Scroll to the bottom to read a poem I wrote five years ago while I was homeless and living in Wellington, Colorado. A lot of my shelter neighbors were homeless veterans, the poem “Silent Salute” is dedicated to them and all people who put on the uniform and sacrifice on behalf of a greater cause than serving one’s ego.
The things we are drawn to, the affections that capture our hearts, there is a source from which these emotions flow outward to inhabit our passions. There’s a reason why I am writing this article to thank veterans and why I’m expressing my admiration and reverence for those who put on the uniform. But before I start explaining my affinity for veterans and the deference I have for the mind-bending hardship they go through from the first day they step into training camp to their last breath on earth, let me first say thank you. And when I say thank you, it’s not just thanking veterans for their service—really what I am saying is thank you for your sacrifice.
The weight of 300 million are put on the backs of a few as soldiers, marines, air men and seamen from every corner of this nation do their part to serve and protect their neighbors and fellow citizens. It is no secret how I am repulsed by the military-financial complex that our overgrown and over-bloated government unleashes unto the world. But my stance against oppressive politicians in DC and their patrons on Wall Street should not in any way be construed as a condemnation of veterans. In my travels over the past two years, as I became a sojourner without a choice, who I ran into over and over again were the very veterans whom I hold in the highest esteem. In the midst of my hardship and tribulation, my occasional need to wallow in self-pity and despair would be washed away by seeing a homeless veteran who called the same mission I called home his home too.
From South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, New York and Colorado, a two year exodus became really at an education that made me refocus my perspective of injustice. See, what corporate America and our duplicitous politicians and pundits rarely show is the aftermath that veterans go through when they come back home from the horrors of wars. Men and women swallowed whole by PTSD, shock-trauma, missing limbs and lost friends are expected in a fell swoop to readjust to society and forget about the terrors they saw on the battlefields. Many come back home too broken to fit in—spouses unable to cope and families unable to understand—countless tens of thousands end up homeless all alone as the conglomerate band plays on using patriotism to hide the profits that wars make. A nation overflowing with wealth relegates veterans to the periphery of indigence as a moneyed few hoard all for themselves using warriors as billboards to make yet more money. Sins begetting sins as greed keeps birthing greed.
Those of us who never put on the uniform and who think that war is something that takes place either between football teams or on PlayStations are too distracted by rat races and trivial conquests to really understand the plight veterans go through. In a lot of ways, the fortunate are the ones who perish on the battlefield for the living have to bear the pain of survivor’s guilt, the torment of withered bodies, and the gnawing memories of blood and crying children. War is the utmost of human follies and worse yet the 9th circle of hell for it reduces human beings into pawns on a chess board of the powerful. But those of us who either protest against war or cheer lead for it can never phantom the crucibles and ordeal of having once fought in a war.
In all honesty, I am no different than the average American in this sense. Not too long ago, I used to rage against immoral wars all the while stepping over homeless veterans as I was sipping my latte on my way to the Pentagon. Imagine that, at once I worked at the focal point of power making friends with countless service members all the while looking away from veterans who did not come back in one piece from Afghanistan, Iraq and the endless wars we keep initiating throughout the world and instead were falling to pieces on the very sidewalks of DC that tourists segway on with full glee. It’s a natural reflex I presuppose, the injustices of the world too much so we find it easier to look beyond the indigent before us and instead fight against injustice in far off lands.
Yet, in spite of my indifference, there was and always will be a part of me that held a special place for those who serve and for veterans in my heart. There are many reasons for this; one of which is the fact that my father was a veteran of the Ethiopian Imperial Navy who trained right here in the states with the US Navy. In fact, it was because of the Naval exchange that the Ethiopian Navy had under King Haile Selassie with the United States that my father developed an undying love for America. My father Fikremariam Million saw in America blessings in abundance; a place where foreigners can arrive at the shores, find homes, and then have opportunities to build a new life with their hands and hard work. In most corners of the world, one’s birth limited one’s endeavors. But in America, my father saw a land where his children could do the one thing he was never able to do—to attend college and maximize our potential.
So before my father even met my mom, he had set his sights on America. The same year and a month before I was born, Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, the ruthless Megnistu Hailemariam took power shortly thereafter and ruled with an absolute iron fist. After a conflict broke out with Somalia in a proxy war between the US and USSR, life in Ethiopia was becoming more and more onerous and dangerous. My father decided to seek refuge in the same place he once saluted US naval officers. We arrived in America without a possession, we had to sneak out of our own nation as my father devised a scheme to pluck us out of Ethiopia one by one without setting off red flags that we were leaving. My father, may he rest eternally in peace, is my hero above all for this reason; he left a life of upper-middle class comfort in Addis Abeba working at the Ethiopian airlines to come to America as a penniless immigrant and worked three and four jobs at a time to feed his family and provide the pathway for me to gain a college education and fulfill the one dream he never accomplished. The dreams of my father thus were not just his dream but the dreams of my father’s father as well, for my father grew up without a father since his dad was silenced forever after World War II concluded.
