Archived Opinion

Our veterans deserve to be honored all year

op veteransIt is just a beautiful day, this Memorial Day. I am able to get a little work done in the morning, and then sneak off to the fitness center for a quick workout and a run around Lake Junaluska while Tammy makes a project of the pantry, which has over the past couple of years become “overstuffed” and is about as organized as a cat parade. The kids are now old enough to help us put away the groceries, and they have embraced this new stage of responsibility by developing a truly impressive talent to put things in completely random places. Why shouldn’t a can of beans be flanked on the shelf by a jar of Maraschino cherries and a dozen eggs?

“These have to be refrigerated, bud.”

“Well, nobody TOLD me. It would be nice to be INFORMED once in a while.”

I slip off to the lake and begin my run, needling through families ambling along in small clusters and dog walkers pausing every so often to allow their dogs to explore exciting new scents along the trail. I see a few American flags on display and drift off into thoughts of those I’ve known who have served, friends and relatives, the sacrifices they made, the time they spent defending our country, the price they had to pay for that, sometimes a very high price indeed.

And then I think of the students I have had in my English classes over the years, the ones who served and came back to tell the tale — I mean literally to tell the tale, in the form of narrative essays so gripping and in many cases so disturbing that they both inspire and haunt me to this day, especially on this day.

I remember David, who sat in the back of my freshman composition class during my first semester teaching at Southwestern Community College way back in the fall of 1991. He spoke only when I called the roll and sat through class period after class period, attentive but absolutely silent. When it came time to write the narrative essay, he told me only that he wanted to write about a hunting trip.

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I imagined it would be a story about killing a big buck, or about the one that got away. I talked to him a little bit about the importance of developing a thesis and making his story interesting to a general audience, and not just a story for other hunters. Given how quiet he was in class, I worried that he might not generate much of a story at all, despite the length requirement of four or five typewritten pages.

Several days later, David appeared with a draft in hand. He told me it was the first paper he had written since high school, which had been a few years ago. That was the most I’d heard him say for weeks. I congratulated him just for producing the draft, and then I took it home and read it.

And then I read it again. And again.

David’s “hunting story” described the very last hunt he went on with his father before he shipped off to fight in the Persian Gulf War. He and his father went hunting together a lot, but on this particular hunt, the hunters were not so much hunting for deer, but for a way to say “goodbye,” a way to deal with the possibility that this might be their very last hunt. The father, like the son, was not much for words. Such men tend to communicate in code — a punch in the arm, a shared beer, a raised eyebrow — or in the silence itself, when there is nothing that can be said that is not already understood.

And so there they walked in the woods just before dawn, the utter stillness broken only by the sound of twigs and leaves crunching underneath their heavy boots. They got to their spots, some small distance apart, and David sat thinking, unable any longer to put it off. In a few hours, he would be gone, off to face an uncertain future. He looked over at his dad, sitting on a stump on the other side of the ridge, and his dad looked back at him. For one moment, and then another.

That is how they said “goodbye.”

Many years later, a student named Michael showed up. Michael was also quiet — at least at first, before his classmates and I had gained his trust, when he finally began to open up and contribute his insights in our class discussions. When it was time to write the narrative, he chose to write about a mission he was involved in over in Iraq, describing what he had experienced in graphic, terrifying detail. He had to see things that no human being should ever have to see, and he had to do things that no human being should ever have to do. When I read his paper, I had to stop several times. To catch my breath. To recoil and regroup. To weep.

Here he was now, sitting in a college classroom, trying to find a way to live with those memories, trying to find a way to be “normal,” whatever that meant. He had gone into the war with certain ideas about what he was doing and why he was doing it, and now he had lost not only his innocence, but his bearings as well.

I haven’t seen Michael in several years now. I haven’t seen David in more than 20 years. But I think about them a lot, as well as all of the other students I have had over the years who have served, and then come back to tell their stories.

These stories deserve to be heard, and not just in freshman composition class. And these soldiers deserve to be honored, and not just one day each year.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher. His latest book, The Way We Say Goodbye, is available in regional bookstores and online. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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