Looking around McGuire Veterans Hospital, one might feel depressed about the paraplegics or amputees-or the men talking to themselves, angry at the voices in their heads. There are doctors with the thousand-yard stare, overwhelmed by what they have seen-some maybe as bad off as soldiers who have witnessed combat. These surroundings make you wonder: Is death paying the ultimate price for freedom, or is it living the rest of your life with a handicap?
Today the VA mental health group went to a Chinese buffet (it was a lot better than the overdone turkey and stuffing they served at yesterday's cafeteria meal). The ex-soldiers filled their plates and went back for seconds. I sat with a man whose hat reminded one of the doctors of Santana. (Because his name escapes me, I'll call him Santana.) We talked a little about our situations. I mainly listened, not wanting to step out of bounds. He told me he didn't talk to his ex-wife anymore and hadn't seen his kids in years.
"I had a triple bypass and they only held me for a week," he said, a touch of pride in his voice. "I quit smoking and drinking. That's why they let me out so soon."
To continue the conversation, I said, "I smoke."
While Santana was eating, a man sat beside him. He looked at me in a familiar way. "I think the waitress is attractive," he said in a soft voice.
"You should ask for her phone number," I whispered back, as she was cleaning the booth behind us.
Santana raised his head and said, "You know, I don't think you should do that because this is a veterans' occasion, but you could come back later."
The man with the crush turned around and muttered something to the waitress we couldn't hear. He shifted again to face me.
"I told her she looks attractive," he said, and we both giggled like school boys.
When lunch was over, most of the ex-soldiers went outside to smoke. My lighter wasn't working so I bummed one from a guy named William. He kept a used cigar in his pocket and took it out after lighting my cigarette.
"What branch were you in?" William asked.
"The army," I answered.
"I was in the army too," he said, a little surprised.
"What was your job, your MOS?" I asked.
"Communications. What was yours?"
"19 Delta Cavalry Scout."
"Yeah, but in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cavalry does traffic control points."
"Where did you go, Iraq or Afghanistan?" William asked.
"I didn't go to either," I said. "I was stationed at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert."
I usually regret sharing this information. Most people don't understand how a person can go crazy without going to war. William didn't say much but finally asked, "So what happened?"
"Well, I have some schizophrenia and depression …"
"I have that too," he added with vacant eyes. "Depression and schizophrenia."
Our conversation was interrupted when we were told it was time to leave. Everyone loaded back into the vans. There were three along with a sedan full of doctors. We drove off and after a few miles, set foot on the VA grounds again.
As everyone filed back out, I spoke to a man sitting beside me. He said he was a Vietnam veteran and lived in housing on the hospital grounds. Because he looked experienced I asked him, "Do we have to go back to our meeting room or can we just go?"
"You can go anywhere you want," he answered.
I stood up, got in the car with my mom, and went home. No one had judged my situation. No one looked at me oddly when I used the word schizophrenia. Being around the soldiers reminded me of basic training at Fort Knox. We all had different backgrounds, but slowly and steadily became a unified force. I had spent the day with ex-soldiers, all from different moments in time, different wars, and even different levels of society—each living with a handicap but defying death once again.
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