By Bill Stork, DVM
I can't imagine a more spectacular place than southern Wisconsin in May. Rust red hip-roof dairy barns are wrapped in Ireland green pastures of alfalfa, with herds of black and white Holsteins ambling about as they have for three generations. Others are but monuments to tradition, tenacity and productivity. Fence lines and lane ways are flanked by dogwoods and lilacs in all their glory.
Plan to be at least distracted, or just pull over and take a picture for the wallpaper on your cell phone. Use all your given senses and go slowly. Close your mouth and gently pull the country air through your nostrils. Taste the loam, peat and sand of a freshly worked field. Chisel-plowed in fall, disked, dragged, picked clean of stones, and finished during five straight God-given days of dry just last week.
Deep horizontal lugs on tractor tires form perfect arcs at the headlands, giving way to parallel lines that merge to the horizon. Seed lies an inch below the soil. With a lot of hope, a little prayer and some rain, it will become feed and forage in October when the south winds shift north and crisp.
A bike ride or drive down a country road can be an event unto itself; pure sensory overload, no I-pod, widescreen or digital enhancement.
Unless you are Jason Stevens*. For him, it is horrifying.
We have known Jason, his wife Bobbi, and their pets for the better part of a decade. It could be the camo fatigues, sewn name badge, and a calico cat named HumVee, but I had always suspected a military background, despite the fact that even in uniform he looks as dangerous as Mr. Rogers.
In a recent visit, HumVee was not always using his litter box. While our technicians analyzed a sample, we had time to talk. As it turns out, both Jason and Bobbi are veterans of multiple tours of duty between Iraq and Afghanistan. Jason's job is a combat medic. He stopped short of any details, but while he was out of the room, Bobbi explained. He would be dropped from a helicopter on a giant lead weight called a "canopy buster." On the ground, he often had to fight hand-to-hand with knives and sidearms just to get to a fallen soldier he hoped to save.
When he returned, I was trying to put things into perspective. I asked, "What's the hardest thing about being stateside?"
"Driving," was his instant answer. As I stood slack-jawed and silent, he explained. A McDonald's bag blown from the bed of a pickup is a potential roadside bomb, ready to detonate and destroy a passing convoy, and mangle the soldiers on a mission. The bridge over the Rock River or the underpass at Hwy N? Perfect places for an ambush.
Over the next few days, I noticed all of the roadside litter I drive past every day, and each underpass I blithely roll beneath. Still trying to wrap my head around Jason's story, I struck up a conversation with Noah*, who was at the clinic with his new puppy. Also a veteran, Noah picked the breed because of their reputation as alarm barkers, and sleeps facing windows and doors, so that he can sleep more than an hour at a time.
Noah decided to get a puppy, because he thought it would be best knowing that when they walked, everyone would be watching the puppy, rather than the Marine.
A beautiful ranch home on top of a hill with a wrap-around porch and picture windows. To you and me, a perfect spot to sip coffee and watch the sunrise, or unwind with a bourbon brown ale and watch it set. To a retired Iraq veteran, a 360-degree view so as to defend against sneak attacks.
The last weekend in May is the unofficial start of summer and the official start of insanity for stir-crazy students and their teachers. The Monday that follows is Memorial Day. We are obliged to honor the memory and recognize our deep debt of gratitude to the military men and women who never returned home.
To have enlisted, served and survived can be an act of legacy, patriotism, purpose or valor. To return with soul intact and untouched is unthinkable. While living day to day in security and freedom, the very least we can do is listen to their stories, internalize their struggles and be genuinely and thoughtfully thankful to our Veterans.
We would be well-served to meet their eyes and nod, shake a hand, or hug a soldier who has served our country, and as a consequence lives in fear of an "Extra Value Meal".
*Names and minor details have been changed in this story to protect privacy.
Addendum: To hear one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written in homage to a veteran…
Fred Eaglesmith, "The Rocket". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIfF8x55M0E