Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thank you ....

"10 year vet," the sign read. "Please help."

The man had a slight smile on his face. He didn't seem to care that we were all trying to avert our eyes. That's what I struggle with the most ... knowing what to do or say when I walk past someone begging when I'm in my dress coat and heels, looking the picture of money and feeling heartless for not helping. He was clean shaven and younger than most of Salt Lake's panhandlers. Too young looking to be from Vietnam, maybe Desert Storm or Afghanistan.

I'm OK not giving the handout in most cases. Salt Lake City officials have specifically asked people not to give in to panhandlers -- instead, asking us to donate our money to homeless services and shelters. I'm not OK with the fact we pretend they're not there ... walk past as if they are invisible, ignoring not only their request for money but trying to avoid their existence as another human being in need as well. So I did something brave and made eye contact and smiled at him. And instantly felt guilty that the smile wasn't accompanied by some cash. Like always, I wanted to justify myself to him with my litany of excuses and the conversation that goes like this in my head:

I'm sorry, sir. I REALLY want to help you but I don't carry cash and I can't just hand over my credit card. You don't believe me when I say we don't have the money? I know it's hard to believe because we look rather fancy. Please don't let the fact we just came from the ballet in our Sunday best deceive you. We could only afford our seats because we bought them with Groupon and you have no idea the student debt we're fighting and the long hours my husband is working to make ends meet and to pay for little extras like these date nights. The fancy coat I'm wearing is a gift from my mom. My husband saved for months for these pearls. Don't look at me like that!

We kept walking across the street and I couldn't get his sign out of my head: "10 year vet. Please help." It made me think of THIS article. Did you know the word "tramp" originated from all the homeless veterans who "tramped" home from the Civil War? Or that Iraq and Afganistan veterans are already showing up in homeless shelters? From the article:

Some advocates say the early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bode well for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable.

"We're going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous," said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa.


Keaveney said it's difficult for his group to persuade some homeless Iraq veterans to stay for treatment and help because they don't relate to the older veterans ...

"They see guys that are their father's age and they don't understand, they don't know, that in a couple of years they'll be looking like them," he said.

I lived near an Army base in Tennessee for several months, working with families in an LDS congregation. It was at the height of this most recent war. There were men on their third deployment in as many years. The divorce rate was staggering among infantry. It baffles me that many of the people who gave the most to protecting society end up reaping the fewest of society's benefits ... warm shelter, three square meals a day, and a productive job. But in other ways it makes sense. Without a college education, the skills combat gives you aren't exactly marketable in a civilian economy. Culture shock, mental illness caused by the stress of combat, physical disability, and the toll of deployments on familial relationships are not a good recipe for success once you return home.

Today is Veteran's Day and I've been thinking a lot about that man I saw.

If I had had cash last weekend after the ballet, I probably would have given it to him, regardless of the city's request. But we didn't and so I wanted to invite him to dinner. Dave said no. He was uncomfortable with the idea. So we kept walking and he kept on being ignored. I wish I would have run back and at least told him "thank you." Because our veterans deserve at least that much.


Steve said...

I was going to say Hooray Brooke is back to match but that doesn't really fit the tone of your piece.

I get your feeling though. It's so hard to see people asking for help. Just do what you can, it's literally all you can do.

Sierra said...

Great piece of writing... it's such a hard situation, and I feel the same way. I never know what to do. I truly believe it's the thought that counts