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The Soldier Who Fell Through The Cracks

It was a beautiful Saturday morning.  Tania and I decided that we were going to take the kids to the Memphis Zoo, which is one of the top zoos in the United States.  As we were driving down I-55, I saw a familiar figure that looked oddly out of place.  It was someone in the Army’s Combat Uniform walking along the interstate, carrying his sea bag.  I pulled over the car to take a closer look. 

It wasn’t a homeless person, wearing a set of faded cammies.  It was a younger person, wearing a current uniform.  He looked like he could have just graduated boot camp, or more likely, just come home from Iraq or Afghanistan.  I also noticed that he wasn’t covered, and he looked a little disoriented.  I didn’t know his story, but Tania and I knew that we weren’t going to the zoo that day.

I walked up to this young man and asked him, “Can I help you or give you a ride somewhere?”  

He replied, “What day is it?

“Saturday.  Why?  Where are you headed?”
“Amarillo, Texas.”

“Where did you start?”
“Alabama.”

“When did you start walking?”
“Thursday, I think.”

So, this kid had been walking for 3 days, from Alabama, through Mississippi, and into Tennessee.  And he still had Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas to go.  When I later looked it up, he had walked over 300 miles, and had about 700 to go. 

He took me up on my offer to give him a lift.  He climbed into the back of our SUV, essentially our trunk. This gave me an opportunity to continue the conversation.  That way, Tania and I could figure out the best way we could help him.  Until we figured out our plan, Tania and I agreed that we’d take him back to our house.  On the ride home, he told me his story. 

He had been deployed to Iraq.  During his deployment, his unit was involved in a fire fight, and one of his comrades was shot and injured.  Under heavy fire, he ran to his soldier, lifted him into a fireman’s carry, and tried to carry him to safety.  However, a grenade blast knocked him off his feet and into a ditch.  While they survived the fire fight, his back was badly injured. 

As it turned out, he herniated three disks in his back and needed surgery.  He was flown back to Fort Stewart, Georgia for the procedure.  At this point, the Army decided to medically discharge him, and gave him a bus ticket home. 

During a bus change in Montgomery, Alabama, someone stole his personal bag, which contained his wallet, military ID, Social Security card, money, laptop, cell phone, and his credit cards.  Literally, everything but the clothes on his back.  He had walked from Montgomery to Memphis and somehow managed to collect $17 in loose change along the way. 

Once we got to my house, Tania and I invited him in so we could make some phone calls.  First, we started with his command.  However, he was told that since he was being discharged, he was going to find a way to get back to his home of record (Amarillo), then seek reimbursement from the Army.  I tried to reach the Army commands at Millington, but no one answered (even the duty phone, which supposedly is manned 24/7).  We put him in touch with Army Emergency Relief (AER).  AER’s sole purpose is to provide emergency relief for soldiers and their families, so I was pretty sure he’d get some assistance.  Nope—they told him that he would have to wait until Monday so they would refer him to a financial counselor who MIGHT help him. 

No one in the Army—NO ONE had an answer to help this kid.

By this point, he had asked some questions of me, and knew that I was a Navy officer.  After all, I was pulling rank on his commanding officer to see if I could get any traction…turns out that phone distance and our service difference nullified any threat I imposed.  When it comes to taking care of soldiers, what right does a Navy officer have in telling an Army officer what’s best?  If the Army had wanted someone to take care of this kid, they would have written a manual on how to do so.

But I think he figured out my rank when he first saw the base sticker on my windshield.  Military personnel used to have base stickers on their cars to allow them on base.  After 9/11, the government decided that those stickers turned military families into targets for terrorists.  But you used to be able to tell the difference between officers and enlisted personnel by the color of their base sticker.

So while I was on the phone, I wasn’t paying attention to him.  When I finally turned to him, I saw that he had been standing at attention the entire time.  I had to actually order this kid to sit down on my couch.  He even asked me permission to go outside so he could smoke a cigarette.  I mean, after all he had been through, and what the Army was doing to him, he was still playing by the rules?  Oh my God!

