To the Veteran Who Held His Hand Up to Me and Whispered, ‘Please’


I met him two years ago, in Washington D.C.

Within the shadow of our nation’s capitol, people bustled past, unnoticing. I was among them. We moved across the sidewalks and crosswalks as fish swimming in a school, fluid and fast. He sat against the side of a brick building, alone, clutching a worn backpack.

Our eyes met.

I stopped.

“Please,” he reached up his hand and whispered, “I’m so hungry.”

I stopped because he whispered, gently.

“Have you had lunch today?” I asked, reaching into my pocket.

“No, Ma’am. God bless you, Ma’am.”

My own lunch money weighed on me heavily. I had restaurant plans. The $5 bill I handed to him seemed, suddenly, grossly deficient. I switched pockets, knowing that five bucks wouldn’t buy him much lunch at Burger King across the street.

“Where are you from?” I asked. I wasn’t accustomed to being called “Ma’am.”

“What’s your name?”

“James. I’m from Mississippi,” he began. “Then came Vietnam. Then just drifting… I did some coal mining.” He began to unbutton his shirt, revealing two large, mirrored scars on his dark chest. “I just got too many problems at once, so I come up here… I got kids, too. I don’t see them anymore. I figure life’s gotta be better in the city.”

We talked for a few more minutes. He told me my daughters were beautiful, just like their momma.

I gave him my lunch money.

And that was that.

It was time to move on. But before I left, he asked me for something more.

“You pray for me, Ma’am. And I’ll pray for you.”

“I will, James. I will.”

Then I walked away.

I walked away, but something about my conversation with James had changed me.

He was a vagrant. A miner. A veteran. A father. Somewhere, someone loved him.

He told me that someone was Jesus. “He’s with me, right out here on the street,” James had said.  “He’s the one who sent you to give me lunch today. He brings me joy every day. And he loves you, too.”

Oh, James.

You — the Forgotten, the Hungry, the Abandoned, the Alone.

You have Joy?

You have Love?

You told me you also have Peace.

You, James, Unknown Soldier, have the three elusive riches the Wealthy World strives to find and cannot.  You have nothing, and yet you have everything.

Well, James. Today while back in Washington D.C., I went looking for you. I wanted you to know you changed how I see people, James. You helped me to find Love, Joy and Peace in my own little world. I wanted to remember you in a real way, and say thank you, James.

So I went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I didn’t find you. But you know what I did find, James?

I found hundreds and thousands of you…

Your fellow veterans were there for you, James. They came in massive caravans of motorcycles, swarming the National Mall, slowly making their pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery across the bridge. They rode, they walked, they held each other up as they climbed the hill. They brought their families. They brought flowers. They came with children. And burdens. And tears.

They wore leather and white ponytails and grizzled beards. They wore crisp military uniforms and brass buttons and crew cuts. They wore baby packs and held on to strollers, walkers and canes.

Though they came to the cemetery, they also came to give respect and honor to the Other Unknown Soldiers… to the veterans whose lives are still a living sacrifice. They honor the veterans who are still fighting, who are living with disability, wounds and post traumatic stress disorder.

Like you, James.

This day is for you.

Thank you.

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This post originally appeared on MichelleMahnke.com.

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