I met a stranger named Paul on night. Paul appeared out of nowhere early one evening as I was struggling with my purchases at a local Home and Garden store. “Please let me help you”, he said from behind me. I turned to see a grizzled bearded man in a United States Marine Corp. cap and layers of clothing. He was an imposing figure, so I hesitated but only until I looked into his weathered face and all I could see was kindness in his bright crystal blue eyes.
“Thank you” I replied, “I always seem to attempt the impossible”. He smiled and waited as I untangled the bags strangling my fingers. We didn’t speak much as we walked to my car. I commented how cold the nights were getting and how I couldn’t “wait to just get home”. Paul just said “yep, it’s definitely getting colder”.
Reaching my car, I opened the trunk. Paul stood a good distance from me, as if he knew I might be uncomfortable with a stranger that close to me as I opened my car in the almost empty parking lot. He stepped forward after I was hands free, and carefully handed me each bag one by one. I suddenly wondered to myself if perhaps he was afraid of me for some reason, but one look into his eyes told me he was once more just letting me know I was safe. Again, I told him how much I appreciated his help.
Suddenly, realizing that I had forgotten the mop I had purchased back in the store, I told Paul, mentioning how absent minded I was. He chuckled. It was a nice sound coming from what seemed like such a gruff and quiet man. We walked back to the entrance to the store, and I asked him “So you are a Marine?”. Paul informed me he was and had been for many years until he was injured and sent home almost two years ago. I quickly told him how much I appreciated his service and sacrifice, and further explained how much I hated saying, “Thank you for your service”, because those words always seemed void of how much gratitude I personally held for our Veterans. As far as I was concerned, they should be one of our Nations top priority. He thanked me again. His eyes met mine; I suddenly had the oddest feeling that this man was very sad. It was the most heartbreaking feeling, so just like me, I quickly tried to say something happy, “I bet you were so happy the day you came home” I smiled up at him. He said “One of the happiest days of my life”, he smiled back. His smile melting again quickly to reveal sadness. He looked so weary.
We were reaching the warmth near the automatic doors of the store, and as I turned to thank him again, I lifted my hand up and introduced myself, and clearly surprising him, he semi-warily took my much smaller hand to shake it and introduced himself as well. I noticed how chapped his much larger hand was, assuming he must work out in the elements. We stood for a moment saying nothing, and rather awkwardly I reached out and touched his hand again said “it was really nice to meet you Paul, thank you so much for bailing me out there”. Paul nodded, our eyes meeting again briefly and he turned to walk away. As I was walking back towards the store doors. I noticed a rather large duffle-like cloth bag, a thermos covering the bigger part of some sort of sign leaning against the cement walls of the store to the right of me. I looked a little harder and all I could read on this clearly handmade sign were the letters “H-O-M”. I thought sadly that it probably belonged to a homeless person traveling on the nearby highway.
I kept an eye out hoping I would be able to identify the person whose belongings were left outside, thinking perhaps they were somewhere in the store getting warm. I wanted to help in some way. I was at Customer Service where I grabbed the mop, they knew I’d be coming back for. And like a gut punch, it hit me….. Paul.
How could I be so foolish? How sad he looked especially after I mentioned coming home, his weathered hands, his worn layers of clothes, I had paid no real attention to; other than thinking perhaps he was poor. I knew how difficult it was for our returning veterans to find jobs.
I had to help him, quickly going for my wallet. I stiffened; somehow I knew this man would never take money from me, despite his circumstances. I don’t know how I knew that, I just did.
I took everything I had cash wise out of my wallet, I didn’t care how much it was, I knew he needed it more than I ever would. I stopped a man who was also getting ready to leave the store, quickly explaining that I knew the man outside the doors, describing him. I then explained he was a homeless veteran and probably wouldn’t take this money from me. The man quickly pulled out his own wallet removing a twenty dollar bill of his own money to add to mine and shook his head saying, “it’s just not right is it? These men gave us everything”. My eyes teared as soon as this man and I were together in thought and heart. I asked him to let me walk out first and he agreed.
I left the store as fast as I could trying to avoid Paul seeing my tear streaked face but prayed he was still around the doors and hadn’t left. As I walked out, I saw him in my peripheral vision leaning against the wall. I thanked God at that very moment for that fact.
Throwing the mop in my back seat, I got in the front seat, started the car and completely lost it, I was in full on ugly cry mode. I tried to gather myself quickly but that was near impossible and while knowing I would have to drive by Paul as I left, I just wiped my face with my son’s discarded sweatshirt he had left in the front seat. Relieved that it had darkened more outside, I began to leave the parking lot.
As I drove by, I could see Paul was still in a conversation with the man I had spoken to in the store. Even still, Paul glanced up to wave as I drove by. Our eyes met. I know he knew.
In mere minutes this man had touched my heart in such a deep and profound way it staggered me. For days I worried about Paul, I looked for him everywhere. I just could not wrap my head around how a man, a Marine that fought for our country, willing to give up his life came home to circumstances that forced him into homelessness. How could this happen? Just the simple act of walking into my own warm home that night devastated me ,when I now realized how unaware I had been of yet another facet of wrongs our Veterans returning home faced.
It was not always like we see on the news, or in the YouTube videos of families celebrating, crying and hugging. Sometimes those moments didn’t have a happy ending, After all of the happiness I felt when our Veterans returned home, I realized; coming home might only last mere moments, days or months perhaps, but for some it means……Coming home to homelessness.
I think of Paul, and often wonder what forces brought us together that evening. Whatever it was that did bring us together, I will be forever thankful. It opened my eyes to yet another obstacle our U.S. Veterans face once returning home that desperately needs our attention. And if I have any breath left in my body, I will fight and advocate for our Veterans. Just as they have fought for us.
Just recently the first state to officially end Veteran homelessness is Virginia. Connecticut has ended chronic homelessness and many cities across the United States have also ended it. We need to make some noise as U.S. citizens. Some very loud noise.
In the future I will blog on this and other issues, obstacles and the lack of resources many of our U. S. Veterans face in the United States right this minute. These brave men and women deserve everything from our government, country a.k.a. we the people. They stood up leaving all loved ones, family and friends to fight for our country, unknowing if they would even return to a home that was and is still unprepared to help them transition back into a civilian world.
I will be posting more resource links under Category “Be The Change”.
Thank you so much for reading this post. I hope it touches someone else’s life and awareness, just as Paul did mine.