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Honoring the veterans who struggle, are homeless, or hungry …

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 over the Thanksgiving holidays. 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 slices of pie. Maybe they’ll say grace or give thanks or even say a prayer for the soldiers on active duty in defense of our country?

But so many of us will gloss right over Veterans Day – November 11th. We’ll work, we’ll go through our regular workday Wednesday; maybe we’ll go to a parade.

But how will we honor or serve the soldiers still very much alive — the ones still hungry and homeless — the ones still asking for just a bit more?

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Posted on November 11th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
18 Responses to Honoring the veterans who struggle, are homeless, or hungry …
  1. May God bless them and you..

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  2. Thanks John — for reading and writing. It’s certainly a day to take pause and give thanks, but perhaps also a day to do something. Take care!

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  3. […] MC Coolidge honors veterans with a column about her time volunteering at a homeless shelter that housed American […]

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  4. What a great column MC.I have seen so many vets who need help and are not getting it.It is a National disgrace.I make it my business when I see a soldier or a Vet to shake their hand and say thanks.I also see in my field of Psychology that we don’t give enough mental health services to our soldiers and that really bothers the hell out of me.Having a father who is a WWII hero to see him still not get any help from the VA bureaucracy is disheartening to say the least even though we tried.Anyhow really appreciate this column and all your help in the past to help our Vets.
    BTW last night I attended a ceremony at the Gazebo in Siesta Key Village to honor our true heroes and it was a wonderful event.All of us thanked the soldiers past and present and to see the smiles on their faces was well worth it.

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  5. Oh, thanks for reading Steve and for commenting. It does make me very sad to see how difficult it is for veterans. Even getting health care can be a challenge.

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  6. You know MC, I have an idea on how to eliminate the bureaucracy within the Veterans Administration. How about we have no “future” Veterans by bringing our troops home NOW. Not a year from now, not in ten years, but how about right this very minute. Everyone under the sun, knows why we’re in Iraq and why we’re moving towards Afghanistan and that’s to protect our oil pipeline. Please everyone, spare me all the rhetoric nonsense by saying we’re there fighting for peace, the taliban. Out taliban exists right here in the USA; within ourselves. Why we’re sending thousands of troops overseas to fight a battle that has no end in sight, we are seeing hundreds of thousands losing their homes, their jobs and why…well, take a real hard look at the tag on your clothing, where your car was made, etc…. whereas, in the early part of the 19th. century, 99% of our goods, were made right here in the USA. Everyone who wished to work, had a job, a home, food on their table, pensions, retirement accounts, and money in the bank. And we’re worried about spending trillions of dollars overseas, but yet the Republicans are crying about spending money to make certain all Americans currently without health care, will be able to get it? But yet, we’re fighting overseas, when we’re losing the silent col-war battle against the Chinese & Japanese. Let’s cut back on oil consumption by eliminating all the drive-throughts at all our fast-food restaurants. Not only will this cut our oil consumption, but will reduce emissions. Take a look at the McDonalds, next to Sarasota Ford one morning. There’s cars lined up down the street, witing to get in line for the drivethrough, when in fact the parking lot is empty! And what are these people doing in line; they’re texting! Yes MC, it was a great piece and you certainly opened some eyes. But I like my solution by not having any veterans in the future. Let’s begin an all-out revolution to stop this nonsense of glorified pipeline protection called war and bring our troops home now and let them really protect America by securing our borders. Our OWN; USA borders!

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  7. Hawkeye, ya know, I totaly agree with ya my friend.
    I’ve driven by McDonalds next to the old Sarasota, Herald Tribune in the morning and couldn’t believe it! There were cars lined up down the street, but yet no one was pulling in the parking lot. Well, I pulled in the lot and walked by the more than dozen cars waiting in the drive-through; engines running, emissions burning…and yes, half were texting. Why on earth don’t these people get out of their cars and actually “walk” into McDonalds. It’s a wonder why we’re sending more and more men & women over-seas to protect the oil pipe-lines,we need to make certain there’s enough oil so people can sit in drive-throughs burnig valuable gasoline, let alone the emissions from their vehicles causing globale warming. Saw the same thing at the Burger King on Bee Ridge & McIntosh. I went up to a girl and asked why she doesn’t just walk inside – after I told her how she’s harming the environment and all she could say was, “whatever”, then continued with her texting.
    Though you may have gone off base Hawkeye, you have some excellent valid points. And, as everyone “truly” knows, we are over there fighting for oil. And if 5,000 lost lives not enough, the greedly oil ba_ _ _ _ _ s, aren’t making enough money. Yea, “drill baby drill” we need more money… our record profits we’ve made under the Bush Administration isn’t enough.

