See this man?
The first time I saw this photo I remember thinking, “Gee, he looks like a nice guy. Kind smile. Twinkle in his eye. Bet he’s fun. The kind of man who wants to head over the hill to see what lies at the horizon’s edge.”
What I didn’t see was the personal demons.
A friend shared this picture, pleading for all of us to keep an eye out for him. He’d served multiple tours in Iraq. He’d been injured. Worst of all, he was in trouble. Not just the understandable struggle to get back to what most of us consider every day “normal”. He was finding just existing a struggle. Next to the photo was my friend’s plea, “Help us find our brother! PLEASE. In spite of his quirks, he’s dealing with a ton of demons as a result of injury and severe PTSD. With numerous deployments under his belt he was afraid, even in a "healing environment" to reach out. HELP US HELP HIM!”
And I wanted to. It was that most basic human instinct to do something which made me want to reach out and tell him someone was listening. That even if I couldn’t begin to imagine what he’d been through, I still cared. Because we’re both human. People hurt. They struggle. But if we can only reach out to each other and connect, there is hope.
For whatever reason, he didn’t grab the hands reaching out for him. Maybe he couldn’t. Perhaps he was the victim of an overwhelmed V.A. which too often is in the position of putting bandaids on wounds which run deep...and pushing soldiers toward the exit before that wound has healed. Maybe his attempts ended up in missed connections. Maybe he just no longer had the strength to try. And that’s a hard truth to swallow because it means the finger of guilt points back on all of us. Did I personally send this man to war? No. I don’t condone war nor did I vote for those who made the choice to send him to Iraq more than once. But choices have consequences…and a small part of me realized that by allowing others to do the fighting while we stay safely at home, the consequence must be shared by all of us.
This was today’s update, in the local newspaper. “...had been reported missing last week. He was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound Wednesday afternoon in a northwest Gainesville apartment.”
And that is what I will think about this Memorial Day weekend. The man with a kind smile who could not embrace the help that some were so desperately trying to offer. He shouldn’t remain just a nameless face. A stranger. A casualty of war. He was Larry Vantassell, age 51. He was probably important to someone. He should’ve been important to all of us for his service.
This weekend is not about Memorial Day sales, backyard cookouts or the first “unofficial” day of the summer season. It’s about remembering. It’s about understanding that people who go to war come back changed. It’s realizing that invisible wounds leave scars.
It’s about continuing to reach out to those who are troubled, even if they ignore your hand at first. If your hand gets slapped, keep reaching. They were there for you. We need to return the favor.