Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On visiting a Veterans Hospital

Today I walked in the shadows of greatness. I visited hallowed ground, ground upon which our heroes tread, a place of suffering, at times a place of death. The sounds one hears while walking among these men and women will stay with you forever: sounds of wheezing and coughing, a moan suppressed, the hum of electric motors on their wheelchairs, the shuffle of their feet as they labor down the way, and the steady chatter of these veterans and their families as they wait their turn. Few wait in silence, because this is where they can exchange their stories and know they will be understood. The age difference is dramatic — boys in their teens, men in their 90s, bonded in a noble cause. They are our veterans, and we give them honor here.

Their treatments are for ailments not seen in other places. Gunshot wounds inflicted years before on the fields of Europe. Shrapnel wounds, burns, concussions, frostbite, broken bones that never seem to heal. Injuries from the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, The First Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other smaller conflicts in remote areas of the world. They gather here for care, some to die, and those we bury in their own special place, where they lie with their brothers.

For many it is a huge occasion to come here. Some travel hundreds of miles, because our Veterans Hospitals are few and far between. They arrive with their sons and daughters, wives and grandchildren. Some come here with the hope of running into an old buddy, an old friend from the same Company, or Squad or Ship, maybe a guy they shared a foxhole with, or an experience they can never forget.

The hats are adorned with insignia: their branch of service, the war they fought in, retirement status. These hats are not crumpled or dirty, not crooked or set at an angle. They are worn with pride here. One veteran can pick out another in a crowd of a hundred. They have walked the same paths.

Visit this place with your son or daughter. Walk among our veterans. Listen to their stories, pat them on the back, shake their hand, assist them any way you can. Point to your family, and thank our veterans with all your heart. On the way out, if there is a gentleman in front of you, and he is shuffling along, using a walker, or in a wheelchair, do not pass him by. Let him lead the way once again, and that day you give honor to your country.

Daniel Condon Jr. is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He currently resides at the Hastings Veterans Home. This column is adapted from a poem he wrote. Pioneer Press

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