How we became a prison family.
My Vet met me in the driveway to walk me over and make introductions. I could see the members of his group gathered around the patio where their host was busy barbecuing. Some were standing, others, those with the bad hips and knees, sat at the patio tables. They were all talking quietly, more often than not raising their voices for those of the group who had hearing aids. I knew a few of them, but I was meeting the majority of them for the first time. As I shook their hands and was introduced to their wives, each one of them teased or joked about me being married to “the Gunny”. Even the wives recognized my Vet when I mentioned his name. “The Gunny” was one of the “movers and shakers” of this particular band of brothers and one sister.
As I made my way around the patio, I realized that these veterans of a particular age, knew my husband far more profoundly and intimately than I. One man in particular I was there to meet. He was the guest of honor. He was the reason these veterans ventured out of their routine and comfort zone to gather on their usual group meeting day, outside the familiar confines of the clinic room where they met every week for the last twelve years. They were gathered on that patio to do the unexpected, say farewell to their veteran counselor.
I didn’t know their stories. The veterans don’t talk outside the group about each other. But he knew not only each of their stories, but their fears and dreams, their pride and their sorrows. He was not just their counselor, he was their friend, their consigliere, one of them who slowly helped each of them learn not just to help themselves, but to help one another.
Over these years I had seen the transition in my Vet. I watched him hurt when it was easier for him to be “blank”. I watched him grieve for his mother who had been dead for forty-six years because it had never been “safe” to open the lid to that jar of pain. I sat silently as tears streamed down both our faces as he let himself feel pain for the families of those he had taken. I stood by one solitary dismal night as he raged against the memory of his 19 year-old self, who killed with purpose and efficiency and finally could weep tears of forgiveness for that same country farm boy. I lay next to him as he prayed in the early morning hours for wisdom and understanding of the incomprehensible. I listened with trepidation as he spoke without filter to a young veteran close to our family, helping this young man off the edge and choose life over certain death as he wrestled with his decision to seek medical help but was stigmatized by his command because of it.
As these veterans gathered to say goodbye to a man who was so much more than their group counselor, our host remarked that without him and the group members he wouldn’t have “all this” spreading his arms out to encompass the pasture with the horse and donkey, the patio and home, the garage open to the expanse outside, and most important, the wife who stood by him. We all nodded our heads in understanding. “… But for the grace of God, go I…”
After I said my goodbyes and made ready to travel back to my office, I took a couple of pictures of the driveway past the pasture and clearing where the house was located. The trees grew such that they created a canopy over the road and for a moment I remembered my Vet’s description of the jungles of Vietnam. The lush green density that barely allowed sunlight to filter through, and I realized this band of brothers and one sister had come a long, long way with the help of their families, each other and their counselor. This had not just been “farewell”, this had been “thank-you”.