Recently I was communicating with several Vietnam vets on my Facebook page. In case you haven’t read it elsewhere, I made two trips to Vietnam, entertaining the troops independent of the usual USO or Bob Hope tours—just me with a conductor and a small band traveling in a pair of Hueys, flying into remote fire stations from the Mecong Delta to the DMZ. The vets and I commiserated about the war, our nightmares, and the plight of many Vietnam vets. With Memorial day just around the corner, I thought it appropriate to republish the following column.
What Happened to George?
I first saw George on a cold January morning in 2001 when I pulled into the parking lot of the post office. He sat on the curb with a straightforward cardboard sign, hand-lettered: “Disabled Vietnam Vet. Please help!” He wore a thin jacket over a sweatshirt, the hood pulled over his black baseball cap against the morning’s chilly drizzle. He was African American, skinny even then, long fingers gripping the damp cardboard, legs pulled close to his body, stubbled chin resting on his knees, thin ankles in battered shoes.
My post office errand done, I watched him through the rhythm of the windshield wipers. His face was impassive as cars went past. If he harbored expectations that one would stop and give him a handout, he hid them behind cheap V.A.-issue spectacles, spattered with the light rain.
I dug a $20 out of my purse and started the car. Vietnam is a war that I am intimately familiar with. At the entrance of the driveway, I rolled the passenger side window down and waved the bill. He got up and I could see there was some stiffness—a leg or hip problem, perhaps his back. He took the money. His fingers were cold and dry. He smiled a little.
“Thank you, thank you, ma’am. God bless.”
“Blessings to you, brother. Take care of yourself.”
George was there nearly every time I went to the Post Office, through the last carefree part of 2001, through 9-11, through the wilderness of dark years of Bush-Cheney fascism and their endless lust for world wide military domination. Though George was a homeless veteran of a war four decades earlier, he symbolized for me the real cost of our dangerous hubris. George was the end product, broken and reduced to begging, of the attitude that our way is not just the right way but the ONLY way. If countries or leaders do not do what we say, or, if they have resources that we want, we will impose our military might to get our way. And notice how well that worked for Rome, England, Spain, and Nazi Germany.
I would occasionally see George a few miles from his duty station outside the Post Office, pulling an old carry on bag by the handle, eyes shaded by the ball cap, limping in his old shoes, making his way slowly to the bus stop. I wondered if he had a shelter for the night, or just a special place beneath a freeway overpass. After a while, he set up shop at the traffic light across the street from the post office, finding that it was easier on his back and legs to lean against the large metal box that housed the traffic signal controls.
George was a signpost. The V.A. estimates that every night in this country more than 150,000 American veterans sleep on the streets. In 1996, the Urban Institute estimated that between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans are homeless at some time during the year. We have not yet seen the full impact of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s hard to count the homeless, but probably one in three homeless people here in the land of the free is a veteran. Our veteran. One of those we call upon, sometimes against their will, to fight and die for oil, gas pipelines, bananas, copper, diamonds, air bases, or some other tangible asset. Almost never, NEVER, do they REALLY fight for the often spoken lies we give as justification for our wars: freedom, human rights, women’s rights, voting rights. Our leaders mouth pieties about the sacrifices of veterans, while ignoring the reality of veterans’ lives when they return home.
You probably never saw my George, but there are certainly Georges in your neighborhood—sleeping in doorways and alleys, panhandling at freeway off ramps, walking endlessly with everything they own in a shopping cart. Do they wonder what they sacrificed their lives, limbs, sanity, and pride for? Do we wonder too?
Think of this: for the cost of one B2 bomber, a shade more than $2 billion, we could save all the Georges, make our veterans programs really work, fix our health care system, and feed hungry children. Just one fucking airplane.
One day George was absent from his corner. I discovered others who were taking care of George too, giving him money, sandwiches from a local shop, water on hot days, and coffee when it was cold. We talked about him around the counter in the Post Office, wondering anxiously if he was sick or worse. He returned after a few weeks with an aluminum walker, thinner and frail looking. It was a struggle for him to rise to get the twenty, and I waited patiently, holding up traffic while he stood, learning that it was easier to park and walk to give him his money. His eyes were dimmer behind the scratched glasses, but he always managed a smile and a thank you.
The following May, George disappeared from his corner. I did not speak to the other George helpers, but I knew they must have looked for him and felt the emptiness. I feared the worst. I only hoped that George had felt from us what we really meant with the money, the sandwiches, and the coffee—that in an anonymous and yet intensely personal way, we loved him.
A few days later, I passed George’s corner. On top of the traffic signal controller that George used to lean against was a battered black ball cap. Like the helmet of a fallen soldier hung over the butt of his rifle, it was a signal that George was gone. I stared at the cap through my tears until the light changed. Driving away I thought of a line in a George Santayana poem: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
A final note that the quote from Santayana is variously attributed to General Douglas MacArthur and Plato as well as the poet. Whoever said it, our history shows that it is undeniably, appallingly true.