The world is filled with monuments and memorials to battle. Statues celebrate the generals who led the armies, and sculptures depict the men and women who fought in them. Some are local, devoted to the local folks who fought or the battle that took place right here, and others are national in scope, devoted to the entire effort of that particular war.
There is one monument, however, that speaks most powerfully to the time after the battles are over, when the guns are silent and those who fought go home. It sits on The Mall in Washington DC at the opposite end from the US Capitol, as if to invite those in Congress to ponder its meaning every day. It sits on a line between the State Department and the Pentagon, as if to speak to diplomats and generals alike. It sits between the White House and Arlington National Cemetery, as if to speak to the president of the costs of war.
The monument of which I speak is the Lincoln Memorial, and inscribed inside the memorial on the north wall is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. When I was in fifth grade years ago in Illinois, we were required to memorize both Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, and the words of both echo in my head every Veterans Day — particularly the end of the Second Inaugural, which you can see in the lower right corner of the image above:
With malice toward none and charity for all,with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, for ourselves and among all nations.
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan . . .”
Those are the words so often missing both at annual Veterans Day observances and in the daily debates in Congress. I am not a vet, but I cross paths with them on a regular basis. I see grizzled old soldiers who fought in World War II, their somewhat younger Korean War colleagues, the younger still Vietnam vets and those who have served in the various recent wars in the Middle East. I see them gathering at funerals (what a sight it is to see bikers in their leathers escorting little old ladies through the lines of Fred Phelps’ protesters!), and sitting around the food court at the mall swapping stories. I see them in hospitals, in grocery stores, and in church.
Sadly, I also see them in line for free meals at church soup kitchens, and free beds in homeless shelters, and I think of Lincoln’s words once more: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and his widow and his orphan . . .” I think of those words, and cry at how they are all too often forgotten and lost.
In the old television drama The West Wing, one of my favorite moments of my favorite episode is an exchange between President Bartlet and his communications director, Toby Ziegler. Toby has pulled some strings to arrange for a funeral of a homeless vet who died on a DC park bench, without telling the president what he was doing. When Bartlet found out, he called Toby into his office for a dressing down and an explanation:
- Toby: A homeless man died last night; a Korean War veteran, who was wearing a coat that I gave to the Goodwill. It had my card in it.
- Bartlet: Toby, you’re not responsible for …
- Toby: An hour and twenty minutes for the ambulance to get there. A Lance Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Second of the Seventh. The guy got better treatment at Panmunjom.
- Bartlet: Toby, if we start pulling strings like this, you don’t think every homeless veteran would come out of the woodwork?
- Toby: I can only hope, sir.
(More here, including a link to the video)
In the celebrations of Veterans Day this weekend, expect to see stirring tributes to the military with air force flyovers, a basketball game on an aircraft carrier, and all manner of similar events. Meanwhile, the homeless vets are still dying on park benches and looking for handouts on streetcorners.
Here in KC, there are an estimated 1400 homeless veterans, and Heart of America Stand Down held a one-day event to reach out to these folks with a hand up out of the things that are grinding them down:
A misconception by the general public; “Our government takes care of our veterans”. Granted they should have some liability, it is not true. We spend billions preparing for war and training, yet nothing prepares our troops for returning home. While the VA tries their best to help ‘some’ that served, it does not provide to all, nor does their care treat all conditions caused by military trauma. Thanks to our Vietnam veterans, private causes, and involved communities, this is changing.
To many of our homeless veterans, life on the street is a war they are still fighting. But now, not for our freedoms, for their survival. The Heart of America Stand Down offers them a break from their battle, by bringing the community together, in a safe, violence and substance free environment, we provide resources that make a difference. . . .
100’s of community service groups and organizations from the greater Kansas City Metro come together to provide assistance and help rid the barriers that prevent homeless veterans from re-entering society as engaged, productive citizens and live more fulfilling lives. Assistance is offered with medical, substance abuse, legal issues, taxes, housing & utility assistance, family counseling, spiritual, mentorships, educational and employment opportunities, hair cuts, and much more.
It was a one-day event, but the hope is to connect these vets to other ongoing programs and services to get them back on their feet. I applaud the work of groups like this. But it shouldn’t take volunteers and special donations to do this. This is the work that Lincoln called on the nation — private citizens acting alone and the federal government acting for all — to undertake, not just for the sake of the veterans and their families, but for the sake of our nation and our world.
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle . . .”
When the football and basketball games have their tributes, let these words echo in your head as they do in mine.
Photo by stantontcady, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license