Monday, November 12, 2012

Why I Do What I Do

His voice still resonates in my ears.  It sounded to me like wood, sanded and polished.  Distinguished with an edge.  I recorded his voice that day and I still can't bring myself to listen to his tape.

I sat down with Grandpaw one time -only once -  to ask him about China, Burma, and India.  He was getting older, but his voice was unwavering - still that polished wood.  He remembered.  And when he spoke, when he described - his words took him back to the lines of war.  He was there, and so was I.

He told me the anti-aircraft weapons, of jungle trails through mountains, of flying over the Himalayas.  He told me of the hunger, the awful rations, the malaria.  He told me of the four years he spent just thinking of his mother - his home.

He watched the boys kiss the ground when the train brought them home.  He fought for four years in a jungle. 

I do this for him.

When I talk to him about his experiences, the door only opens occasionally.  I didn't really find out about his experiences in Vietnam until I was grown.

He was on a river boat.  Sometimes, I wonder how he made it in such a war zone.

I see this picture, with this little bit of boyish charm, and it makes me laugh.  This was my Dad!  And yet, this picture makes me sad.  I know that boy saw blood-stained jungles. I know that boy was far, far away from home for a long, long time.

Boys go to war - boys.  And they come back radically changed.

For my father, coming back from Vietnam also meant coming home to the jeers of those who opposed the war.  His father came back a hero - he came back to be shunned.

He internalizes much of his service.  I very rarely hear him mention anything of that year he spent on that boat.   I remembered his stories and remembered how he said one hour of combat feels like a day.  I think about those hours that felt like days and how awful that must have been.  I'm an empathetic creature, but my brain cannot fully encompass the depth of those days.

I do this for him.

The picture hung on her wall for years.  As a little girl, playing hide and seek, I always looked at his crooked smile and his handsome face and wondered who he was.

"That's my brother," Memama told me.  "His name was Ray Dean."

As I got older, I found out that Ray Dean went to Korea.  Ray Dean fought in a battle.  Ray Dean was never, ever found. 

He was just another military boy smiling in a picture to me - but to my grandmother, his loss still penetrates her heart.

To this day, I still hear the glint of sadness in her voice when she speaks of her brother.  The loss still resonates - the loss never left.

There was never an answer - never a resolution.

I do this for him.  And for her.

Each Veterans Day, I try to think of some way to teach my students the meaning of its significance.  I started a slideshow a couple of years ago as a tribute to the veterans who served, and it worked out really well.

Last year, I thought that a veterans panel might be a good way to illuminate to my students the concept that freedom is indeed not quite free.  This year, I decided to try it again.  I planned, organized, and did what I could to prepare for the day.

But nothing could have prepared me for Kenneth McElreath.

He was a slight man, and came in for the day with his medals.  He grabbed my arm and held on to me as I escorted him into the media center.

"What would my wife say if she knew this blonde had my arm?" he joked.

"Careful - my husband teaches down the hall!" I joked back.

As my first group of students came in to hear his story, they were animated - excited.  They play "war video games" all of the time, so naturally, they would be prepared for war stories.  I could feel the excitement in the air as I led them through the pledge and the introduction of our veterans.

Then, we had our band teacher play "Taps."

We watched as Mr. McElreath shed tears.

Then I surveyed as eyes in the audience widened - and teared up.

He told his story.  Honestly, as cliched as it sounds, his story could make grown men cry.  Students cried silently in their seats as Mr. McElreath talked about his responsibilities as a Sargent - how he tried to save as many men as he could - and how several, several (around fifteen) said their last words in his arms.

His face was etched in sorrow as he described his wounds.  The gash on his neck, the bullets in his legs, the teeth long gone due to the butt of an AK-47.

He talked about war - and how awful and terrible it truly, truly was.  He talked about the nightmares and the cold sweats.  He had a terrible nightmare the night before the panel.

And he talked about when he came home to Atlanta - after the horrors of war - to find the spit of an antagonizer in his face.

After he told his story, I watched my students - by beloved, precious East Hall Middle School students - line up one by one.  They went to shake his hand, to give him a hug, to have their pictures made with him, and to tell him "thank you for your service."

I didn't have to tell that first group.  They just knew - instinctively - what needed to be done.

And I watched as that sweet, quiet little man stood a little straighter.  I watched him deliver his story three more times, each time feeling a little more confident.

No one (excluding the military) thanked him for his service.  That day, at least one hundred kids told him how much they cared - how much they appreciated his sacrifice.

His story changed their lives and their perspective.  Amazingly, their love and perspective changed his life, too.  He was finally told "thank you," for those dark, dark days.  And for him, it seemed to serve as a release.  He slept that night.

I do this for him.

I was told "thank you" for organizing a veterans panel - but I want to deflect this.  You should know the birth of my motivation.

I only gave a few hours.  Veterans gave the true sacrifice.

So if you ask me why I devote time to this cause, I do this for my Grandpaw, who will always be my hero.  I do this for my Dad, whose silence still speaks volumes about those days abroad.  I even do this for my Memama, the wife of a veteran, the sister of a lost soldier, and the mother of two Vietnam soldiers. 

And I do this for Mr. McElreath.  The man who walked in with a cane walked out of our school on his own two legs.  He finally got his welcome home.  He finally got his welcome home.

For all of our soldiers - those who no longer fight, for those who are still fighting, and for those who never returned home, my small acts of gratitude will never amount to your sacrifice.

Thank you.