It was a sobering experience.
These five simple but powerful words pretty well sum up the recent visit my husband and I paid to the Veterans Medical Center in Minneapolis where he underwent medical tests and surgery.
If you're ever in need of a wake-up call or an eye-opening moment to help put your life in perspective as to how good or how bad you really have it, then this is the place to go.
The first thing you notice is there is no discrimination when it comes to people who have served in the military afflicted by illness or injury. The plethora of patients who pass through the halls - hundreds easily on any given day - represent all genres and ages, nobody is spared, male or female, young or old, no matter what the size, race or creed, you watch it all in almost disbelief.
There was a young man (guess mid-20s) with two metal pole prosthetics now serving as his leg support.
An even younger man sporting an eye patch as his head bobbed from side to side suffering from obvious head injuries, pushed around in his wheelchair by his mother to an appointment.
Another little bit older man waiting for bloodwork in the lab, who when he opened his mouth to speak could only make grunting sounds, prompting his obviously cancer stricken wife (bald head, cap, and very gaunt) to ask what he would like, before pulling out a small white writing board and washable marker, handing it to him for his reply. He quickly and very legibly penned 'Vanilla Coke,' and she rushed off to get it for him.
The little bit older man, with only one leg and no prosthetic device, sitting in a wheelchair waiting to be called in for his appointment, politely asking the nurse who was weighing him if he could hold onto the metal rod surrounding the scale for support as he 'stood' on the scale.
Another nurse asking 'how are you getting along today," to another sick veteran who was having a difficult time making his way, aided by his walker.
Undaunted, he replied just fine, and then asked with a big smile "and how are you?" as he made his way into the examination room.
The one thought that kept playing over and over in my mind as we traveled from waiting room to waiting room was "wow," how lucky are we? My husband is in here for repairable back surgery, many of these veterans are beyond medical repair and are finding the strength and determination to live with the baggage they now have to endure, through no fault of their own, inspired by their commitment to service of country.Most would have wrenched their hands and given up, but I didn't see any reaction of that kind. That, in itself is a testimony to this great group of men and women who untirelessly served and are now forced to endure the illnesses, maladies, and disfigurements that are wracking their bodies, affecting both their physical and mental well-being, with their unbroken happy spirits in place, for the most part, in the face of all the adversity.
Another characteristic easy to detect was the overwhelming pride you could see on faces and hear in the voices, especially the much older veterans as they engaged in conversation about their military service with their 'brothers.'
In once instance, an older vet came up to another older vet he didn't know and said proudly "you look like a marine."
The response without hesitation was "55 years, first in World War II, and then in Korea."
Another vet listening piped up and said he too had served both in World War II and Korea, representing two branches of the military, the Marines and U.S. Army, before he'd "had enough."
Listening, it became obvious that all had a distinct story to tell if one only had the time to take it all in.
Another element that also struck me quite profoundly was how polite, happy and helpful everyone was, from fellow patients to the staff and the countless volunteers who were always roaming the halls eager to offer assistance in any way possible. If you ever felt lost, and in many instances we did, whichever way you turned there was always someone there to help you out in a dignified, respectful and truly caring way.
We spent four days at the facility and on the third day as I was leaving, something overwhelmingly simple, but dramatically impressive caught my eye that I had not noticed before simply because we had not traveled that route. Hanging in the lobby atrium area of the hospital was the largest American flag I have ever seen. It was dynamically huge and in its magnitude definite cause for pause and reflection as to why the facility is there in the first place.
When all was said and done, I came away from the Minneapolis VA experience seeing veterans in a more vibrant light with a newfound admiration and respect for all. Coupled with it was a better understanding of the true meaning of the word veteran itself, which translates into a common thread of brotherhood tying all together no matter what their plight.