Augusta, Georgia—the VA Medical Center. Her father smoked like a freight train, even though his doctors told him not to. But, he was dying of colon cancer. If he wanted to burn a couple packs, by God, that was his right.
He was Special Forces. Army. He swore like a commercial fisherman. He chastised any who misused the name of the Good Lord.
He’d seen a lot in his time. He’d been a prisoner of war during Vietnam.
Chemotherapy was some kind of hell, even for a POW. After his last round of treatment, he sat in the courtyard of the Charlie Norwood VA for a celebratory smoke. His daughter beside him.
A fellow vet approached. The man was dirty, bearded, tattered clothes. He smelled like the wrong side of a manure shovel. He asked to bum a smoke.
His name was John.
He stayed. They talked. When her mother arrived with the car, her father introduced the new friend.
She gave the man a once-over and said, “You look hungry, John, come on.”
Come on. The most gracious two words you will ever hear a Georgian say.
They took him home. Not only did John eat supper, he sat with her father and talked. Their conversation lasted into the night.
John stayed for two months.
They made him a member of the family. In return, John treated them like the only blood kin he’d ever had.
“He held Dad’s hand,” she goes on. “He prayed with him when the pain got bad, he wiped Dad’s mouth when he was sick. John even helped Mom and me move him…”
Her father’s last twenty-four hours were bad, but John was there. She remembers him waiting by the door with a washcloth, or a basin. He never hesitated to do what needed doing, no matter the chore.
Just before her father passed, they gathered around his bed with the clogged faces. They gave him permission to go.
John waited in the den.
“It’s strange,” she says. “Because I remember John being there on the night Dad died, but I only vaguely recall him the day that followed. He didn’t stick around.”
Nobody ever saw or heard from him again.
That was ten years ago. Since then, the world has kept spinning. New wars have started. Old wars finished. New American heroes made.
Old heroes are falling by the hundreds every day. Some die in VA hospital beds. Others, in tents off the interstate, wearing rags.
“I wonder about John a lot,” she says. “I keep little bag in the car for homeless vets… A gift-card, cash, clean socks, some toiletries. Isn’t much, but maybe there’s a John out there that I can thank.”
Maybe there is. In fact, maybe there are billions of them. Some smell bad, some starve, some smoke too much.
Others hide wings beneath a green coat.