What does the fast-approaching Veterans Day mean to me and the thousands of other parents who are missing their sons and daughters? What does it mean to me — the father of a homeless veteran who did two tours in Iraq as a Marine — that the country will be honoring those who have served in our armed forces, those who have fought in our wars and survived, those who fought in our wars and died?
Families will gather around the photographs of relatives who have served and will watch and listen to Veterans Day stories: patriotic, high-flying, choking-up, flag-fluttering, red-white-and blue stories on every media outlet.
This wave of sentiment washes across these Disunited States, and for one weekend we will be the U.S. The wave of solidarity lifting and carrying “our boys” to the forefront of our attention will hit its peak at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, November 11 — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 being the moment universally acknowledged and celebrated as the end of World War I.
Appearing on our television screens will be survivors of our wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: exemplars of bravery, strength and resilience.Those days of warfare will resurface in our minds, like old dreams, or nightmares, before we return to business as usual on Monday, releasing the stories of far-off battles into the past that cannot be changed.
In the present, Veterans Day is a major milepost for many of us experiencing an ambiguous loss of a loved one. That loved one progressed through infancy, childhood, and adolescence, then often, almost immediately, at the age of nineteen or twenty, entered the military. He or she went off to war young and idealistic, upbeat and positive, strong and razor-fit from his or her training, then returned home damaged, and now has no present, no future. These are the homeless veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Andrew, like thousands of other homeless veterans, will not be celebrating Veterans Day. We’ve been searching for Andrew for six years. He has fallen completely off the radar of our modern American life of video cameras, medical files and digital forensics. He’s disconnected from even the simplest transactions with state and federal agencies.
How many are out there like him? In 2022 the federal government estimated that, out of the total 582,000 homeless Americans, 33,000 are veterans. This is far down from more than 70,000 veterans on the streets in 2010, which was before the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs provided 40,000 homeless veterans with safe housing.
Our search for Andrew continues. We push on, searching for our one veteran. I’ve just received an email form a man whose son served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each time he came home, he treated his wife worse, frightened his two children, lapsed into violence and depression, showing all the signs of PTSD. Finally, he was aptly diagnosed and immediately decommissioned. Soon afterward, he was found dead. This father admitted that the thought had crossed his mind: Would it have been better if his son had died in battle, his body ceremoniously returned home, his service celebrated?
Not one of us in our family wishes that our Andrew had been killed in action. Each of us has hope that we will find him and get him help. On Veterans Day, we will be continuing our experience of relentless, grinding, day-after-day ambiguous loss. It is a leeching of the soul, versus the without-a-doubt worse experience of a final loss, the final loss: clear cut and absolute death.
We have lost Andrew…Yet, we have not lost him.
We know he is alive, living as a homeless survivalist in the Southwest. And yet, in reality, all we know is that he was sighted two months ago — that he was alive and healthy on that day. We carry that image forward, until it fades. Where is my son sleeping? What is my son thinking? Does he remember us? Is he in good physical health?
“Andrew!” I call out during an autumn hike at dusk. I am channeling him. I am doing a Marine forced march with him. “Andrew, where are you?” I call out, sending my voice into the blood-red sky and across the country to New Mexico where he was last seen. “You can’t keep living this way day after day, into your forties.”
And then, I think to myself: I’m in my seventies. I have less and less time left to find you, Andrew. I will not end this life with you still out there, alone, unloved, pushing your bicycle loaded down with clothes and camping gear.
Veterans Day, for our family, is a vacuum yearning to be filled. It is a black hole in our hearts. It is the bull’s eye America hits with perfect aim every year: the horror, the horror, of war, and the hole in our hearts that only the return of Andrew can fill.
We cannot thank Andrew for his service. We cannot sit around the dinner table laughing about good old times with Andrew. How we wish he could be here with us on November 11, clean-shaven, short-haired, out of his homeless mufti and duct-taped go-fasters. Tall, trim, handsome, in his dark, olive green Marine uniform, his jacket perfectly fitted, marksmanship badge on his left chest pocket, a colorful long narrow ribbon bar above detailing his service to our country: Global War on Terrorism Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.
One day soon, we will have Andrew back. He will not be wearing his uniform; drawing attention to his years as a Marine is not Andrew’s style. He is a quiet and modest man.
Andrew! Are you reading this? I can feel my arms wrapping tightly around your steel-cage of a chest and joyfully lifting you off the ground.
Andrew, the war’s over. Come home. Love, Dad.
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Author: Patrick Smithwick, Opinion Contributor