Lost in Service

© 2006 and 2011 by  Billie S. Noakes
All Rights Reserved

I remember when I was a little girl, and my grandma and grandpa would take me downtown to see the Veterans’ Day parade.

Grandpa would wear his old, stiff Army uniform, and stand on the curb with Grandma and me ’til it was time for him to join the other veterans, young and old, all lining up to march. It made me proud to watch my Grandpa marching shoulder to shoulder with men who may not have served in his war, but nevertheless served the same ideals.

As I grew up, my family’s dinner table discussions gave me a fuller understanding of the meaning of Veterans’ Day, and our duty – no: our privilege – to honor those who lost their lives in our country’s service.

Maybe that’s why I was so taken with Tommy, a boy who always stood up tall and covered his heart when our flag was carried by. He was so proud whenever a soldier glanced his way and acknowledged his earnest salute.

Tommy was what you’d call “true blue,” a boy who was always ready to stand up for the little kid on the playground, even if it meant taking on the schoolyard bully. He was a skinny kid, but he was strong enough to admit when he did something wrong and make it right. When he got older, if anybody in town needed a hand, well, Tommy’s was always the first one offered.

By the time we were in high school, I was sweet on Tommy, and we started keeping company. We were a good match and it wasn’t long before we were talking
about the future, our future.

Tommy wanted to go to college and study business, then work in his dad’s hardware store. We’d get married, and have kids of our own.

But in our senior year in high school, there was a war on. I wasn’t surprised, after graduation, when Tommy put our plans on hold to join the service. His country needed him, and that’s all Tommy needed to know.

I tried not to cry as Tommy kissed me at the bus station. Tried not to worry. After all, he’d be surrounded by young men much like himself, who would protect his life like it was their own, and somehow they’d bring each other back to their sweethearts and their wives.

Well, they brought Tommy back, all right, but transport ships, airplanes, and buses can only take you so far. When I saw the look in his eyes as he stepped off that old Greyhound, I knew Tommy would never be coming all the way home. The shrapnel and the scars left Tommy disabled, but they didn’t cripple him the way his memories did.

He never talked about those memories, and I didn’t want to make things worse by forcing the issue.

I sometimes wonder, now, if I was right.

I waited for Tommy to call me, to pick up where we’d left off, but he never did. I tried calling him, but he never returned my calls. He didn’t go to college, either. He was on meds that made it hard for him to concentrate, to study, or even to have a good conversation.

He didn’t go into his dad’s hardware business. He didn’t marry me.

Instead, Tommy became part of our town’s landscape, doing odd jobs to keep busy, staying close to his folks’ home, and getting by on his disability pay.

I finally quit waiting for Tommy, and when I did, I met Jeff. He’s a good man, but he was never in the service; his dad was gone, so he went to college while he helped out at home, then started his own accounting business. Jeff and I got married after a few years, and we raised a nice family. Our kids are grown, and I love to babysit for my grandkids, now.

Tommy? He never did marry. His dad died, and Tommy lives with his mom, the two of them alone in that big old house on Main Street. Tommy stops in for a beer every couple of nights at the VFW hall. He listens to the friendly banter about drill instructors from Hell, reckless nights on leave, and the zany antics of comrades-in-arms, but he grows silent when the talk turns to battle, and he leaves his beer on the bar and goes back home.

To this day he doesn’t complain. Not about the pain, or the medications, not even about the way people stop and stare, sometimes, when he shambles by. Never about being changed forever by the war, and the things he’s seen … things he’s done … things he’s endured.

Today, it’s another Veterans’ Day, and I’m getting my grandkids ready for the downtown parade. My husband and I made sure they learned to stand tall when they meet a man or woman in uniform, and we’re helping teach them the meaning of this day, and why it’s important to remember those fallen in battle, how precious our way of life is, and how dearly it’s been bought.

The three of us hold hands as the honor guard marches past. Bella’s eyes are wide as she takes in the flags and the uniformed soldiers, and she bounces on her tippy-toes to get her first glimpse of the colorful floats. Mikey stands very still and straight, with his hand over his heart, and my mind drifts back through the years to another little boy I used to know.

