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I was sitting on a bench on the subway platform, on my way into center city for an appointment, when a pleasant looking older man came down the stairs and sat next to me. I couldn’t help but notice he was protectively holding a framed certificate of some sort on his lap. I knew it was none of my business, but I couldn’t resist commenting. I nodded toward the document and said, “I don’t know what that’s for, but congratulations!” As the man turned toward me, his face lit up! He thanked me and said he’d just completed a course of treatment at Snyder House, a place of mental health recovery for veterans. Snyder House happens to be in my neighborhood—I’d never met anyone before who had received care there, but I’d often admired the bronze plaque outside their building, which reads: Healing America’s Heroes.
The man began telling me his life story. When our train arrived, we stepped on board and this time I was the one to sit near him—I wanted to hear more. He said he’d suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his service in Vietnam; there wasn’t much help available for PTSD back in those days, but he pulled through. He later lost his wife and daughter, which caused a relapse. (He didn’t say what he meant by the term “lost.” And I wasn’t brave enough to ask.) In time, he recovered from that trauma, too. But just recently his mother, the only family he had left, died very unexpectedly, causing him to take another nosedive. This time he found the help he’d needed all along—at Snyder House. He said the classes and therapy there finally helped him to heal and the staff was very kind to him, even finding him a place to live when his residential program was finished.
It suddenly occurred to me that this man had poured his heart out to me and he didn’t even know my name. I stuck my hand out, and we introduced ourselves as we shook hands. He went on to say that a lot of people leave the facility before completing their course of treatment, but he stayed and saw it through. He said he was proud of what he’d accomplished there (I said he should be!), but it had made him sad that he had no one to tell, no one to share it with. He said he was so glad that I had spoken to him and he was able to tell me about it. When I got to my stop, he shook my hand again—it seemed like he didn’t want to let go. I thanked him for telling me his story. My heart felt full as I wished him well and stepped off the train. I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling so grateful for our interaction and so happy that our conversation had made a difference to him.
When I meet someone and learn that he or she is a veteran, I always say, “Thank you for your service.” My husband is a veteran and I’ve seen up-close the personal cost military service can exact, so—while thanking veterans is something I do by reflex—it is also something that comes from my heart. When I say it, I look into the person’s eyes and wonder how serving changed his/her life. In the case of the man I met on the subway, it is quite clear to me that his life would have been very different if he hadn’t served. It is quite clear to me that he paid a very high price to serve.
This week our nation observes Veterans Day. It is a day set aside to thank and honor living veterans who served honorably in the military: in wartime or peacetime.
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