I’m not really one of those people who go to events like Salute Our Troops in Las Vegas and spends his time trying to get interviews. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just isn’t my style. Maybe it should be if I ever want to go anywhere doing this, but its not what I’m comfortable with.
I’m more of an observer. A listener. Oh I talk and laugh and exchange small talk, but for the most part I’m one who likes to sit back and watch the interaction of a group, see what they’re all about and then relate my impressions in writing.
That’s not always as easy as I’d like it to be, but it works for me.
The 3 days and nights I spent in Las Vegas at the Palazzo hotel with our wounded warriors was probably one of the more inspiring and satisfying times I’ve spent in a long time. From the moment I watched them walk into the hotel until I watched them leave 3 days later, I was on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.
Pride was a dominant emotion. I was extraordinarily proud of how they conducted themselves. The event was very emotional for them as well. You could see the trepidation in their faces when they first got off the busses on day one. A perfectly human reaction. But as they moved through the welcoming crowd, you could see the unease disappear and the wonderful emotion of the moment begin to take hold.
The genuineness of the welcome made the whole experience resonate with the warriors. Remarkably it remained a constant through out the entire visit. It was real. Tangible. The thanks rendered wasn’t perfunctory or pro forma, it was heartfelt and always present.
As I watched the wounded warriors begin to interact with the crowd, I knew they felt it too. I wasn’t just proud of the warriors, I was equally as proud of the crowd.
Over the next few days, as I got to know the personalities within the group, certain things became obvious to me that might have been missed by those who didn’t have the opportunity to spend the time I had with them.
Brotherhood. In this case it’s a generic term that includes the wounded women as well. This small group was a brotherhood who in so many subtle and unthinking ways took care of each other the entire time they were there. It wasn’t a duty. It wasn’t something they had to do. It was what they did. It is who they are. They had a shared experience and shared sacrifice that made them unique. But they also had an entirely human desire to ensure those they had shared that experience with were well taken care of. Nothing was too much for their friend or comrade.
Families. Families by marriage. Families by service. Family by experience. One of the extraordinary things about wounded warriors is they belong to many families and all of them were evident in Las Vegas. All of them were at work as well. It was gratifying to see but not unexpected. Marines checking on other Marines. A wife taking care of her wounded husband. One wounded warrior watching out for another.
Normalcy. One of the more poignant moments for me was overhearing two chaperones talk about a request by one of the wounded. Each of the warriors and their guests had been given a blue t-shirt identifying them as a part of the Salute Our Troops group. One of the wounded had asked if they had to wear them all the time or might take them off. The chaperone relaying the request said, “they just want to be normal, to blend in, to be part of the crowd. They don’t want to stand out”. I found that request to be incredibly endearing. They just wanted to again, as much as possible, be normal.
As I watched these young warriors interact with others, another impression hit me – quiet dignity. It was how they handled themselves. Their humbleness. Their gratefulness for what the Armed Forces Foundation, Sheldon Adelson and all the other sponsors were doing for them. None of them took it as their due. None thought they were owed this. All of them showed and expressed their appreciation throughout the week in countless ways.
Humor. As you might expect there was plenty of that. Self-deprecating humor. Ribald humor. Ragging. Among military folks nothing is sacred and lord help you if you start feeling sorry for yourself. These men and women kept each other up, took and delivered shots with the best of them and acted like every Soldier and Marine you’ve ever known. It brought back fond memories of times gone by for me.
Humor was their currency. The night of the Blue Man Group show is a great example. During their show the 3 Blue Men walk through the audience literally moving from arm rest to arm rest as they advance row by row through the theater. At intervals they’ll pause, stare, pick something up from the audience, hold it up and examine it. When they got to our group one of the guys handed a Blue Man his prosthetic leg. The place went wild. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
But the reality of what these fine warriors face never quite left me. I couldn’t forget it. There was a young Marine who had lost his right leg and wore a prosthesis. He may have been 5′ 4″ if you’re being kind, and maybe weighed 100 pounds with rocks in his pocket. He was an infantryman. He tried to bluff his way into a club that night but he wasn’t old enough to get in (not to worry, being a good Marine, he did a recon, gathered intel and got in the next night).
For whatever reason that incident struck me hard. He had lost a leg in combat in service to his country before he was old enough to buy a drink legally. Next year he’ll be legal but he’ll also be medically retired from the Marine Corps. At 21.
When I was at Brooke this past year with Cooking with the Troops, I remember one of the people who worked there standing next to me as we watched the wounded moving through the serving line. He said, “what you have to realize is not one of these young warriors you see are working on their “plan A” anymore.” That made an impression on me.
You have to imagine yourself in that situation and wonder how you would have coped with having to come up with a “plan B” at such a young age. All the hopes and dreams you might have harbored about a certain way of life are now radically and totally changed forever.
Yet even understanding that, the most important message I gathered from all of them is they aren’t victims. And please don’t treat them like they are. They’re proud of what they did, what they suffered, even what they’ve sacrificed. They may not like what happened, but they accept it. They understand that what happened to them was a part of the risk of the service they willingly undertook. They knew and understood that risk and yet they volunteered anyway. And since they’ve been wounded, they’ve been dealing with the aftermath . But as one amputee told me, “yeah, this happened to me, but others gave their all”. Context. Clarity. Strength.
Not one of them was asking for sympathy, just understanding. These were Soldiers and Marines. They are used to adapting and overcoming. And while they still have much to endure, and many low points to weather, there was no question that the spirit was willing.
As one of the chaperones at the event said as we were quietly sharing a drink and watching the group finish a wonderful dinner, “you don’t have to worry about the next generation and the future of our country. These guys are that future and the future is bright”.
I’ve thought about that a lot since he said that. He’s right. They are our next “greatest generation”. They stood up. They answered the call and I’ve come to firmly believe that the strength of our nation is to be found in those who serve. If what I saw in Las Vegas is any indication, the future is indeed bright. If nothing else, my time with our wounded heroes made that point crystal clear to me.
[Photo by Kristle Helmuth]