Does it matter? — losing your legs?…/For people will always be kind,/And you need not show that you mind/When the others come in after hunting/To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? — losing your sight?…/There’s such splendid work for the blind;/And people will always be kind,/As you sit on the terrace remembering/And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter? — those dreams from the pit?…/You can drink and forget and be glad,/And people won’t say that you’re mad;/For they’ll know that you’ve fought for your country/And no one will worry a bit.
“Does it Matter?” – Siegfried Sassoon – 1918
May 30, 2010
Crowds of pleasant, chattering congregants streamed happily past as I picked my way carefully towards some hastily arranged folding tables in the church foyer. The pastor’s excellent message had been prefaced by a special announcement soliciting pen pals for wounded Marines. Visit the kiosk across from the information booth after the service. Send a note of encouragement to a service member hospitalized from injuries sustained in combat. Remember them this Memorial Weekend. Now, in one of metro Atlanta’s largest churches, I was curious to see how many people would actually deviate from their planned agendas to take time to encourage an invalid.
When I arrived, there was a fringe of mostly older, gray-haired folks surrounding the tables, talking in tragic whispers or writing short notes filled with pity and prayer. A fetching young brunette of perhaps seventeen hovered indecisively over a collection of Marine profiles and pictures, apparently struggling to assimilate words like “Afghanistan”, “ambush” and “amputated” into her Sunday afternoon. Glancing at my military haircut and friendly smile, she reddened, snatched a profile, and fled back into the anonymity of the crowd. Only one Marine would benefit from the gratitude of a pretty peer: I was now the youngest person in the group.
In front of me, on clean white tablecloths, more than a dozen wounded Marines were snapshotted in piles of photocopied profiles. A few of them grinned happily in grainy pictures pre-dating their injuries, looking handsome and eager and brave. Stop crying Mom, I’ll be fine. I promise. Back in seven months with a tan! Just don’t forget to send those cookies… I love you, too, Mom.
No one ever thinks that he is going to lose his legs.
Elbowing my way cautiously past the bent, gray heads, I scanned the handouts for a familiar name or unit, in the exact same manner that my grandmother scans the newspaper’s daily obituaries. After reading two or three, I realized that every Marine was referred to by his first name and rank, making it impossible to properly identify him. I understood the procedure for the sake of the Marine’s privacy, but was frustrated nevertheless. Stymied, I began to turn away, when the name on one profile jumped out at me:
LCpl. Jesse survived an IED blast Aug 6 in Afghanistan that killed 4 others. The blast not only caused severe lower extremity injuries but threw him 75 feet. His Dad said he’d like to receive some sunshine in the mail from you so please write him a note.
Jesse, we will be with you during this recovery. There are so many in this country who will be praying you get better quickly.
Update: December 20, 2009 Jesse’s Dad says that he’s now in another hospital and currently they are working on a serious infection that won’t let his left foot begin the healing process. He mentioned that the ups and downs are daily. He’s been receiving your cards and letters and appreciates them very much.
There was no picture on the profile, but I knew instantly who it was. The proud Marine Mom working busily behind the table to process the flow of goodwill notes was astonished when I quietly turned to her and said, “Hi. I saw Jesse two weeks ago at the Naval Hospital in San Diego.”
“Nate, do you mind trying to talk to this one guy? I’ve tried, but he just blew me off. Maybe you can make a connection.” Sara was blonde and brimming with sunshine – I was surprised that any of the Marines wouldn’t be ecstatic to have her help him with his resume.
“Sure. Where is he?” It was my first day working with Hire Heroes USA in San Diego at a Resume and Interview Skills workshop for wounded or disabled Marines, and my transition assistance capabilities were woefully deficient. But having left the Marine Corps and the Pacific Northwest only the week before, I was confident in my ability to deal with any challenge posed by a young Marine. Sara motioned to a slight, brown-haired amputee at the front of the conference room who appeared to be wheeling his way towards the back door. I moved to intercept.
“Hey stud, how are you?” I asked, smiling broadly and offering my hand. The boy looked irritated at my presumption, but couldn’t very well run me over. He shook my hand begrudgingly, exposing a brightly colored Seattle Mariners tattoo on his forearm. Thank you, Jesus.
“A Mariners fan, huh? I just came down from Seattle last week – had the first two days of real sunshine all year, and of course I had to leave. I’m Nate. Whereabouts are you from?”
“I’m Jesse. Monroe.” He didn’t much seem to care that I was from his old stomping grounds, but at least he hadn’t started to wheel off. I tried a different tack.
“Monroe? Never heard of it. Is that eastern or western Washington? I just got done with three years in Security Forces at Bangor. Sara told me that you could use some help with your resume. Want to go over the worksheets with me?” The fact that I had been a Marine seemed to break down his defenses a little, but the young amputee continued to fidget in his wheelchair and his eyes darted longingly towards the door behind me. Finally, he blurted, “Listen. It’s too noisy in here for me to concentrate. The other guys make me nervous. Why don’t you meet me back in the hallway where it is quiet? Now, I really gotta go pee.” Chastened, I stepped out of his path. I didn’t think that he would be back.
A few minutes later, however, I glanced towards the back of the classroom and saw Jesse’s head glide into view through the small window in the door. He was peering at me with an intensity that was unsettling. I grabbed a notebook and went out to meet him.
“Let’s go outside. It’s nicer out there,” he ordered. Swallowing my not-quite-a-civilian-but-no-longer-an- officer pride, I followed him to a shady overhang where a bench looked out over a sun-drenched plaza. I sat down. Jesse parked next to me, placed his unfeeling left stump on the unfeeling stone bench, and a miracle happened. We talked.
We talked about our tattoos, about Seattle, about being Marines. We talked about the best friend that he lost in a MotoCross accident and the brothers that he lost in an IED explosion. We talked about Al Anbar Province and Helmand Province. We talked about Ubaydi and Sadiqiyah and Marjah. We talked about Iraq, Afghanistan, and the country that sends her sons to die for both without caring for either. We mocked the hatless sailors walking by and sat in respectful silence at the mention of dead Marines.
Our hands rolled and twisted and folded the worksheets as we talked. We didn’t get a damn thing done on Jesse’s resume.
Shadows began to lengthen across the plaza until finally, astutely, Jesse offered, “Maybe we should better head inside. It looks like they are wrapping up.” He was right.
As I opened the door for him, I apologized for not getting more done on his resume. “Oh that’s ok,” he said brightly as he wheeled by, “I’ll do it tonight. I just wanted to talk.”
“You know him?” the woman behind the table was asking, beaming with delight. “How is he? We don’t know most of these Marines – the requests come from all over the country!”
I searched for the right words. Then, “He’s ok. But he still needs help.” I paused. “They all need help. Thank you for remembering them.”
They need help. Not just on Memorial Weekend.
Hire Heroes USA is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that helps returning service men and women successfully transition from the military to the civilian work force. It specializes in assisting the wounded or disabled, and is funded exclusively by grants and donations, at no cost to the service member.