Monday, January 30, 2012

Hugged by Heroes

This weekend,  I met two men so giving and humble, they touched my heart.  And yes, Hubby was standing right there.  In reality, Hubby was the reason for all the love in the room, even if he’s too humble to take credit.  But, back to the beginning.

The U.S. has a program for injured military personnel called the “Wounded Warrior Project”.  Their mission is aiding wounded soldiers, helping them acclimate back to “the world”, where civilization hums on in spite of what they’ve experienced in wartime.  One of the project’s goals is to raise public awareness and solicit support.

  On Saturday, there was lots of support… and a surprise or two.

Al and Jorge are Army Staff Sergeants currently stationed in Germany.   They’d flown to my hometown to participate in the qualifying round of the archery portion of the  2012 “Warrior Games”, an Olympic style event which is part of the project.   Someone told the men if they needed any archery assistance, Hubby was the man to see. 
On Thursday, the men walked into Hubby’s shop to purchase some accessories.  I’ll admit it.  My work seems a little boring when I heard about these two men, one of whom  is a native of Puerto Rico, while the other was raised in Idaho after his family fled from war torn Laos.  For a small shop in the middle of the country, Hubby has very interesting clientele.

 On Friday, while practicing for the competition, Jorge’s bow exploded.  It had been dry fired by another individual earlier, but Jorge didn’t think the bow had been damaged.  Dry firing is when a bowstring is pulled back and released without an arrow in place.  It not only damages a bow, it can severely injure the archer holding it.  Thankfully the cam which flew off Jorge’s bow missed his face.  But now he was faced with a tournament and no bow to shoot.
 Saturday morning, Hubby handed me the local paper, pointing out a story done on the Wounded Warrior soldiers in town. The story increased my understanding of the program.   What I’d soon learn was it didn’t do anything to help me comprehend the soldiers…or their lives.
 Hubby has a shop phone in the house and it had been ringing off the hook for the hour prior to opening on Saturday.  It was so persistent, Hubby answered before he even opened the shop.  Jorge was on the other end, in desperate need of a bow.  Bows are like clothing, they have “sizes”.  Discovering Hubby had one which would fit him, Jorge advised he and Al were on the way. 
Yes, this could be a short story, summed up in two sentences, explaining what happened next.  But everyone involved deserves more than that. 
While Jorge and Al were enroute, Hubby devised a plan.  He contacted the President of the state Bowhunters Association to see if they’d be interested in donating funds toward purchase of a bow for Jorge.  Without hesitation, the president said yes.  Hubby then contacted the head of the local archery club, which holds monthly 3D tournaments across the road from the shop.  The man was at an archery tournament.  Not only did he agree to have his club donate funds, he volunteered to speak with all the clubs present.  Every Club approached donated.   One of the archery customers, overhearing what was going on, reached into his own pocket to make a donation.  I wouldn’t find out until later that the customer had just lost his job.  By the time Jorge and Al walked in the door, the bow was paid for, including accessories.  Before exiting, the customer introduced his young teenage son to the men with, “Son, this is what heroes look like.”
 Calmly and without fanfare, Hubby told Jorge not only was his bow ready, it’d been taken care of by the combined kindness of a brotherhood of archers. Evidently Jorge was so relieved to have a bow available to compete with, the news flew over his head.  When the bow was set up to meet competition standards, he and Hubby were preparing to go outside and shoot.  Jorge offered to pay for the bow first, before shooting it.  Al looked at his friend and shook his head.  As Jorge glanced at him, puzzled, Al said with a smile, “You don’t get it, do you?  It’s already paid for.  All the archers got together and they paid for it.”
As Jorge sat in stunned amazement, the tears began to fall.
Al embraced his friend, muttering reassurances in his ear.  “Thank you”s ricocheted around the room.  When Al backed away, I looked at Jorge and said, “If I don’t give you a hug, I’ll be crying next.”  Jorge embraced me so tightly, for a moment I worried we’d upset him in a most un-positive way.  Trembling, he kept murmuring that this was more than he deserved.  This was an overwhelming kindness.  I whispered in his ear, ”You earned this.  You have protected our families, our country.  You’ve seen and done more than I can dream of.  You deserve this.”
He hugged me tighter and cried a little more.  I tried not to cry all over him.
Catching his breath, Jorge kept his arm around my waist, as if my moving away would make this a dream.   I rubbed his back, feeling him still tremble beneath my fingertips.  Once he had calmed and  all of us could see without the world looking blurry, we all went outside so Jorge could shoot the bow.
 At that point, I thought all the emotion lumped in my throat would ease up and slide away.  It did…for about 30 seconds.  As Hubby and Jorge worked together, I talked to Al.  Not only had Al been supportive of his friend, he’d phoned their Commander back in Germany to advise him on “the wonderful thing which had happened”.  Not wanting Al to feel ignored, I cautiously asked how they came to the Wounded Warrior Project.  I expected a by-the-book explanation of the program before returning to my task of documenting the day with photos.   
I had no idea I was in the presence of a miracle.