My father always gave credit to the Navy for setting him on the right path and in the process talked endlessly of the virtues of service. My father was a military man through and through, almost every movie he loved and that I watched at his lap was about the military. The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare, Kelly’s Heroes, the Green Berets, these were some of my father’s favorite movies as he somehow recaptured the kinship and bond he once had with his fellow naval mates through these films. To this day, when I watch these movies, my father’s memory invades my cortex and I am comforted by his once embracing hug. His adoration of the military transferred to me, I grew up in awe of anyone in a uniform and wanted in my heart to one day follow in the steps of my father.
But there was something beyond just my father and the raw power movies have in our lives that drew me to those who served. I would find out in time that my bloodline is full of war heroes who sacrificed endlessly defending their nation from would be colonial powers. My dad’s father Million Tedla was a Fitawrari (vanguard commander) in Haile Selassie’s imperial guard who was beloved in Gonder, Ethiopia for his bravery and command as he resisted Mussolini’s fascist army. While Haile Selassie was in England, it was patriots and freedom fighters like Fitawrari Million Tedla who stayed behind and thwarted brown shirt tyranny. My grandfather on my mother’s side was also a patriot who fought against the Italian army; both of my parents were born from gallant men who put their lives on the line fighting mustard gas and tanks with outdated weapons and unimaginable valor.
Add to my two warrior grandfathers my grandmother on my mother’s side who also put her body between harm and Ethiopia’s children in order to defend her nation. My grandmother Yewebdare Abebe’s exploits were so renowned that Emperor Haile Selassie awarded her a medal of honor for the fortitude she displayed against the Italian army. The cruelty of life, with one hand Haile Selassie rewarded the valor of Yewebdare and with the other ordered the execution of Million Tedla—too much valor can be seen as a threat by those who harbor power. The valor I speak of, the courage and distinction of my grandmother is not the exception, just like everywhere else in the world, the hubris of men always pales in comparison to the quiet strength of women. That quiet strength erupted into fierce rebellion when Mussolini unleashed hell on my birth country,. Mussolini ordered the use of chemical weapons and terrorism that equaled the brutality of Hitler in order to fulfill his ambitions of joining the colonial club and to satiate his thirst for vengeance after the humiliation the Italians felt during the battle of Adwa a generations prior to the monster Il Duce birth. Yewebdare did her part by being part of the resistance; her story is no different than the story of countless men and women who refused to submit to oppression and rose up against those who tried to rob them of both dignity and freedom. We might give unto Caesar taxes but we—the totality of humanity from east to west, south to north—should always rise up against would be Caesars who monopolize power and accumulate wealth to squelch our God given right to freedom and happiness.
It’s no accident really, my connection to those who served their nation and who sacrificed gallantly to protect their country is infused with generation after generation of men and women who answered the call when the call came. Sometimes I feel a tinge of insignificance seeing how my ancestors fought and bled for their beliefs while I only pontificate from the sidelines as I fight against injustice. This bloodline of warriors goes back all the way to Atse Tewodros II, the emperor of Ethiopia who was a legendary tactician and a brilliant war strategist. He was able to unite Ethiopia through sheer tenacity befitting a Marine leatherneck and defended Ethiopia against aspiring colonists a century before World War II. This is the story of the world I guess, time cannot mend the brokenness of this planet as every century keeps witnessing malignant powers using benevolent intentions and duplicitous double-speak to shackle other nations into bondage.
So you see, my connection to veterans and those served is part and parcel of my genetic disposition. I myself once had the opportunity to serve America, my nation I now call home, as a pathway opened up for me to attend West Point. The joy that my father felt when he first saw the West Point offer was one that to this day I remember with full clarity. The opportunity to be among the greats was the reason my father sacrificed all to come to America—his son was about to be a West Point cadet and he could not stop gloating about it. I, being the rebellious teenager and caught up in seeking the validation of my school mates and fellow scofflaws, met his gloat with negligence. As he was driving himself to exhaustion working endless hours in his taxi only to go about town trying to collect endorsement letters from Senators and well known figures within the community, I was busy drinking alcohol, exhaling haze, and chasing girls. It was my SAT score that opened the door to West Point, my endless days of playing hooky and a sinking GPA likewise closed the door. It broke my dad’s heart when he realized that the dreams of his son attending West Point was no more. In time, disappointing my father in such a way and wasting the chance to become an Army officer would be the locus of my biggest regrets.
