Just A Voice on Main Street: The Greatest Gifts We can Offer to Our Veterans.

This Sunday, November 11th, is Veterans Day where we remember all of those people who have served our country and died for it, as well as those who served and are still with us today.  Most of us are thankful for their service, and look for ways to express our gratitude, the simplest , just saying “Thank you.”  I have often thought that “Thank you” seems so little compared to their sacrifice of time , talent, and lives given, yet that is all we have, right?  Maybe if we buy a meal, or a cup of coffee for our veterans, that might be nice.  The “Thank yous, ” and gestures are all nice and kind, but in this time in which we live, it seems to me that there is a greater gift we can offer the Veteran on every day, not just Veterans Day.  It is a simple one, and one that I think they really need that is good for them and for ourselves.  It is just to listen and to truly hear them.

This past Friday, I had the privilege to interview a veteran at the “All Vets to Gettysburg” Event that John Bailey organized where over 425 Veterans gathered to make day of it at Gettysburg.  It started at Old Main at the York Expo Center, and I did my show ,” WSBA Morning News with Gary Sutton” there on site while they gathered.  The  veteran who I had the honor of talking  to was named Collins.   Collins was a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War,. His story were so poignant , and yet told with such simplicity and clarity.  Collins  talked about his life as a totally dyslexic child who saw everything backwards, and who struggled to read anything.  He was sat in the corner at school, singled out for being different in that way, and ultimately was kicked out of his home.  At Age 16, he attempted to join the service, but could not complete the written test because of his condition.  Finally, a Marine Captain stepped into his life, and  made it possible for him to be able to take the test orally , which he passed.  He served two tours of duty in Vietnam, then came home, not to “a ticker tape parade” as he called it, but to shouts of derision being called a “baby killer” and such.  He spoke of a sense of betrayal by his country as he obeyed orders thinking that he was doing good, while reading of protests about him and the other soldiers who were a part of that effort.  He spoke of the politicians turning this into a political conflict rather than letting the soldiers win the war, and ultimately, Collins came to believe that he had been lied to about his effort there, a feeling that brought both disillusion and anger as part of the baggage he brought home.

In this 9-minute interview, Collins spoke of his three marriages, and various trials and tribulations that he endured after the service, until he finally figured out that the common denominator to many of these negative moments was him.  He sought help and counseling from others who would listen to him, and started to change his life as he became a supervisor in a custodial business for 36 years, and later was an adjunct professor who taught classes.  He is now happily married, and continues to look for answers, yet he seems to have finally found a measure of peace in his life.

What a story Collins had to tell and how important it was to hear.  At the end of the conversation, I asked him about the Ex-Marine, a veteran of Afghanistan,  who killed 12 people in Thousand Oaks, California this past week, and the anger issues he had prior to the killing.  Mental health officials and Police knew of him because he would be causing loud disturbances by punching holes in walls and destroying things in his home.  His mother was concerned that he might hurt himself or someone else if this continued.  Officials said his behavior was not at the threshold to detain him, so the behavior continued.  I asked Collins about that, and he shook his head, and sighed, “Did anyone listen to him?”

No matter the conflict, veterans bring home a lot of memories and baggage that most of us cannot imagine.  I learned that by listening to Collins for 9 minutes as he described a lifetime.  He opened up a faucet of knowledge and had a story that everyone should hear.  As I looked around the room at all of those other 424 Heroes who walk among us, I could only imagine the stories and memories that they carried with each of them.  I wondered how many of those stories had been passed on to waiting ears willing to listen, and how many were still bottled up inside.  I looked at the young people around the room who were there to volunteer for a local college, and thought bout whether or not they had benefited by even a short conversation that morning.  When we think about the walking history lessons just waiting to be spilled out from veterans, this is the kind of real civics lesson that can be passed on, but only if we listen and truly hear.  In a day and age when listening and truly hearing what each of us has to say to one another seems to have become a lost art, maybe we can start with the Veteran.  Let’s take away the politics, and the anger we have for one another and just listen to the Veteran.  Let’s listen with our ears, and our hearts and really focus on what they have to say.  It might even become contagious as we deal with one another in our daily conversation.  There are a lot of Collins out there waiting to tell us about a lifetime in order to find peace as the final answer for themselves, and a chance to lay down the baggage.  All we have to do as fellow citizens, brothers and sisters is to offer them the gift of listening…………Gary Sutton