I was stuck in rush hour traffic when my engine sputtered and my car came to a stop. I’ve always hated driving in the city, but there I was, halfway through a four-way stop, blocking traffic. I immediately began to panic.
He was small, thin and rugged, clothed in torn jeans and a black leather jacket. His hair was long and silver, covered by a bandana that looked like the American flag.
If he hadn’t offered to help me that day, I might not have noticed the dog tags around his neck or the pain his eyes.
He Was Homeless
As children, we’re taught to be cautious of strangers. As women, we’re taught that this idea applies especially to men we don’t know. So, it was easy to ignore him before, as I often passed him standing on the side of the road.
I had seen him. I even read the sign he was holding. It said:
Anything you have to give. God bless you.
I did my best not to give my attention so I wouldn’t feel guilty for not helping. But, when he approached my window and softly knocked to get my attention, guilty was exactly how I felt.
His name was Ron. “But all my friends call me Lieutenant,” he said as he introduced himself and diverted the oncoming traffic.
At first, I wanted to tell him I was sorry that I hadn’t stopped when I saw him before. But I didn’t.
I greeted him warmly and thanked him for coming to help me. Then, we began to move my vehicle to a more convenient location. He pushed and I steered. He insisted. Soon, I was safely parked at a nearby McDonald's.
As I shook his hand and thanked him again, I noticed he didn’t have his sign anymore — he must have left it. I asked if I could buy him some dinner. It was the least I could do for his help.
At first, he declined: “It’s okay, ma’am. I stay here some nights. They’re good to me at this one,” he said as he looked toward the ground.
I insisted. I didn’t expect to sit and eat with him, but I did. He insisted. As we sat together that day, I learned a different side of war.
He Was Married
“Nineteen years!” he said proudly as he reflected. His wife died six years ago while he was deployed. I listened quietly as he told me what happened.
His voice cracked and his eyes filled with tears as he came to the end of his story by saying,
A soldier isn't supposed to lose a wife; a wife loses her soldier in war. It kills me every single day.
Lt. Ron was honorably discharged two years later. He has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was living with his only son after he returned home from his service, but 10 months before I met the Lieutenant, he lost his son, too.
He has no family and has been living on the street for eight months.
As I left McDonald’s that day, I didn’t ignore the opportunity to give back to someone who gave and sacrificed so much for so many. I opened my wallet, and I gave all that was in it. I wish I could have given him more.
He’s Not the Only One
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Policy and Planning, in 2009, studies reflected the number of living veterans to be 23,440,000.
Do you know how many of those veterans are receiving benefits and help through the government and country they served to protect? 8,493,700. In other words, less than half of the men and women who have sacrificed, suffered and served our country get benefits.
Remember The Homeless
Our veterans aren't the only ones who are hungry and freezing this holiday season. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 19 out of every 10,000 people are homeless. Thirty-five percent of homeless individuals remain unsheltered.
Remember our veterans. Remember them as you sit down to your holiday feasts, hang your lights and adorn your trees. All of our veterans have sacrificed and all of our soldiers who are still serving will be veterans one day. Many have served, many have given and many are still fighting.
Remember our children. Remember them as you sip your coffee, zip your jacket and tighten your scarf. Remember them as you warm your hands by the fire this winter and watch your children's faces light up as they open their gifts on Christmas morning.
We do not do enough. We do not give enough. This holiday season, may we rise together to change it.
Little is much when love is present.