She stood in front of Panel 9E, this woman who looked as though she ran marathons in record time. She wasn’t much taller or bigger than the school kids she was accompanying. Her sandy blonde hair layered short. Her smile, warm and quick, reminiscent of the effervescent Doris Day. Remember her? Well, never mind then.
I learned her story before I ever learned her name.
We were there, my daughters, my grandson and I, stopping by Dad’s panel to place the gifts Bean had brought at the bottom of the Wall. “Thank you Great-Grandaddy for the sacrifice,” read the hand-painted picture Bean brought. She watched as Bean traced his tiny fingers over my father’s name: David P. Spears. Bean doesn’t understand what it all means yet, but he will one day. His parents will be sure of that.
“My father was a pilot in Vietnam,” she said.
“Is his name here?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “He came home. Not the same but he came home. Several of the men he knew, they are here on the Wall.” She came to pay respect to those men, the ones she never knew, and the one she did know – her father. He’s gone now, so she pays his respects for him.
“That’s my dad,” I said, as my daughter pointed.
“Yes, I saw earlier,” she said, explaining that she had seen Bean tracing the name.
“I’m sorry you lost your father.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “It was a long time ago now.”
“Still,” she said.
When it comes to death, days and months and years don’t matter. Time is measured by the absences of those who were once living among us. Time is measured by the moments missed, the memories no longer shared, the phone calls unanswered, the grins missing from family photos.
“My son,” she said, then stopped. Her small shoulders carrying some unseen burden. “He took his life. We just buried him.”
“A veteran?” I asked.
A West Point graduate, she told us. Two tours in Iraq. Special Forces. He sought help at Fort Bragg, at Walter Reed, but he was no longer active duty. Those facilities are reserved for active duty in need.
He turned to private counselors, those too often inexperienced with PTSD, its ramifications, how best to help.
A moral wound, one counselor said. This beautiful boy of a beautiful mom, raised up in a home of deep faith, had suffered a moral wound. Had been called upon by his country to do things no man or woman should ever have to do to another human being. He had been asked to betray his own humanity through the actions of being inhumane to others.
War always does that.
And some young soul always suffers the wounds of that.
Lots of young souls.
He spent a year in bed, unable to face the light because of the dark things he had witnessed.
War changes people.
War changes a nation.
The stats popped up last night on the hotel TV screen. Forty percent of young men 18-40 favored military intervention in North Korea. Older veterans did not. Young men and women train for war. They lust after war. Old men and women just want peace. They want a better way.
You know, the Uber driver from Ethiopia said, there are those who say that as long as there are humans there will be wars, but I don’t think we should look at war like that.
Resign ourselves to it, you mean? I asked.
Right, he said. I don’t think we should resign ourselves to it. Perhaps it is true that there will always be wars but wars are always man-made. They are not like natural disasters.
Right, I said. We can be better than this.
Yes, he said. We can.
She buried her boy at Quantico, that beautiful mom with the beautiful son.
He wanted to be buried at Arlington, but that was one detail he didn’t check on before driving to a favorite park and putting an end to the pain he could not escape.
That moral wound he suffered from.
He didn’t feel worthy enough to end his life on Memorial Day.
So he did it the day after.
That beautiful boy, that father of two little girls, ages 2 and 6.
The pain of war doesn’t end once the bombing stops.
For far too many of us, it’s only the beginning of a life-long journey of loss and suffering.
Never forget: Not all causalities of war take place on the battlefield.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).