He was a slight man, bent with age but with bright, determined eyes. I was going into the bank as he was coming out. He wore a baseball cap with the word “Veteran” and then below that: “World War II” embroidered on it. He held the door for me. I thanked him, and went into the bank.
I was in there for at least half an hour. My next stop was the drug store, a quick in-and-out. I headed for the grocery store because I’d forgotten to get the coconut milk for my morning vegetable smoothie on my regular shopping day earlier in the week.
As I roamed up and down the aisles looking for my coconut milk, I spotted that man again. He was coming down the aisle in the opposite direction from me, and we passed each other, both going about our business. He was sort of lighting up for me by now, but not in an extreme way. He definitely had my attention, however.
It took me some time – I had to ask for some help from someone working in the store – but I finally found what I came into the store to pick up. Triumph! There will be veggies tomorrow!
I was going to ring myself out in the do-it-for-yourself lane, but spotted a 20 Item or Less line that looked like it wasn’t busy. I picked up my milk, and moved two lanes over to stand behind a woman who only had a greeting card to purchase. Luck was with me today, I felt.
Then I noticed that the person in front of her that the checker was just finishing up with was familiar to me. It was the man from the bank. The checker asked him if he needed help out, and he declined…not in a rude way, but in a manner that spoke to the resilience and the spirit of one who was used to doing for himself.
Bowed, but unbroken, he started slowly pushing his cart towards the door. Again, he lit up a little, but just a little. The transaction in front of me only took seconds to complete, and my time in the line was not much longer. (The checker had to make change for me.)
I picked up my coconut milk and headed for the parking lot. The WWII veteran had just made it to his car, and he looked like he was resting, gathering himself for the next part: loading his groceries in the trunk. I walked past him and went to my vehicle. As soon as I started to open the door, I had the overwhelming urge to go talk to the man I’d been placed in front of three times this day.
I thought to myself: “Who cares? What would I say to him, anyway? The guy might think I was weird or something…” and I closed the door, preparing to stick the key in the ignition and drive away. Because after all, it was such a small thing I was feeling the call to do. Couldn’t mean that much now, could it?
Twice I opened the door, twice I closed it, caught in a struggle between my rational mind and the pressure from Spirit to get out of my car and go talk to that man. Spirit won, but it was close.
In the time it took me to have the argument with myself, the man had loaded his things in the trunk and was fumbling with the key to open the door so he could now drive himself home. I surrendered. I got out of the car, walked over to the man and, not wanting to startle him, reached out my hand and said “Sir?”
He thought I needed to get past him, because he started to move out of my way.
“No,” I said, still holding out my hand so I could shake his, “I just want to thank you for your service.” Understanding registered in his eyes. He reached out his gnarled, frozen-fingered hand for me to shake. I said it again: “I want to thank you for your service. It was reading stories about the things you soldiers did that helped me make my decision about the military.”
I shared that it was because of people like him who served so long ago that I was inspired to serve my country as well. He asked me where I served, and I told him I did not serve in a time of war, but shared what I did and where I’d been stationed. Then I felt to ask him where he had served.
“In Germany,” he replied. Then, softly, “It wasn’t easy.”
In a flash, I could see a young man, slight of build, maybe 5’6″ or so (he was a good head shorter than myself) scared, wide-eyed, and doing his best to be courageous in the face of some pretty overwhelming circumstances. I had the feeling this man before me spent most of his days alone. Doing for himself, maybe spending his time thinking about his life.
I don’t know why I had to stand myself on his path to say those words, and maybe I could have been more effusive or eloquent. I hope it was what Spirit wanted of me. The sensation went away and I could feel myself relax inside as I walked back over to my car.
I shared this story to prove the point that often, we don’t – or won’t – know why we’re being asked to do something. We just need to do it anyway. Without question. Without hesitation. If he had been able to move more quickly, I would have totally missed the opportunity for that encounter.
The other reason I wanted to share this story is to remind everyone that these – treasures – these pieces of living history, are becoming more precious by the day. I believe they hold the remnants of our national pride, our identity as a nation. We must acknowledge their contributions to our growth as a country. We must, whenever possible, thank them personally for their sacrifice. So they know, first hand, they will not be forgotten. Ever.
The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers. The Soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country. ~George S. Patton
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