At the end of another long day, and too many more ahead to even think about, Sam took a moment to gather his thoughts. He was a volunteer now, thanks to Mr. White; who had sent him to the new VA center to interview some of the patients there. Sam had called ahead and made an appointment with Ms Henderson. He told her what his brief was; and asked if he could meet with some patients; interview them and get their stories. He said it was for a human interest piece for the Sunday “Life” section of the paper coming out before Veterans Day.
“By all means, come on, “Ms Henderson had told him on the phone. “Come early so you can park close to the compound. The lot fills up fast. I’ll see you in the morning, first thing.”
First thing, to Sam meant sometime around 10:30 so he wheeled into the lot at exactly 10:25. He found a parking spot at 11:15 in the furthest corner of the lot. A shuttle came by and gave him a lift. It was a little before noon when he found Ms Henderson’s office.
“You’re late,” she barked when he was shown into her office. “The watch changes here at 0800. You should have been here at 0745.”
“Sorry,” Sam mumbled.
“Let’s get moving,” she said walking briskly out the door, obviously expecting him to follow. “I’ve got people waiting for you.”
They twisted their way through endless hallways and between buildings. Wherever they went, people seemed to know Ms Henderson. Most of them greeted her with, “Morning, Commander,” or, “Morning Ma’am.” She seemed to know each and every one of them by name and/or rank. She answered every one of them, “Morning Gunny, how’s your leg?” and “Jimmy, what did Doc Thornton say?”
They kept moving and Sam was jogging to keep pace. Finally they began to slow down as they approached a patch of shade beneath some tall palms near a white stone building. There were four people there, smoking and talking.
As they drew near Ms Henderson shouted, “Look sharp people, Sam finally made it.” They cheered and introductions were made all around. “Sam’s a reporter. He wants to talk to you guys. Interview you for a feature article in the paper.”
They all smiled.
“Sam this is Crystal Walker,” a young blonde lady with sunglasses extended her hand and they shook. “Crystal was a business major before she joined the Army. Her eyes were taken by an IED in Iraq. Now she’s a Braille translator and a volunteer here, working with PTSD patients. She was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross when she returned stateside.”
“This is Jerry O’Brien, Physical Therapist and ex-Navy Seal”
A graying man nodded his head at me. He lifted his trouser legs, both of them, to reveal stainless steel and cable prosthetics with running shoes attached on the ends. “Nice to meet you,” he said, “I feel compelled to correct Commander Henderson though. There is no such thing as an ex-Seal. Once a Seal, always a Seal.
“Jerry has two purple hearts and a Navy Cross,” Ms Henderson added.
The others were a Marine Lieutenant who told Sam to call him Lou, and a ginger haired lady who favored her right leg a bit. Ms Henderson said that Lou had both a Medal of Honor and a Silver Star. He donated his time on weekends and evenings in admissions at the VA. The red haired lady had been a Huey pilot in Vietnam tasked with moving supplies behind the lines. She filled a non-combatant role, until one day the lines moved and she found herself ferrying wounded soldiers out of combat zones. She flew back and forth tirelessly for two whole days without sleep and when she finally got out of the chopper she had taken three rounds in the legs and buttocks. She had kept flying even wounded. Now she was a volunteer at the VA, moving patients on gurneys and wheelchairs from department to department.
Commander Henderson looked at Sam, “You said you wanted to talk with patients. I brought you patients, volunteers, staff, and friends. They all have medals to prove their valor and courage. Furthermore I would suggest that what they do today simply reinforces that. You guys can stay here and talk as long as you want.” Then she marched off, with a purpose.
It was almost dark when the shuttle dropped me at my car in the far reaches of the lot and I turned to watch the sun set over the empty lot and the oasis that is the VA center before I made my way back to the freeway and drove home.
The next day, the article wrote itself. Everybody has a story at the VA. Everyone has done their part. Some paid dearly for the privilege. The story I wrote ran on Sunday, pretty much exactly as I had submitted it. A few commas had been removed but that was it. I always use too many commas.
Too many words, sorry. You should have seen it before I pared it down.
The publish button tells me that this is my 666th post on this blog. It’s Veterans Day and the hull number of the boat I was on in the Navy was SSN 666.
Coincidence? I don’t think so.