And no, I’m not referring to the fingers that were lost in an accidental artillery explosion just a few weeks before the war ended. Sure, that was painful. A tragedy, some called it. But the physical wounds healed with time, and he got along quite well without the missing digits.
The emotional scars of war, however, were indelibly burned into his heart and soul. Most of the time these scars were invisible. But once in a while they showed themselves in profound ways. Like the time he dozed in church and woke up screaming. The minister tried to joke about it, and only made matters worse. So for the rest of his life he avoided church religiously. But not because he was offended or unbelieving. He was just afraid he’d fall asleep again.
Unlike many conscripts of his generation, he volunteered for duty and was proud to serve. By nature, he wasn’t what you’d call a warrior, and he absolutely detested the thought of killing another human being. But he was loyal to his country and believed he was fighting for truth and right. He served with distinction, and was decorated for valorous conduct on the field of battle.
But something happened to him out there. Something terrible. He never talked about it, but it was there. You could see it in the way he sat, like he was anxious to be someplace else. Anyplace else. You could hear it in the way he talked, like his mind was never focused. And you could feel it in the way he looked at you, like he was trying to decide if you were friend or foe.
Please don’t misunderstand. He was still a good guy. But he was different. Vastly different. The war had changed him, just like it had changed the entire nation.
And neither would ever be the same.
“When I volunteered to fight,” he wrote in his journal, “I thought I knew the risks. I had seen veterans return home blinded and maimed. I attended funerals with flag-draped coffins. I understood that could happen to me. I could die. I knew that. I understood that. But nobody told me that the war might cost me a piece of my soul.”
The soldier’s name was Andrew Wilson. You’ve probably never heard of him because he never really did anything extraordinary — before, during or after his term of military service. But if his story sounds familiar, it’s only because it has been repeated time and again throughout the course of human history. Wilson rose to the lofty rank of corporal in the Union Army during the Civil War, but he could have just as easily been a dough boy during World War I, or a World War II G.I., or an Army nurse in Korea, or a chopper pilot in Vietnam, or a member of a tank crew during the Gulf War, or a sniper in Iraq, or a communications technician in Afghanistan.
Millions of men and women have represented this nation in the armed services during the past 200-plus years. Most have done so nobly, bringing dignity to the uniform they wear and the country they serve. With tenderness and appreciation this Veterans Day we honor those who have paid the ultimate price of freedom with their own lives, or with the lives of their loved ones.
But on Veterans Day and throughout the year, let us not forget the walking wounded: those whose hearts and souls were forever scarred by their experiences on the front lines of man’s ongoing inhumanity toward man. For them, the battle isn’t over. They are prisoners of a war raging in their own minds, and it is our duty to reach out to them with love, patience and understanding. Even if we can’t restore peace to their souls, we can at least welcome them home.
Really. And completely.