The veteran was neat as a pin, freshly shaved, wearing Mr. Magoo glasses, complete with the character’s confused sweetness. He was dressed in a lint-free, wrinkle-free sport coat, trousers, VA baseball cap, his cane and bedroom slippers.
He talked with the bus driver for quite some time. I was running late of course and needed to get on with my very important day. Realizing that the driver and her newest passenger weren’t getting anywhere, I offered to help.
Mr. Magoo was holding an MB Financial Bank check, unsigned, made out to no one, with no address. He knew it was at 4300 North Broadway, having banked there for 60 years. We were southbound at 3600 North Broadway and tried to explain that he needed a northbound bus.
With no idea how to get to there, confusion edged out his wobbly confidence.
I offered to walk with him across the street to catch a northbound bus. He was trusting as I held his hand, soft as a rose petal, his working days so long over, like my father’s toward the end.
His bus was coming so I left him at the corner, motioned to the driver that he needed to go north, and boarded my waiting bus.
Sobbing, I delivered a rant to my fellow passengers that went something like: “Anyone who saw what just happened and still plans to vote for George Bush must be crazy. This is how this country treats its elderly and its veterans and he won’t do any better.” Then I sat down and cried for a long time. No one comforted me. No one said anything at all – except when I got off, the bus driver said that I made her cry too.
Our driver flagged the oncoming driver to give him a heads up about Mr. Magoo. There is no bank at 4300 North Broadway. I’m ashamed now that I didn’t stay with him and find out where he lived, opting instead to get on with my exceedingly puny day. I hope that he got where he as going. But even more, I hope that he had a haven somewhere, perhaps a family that loved him or at least a facility that cared about him.
That was in August 2004, but very little has changed. We talk a lot about how we love our veterans. That must be the tough love variety.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans statistics tell a not-so-loving story: veterans comprise 23% of the homeless population, and 33% of the male homeless population. Of homeless veterans, 47% served in the Vietnam era; 17% in post-Vietnam; 76% have drug and alcohol problems.
For many veterans “normal” is forever changed, and profoundly affects their children and family members for generations. Injuries are even more complicated and severe than in past wars.
Traumatic brain injury, though not physically visible, is every bit as devastating. This is an overwhelming problem and the Veterans Administration can only do so much, leaving families to take up the slack. If families aren’t up to the challenge, homelessness may be the next stop.
The only way out is fostering communities that creatively, tangibly and healthfully support each other. Clinging to the delusion that we we can do it ourselves and make it on our own, results in families that are emotionally and financially depleted and individuals who, trapped in isolation, become weird, depressed and even violent. Learning to be resourceful to each other will transform our communities and our lives. Until then, human indignity will continue to be an ugly, unfortuate and unavoidable aspect of life.
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