor to all of you that either served or had family members that served in the armed forces. You have sacrificed much and we pay tribute to you today. Thanks!
Please, find a veteran today and tell them thanks. We owe them our freedom and the way of life we enjoy so much.