As much as I’ve seen and witnessed over the past two years, what sticks out and what weighs on my heart the most is the number of times I kept running into one homeless veteran after another in the endless states I’ve traveled. Way before my life took a left turn towards the township of penury and true adversity, I’ve always had an affinity for people who served in the military. Raised by a veteran of the Ethiopian navy, influenced by the genetic confluence of two grandfathers who served as military officers in World War II and raised by a grandmother who was a hero in the same war, I grew up revering the valor and honor of those who serve their nation.
For the longest time, one of my biggest regrets was passing up the chance to attend West Point as a life of partying and validation chasing closed the doors to the United States Military Academy and in the process forever shuttered the chance for me to become a military officer like my grandparents once were. It took a veteran, an Army ranger, to displace this regret from my heart. When I told him that I’ll forever have remorse in my spirits for breaking my father’s heart when I was 17 by wasting the chance I had to go to West Point, the army ranger told me in all earnestness the following sage advice:
“Maybe you should stop regretting, your foolishness was most likely God’s wisdom, you might not be here today to tell me of this regret had you attended West Point as you now wish you did”.
Just like that, a veteran I never met and a stranger in the night washed away years of contrition I harbored in my heart. In the process, he took a bit of weight off my shoulders, for I carried deep in my soul the memory of disappointing my father and the thought that I spit on the sacrifices he made to raise me by not pursuing the dreams of my father and fulfilling his hopes for my future. No more regrets, it took a war hero who became a peacekeeper at home to erase the very burdens that used to sink my heart whenever I thought about my father who is no longer with me. This is what many don’t see about those who served in wars and come back home, most of them retain their valor as civilians by serving as they can even when they have little to speak of for themselves.
Writing this article is hard for me, when I think of men I’ve met over the years, from Sergeant Black who was a Vietnam veteran who became homeless on 9th Street in DC to Nick who was an army ranger and resided in the same mission I lived at not too long ago to the endless vets I’ve encountered over the years, tears drown my keyboard. What I read in the past about wars and the soldiers who fought in them became more than just abstract notions as these very men and women pixelated in front of my eyes while they struggled to keep a roof over their heads. I didn’t need to read about PTSD in the Washington Post while sipping a latte at Starbucks, I kept meeting one veteran after another who was coping with the vicious effects of battle trauma that none but those who served can ever understand.
Just today, I had the honor and privilege of talking to Captain Rich Belt (link) at the gym that I joined not too long ago. Captain belt is a retired Vietnam veteran who was not only in the army, he served two tours Vietnam at the height of that war. What I visualized through movies like “Platoon” and “We Were Soldiers“, he lived and experienced in reality. Over the span of an hour, Captain Belt told me of the post traumatic stress syndrome he still deals with forty years after the war ended. Long after the last bullet has been fired and after politicians stop using wars to get elected, veterans still struggle daily to subsist for the battles in the mind never end just because the wars did.
Captain Belt’s battles transports him back like a Chinook to his second tour in Vietnam when he realized one day the very soldiers who were serving under him were conspiring to go after him. Dissension in the ranks was growing as more and more enlisted men started viewing officers as the enemy. Fragging, the act of deliberately killing a fellow soldier–usually a superior, was becoming the new normal and Captain Belt realized he might be the next statistic. He told me of a time where he made a decision to pull the trigger on his men before they pulled the trigger on him. This thought, a decision to preserve life, ended up becoming a seed of guilt that bloomed into a forest of regret. The PTSD that gnaws at him, beyond the countless horrors he encountered on the battlefield, is the thought that crossed his mind of ending the lives of the very men he was trying his hardest to preserve.
War is hell; a hell that none of us will ever know as we lead lives of civilian comfort. We say “thank you for your service” without even understanding that the service entailed sacrifice that few among us can ever comprehend. Politicians flick their tongues and speak duplicitously of service as they use patriotism as a means to make yet more money. Meanwhile, the men and women who served and bled have to struggle with never ending traumas and the survivor’s guilt that is part and parcel of being a veteran. In a nation that has more wealth than most countries combined, it is a national disgrace of the highest magnitude that there is one veteran on the street let alone hundreds of thousands who count pavements as their new fox holes and homes.
I write against the excesses of our monstrously overgrown federal government all the time, but let me make this one thing clear. My stance against corruption in DC and the evils of the military-financial complex should never be taken as a stand against veterans and those who continue to serve. In fact, I write what I write and speak against the wickedness of greed that is destroying this nation from within as a means for standing for the very veterans that I should have been standing shoulder to shoulder next to. The endless wars that are being declared in the name of money and corporatism are taking the lives and livelihood of young men and women who serve their nation with distinction and valor. The essence of loyalty is found among men and women who salute and do their duty that is best; utter treachery is found among the politicians who salute them back as they let veterans suffer in silence while using their pains to get elected and count their opulence.
Patriotism is not blindly accepting the edicts of politicians and bureaucrats in Washington DC who serve their masters on Wall Street. Patriotism is standing up for truth and love and speaking against power for there are internal enemies of the United States who are destroying this nation from within. It is time for more and more of us to say enough, have the courage of soldiers and stand against the greed and hubris that is leading this nation over the cliff. Though I never went to West Point, my father Fikremariam Million instilled in me the valor to speak truth to power and to not lead a life of fear. So I speak that same spirit of defiance to everyone else using the little voice I have. Courage! Do not be afraid of people because they have authority; they are just like us, they are not gods on earth.
Our life is but a vapor, do not be afraid to stand up when you see wrongs being committed. It is better to live a life worth dying for than it is to die without living life at all. This is why I have no worries when I write articles against a wicked few who are kneecapping the world. Yesterday I wrote an article about the insidious souls who bleed the world (link), someone inboxed me and said that they worry for me. No need to fear, I believe in an awesome God who keeps protecting me through the fire. Besides, it’s not in my heart to fear, the blood of three war heroes from World War II who took on the Mussolini army and the spirit of my ancestor Atse Tewdros II (link) beats in my heart.
What I’ve learned through this journey and the endless veterans that have kept blessing me is this. There is a bigger army beyond that of country and there is calling within all of us that we can be a part of if we choose to enlist. This army I speak of is that of our creator and the love of God in our hearts that unites us as one. We are in a time of spiritual warfare and a time is before us to choose between good and wickedness. Though I bypassed West Point 25 years ago, another army came knocking on my door and this army I did not wave off. The army I speak of is humanity and the grace that resides in all of us. This army shall one day lead a revolution that delivers redemption using love as a weapon and kind deeds are bullets. We will be led when that revolution comes by veterans; for blessed are the peacekeepers, they shall be called children of God. #BlessedPeaceKeepers
“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” ~ Douglas MacArthur
If you appreciated this write up and you too are thankful for the service and sacrifice of veterans and count yourself as a part of a greater army of love, share this article on your wall using #BlessedPeaceKeepers
Where I did not answer the call to West Point, I answered the call the second time around and said “send me”. See what I mean with the Ghion Cast below.
A salute to the heroes in my family
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.