My eyes wander over the crowd, and I’m surprised to see Tommy looking at me with his never-coming-home gaze. With a start, I realize it’s not Tommy. This veteran isn’t close to his age, doesn’t look a thing like him. I look around, and I see more than a dozen pairs of eyes with that million-mile stare, forgotten soldiers gazing out on the neighbors they protect, even now, by keeping their private hell inside.

I look around more carefully and suddenly I see him, standing on the other side of the street. For the time it takes the honor guard to march past him, Tommy is standing tall again, unmindful of the metal embedded in his back and the door he keeps locked tight against his memories. Then Tommy looks right at me, as though he’s always known just where to find me, and his eyes are quickly drawn to the little boy and girl clutching my hands. I know we’re both thinking of the family Tommy and I might have had, and I see him take a deep, slow breath before his eyes meet mine again.

We nod to each other across the Miss Hometown Pageant float and the Shriner’s Club mini-cars, and as Tommy turns away, I see the weight of pain and loss pull his eyes, then his shoulders, back down toward the pavement.

I watch as he makes his way down the block, and I think about all of the men and women who have lost their lives in service to our country.

Just like Tommy … not all of them died.

6 Responses to Lost in Service

  1. Bill says:

    This story still brings a tear to my eye. It’s thoughtful,compelling and brings a lot of memories flooding back. Great storytelling.

  2. Billie says:

    Thanks, Bill. It’s based on a vignette by Peter A. Jacobsen, one of the guys who used to play at my coffeehouse. He’d written about a fellow combat vet who never made it all the way home. I decided to write from the point of view of the girl he expected to come back for. That may be my Memorial Day post this year.

  3. Cindy Graham says:

    As a former Capt. in the US Army, I was mobilized for the 2003 Iraq war. I have had a number of experiences with my fellow soldiers who did not return home as they had left. Though for all appearances of being “alive and well, they were not.” I understand this, because I was not-am not as I was prior to my service. For my service I was changed-one cannot serve without being altered by the experience.
    It is difficult for a soldier to go through a mobilization & even more-so a full, lengthy, & sometimes repeated deployment. Perhaps part of the differences in us stem from a feeling of guilt at having returned presumably-visually “well”, when so many either did not return at all, or did with such dramatic injury or incapacitating physical loss & traumas. How then, with others so obviously traumatized could we (the “alive and well”) feel anything but grateful? How could we feel needs when others needs are far greater?
    As soldiers, we are all challenged & changed by our service. Some of this is for the better, some not. For me, my service to my Country is one of my greatest accomplishments & sources of pride. Despite this, the challenges and experiences brought by my service also created & left behind many disappointments and dark areas within me.
    I miss my boots. I wore them under my wedding dress. I keep them shined and packed with my BDU’s & dress uniform-packed away safely just like my gown.
    For now, I hang my flag and though it has been over 3 years, I still miss my military unit, my “other” family. They understand the experience we’ve all shared though we experience it differently. The understanding is there. A non-service member could not begin to understands the bonds that service to one’s Country brings.
    Being out in the civilian world there can be a sense of unreality. People go on with their lives with no sense of the moral bearing or bigger picture that the service holds in viewing the country and priorities. The missions are different, the squad is arranged differently, with different people.
    The bonds of service shall always pull a soldier up to a firmer posture, the pride of service regardless of current circumstance.

    Though many have varying levels of PTSD after service–I think we all miss our boots, some more than others- and some don’t adjust to life out of their boots.
    I like that despite Tommy’s circumstance when he went to the parade I think he missed his boots too.

  4. Billie says:

    Cindy, I’m honored that you were willing to place your insights here. How proud you’ve made your family! All of you kids, and all for different reasons, have done the family proud.

  5. MarthaS says:

    Wow, Billie, this is a realllly good story. As you can imagine, I couldn’t help thinking of Eugene and other veterans I know when I read this. I know Eugene has changed considerably since he enlisted. However, I’m not naive enough to think I know the extent of that change. Thank you for this story.

  6. Billie says:

    Thanks, Martha. It was inspired by the late bluesman Pete Jacobsen (you might have met him at CAMS). He wrote a vignette about a neighbor who came back changed. Pete went on vacation, came home, and the guy and his mom had cleared out their home and left. No idea where he went. Pete’s story was non-fiction and his last line was, “You don’t have to die to lose your life in service to your country” He gave me permission to write my own take on that thought, and this was the result.

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