Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, is a time to remember those who have fallen in our country's service. Typically we do this at graveside or with family members who have dead loved ones who served our country, but there is another way to lose your loved ones. Some are lost to the street.
SYM serves some veterans. It is not common for street youth to have a military history, although some do. Over the years, I've certainly met at least 20 or 30. They may not always share their military history.
A few street youth actually find their way off the streets by joining one of our armed services. One of the young men I'm working with now was in the army. He left on good terms but now lives on the street. He's thinking of returning to the service. It's a good option for him.
We serve one veteran regularly, not because his is a street youth by age or by his culture, but because he lives in the neighborhood where we serve each day. He was in Vietnam. He apparently never recovered is place in society after that experience. He drinks and panhandles. I can't help but wonder about the family that lost him. No grave or funeral service, but a significant loss nonetheless.
In Austin, about one in four of the homeless report being veterans (from a survey that encompassed 500 homeless people in 2007). In the 2009 CHALENG report, the Department of Veteran Affairs estimated there were 107,000 homeless veterans on any given night in America. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness.
We have the privilege of serving another veteran regularly who is a street youth. "William" is a street youth by culture but not by age–that means he fits in with street youth even though he is older (roughly 40). William is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He lives on the street. He battles substance abuse, but William loves Jesus. And this brief Memorial Day story is about William.
I received a visit Sunday from a friend, Brian, who is a recently commissioned officer in the army. Brian graduated this May from UT and is moving away to continue his military training. While at UT, Brian was very compassionate toward the street youth. He shared his compassion by getting his small group from church to make sandwiches for SYM. And Brian got his small group to go to the streets after their prayer meetings to simply hang out with street youth.
As Brian prepared to go to basic training, he gave away possessions that wouldn't fit into his foot locker. Brian took lots of clothing and other items to individuals he had met on the street. Brian brought me bags full of items that he believed would be better given to SYM rather than directly to individuals.
At commissioning, officers have a tradition of buying a silver dollar and giving it to the first person who salutes them. For various reasons, Brian wasn't able to give it away quickly and then was separated from other military people. So no salute. Long story short, William was the first to salute Brian during one of their last encounters on the street.
Brian told me this story and handed me his silver dollar (2009, 1 oz of fine silver) and a favorite tee-shirt. Each time Brian wore the shirt, William commented how nice it was. Brian asked me to give William both the shirt and the silver dollar. Brian left Austin Sunday evening.
I was able to find William on Memorial Day. I explained the story to William and presented the silver dollar to him. William hugged me tightly and asked me to thank Brian. He decided where to keep it. He hopes perhaps to have someone make it into a pendant that he can wear around his neck.
We owe a great debt to those who purchase our freedom, both past and present. And we have many opportunities to honor those lost. I pray that we do not overlook those veterans who are lost to the streets in homelessness.
P.S. My father, who died unexpectedly at age 58, was in the military during the Korean War. Recruited for his intelligence, he was unable to serve as an officer because of a severe speach impediment. Instead he served stateside in a rehabilitation hospital in El Paso, Texas. He played chess and other pastimes with young men recovering there from multiple amputations and other disabling wounds. It was a very hard time for my dad because of the significant depression and grief of these patients. Perhaps I inherited some of his abilities, and his own quiet service may shape how I choose to minister to street youth today.