My favorite breakfast spot while stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, was the golf course snack bar. The routine was to appear around 0930 just as breakfast was closing. After awhile, the ladies knew my order and the portions started to increase as did the frequency of my visits.
As I left the building, feeling pretty content with my belly full of a Western omelet and home fries that would have buckled anyone under the weight of 200 pounds, I ran into Sheila Van Dyke.
Being in an Army uniform on an Air Force base, I kind of stuck out. Sheila poked a finger into my chest and said, “Hey Army guy, I have been looking for you!”
She had heard, and rightly so, that the 3rd Army was moving to Shaw Air Force Base to set up shop. Now she was looking for us to entertain. She had been disappointed that there wasn’t an Army contingent at her show at the Airmen and Family Readiness Center.
Sheila had been on numerous USO tours as a comedienne. She took it personally that the Army was not present at her latest show.
I tried to explain that my unit was a liaison to the Air Force and the rest of the 3rd Army wasn’t due to arrive at Shaw for a few months. She wasn’t having any of it and then told me about one of her recent visits to a local VA hospital. I quickly offered to accompany her on her next visit. Again, she poked me in the chest and told me not to wait for her and to just GIT-R-DONE.
The next day, I contacted the VA in Columbia, South Carolina and started the paperwork to visit. I had delusions of showing up in my uniform and sharing war stories with soldiers from past wars. I finished the required paperwork and then was taken over to the ward and introduced to the nurses. I was in uniform and expected an immediate camaraderie with the Veterans in residence.
The first Vet I was taken to was not only not impressed, he seemed irritated that I was there… I tried to make small talk….He just kept staring at the TV clearly communicating that I was interrupting his show. I made my apologies and moved to the next room.
This time I met a WWII Vet who was completely immobilized and could only move one eye. He did not speak, he screamed.
I was not sure what his physical ailments were but he wanted it to be very clear to me that he had served and that his twin 50-year old sons had not visited him in some time. My intent to do good was soon replaced by the fear that I would end up the same way in my later years.
The nurses could tell that I was shaken and told me that it took time to connect with the patients and that their routines were very important to them.
I have not returned to the VA.
Yes, I feel guilty that hanging out and telling war stories wasn’t enough. What I do realize is that you have to have a plan, and you have to commit. These individuals have served their country and whatever their family situation, they need interaction and a connection to the outside world.
Someday, I will get over myself and return to the VA and commit to being there to listen. Unfortunately, the timing was not right and I found myself gearing up for the next deployment feeling that I had not made a difference at the VA.
In a short few minutes of real life experience, Sheila had taught me a life lesson. She has committed her life to bringing humor to service members, their families and the aging inVA hospitals.
She also takes time to give the rest of us a glimpse of the future. Her message: CARE, CONNECT and COMMIT. Thanks Sheila – Keep poking!
Your message is H.U.A – Heard. Understood. Acknowledged.
Nate Brookshire, is a 21-year Army Veteran and co-author of Hidden Wounds: A Soldier’s Burden. He is a passionate supporter of Veteran’s rights with a focus on PTSD and the impact it has on the Military Family.