I often spend time sitting at my local Dunkin, just people watching. I do something I call sketching, but what I mean is writing out little descriptive paragraphs about the people in the place with me. It’s a writing exercise.
There’s a lot of kids, of course, drinking smoothies and soaking up the free wifi. Cops and people stopping in for a coffee before or after work. There are all sorts of people, just looking for a sugar fix.
There are a lot of older men who come in. They get small cups of coffee, and they sit around making conversation with anyone who catches their eye. Many of them are not well. Some are homeless, filthy. Some are just angry. Pretty much at everything.
These men are a common sight in my hometown. They’re Vietnam vets. And once or twice a year they all get together and march in the parade. But between those times, Veterans Day and Memorial Day, we pretty much ignore them. They go into stores, sometimes causing trouble, sometimes just making people uncomfortable.
Not me, though. Well, that’s a lie. I get uncomfortable too. But I do my best to not show it.
I do my best because these men were sent into a nightmare situation. They came back damaged, in body and mind. The best of them came back with night terrors. The worst of them could be said to not have come back at all. Their bodies did, and they walk around in the world. But their minds are still in the jungle.
This generation of broken men has surrounded me my whole life. I was taught by them in JR ROTC. I had friends who were the children and grandchildren of them. My first father in law was a Vietnam vet. He once almost planted a knife in his younger son’s throat because he accidentally startled him in the middle of the night. I and many women and men of my generation have sat at the knees of these Veterans and learned well the price of war.
And yet, it never ends. My generation has sent its share of young men and women overseas. One buddy of mine had a panic attack at New Year when people started popping balloons.
Another one killed himself last year. He left a wife and a bunch of kids. The terror of war finally got to him.
In a few decades, this town will still be full of men walking around, maybe homeless. Maybe just broken. They’ll be from my graduating class of ’05 or later years. We’re too late to change that.
But damn it, if we keep beating the drums of war, we’ll just keep breaking these kids. We’ll weaken generation after generation, not in service to our country but service to the rattling of useless sabers. We aren’t any safer. We’re just poorer.
And the next wave of broken men drinking coffee in Dunkin will be from the graduating class of 2020.