It was a routine pastoral hospital call to a woman in the VA hospital. In thirteen years, living in Fresno, I had seen the building each day as I passed by on the freeway driving to work, but I had never been there. While I searched for a parking spot, my thoughts were not on heroes, rather “Lord, help me encourage this woman.”
As I walked from the lot to the front steps leading to the entrance, an emotion stirred. It took me off guard. I noticed a beautiful memorial to the Vietnam war. I thought, “That is really nice, I think I’ll take a picture of it when I come out.” But it is when I approached the doors it hit me. I saw the sign emblazoned over the entrance, “The Price of Freedom is Visible Here.” I stepped through the doors and this thought came to mind,
“This is not a hospital of sick people, this is a building full of heroes.”
The lobby area was orderly and bustled with people. A sea of blue hats with gold emblems and printing bobbed in the chairs. Old men walked by me wearing veterans ball caps and vests with patches symbolizing the units which they served. I waited at the elevator, an old Navajo man stood next to me. I couldn’t make out all the printing on his hat, but the word Navajo was clear. In WWII many Navajo Indians served as code talkers and helped the U.S. win the war. In Vietnam over 42,000 served. Who was this man?
I stepped into the elevator, heading to the fifth floor. We stopped at each floor and other men entered. One man, in a wheelchair, rolled next to me. He was older than the Navajo. The gold printing on his hat shone clearly, Korean War Veteran. Around 36,000 American soldiers died in that war. Over 103,000 were wounded and some 7,800 are still unaccounted for. Today that war still lingers, held at bay by a truce, signed about 64 years ago. I tried not to appear rude, but I couldn’t help staring at the man. Where did he fight? Maybe his reason for being at the hospital this day was to deal recurring war wounds?
The door of the fourth floor opened, a large man entered, gray haired and unkempt, wearing a weathered leather vest and an orange Harley Davidson t-shirt. His hat said Vietnam War Veteran. The numbers vary, but at least 58,000 U.S. soldiers died during that war. The most deadly year occured in 1968 with 17,000 men killed in action; the year my brother served as a Marine in Vietnam. My brother Alan wasn’t killed in action, but he was seriously wounded. He died 47 years later, in 2015, from the effects of that war. I thought of my brother as I wondered what action this man standing next me had seen? What were his wounds? Physical or emotional? Maybe both. How many of his friends died?
I made my pastoral call to a woman who had served in the Army. I told her I felt at home here. (I was fortunate not to have gone to war, I served in the U.S. Coast Guard for four years from 1972 to 1976.) “These are my people!” I said with a smile, and we both laughed.
As I made my way back to my car and it may sound strange, I didn’t do it, but I wanted to hang out longer. I wanted to find the cafeteria, get a cup of coffee and talk to some guys. This is a hospital of heroes, men who served our nation to keep it free, and though not a hero, as a veteran, I am proud to be numbered among the weakest of them all.
Yes, I walked among heroes. It was not my plan to do so, but when it happened it hit me like a powerful breaker on the shore. The real heroes are not on television or on a sports field, they are quietly and humbly standing next to us. We should bow a knee in thanksgiving for them.