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U.S. veterans of war deserve a square deal … and a square meal

(This column appeared in print in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on May 23, 2009.)

When I lived in Boston, I served meals at a homeless shelter for American veterans of war. My first night volunteering, the manager laid down the rules: Nobody gets seconds; keep the portions small; and nobody gets milk unless they’re diabetic.

I was happy to be serving men who had served in the military, but that happiness was mingled with guilt and shame over seeing firsthand the reality of just how highly this country regards its less visible war veterans — the ones who didn’t die but are still alive and struggling with the physical, emotional and psychological scars of battle.

Living on the grim fringes of the society they’d once served, these vets were battling inner demons and outer hardships, coming to the shelter for food that was in no way a square meal, much less a square deal, for the service and sacrifice they had rendered.

Those ads you see on television — the ones for starving children in Africa? They’re nothing compared to standing two feet away from a line of a hundred-plus men — once-proud soldiers who’d put their lives on the line for their country, now standing disarmed and disabled in one way or another, with that hollow look of hunger and homelessness about them. There’s nothing quite like the moment when one of those men leans across the counter, looks you in the eyes, and says, “Please, Miss; can I have just a bit more?”

I still feel shame for the number of times I said, “Sorry, we’re not supposed to.”

No matter how often I said no, the men were heartbreakingly polite. I’ve never heard so many “pleases,” and “thank yous.” Some joked about the “mystery meat,” as they filed through the serving line; others, many others, simply handed their trays over and took them back without a word, stone-faced and silent.

I lasted three nights before I stopped following the rules and started breaking them. I stopped caring about what would happen if the food ran out, stopped saying no, and started giving each man as much as I could.

I made it my mission to ladle out extra-heavy spoonfuls, to scrape the bottom of my steam dish for tidbits of meat. When a vet asked for more, if no one was watching … plop! … a second serving of reconstituted mashed potatoes or tired out green beans landed on his tray.

I handed out more freely those highly coveted, rigorously rationed, child-sized cartons of milk. Often, the men I gave them to who weren’t diabetic would walk across the room and place their milk on the tray of a veteran who was.

I served meals at the shelter for over a year, and every time I walked onto the serving line and saw the crush of hungry men waiting for the inadequate meals we had on tap, I felt a fresh breaking of my heart. Later, walking home, I would feel unaccountably queasy.

I’m still queasy, years later, thinking of the massive amounts of food most Americans will buy, cook and consume this Memorial Day weekend. People who eat well every day will eat even more, drink even more, and say things like, “Geez, I’m stuffed.” They’ll take Tums to quiet the outrage of their stomachs. They’ll pour half-drunk glasses of milk down the drain and toss out unfinished burgers.

They might stop at 3 p.m. for the National Moment of Remembrance to honor our nation’s fallen soldiers.

But how are we honoring the soldiers still very much alive — the ones still hungry and homeless — the ones still asking for just a bit more?

Mary Catherine Coolidge is the author of “Sideways in Sarasota,” a collection of newspaper essays, available at local bookstores. Online:

Posted on May 24th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
One Response to U.S. veterans of war deserve a square deal … and a square meal
  1. John W. Perkins
    May 25, 2009 at 7:16 am

    I fear that due to the economy, there will be some more belt-tightening.


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