American wars and personal responsibility.

I went to my nearest VA Hospital today, to apply as a volunteer.

As luck would have it, I arrived just as the lady who does the fingerprinting had gone on break, so I wasn’t able to actually apply. But I’ve filled out my form. I have a plan.

I admit that I’m a bit perplexed by my decision (taken the day after bin Laden was killed, and the two are very much related) to do this. As a near-pacifist who regretfully but begrudgingly accepted the war in Afghanistan and was powerfully opposed to the war in Iraq, a person who encouraged her brother never to register for the draft, and would never want her own children to serve in the armed forces of any nation, it doesn’t exactly seem like a natural fit. There are a lot of places that could use my time and my skills: women’s shelters, the food pantry, literacy programs. Why not give my handful of hours to another, equally worthy effort? One without the stink of war about it?

I keep thinking (for years now, frankly) about all these young men and women who get sent off to battle. Who are sent off by my government. Who are sent off, this being a democracy, by me.

If my country is fighting two wars (and kinda-sorta a third) — don’t I have some responsibility for that? For the people who take up arms (whether I agree with the specifics or not) and who all too often come home wounded, in body or spirit? Surely the fact that I almost literally never see any of them — in my family, in my neighborhood, or on my TV — doesn’t matter. They’re out there: fighting wars that our nation decided to fight, with weapons paid for by my tax dollars, their hopes and dreams shaped or shattered by what happens on the field of battle, or they’re out there: back home, trying on their old life for the first time in years, trying to carry all that we’ve put on their shoulders. They’re my compatriots. They’re my brothers and sisters. In some cases, in most cases, they’re my kids.

So after a decade, I think primarily because of the work done by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury (the story arcs of BD [continued here], Melissa, Toggle, and Ray, the issues they face, the Vet Center they go to, Melissa’s experiences when she returns to duty), various reports and interviews on Rachel Maddow’s show (particularly her segments with Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America), and one little piece I wrote a while back for the Chicago Tribune — I have finally come to the point where I understand that I have to look that responsibility in the face. I have to look those people in the face.

I don’t know what to expect (and I think that’s a good thing — when I start down a path that makes me nervous, I’m often better off going in a little blind), but I’ve already gotten my first surprise: The men and women I saw at the hospital today were all older than I expected. It was with some shame that I was reminded that there are, of course, a lot of vets out there, only some of whom are young enough to be my children, only some of whom picked up arms in the years since 2001. We send people into battle all the time.

My one concern is that I’m not great at following through on good ideas — which is why the minute I had this one, I called the hospital, and why I’m now a little nervous that having been thwarted today, I may just allow the idea to drift away. It wouldn’t surprise me.

So that’s probably why I’m writing about it here. Volunteering with the wounded isn’t like learning carpentry, or picking up knitting, or finding some way to sing in places other than my kitchen and my synagogue — this matters more. I want to hold myself accountable. Someday I’ll do those other things (and catch up on the photo albums, and finish that art project I started seven years ago), but this one I’m going to do today.

Or, you know, tomorrow. When the lady isn’t on break.



  1. If you want to volunteer your time, we can always use someone with your brain at our charity:

    We get to help many many different local charities. Very rewarding…and actually fun if you are the music-loving type (and I know you are!!)

  2. Lise

     /  May 11, 2011

    1. Welcome to government work. *Nothing* happens when it’s the lady’s break time.
    2. Read “Paradise General – Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq”. Written by a family practice doc from Littleton, CO who joined the Army at age 48. He served two tours in Iraq, the book is about his work in a combat surgical hospital (kind of like a M*A*S*H). I heard him speak when I was in DC for a conference, and just finished his book. It will give you a good glimpse into what kind of wounds soldiers incur with IEDs, and the care they receive in the field. I am so glad to know how lovingly they’re cared for, at least in that one place.

    • Lise

       /  May 11, 2011

      The author’s name is David Hnida.

    • Great – now my sister’s joined the internet-wide conspiracy to add books to my pile….

      (Thanks! 🙂 It sounds great – on the pile it goes!)

      • Lise

         /  May 11, 2011

        I am the AUTHOR of the conspiracy! Surely I was adding books to your pile as soon as you learned to read.

  3. A VA hospital is the most logical place in the world to find near-pacifists (and full-on pacifists too!). If you’re concerned by the effects of war, it is only natural for you to want to be in a position to nurture the people who have been harmed by it directly. Pacifism is not an avoidance of war, but a direct engagement with it, an effort to clean up the mess it leaves so that people can enjoy life again.

  4. Jenn

     /  May 15, 2011

    Good for you! Don’t give up! I need to head to my local VA, as well – I’ve tried volunteering several times over the past couple of years by filling in the online form at the VA website, with no response. I couldn’t imagine they really didn’t need any help, so finally decided I’d just drive down and talk to someone … now I just need to DO it! 🙂

  5. “Poisonous toadstools don’t turn their spots”, as Ron Weasley has once said?