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  8. Hawkeye2you and Advocate — you guys are making some good points. I would much rather not have a veterans day too — I mean, not have any more veterans of wars — just no wars!

    Thanks to you both for reading and taking the time to comment.

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  9. MC, how about we initiate a “No War Day” in honor of just making peace within ourselves, within our own Country, then, let’s begin to repair what’s apparently very broken – our entire system. First step, term limits within congress. Then, step two, end the ability which enable corporations to reap awards by sending all the jobs overseas, whereas the average American has no choise than to buy cheap goods made by the slave labor in the Chinese Sweatshops. Then, we fix the current health-care system, or lack thereof. MC, lets fight the war on corruption within the US before we even contemplate on trying to fix anyone elses problems. MC< how can we begin to try and help another Country, when every other Country in the world is seeing our own democracy slowley collapsing. Soon MC, other Countries will no longer accept American Currency because the dollar will not even be worth the paper it’s printed on. MC, we can’t even make driving while texting illegal, because everyone knows our states leaders are getting so paid off, it’s blatantly out in the open. MC, take a look if your would, tomorrow’s paper, where you’ll see full page advertisements for Sprint. Then, you will see, the allmighty dolar has a higher value than that of a human life. MC, we truly need to begin to end our own corruption before we try to solve the rest of the worlds problems. Just my point of view MC, I’m just a man.

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  10. Hawkeye and Advocate, you two have a lot of gall for hijacking this sweet and sensitive blog to espouse your own political opinions.

    Now, say your sorry..

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  11. Thanks for the reality check MC. You really brought it home to us very well and I am grateful for that.

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  12. John, you are correct, but some things must not go un-said, or unheard.
    Now, would everyone please make a step for the potitive, get out of your cars, turn the engine off and walk through the front ddor to McDonalds/Burget King. Global warming is for real! ….and you can help to reduce emisions by not going in the drive-through and please…what ever you are texting is not that important and can wait.

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  13. David — thanks for reading; glad the piece resonated…

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  14. some of the people who do drive through at mcdonalds, starbucks, etc. have little kids in car seats in the car. as a stay-at-home dad with 3 girls under 6, I appreciate not having to load them in and out of the car sometimes, especially when one or more is sleeping.

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  15. Gary — good point that was made also by a reader who sent an email (but did not blog) — so it’s something probably a lot of parents have to deal with. the point is we can all do what we can in the ways that work for us individually. collectively that will add up to a lot! thanks for reading and for commenting!

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  16. Gary, though your post certainly bares validity, I went to McDonalds this morning at approximately 7:00 am and there were none, zero children in any of the vehicles waiting minutes in the drive through when in fact, there were but a solitary vehicle in the parking lot. And Gary, seven out of the ten cars which were in line were in fact on their cells. What I’m getting at Gary, that this County is becoming lazier and lazier by the minute. More people die in this country from obesity than all diseases combined. Matter of fact, more people die in this country from obese related health problems, than people die from starvation – in every Country in the world. Sad isn’t it?! But so very true. So, lets put away those cell phones, reduce vehicle emissions and lets start the New Year out right! …yea, and I have a sno-blower on Main Street I’d like to sell ya….

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  17. Florida ranks # 4 in the entire nation for obesity….Number 4 ! Out of the entire Country….

    Top 10 Obesity
    1Connecticut 2Rhode Island 3Massachusetts 4Florida

    http://health.msn.com/health-topics/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100249331&GT1=31036

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  18. How the hell did we go from homeless and hungry vets to obesity ,global warming and eating at McDonalds????Guys you have good points but this was not the place for them in my opinion.The Vets who do not have food,shelter and medical benefits is THE issue and we should not get so caught up about eating at McDonalds for goodnes sakes!

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