The Invisible Veterans

Dickens, Tapley & Lieutenant Dan.

ou know how sometimes you catch somebody out of the corner of your eye at the same instant they’re pingin’ you out of the corner of their eye? And you have that fleeting moment, that half-second where your choice is whether to go flowin’ right on, or snap about and take a closer look? Yeah, that drill. That’s how I spotted The Invisible Veteran.

My rule for those moments is, whether I break movement or not, I send a second ping and see if the sonar shoots me back an echo. I’ve found those moments are split between early recognition of someone from my past, and possible threats; potential danger situations, and I decided long ago that either way, I wanta know, not guess.

This time the echo sounded familiar, and it must have been that way for him too, because we simultaneously locked on and put the Mark-II Eyeball on each other. I hung a hard right and steamed dead for him, clumping on my cane and scanning. He and three clones were leaning back against the curved granite lip of a fountain featuring a buncha nekkid cherubs spittin’ streams of water in the air through trumpets, against the backdrop of a black-tinted glass-front bank building. MC’s (Miscellaneous Civilians) flitted by in foreground buttery sunshine and background shadow like lost flocks of brightly-plumed parrots.

I assumed my “Get Outta The Way of The Big Scary Crippled Dude ’Cause He Ain’t Paying Attention To Ya” gait and as usual, it worked; they unconsciously altered their flittin’ patterns so I could hold a steady course and stay eyeball-locked on the guy.

Four clones—clean-shaven guys in their mid-to-late 30s, white long-sleeve dress shirts, dark slacks, neat ties, no jackets, all holding identical bubble-topped semi-frozen drinks with straws stickin’ up. From the subtle way they altered their bodies as I approached, I knew they were clones in a way other than appearances, too. But I still didn’t have an ID on the guy, nor him on me.

For a lo-o-o-ong moment we stood and stared, peeling away years and then draping old layers on each other; sweat-soaked dust, body armor, rucks and harnesses, Band-Aids and bug bites. I saw an image of him with eyes hollowed from unending exhaustion and a lopsided grin and I don’t know what the hell he saw on me—but that lopsided grin suddenly curled up.
“Mister… Connor?”

Enter Lieutenant Dan

“Lootenant DAN!” I blurted in my best (bad) Forrest Gump voice, “You got legs, Lootenant Dan!” It was a semi-private joke. He had been a lieutenant then, his given name Daniel, and you can guess what some folks called him as they closed on Baghdad and learned he was one of those not-so-rare young officers who was just as much in his element leading a stack of infantry into a concrete compound as he was with the inevitable paperwork and frustrating, conflicting orders from On High.

“Yeah, the kid’s a keeper,” his leathery platoon sergeant had said then. “He wasn’t roont by all that college crap. Good soldier!”

“Yes, I got outta there with both legs,” he smiled, “But, uhhh… What about yours, sir?” I assured him I still had mine; they just didn’t work very well—but good enough. That tore the last flimsy curtain down and we pumped paws, bumped chests, grabbed onto each other and maybe, maybe got a teensy bit wet in the eyes.

We had shared a few moments back when, like the night the whole world was shooting streams of tracers and rockets and flares skyward apparently at nothing in particular, some from the next block, some klicks away, and we couldn’t tell the players without a scorecard, the radio was either rackety-riot or stone silence and he asked me, “Didja ever see the fireworks on Main Street in Disneyland? Just like it, I swear, only these are gonna come down somewhere,” adding wistfully, “I used to live in Anaheim.” As with so many others, I hadn’t known if he had made it home. My relief was… significant. The depth and power of it kinda surprised me.

All four guys were Army combat veterans, three former junior officers and one NCO. None had known each other in the Army, though all had left service about the same time. They worked for different outfits in the same big building complex, and had found each other by “GI Gravity Effect.”

The overwhelming point for me was that you probably could have plucked four non-veterans in their age group outta that block and the vast majority of people couldn’t have told them apart. If they were standing in a crowd on a sidewalk at a Veterans Day parade, unless they wore something clearly identifying themselves as veterans, you’d never know it. I’m reminded of others….

Dickens & Tapley

There was an almost painfully young trigger-puller serving with the 10th Mountain who was widely known as “the happiest, most positive guy in the ’Stan.” He was the guy who jumped to shoulder part of another soldier’s load if he was fading in the heat; the guy who filled someone else’s share of sandbags because “Do ya see how blistered his hands are? Lemme do it”; who volunteered to hump water cans across the compound for his whole squad so they could rest, with “You dudes are thrashed; I got this,” and always, always with a smile.

His sergeant said “I used to worry that he would crack under this always positive stuff, because I know he ain’t brain-damaged or got a wire loose; he’s just bulldog-determined to be that way. Now I don’t worry so much because,” he shook his head in wonderment, “I really think he’s got the grit for the long haul.” A buddy of his told me to ask him about Dickens—so I did.

“I hated reading Dickens!” he laughed. “I had this fussy, prissy ol’ English teacher who made us read it. I thought it sucked, and I couldn’t wait to get away from it, and from her.” He smiled wider. “She got my address from my folks—and sent me Dickens! Now we write back and forth all the time, and when I get back, after my folks, she’ll be the first one I’ll visit.”

He had read Martin Chuzzlewit and discovered Mark Tapley, a simple, good-hearted man who felt that his cheerfulness didn’t really reflect very well on him because his circumstances were happy. The only real test of character, he decides, lies in being perennially positive under the most miserable circumstances.

The kid pointed out that Tapley wasn’t a major character in the book, nor was he particularly intelligent. “Whattaya think I am in the Army? And I’m no genius.” But he found purpose and salvation in meeting the toughest challenges with the greatest cheerfulness.

“This ain’t gonna end with Afghanistan or with the Army,” he said. “Know why?” I shook my head. “Because,” he confided quietly, “It’s the best feeling in the world, and… it makes me—different.”

Invisible Veterans

So many stories, so little space. Early in my military life I learned not to ask too much if somebody “made it,” because too often, the answer hurt. But I wonder about so many I knew, some well, most not, some barely, but all adding to my memory-files as we trod the same paths—and many were just kids, even to me. I think most Americans visualize veterans as elderly, graying men squeezed into fading uniform jackets, solemnly saluting the colors on Veterans Day. Now we have a generation of combat vets both in and out of the mainstream who still look far too young to have done so much.

Let’s remember them on Veterans Day too, OK? Thanks. Connor OUT
By John Connor

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