This morning I gave a presentation entitled, “Employing America’s Heroes: What HR Professionals Need to Know About Veterans,” to the Baltimore Industry Liaison Group. Lots of good discussion and questions. From there I fled to catch a train to New York, where I am attending the annual conference of Human Resource Executive. militarytransitions.biz is a sponsor.
After checking into the hotel, I proceeded to the wrong bank of elevators and rode it for awhile before realizing my mistake and getting off. Waiting with me for the next car down was a young guy – early 20s at most – with one arm covered in tattoos, and the other arm gone. Beside him was a canvas tote bag with a large prosthetic arm sticking out.
He was not in uniform; rather, he wore a plain t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap. I wanted to acknowledge him but hesitated, thinking, “This has to be a war injury. But…what if it isn’t? No, it has to be – why else would a 20-something have such an injury?”” Before opening my mouth to ask him about it, he asked me a question. “Ma’am, do you know if you have to turn in your room key?” I said I wasn’t sure but didn’t think so. I asked him if he had served and, when he said yes, I thanked him. He replied, “Oh, thank you, ma’am. It was my pleasure and I served with a smile.”
He took his room key out of his pocket and said, “I hate walking through the lobby with this prosthetic arm, getting stared at.” I said, “Let me do it. It’s the least I can do.” He seemed relieved. I felt humbled.
As I walked to the front desk with his key, I thought to myself, “This is what it is going to mean for us.” “Us,” meaning us Americans. Civilians. Going about our daily lives, we may encounter someone with a visible war injury. My friends who work in the DoD’s Wounded Warrior program have said that wounded veterans don’t want pity from civilian employers and co-workers, but a little patience is helpful. “Soldiers are used to being active and they want to be active again, even if they are injured. They will be active again.”
For those of us civilians who have only experienced war through the media…where we might want to look away, we need to look ahead. Where we want to be silent we need to say thank you. It is only our own discomfort that stands in the way. My encounter today with the young serviceman who had lost his arm showed me a bit about what the war meant for him. Bearing witness to it as we welcome soldiers home is what it means for us.