I may be the only happy veteran in America, The Boomer says to me as we’re watching the grandkids in the park.
Who says you’re the country’s only happy vet? I ask.
Every politician who wants my vote, says The Boomer. Every damn one of them tells me all vets are homeless, sick, war-wounded and unhappy. But I’m none of those things so I must be happy.
I’m pretty happy, too, says Mandi, pushing her littlest grand on a swing. But I don’t listen to politicians.
Whoa, you two! I say. How can anyone be a happy vet with the Veterans Administration screwing us all and Congress cutting our benefits?
There’s plenty wrong with the VA, The Boomer says, and its bureaucracy and silly rules. I suppose there might even be something wrong with Congress, but.
But what? I say. Hey, Boomer, didn’t you work for the VA just after Vietnam? Sounds to me like you favor the people screwing us!
Mandi sits beside us with her grand on her knees. You want to hear a VA story the politicians will never tell? she says to me. A real double-hanky story but full of heart and all true?
You’re going to tell me the VA has a heart? I say.
This little one, says Mandi, squeezing the grandkid on her lap, is some of what I have left of the boy I loved and married before he went off to be killed in Vietnam. I have six grandchildren now from the two babies he left me. Do you know how I lived after he was killed?
The Boomer glances at his watch and says, Oops! Gotta grab the grands and go. Lunchtime!
Stay, Mandi says, firmly. Time for you to hear my side of the story.
The Boomer sits down again, looking embarrassed.
I was very young, a child, really, says Mandi. I was a child war widow with two babies. No job, no skills, no education but high school. My parents were a thousand miles away. They could barely afford to send me the few bucks each month that kept us one notch above starvation. But nothing for diapers or blankets or a place to live.
Where did you live? I say.
But you had his GI life insurance coming to you, I say, beginning to feel angry for her. Social Security, Army benefits, VA benefits. Where was all that?
How do all those things find me in the street? says Mandi. I was a child with no idea what to ask for or where to go to ask for it.
Now I am angry. Sweet Jesus, Mandi, I say, somebody should’ve been there for you.
Somebody was. He was, she says, turning to The Boomer.
You? I say to him. How did you know Mandi back then?
I didn’t, he says.
Then what’s the story? I say, puzzled.
I put my kids on a cardboard mat in an alley, says Mandi. The babies were crying from hunger. I was lost and terrified. A young man came into the alley. He was looking for us. Do you know what that meant to me to have someone looking for me?
I put an arm over Mandi’s shoulders and ask, Who was he then?
Just another war veteran, she says. A kid with PTSD working to get himself normal again by finding me.
Working for the Salvation Army? I say. The Red Cross?
He was a kind of back-alley ranger, Mandi says. They hired him and a thousand others all across America and sent them out into the alleys to find derelict vets, homeless vets and war widows with babies living in cardboard boxes. He found me.
I put my other arm over The Boomer’s shoulders.
Mandi says, He took me and my babies to a place that fed us and gave me diapers. Then he looked at the scraps of Army documents I had. He gave me an advance of money and helped me find shelter. He got my widow’s benefits started. He got me into school.
I say, The Boomer did all that for you?
The VA did all that for me, Mandi says.
The VA? I say.
The VA sent The Boomer to find me and my babies so I could sit here with you today and dandle a grandchild on my knees.
It is lunchtime, after all, and The Boomer rounds up his grandkids to herd them away. Mandi does the same.
They leave me there alone to wonder at the wonder of a huge, faceless bureaucracy that sends a wounded boy searching through alleys to rescue a frightened girl with two hungry babies, and to heal himself.
© 2016 Steven Hardesty
(BTW, this is a true story. I was a witness. – Editor)