This coming Monday is Veterans Day. Whether we honor it as another day off from work or school or choose to pay our respects to loved ones who have served our country, this should be a day when we give pause. For me, what this day brings up are thoughts of the individuals I know who have served our country and who have survived war but continue to live with the most severe symptoms of PTSD.
In particular, I think of my dear friend Thomas Steinbeck, who passed away on August 11, 2016. As a war veteran, he detested this holiday because it was a reminder of all the horrific events he witnessed during his time in Vietnam. Each year on this holiday, Thom would wake up feeling depressed and remain that way for the rest of the day, sometimes being unable to even get out of bed. If he did do so, he would hide away in his Southern California home, which was only a mile from mine.
Thom didn’t want to be honored on this day; he didn’t want to be remembered. He just wanted to forget it all. This day reminded him of the useless war he’d fought in and all the friends he’d lost. Up until his death, forty years after Vietnam, he would still shiver when he heard the sound of helicopters in the sky. The memories that accompanied them were too painful to reflect upon or remember. On many days, his psychic pain led him down a dark road of addiction to cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol.
Thom was a Buddhist, a man who believed in justice for all and “Live and let live.” So many of us Americans are feeling helpless right now and don’t know where to turn. I’ve thought about what Thom’s thoughts would be during this time when many people feel a sense of unrest. He might remind us of two important Buddhist tenets: compassion and interconnectedness. So in Thom’s memory, let’s consider bonding together to thank and honor our veterans, but let’s also pray and send out the intention that one day this world will see peace—if not in our own lifetimes, then in those of our children and grandchildren.
Here’s a poem I wrote many years ago, which is dedicated to Thom:
His body shouts
secrets to his universe,
little messages murmured
to cryptic cancerous cells
beside whimpers from diseased organs
which gasp for stale air
as reminders of years
behind unfiltered cigarette sticks,
underneath agent orange messages
rippled from unnecessary wars
which took too long to end,
and parents who slipped away
before the proclamation
of their time transcended
beside messages from deprived brain cells
pulling oxygen particles from back seat tanks
inside collapsible mini vans
as the stars hang in despair
of your inevitable passing
not because we wanted you to leave us
but because you did not believe
how loved you were when you were here…
Blessings and peace to one and all.