I’ll never forget him.
He was a large man, boarding our plane after Martha and I had settled into our seats. He lumbered down the aisle and stopped, right across from me. He sat down hard, like he was punishing the aircraft.
I noticed the cap he was wearing; I’ve seen it many times over the past few years. The wording was, “Dysfunctional Veteran: Leave Me Alone.” If any phrase in our language speaks volumes, that warning tells a story that most of us don’t want to hear.
Normally I honor a troubled veteran’s request, and I refrain from speaking. Even when I know our life’s journeys have been along similar paths. For most of us, compassion guides us to withhold conversation out of respect for a wounded warrior.
The tall man’s facial features were darkened. His countenance was clouded. Anguish seemed to be written into the lines on his face. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. His right hand, showing signs of aging far beyond his years, was holding his head. I wondered if he was suffering a headache…or a heartache. Or both.
I was struggling to keep myself from opening a conversation. But then that “still, small voice” that I’ve heard all my life told me to go against my intuition and speak.
I leaned over to him and said, “Excuse me, Sir. Can you tell me about your hat?”
He violently twisted his head to me and ours eyes met. I could see rage, and murderous anger that I’ve seen in my own mirror from time to time. His unspoken message to me seemed to be, “How dare you invade my space! Can’t you read? I would kill you if I could!” But the malicious momentum was instantly stopped when I pointed to the Marine logo on my shirt and I whispered, Vietnam.”
His hate-filled face vanished, and a faint smile appeared. He knew I understood. When he then offered his hand to me, we became brothers in an instant. We said to each other, simultaneously, “Thank you for your service.” And we then we went silent for the flight to Nashville.
When the plane landed, as passengers filled the aisle to move onto their final destinations, I again broke the silence. My words were, “Has the VA taken good care of you?” And he replied, “Yes.”
I then shared just a glimpse of my life, “I’m glad you’ve found help. The VA doctors and counselors are the reason I’m standing here right now. Twenty-five years ago, I was all but dead inside. But by the grace of God and the kindness of caring and competent people, I’m here talking with you. PTSD was the demon, but now I’m well along the road to recovery.”
He pointed to his head, “It’s PTSD that almost took my life. Now every day is a gift. I was in Navy and was serving aboard the USS Iowa.” At the mention of that vessel, the air between us shuddered. The Iowa was on a training mission in April, 1989, when a gun turret exploded, taking the lives of forty-seven sailors. The fire from that blast reached 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and vaporized everything in its path. Human beings disappeared. Only a few remains were identifiable.
My friend had witnessed that carnage and had been part of the effort to quench the fire and save the ship. He also was on the team that tried to clean up the burned out turret. Unless one has been exposed to that kind of trauma, there is no way to comprehend the horror and the helplessness that overwhelms all the senses.
This sailor told me he was on his way to San Antonio to meet a shipmate he hadn’t seen since the tragedy. They would join others for a memorial service for those who perished on that dreadful day. He was hoping for some closure and some healing, and I told him I would pray that he would find what he needed.
As the line started moving, I shared with him that I was on my way to Florida to prepare for a reunion of my Marine unit from Vietnam. We spoke, again simultaneously, and said to each other, “I’m glad you made it home.”
And that was it.