That was then, this is now, almost fifty years later. Now I stalk the halls of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach, California. The patients from Nam are intermingled with others from other wars, some prior, others more recent. Their wounds are more troubling now. They have been allowed to fester over time, eating away at the soul as well as the body. The prize, their escape from combat, no longer golden. Most would have happily completed their tours despite the horrors rather than suffer still.
I met a man whose arm was swaddled in a massive bandage. He proudly informed me that he was one of the first blacks to earn the badge of a Navy SEAL. As we talk, a doctor comes to inspect his recent surgery and instructs me to hold the man's arm up while he unwraps it. Grip here by the hand, I'm instructed, and we continue to chat as the doctor works. I learn that he grew up in Los Angeles and served in Nam helping rescue lost and surrounded soldiers in the Mekong Delta. That's where I served. We're both surprised that we were there at the same time and might have passed each other. The doctor completes his work and asks about the pain. No matter. The Navy Seal proudly proclaims that he can handle pain. I then learn he will have more when they operate on the other arm.
There are more like him waiting for me, although they don't realize it until I arrive with their hamburger, hotdog, or pizza and smile.
I go home when day is done. They don't. Don't worry. I'll be back. It's a debt I owe for the good fortune that my wounds weren't debilitating, just annoying.