But life is serendipitous if nothing else, I ended up working as a consultant for the Department of Defense and in consulted with each branch of the military. One of my closest friends, Curtis Brumsfield, was an Army ranger who on more than one occasion stepped between me and harm during bygone days. Beyond Curtis, I had the blessing of meeting and befriending endless active duty military men and women and veterans. While working at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, I would head over to the NCO bar and revel in the endless stories veterans told of humor and hardship—comforting each other with silent salutes and compassionate embraces. I realized why my father loved the Navy so much and why he wanted me to attend West Point. I understand his dreams for me even more with the wisdom that comes from adversity and pains. These men and women bonded to such an extent because pain is the glue that binds one soul to the next.
Pain is the glue that binds one soul to the next. I had to repeat that because those words just made me pause and reflect, for it was pains that bonded me and stitched my heart with innumerable veterans over the past two years. Although I admitted to being indifferent at times in the past, there were other times—way before my life shattered from upper-middle class comforts to lower rung distress—that I would run into veterans on the streets of DC who were homeless and would have the most amazing conversations with them. Most people really are missing a lot as they judge homeless people based on class; some of the most intelligent and wise men and women are the very same ones we keep passing daily as we occasionally throw them change. One particular indigent veteran named Mr. Black became a fixture in my life for almost a year; he would tell me war stories from Vietnam right in the middle of 9th Street as he interlaced funny moments with the most heart breaking memories.
Little did I know that my interaction with Mr. Black was nothing more than a training ground, a boot camp of sorts, preparing me for what life had in store for me. And this is where I separate veterans and those who serve from my criticism and condemnation of the few who are serving all of us to the wolves. There is a bright red line between those who serve and those who perpetuate injustice. You don’t have to look too far, 50/50 chance that the next homeless person you meet in your city is a veteran. They feel the heat of injustice more than the rest of us, to have once bled for this nation and then be bled into the submission of impoverishment is a sin of the highest magnitude. As those who cheer for wars as they ring cash registers all the while living in opulence, those who suffered in the name of “freedom” are left to fend for themselves making homes of free cardboard boxes and newspapers.
For the rest of us, we are fed given pretenses of freedoms in order to give us a sense of control when we have none of it. Freedom of speech in America is no more and the American dream that my father sought is being relegated to the trash bin as our nation and really the entire world is being chewed up by pernicious oligarchs who deploy their billions to hire politicians and policy experts to turn this planet into a giant pyramid scheme—resources and wealth flowing from the 99% to a malignant few who feed on the rest of us. More and more people in the media know this and some of them would actually would say so on the record if they were actually brave enough to risk losing their jobs. This is not a theory I speak of, in time I will tell my story of what happens when one is a bit too effective in organizing people and speaking against power. I am only here writing this story because of the courage and valor of one Officer Beaufort from the Fairfax Police Department who stepped into the fire to pull me out of the inferno.
I do not know where to draw the line when it comes to culpability but I know one thing, I will never place responsibility of the hell that is being loosened on the world for the sake of money on the shoulders of veterans or those who serve. In fact, if I speak up against the monstrosity and cronyism in DC and Wall Street, I do so on behalf of the veterans I kept meeting in state after state who were broken by this bankrupt system. You see that picture above of the soldier shedding a tear as she salutes, her name is Alicia Watkins. She was a staff sergeant who served in Afghanistan only to come back home and become homeless. Her story is not the exception, more and more Alicia’s struggle is the rule. We ask these young men and women to put it all on the line to fight unjust wars; in return we have them waiting in lines at the VA and soup kitchens when they return back from war.
The irony of life, the same way I once wanted to have camaraderie with soldiers and veterans, God protected me through painful adversity so that I could stand should to shoulder with soldiers and awe inspiring warriors through the basic training offered at Fort Homeless. It was at this fort that I found the embrace of the kindest and most giving veterans as they enveloped me with love replacing the void of those who skulked away when injustice arrived at my doorsteps. I don’t know if I could ever fully explain what I went through over the past two years, in so many ways I feel like Jonah swallowed up by a whale. Yet amidst this chagrin comes the clarity of an awesome God who placed me in His arms and protected me from harm. After 35 years in Northern Virginia, I sought refuge in the most unlikely places as fate and God’s grace took me to South Carolina.
It was in South Carolina that I met veteran after veteran who bracketed me with comfort and gave me friendship. The tinge of sadness and loss was ameliorated during the most trying time of my life because angels—most of them veterans—kept saluting me when I was feeling down. I learned one lesson during my time at the Pentagon and Fort Belvoir, civilians are not really supposed to salute those who serve for the act of saluting is really an act of saying “I too was there”. We should not trivialize this most profound gesture by letting overpaid athletes and vacuous stars abuse this act of fraternal bond. Yet as I hesitate to dare salute those who served, it brought tears to my eyes so many times when homeless veterans and struggling soldiers would keep saluting me even though I did not deserve it. One day, I told a veteran that one of my biggest regrets was never attending West Point and he responded “it’s God’s grace, maybe he was saving you for something greater.” This wisdom did not come from a pundit on TV but from a struggling veteran next to me.