Jorge and Al have both served 6 tours overseas, from Bosnia and Kosovo, to multiple tours in Iraq.    Al was on his 2nd tour in Iraq when he was wounded.  Caught in a firefight, he took 4 bullets to the chest, one to the head and one to the leg.  The Kevlar vest protected his chest and the helmet took care of his head, but the force knocked him to the ground.  As he looked up, an enemy soldier shot his buddy on the right, then trained his gun on Al.   Pointing the gun at Al’s head, he pulled the trigger.  Al said he will never forget the sound. 
The bullet’s misfire gave Al the chance to save his own life.  He said in Iraq, people who sold ammunition to the Taliban often took the powder out of bullets…to start fires or make bombs.  In place of the powder, they use the most common ingredient found there: sand. So while lying on his back, waiting to die in the sand, Al’s life had been spared…by sand.
He casually showed me the scar on his leg, the bullet’s long path from mid calf to ankle. I don’t think I breathed for the next 5 minutes.  I’ve seen the results of war on the evening news.  I never expected to witness it in my backyard.
Al steered the conversation toward PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which was how he ended up in the Wounded Warrior program.  He told how for a year after coming home, he was startled by sounds.  That he taped up his windows and trusted no one.  “I had it bad,” Al said with a sigh, as if he needed me to truly understand.
Human beings have an amazing capacity to comprehend the most basic principles.  Fear is at the top of the list.  I replied softly, “Well when your body’s on high alert 24/7 for over a year, you can’t just turn it off like a switch when you get home.”   The look on Al’s face, utter amazement that I appeared to actually understand, mirrored the mix of shock and happiness on Jorge’s face when presented the bow.
The men stayed longer than they needed to procure a bow.  But the stories we all traded seemed to be just as necessary.  Another customer came in and thanked the men for their service.  Jorge pointed out that men have served their countries for a very long time.  He recalled that in WWI and WWII, soldiers memorized and repeated daily the 91st Psalm.  He began to recite it.  Softly.  Quietly.  Like a prayer.  When he reached the part about angels’ wings wrapping around in protection, the hair on the back of my neck rose.  My “Friday 55” story the day before had been about a guardian angel’s comforting embrace.  
The men will visit Hubby's shop again before they depart.   I'll be at work, too far away to say goodbye.  However, we've exchanged e-mail addresses to keep in touch.  Because Jorge has declared us family.    

This morning Jorge sent an e-mail which read in part, “There's no greater honor and great pleasure for Al and myself….to have been guided by the hands of God and his Angels to the door of your loving home. Because of your great heart and hospitality, along with those who support both of us, we are able to see that what we did when we were at war, was worth more than gold or anything else on this planet.”
Safe travels, new friends.  Oh.  And I asked my Guardian Angel to make sure your angels keep up the good work. 

NOTE: as suggested by a reader, here's the link to that project..thanks Jeannette! 


JeannetteLS said...

This is an organization I care about deeply, and your story? Publish it. It is written beautifully, but the message? I'm getting ready to make another donation.

I think that the organization could use it. I think that anyone who has suffered from PTSD from anything would get it.

Maybe you could put a link, even.

If you don't mind, I would like to link to your story and to the project. Let me know if you don't mind the link to your blog. I'll put the organization's link there anyway.

This is a beautiful, heart-rending, heart-WARMING story. It's people like you that remind us all of what matters in life.

hope said...

JeannetteLS: I actually wrote the story for the local newspaper as a human interest follow up story on Jorge...we'll see what they do with it. After that I felt like Al, the steadfast buddy, had somehow gotten left out of the mix, so I needed to do a tribute to him as well.

Adding the link to the story is an excellent idea...I'll do that!

Feel free to link to the story...I'm honored and heaven knows those guys deserve all the credit!

Ponita in Real Life said...

Wow. What a heart touching story, Hope. And I'm so glad they are keeping in touch with you and Hubby. Indeed they are Heroes... and you and Hubby are Angels. ♥♥♥♥

steven said...

wow hppe this is an incredible story - all the more incredible for being real. you'd have to assume that none of this happened by accident. it was intended to happen. steven

Anonymous said...

I'm utterly speechless. This has resolved my faith in mankind. You my friend are priceless!

MITM said...

This is a very moving account. You and your husband are also heroic. May God Bless You. These are the stories that restore my faith in who we are as a people.

hope said...

Ponita: I was glad that their coach reached out to Hubby and invited him to be THE EXPERT when the group returns in March!

steven: makes you realize how grateful one should be to have a boringly normal life, like me.

Thom: credit goes to the guys. I just wrote what I encountered.

MITM: no matter how bad a day I'm having, those stories will always bring me back to being grateful!

Brian Miller said...

this is beautiful...def would want to see it out there so that they get the notice...

G-Man said...

There ARE guardian angels
heart felt post...Thanks...G

hope said...

Brian & G-man: If that article doesn't come out by Sunday, I'm contacting the OTHER newspaper in town and sharing with them!