My family and I walked to a local lake park just north of our house. It’s a tiny lake with a few very expensive houses clustered around it.
During the winter there are few people there but in the summer when things have finally warmed up there are typically several people swimming and hanging out. Oftentimes people from the small mobile home community just down the road are there to fish, swim and party. Weed and canned beer and cigarettes.
Today is relatively quiet.
A guy rolls down to the lake in an electric wheelchair. He says hello and makes small chat. He checks the black plastic garbage bags tied around the metal benches. They’re mostly empty. He says he put them down there to minimize the trash buildup since the parks people don’t really come by there much and the park is for everyone to enjoy ya’know? Don’t want all the beer cans there. Sometimes people sleep under the tree over there so he tries not to wake ’em up.
He says goodbye and heads up the hill.
Another man walks down the hill soon after.
He’s in pretty rough shape. Dirty, old clothes, bloodshot eyes, long silvery hair and a scruffy beard. Ruddy, puffy face – maybe from hard living. A lot of drink.
We give each other a polite nod.
He starts up conversation – not sure what about – and mentions the service and that he’s “homeless, as they say”. He’s been spending his nights here at the lake until someone kicks him out. He doesn’t like the shelters because of bedbugs.
His name is Jerry.
“Well, I should be good in a month.”
He’s waiting for his government veteran support or something to kick back in and then he’ll be back on his feet. Things are rough for veterans and the government is slow. The va can’t help speed things up.
I thank him for his service and ask him what branch he served in.
He answers “Army”. He says he spent some time in the special forces and was sent to Libya for “the hostage situation” in the 80’s. Remember the American students who were held hostage there? I nod politely. He tells me his team rescued every single one unharmed. Twenty five men on his team but only five returned. The rest kia. His best friend’s brains splattered all over his face.
I shake my head in disbelief and sorrow.
He tells me had Gaddafi’s head in his sights but his lieutenant wouldn’t give him the go ahead. “Too high level. Too political.”
He’s not proud of things he’s done. People he killed. They’re just like us, they had families and kids. It’s just something he has to live with every day.
He tells me he’s screwed. Government coverage keeps running out. His doctor told him his liver has a month left. That was a year ago.
One more month and he’ll be good.
He sees me looking at the can of Four Loco in his hand. He assures me he didn’t buy it. He doesn’t spend his money on that stuff. That’s a waste of money, he says. But a guy gave it to him for free so you know, you don’t wanna turn down a free drink, ya know?
I tell him I’m sorry how we don’t take care of veterans very well. We ask them to serve. They do terrible things, see terrible things and then we don’t want to deal with them.
He agrees. One more month, though, and he’ll be good.
I’m not sure if he is talking about government coverage kicking in or his liver giving up. I don’t ask.
I give him the cash in my wallet. He thanks me for it and assures me he didn’t ask me for money and he wouldn’t do that. I tell him I know. He swears not to spend it on alcohol.
He says he’s just waiting around to meet his maker. One more month.
I ask him what he thinks about what happened to Gaddafi. He’s confused and asks if I mean Osama. I tell him Gaddafi was drug out on the street and killed by his own people. He seems surprised and confused. No one told him.
He says he went to church and did all the religious stuff but it didn’t fix anything. I nod. It doesn’t fix anything – it’s really hard and painful. I say suffering is terrible and that we are suffering too – differently – but suffering. I tell him God doesn’t always take suffering away.
“No man, you follow God and it’s worse” he says.
I ask him about his family. He’s got some. In Tennessee. His son is out there – talks to him sometimes and does what he can. He doesn’t see him much.
I ask if I can pray for him, and he says yes. I pray for his health, for provision and for forgiveness.
He thanks me. We have to go so I say goodbye and thank you and I’m sorry.
I walk with my family up the path and I cry. My grandpa and my uncle had a good family to support them when they came back. Some men don’t. I’m not sure war is a place for men. They follow orders and come back to loneliness and drugs and bad memories and guilt and alcohol.
We walk home.
I look up the hostage situation he described and I find nothing matching the description. It didn’t happen.
He didn’t free anyone and he didn’t have Gaddafi in his sights.
But one more month and he’ll be good.