I recently had to explain to a Canadian all the different branches of the US military and security forces. I’m sure I forgot a few but I was pretty happy that I could name all of them and their sub-branches with a high level of fidelity.
We entered into this conversation because we had just finished kayaking on the Potomac with a group (Team River Runner) that takes wounded veterans out kayaking as a way to rebuild their physical and emotional well being. It’s a great group – you should all go and give them support here however you can.
Our instructor – we’ll call him Jim – took a few of us out onto the Potomac as his borderline spastic charges. When we weren’t turning the wrong way, hitting each other accidentally, or struggling to go faster than sea turtles who lapped us around Roosevelt Island simply to remind us that, in water, we are their bitches, we were having a great time on a spectacular DC day.
As we were out and about it struck me that it was odd that a Marine would give up some R&R time to take a bunch of posers out on the water. So I asked him – “you still active duty?”
“Yes and No – I’m at <<a really good military hospital>> being rehabbed. Been there for nearly a year.”
“Oh.” He didn’t look like he was injured physically, so I asked him, “What happened (on his tours in Afghanistan")?
“I was blown up, twice. Concussive brain trauma to the point where I couldn’t walk. Stuttered, couldn’t remember words. No short-term memory, altho my visual memory now is savant-like.”
“Oh.” I was just about to complain about a blister on my thumb.
“But I’m doing really well. I still have no aural memory and I have permanent brain damage but once I’m out of rehab, I’m using the new GI bill to go to college and get my degree.”
Fucking right he is.
I was still paddling down the river, Iwo Jima memorial just barely visible over the tree line to the right of Arlington National Cemetery and it just reminded me yet again that a) these soldiers deserve everything we can bestow on them and more and b) the only damn reason I get to paddle my way lazily down the Potomac on a stunning Saturday morning is because a bunch of 19-year old kids decided they probably should serve in the military to help keep the bad guys away from us. Yes, I know there are tons and tons of arguments around how our military is disproportionately made up of those without real choices in their lives. But however they enter, the end result for me is the same – they protect our asses. And I’m grateful to all of them.
My friend asked another guide (and wounded soldier) why she joined the army. This soldier said “it was just something I always wanted to do.” When I asked what happened to get her sent back after 3 tours in Iraq, she got very quiet, looked at the Kennedy Center and said “I just was having some tough times dealing with what I was seeing.” I didn’t probe but after 3 tours in Iraq, you can deduce this bad-ass 23-year old girl probably has PTSD severe enough to be medically discharged. 23, people. 23. And she is seeing shit that no one should ever have to see like friends blown to pieces in front of her eyes, brutality of citizenry due to silly religious clashes, destruction on such a grand scale that it must feel like you are living … well … in war zone.
Nothing profound here folks. Nothing remarkable for you to read. There are countless posts on the web extolling the virtues of the armed forces and the often selfless act of military service. It almost feels cliché to even write it. I wrote it about this recently when I saw my idol Dean Kamen’s TED talk on the work he’s doing with prosthetics. He said it so much better than I.
But then I think there can never be too many reminders of the sacrifices made by them for people like us to add a little reality to our rarefied existences.
So thanks to the awesome soldiers (2 Army, 1 Marine) who took us out and tolerated our seeming incapability to paddle in a straight line for more than 100 yards. But the thanks extends far beyond my bitchin’ kayak tan.
This Thank You is eternal.