I wasn’t going to let this kid wait until Monday.  So I told him the plan.  I took him to the Amtrak station and bought him a one-way ticket to Amarillo.  Since he had a few hours to kill until his train left, we went to Denny’s.  Then took him to the convenience store so he could get a couple of drinks to tide him over for the rest of the train ride.  As I dropped him off at the Amtrak station, he said, “Thank you.  I can’t wait to see my son.  I haven’t seen him since I left for Iraq.”

Great.  It took me every ounce of effort to drive away and make it around the corner.  Then I pulled over and started to cry.  Hell, I’m crying right now just writing this article.  But I figured out my plan.  I was going to get someone to do something.  All I need to do is to get it to the right level of attention, right?  This story was such a bad luck story that someone would look back and make it right.  Right?

As it turns out, not so much.  The next couple of weeks, I sent a lengthy letter to the senior enlisted member of every service (not just the Army).  I also sent inquiries to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (I got an automated, canned response, with an offer to “revise my question” if the canned response didn’t answer it).  I notified my congressman, who never responded. 

As the last canned response came back to me, I started to realize that no matter how hard I tried, nothing was going to come of this.  And for a long time, I was pretty upset.  But I’ve had some time to reflect, and here are three things that I learned from this experience.

You can’t fix everyone’s problems.  But find opportunities to help when you can.

I don’t know what happened to that young soldier.  I know that the Army treated him badly, and I hope he was able to get his life in order.  While I wasn’t able to get the Army to do anything, I was able to help him get home.  From there, I trust that he was able to make the most of the rest of his life. 

Sometimes, the biggest enemy is inertia.  You can either spend a lot of energy fighting it, or find another way.

As much as I loathed what the Army did to this kid, I know that it’s a big system.  And within each system, people just try to do their part, no more.  And many times, not even that much.  So it’s not a surprise when everyone I talked with told me what they COULDN’T do, instead of what they could do. 

“I can’t reach a financial counselor until Monday.”  Well, I bet you could if it was a housewife with two children whose husband was on deployment and she was threatening to call the local paper because you wouldn’t give her a loan for emergency plumbing repairs. 

“He’s already out of the system, so there’s nothing I can do as his unit commander.”  Hmm, you could call his command sergeant major and see what resources are available.  Perhaps a call from the unit commander would allow him to access that financial aid instead of having to wait until Monday.  But a woman who couldn’t be bothered to answer the phone because one of her charges was in trouble probably wouldn’t have taken the initiative to do anything else. 

Sometimes, people just suck.  I can either suck with them or find a way to be better.

I’m not an elitist.  But there are times when I see someone struggling, and it seems like people go out of their way to act like a jerk. 

Everyone’s seen that homeless guy, right?  And how many times have we told him, “Go find a job!”  I mean, he’s probably tried to get a job at one point.  But if he turned around and asked you for a job, would you have given him one?  Probably not.  And he’s probably been told ‘No’ by hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  He’s probably a world-class expert in rejection.   But that doesn’t stop him from hearing people tell him to go get a job anyway. 

So I just don’t like when I see jerks (although I might drive like one, according to 100% of the supportive spouses in my household).  When I saw the opportunity to help this soldier, I just decided that I wasn’t going to be a jerk that day.

I don’t get to do it all the time.  After all, if I helped every single person who needed help, I’d run out of time AND money.  Even Bill Gates can’t do it (although he seems to be pretty smart about fixing Africa’s malaria problem).   But it’s not that hard.  It might take a moment out of my day, and a few dollars out of my pocket to buy a sandwich and a coke (or a train ticket).   Or a few afternoons per year to volunteer for a cause that tugs at my heartstrings.

At Westchase Financial Planning, we value all of our veterans. We stand with you shoulder to shoulder, side by side because we have been there, too. And to all of our veterans, and their families, who gave the ultimate sacrifice, we can’t thank you enough.

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