We are living in tumultuous times where it seems the world is being set on fire through a mix of anger and avarice. Brother is being set against brother and sister is turning on sister as we are all being led to think that our adversary are those who look different than us. So in a way I am writing this not only to honor veterans but to also tell those of us who never served to pause and think. I too was once part of the outrage ranting against police officers for the injustices a few commit against many. But in honesty, it was a police officer who saved me and it was countless police officers in Greenville South Carolina—most of whom were veterans themselves—who befriended me. I will return one day to Greenville SC if only to thank the police department there for at once protecting me and sheltering me with kindness. We have a way on focusing on the few who do bad as we ignore the many, from veterans to police officers, who have it in their hearts to serve even if they are flawed just like the rest of us.
The enemy are not those who we are led to believe, all of us are in this together for we are all being oppressed by a few who benefit through our collective misfortunes. If we are going to fight against injustice, let us do so in a spirit of unity and oneness and understand that most of us have been enslaved by the system. Police officer after police officer I talked to over the past two years acknowledge that a few bad apples ruin it for the rest. This is not to dismiss the horrors of shooting unarmed men or running roughshod over innocent people but those of us who rightly see red when we are painted with a broad brush of stereotypes should be very careful about repaying that deed to others—the sins of a few does not taint the whole. In my heart I know that most police officers are good people who are doing their jobs even if they don’t agree with the status quo and most of them are also miffed by this runaway government that is taking from us to sustain themselves and enrich their corporate patrons. Paychecks make slaves out of many men; I once worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense contractor, while I was ranting against the defense-financial complex. I was not willing to walk away from my job even as I was raging against the Iraq war. So why should I ask police officers to do the same, how many of you would walk away from your job in order to protest the excesses of Wall Street and corporatism. Pure idealists end up homeless, the rest of us rationalize in order to pay the rent.
Besides, know this one thing. There is a reason why all this animosity is being waged on the airwaves and why we are constantly being incited to act out in rage. Demagogues on all sides, from Republicans to Democrats and pundits of all stripes, are intentionally pushing us to the brink of open hostility for a purpose. As long as we let emotion blind us, it will be easier for the powerful to pillage us. Moreover—please pause to assess what I am saying next—the one thing that stands between an openly fascist government that will oppress us with impunity is the fact that we have a decentralized police force and veterans who are part and parcel of the community. So when the police departments across the nation are being centralized under the federal government—which is blatantly anti-constitutional—that should be a smoldering red flag. Add to that how we are being encouraged to dehumanize each other, various sides screaming and yelling past each other, there is a reason for this as well for it is easier to use brute force against those who have been dehumanized. Stop pointing fingers for pointed fingers eventually lead to pulled triggers. Extend a hand instead and interlock fingers with your supposed adversary and you will find out that your adversary is actually your friend.
Maybe we need to see each other less as adversaries and more like soldiers in the army of God. Our pains are interconnected and it’s only through our oneness we can make progress towards lessening injustice. So lets be less antagonistic towards one another and be more like battle friends who are all struggling in the warfare called life. Instead of being crabs clawing each other, lets unite and claw at the barrel of injustice. To the endless veterans who I was blessed to have met in countless states, thank you for the salutes you gave me over and over again and I return your salutes with a silent salute of my own. To Nick, the veteran who stays at the mission I’m at for the moment and continuously greets me with the sharpest of salutes, my father in my heart salutes you back trooper. To the one sergeant I ran into in DC in February on at the outset of my journey, first of all you are right, sergeants are the best for they are the leaders who walk and march at the front-lines with their men. Moreover, you were absolutely right about the most beloved position in the military being the cook because nobody wants to get on the cook’s bad side. I am a cook now feeding an army of broken men as I live with them; life is magical, what I missed at West Point I found in the midst of distress.
To the rest of veterans and current soldiers in America and really veterans throughout the world over, I thank you and pray for your health and wellness. May we stop wars because the only enemy we should be focused on is the enemy of hopelessness. There is no difference between us, irrespective of nationality, race, creed, religion or ideology, we are bonded by the love within us and the hope we have for our children. Veterans know this more than most for it takes the horror of wars to make us realize the bond of humanity that binds all 7.8 billion people throughout the world. These lessons I learned from my father, a once veteran, and countless veterans along this journey called life. I will forever be grateful for the kindness and friendship countless veterans have imparted in my soul. I did not have to attend West Point to join in the army of a greater power and that is the blessing behind that burden I see now that I am looking for it. I was blessed to have made friends with noble men and women who had holes in their shoes but whose hearts were made of gold. Any man can pick up a gun but only a true soldier of God can return malice with love and give kindness above all to a world that is badly in need of it. #SilentSalute
“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” ~ Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
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