Today at 1:20 I was released from my english class to go to the band room. I left, taking with me my canvas book bag stuffed with papers and notebooks and my purse, a leather one my mother fancied when she was my age. At my back the usual heckling calls that I was a skipper, I turned on my iPod for the short walk to the band room. There I got my baritone saxophone, chattered nervously with my friends about the upcoming assembly, and hastily walked from the room after my instructor gave me the stink eye.
In the main gym, teeming with band students all wearing red, white, or blue, I sat in my chair, next to our tuba player. A close friend of mine, we instantly start gabbing about what was to come. Last year there was a movie, made by our schools film team, which was tacky, cliche, and then cut out in the middle of someone talking. After that there had been a rendition of the national anthem by a young woman, her voice trilling the high notes and her eyes firmly closed, nose in the air, hands waving like a conductor whose band was out of control.
But as I talked to him, his eyes never met mine. They were worried spots of brown, looking towards me but not at me, usually settling on the bleachers behind me that were now filling with students.
Our principal demanded quiet, raising his hand into the air and speaking into the microphone with his tiny, buzzy voice. There were hushed whispers and the occasional hints of chatter as he started speaking, looking irritated at the student body as he went on about the solemnness of the occasion. I did the talking sign with my right hand, my left elbow leaning on my bari sax. My friend, the tuba player, laughed flatly. His mind was somewhere else, and knowing him, I didn't want to know where.
Our conductor, a middle-aged man with a nervous anger, lifted his baton and we all raised our instruments. Well, everyone except for the tuba and I. We came in, playing the strains of a setting of our national anthem without much interest. I had played it many times before as had he, but as his glassy eyes stared straight forward he didn't blink, watching the wall behind our conductor. And we finished our songs, to the overjoyed claps and yells of the student body. It took several more minutes before they were quieted again.
The principal said his speech, about being respectful to speakers and other students. I could see (Even several feet away) that he just wanted to yell 'SHUT UP' and get it over with. But he didn't, and he waved in another man. His brother, who had served in Iraq.
He was broad, built strongly like a post, square shoulders, square jaw, big barrel chest. He seemed clumsy when he walked up to the middle of the stage, like a lego toy that a child had built. He looked like one, too.
The man called himself Justin. Like an AA meeting, the whole 1,500 students of my school said hello back. He paused and looked down at his right hand, currently clenched in a fist at his side. And then he looked back up at the bleachers, filled with students buzzing like angry bees.
Justin asked if any teachers were veterans. Those that were stood up. A few, all from Vietnam. Old people, teachers that no one liked because they were mean. Teachers that seemed so old they sneezed cobwebs. The teachers sat down after a light applause. Then he asked if anyone present had family or friends. Most of the school stood, including myself and the tuba player. His instrument balanced delicately on the chair, he remained standing through Justin's speech about family in wars. His father came home from Iraq two years ago. His grandfather had served in Vietnam. His great-grandfather had served in both the world wars... and so on. As far back as he could trace, all the men in his family had been in the military. And he would join as well, to pay for a college his parents couldn't afford. Justin told us all to sit. He sucked in air, like you do before you dive, and let it out slowly.
And for the next 15 minutes, he told a story of horror that shook me to my very core.
He started with Iraq. In 2004, when a suicide bomber had walked into a chow hall and blown himself up. It had been one of the worst casualty days of the war (Up to that point) and three years later, that moment was still imprinted on his brain. He told us about being attacked by rocket-propelled grenades on scouting missions. He told us about seeing his best friend's head blown clean off. He told us about seeing young children, toddlers, impaled by flying shards of shrapnel in the chest. And he told us that this was not to glorify gore, to gross any of us out... but just to tell us what really happened.
He told us about coming home, his leg permanently damaged after he stepped on a land mine. With a casual laugh, he said 'Thank heavens it was faulty' and continued with the story. He told us about how much of a chore it was to do the simple things. To take out the garbage when his wife asked him, because he still had night-terrors about being attacked in twilight. About playing with his youngest son, because he loved stacking blocks and then knocking them down, because the sounds of the blocks tumbling over reminded him of the gunfire that killed the woman next to him.
I clung to the nearest thing: My saxophone. Its cold metal shell was the only thing keeping me from passing out and falling over in that gym, now silent except for Justin's monotone voice. And Justin continued, saying how it was funny that every twenty years or so, there's a war. And people say war is terrible by the end. And they vow never to cause such pain again... but twenty years later, someone gets angry and there's another war.
And Justin ended with a final point. He didn't care what point of view we had, whether or not we supported it, whether or not we cared about it... just that we needed to know. What happened over seas in some desert was important. And he left us on that... and I still clung to my saxophone. I was afraid for Justin, for his future, his family... I was afraid for my friend beside me, fearing that in five years there might be another war. And he seemed worried, too. I looked to him but saw nothing behind those empty eyes. I sighed and returned to the next speaker, a senior whose grandfather had served in Vietnam. It was a letter from him to his family all those years ago, and as that senior read it, I could see him clearly shaking.
It told of the horrors of agent Orange, napalm, and the other unmentionables of war. But the last sentence sounded the most beautiful but in the light, it was the most terrible. A sentence I said back to myself after it was read because it stuck so firmly with myself, "I want there to be peace, to return home and be free again. But I know that there will only be more war, and they will call me back. Or my son back. Or his son back. There will never be peace, except for those that made the ultimate sacrifice."
When the letter was closed, there was one last thing. A bugler, an old man asked by the school to play today, stood by the microphone. He was dressed in uniform, looking proud and stately in contrast to the ragtag students behind him. We were asked to stand and I stood, close to my friend who now looked uneasy, mind filled with thoughts.
I reached down for my saxophone, looking to hold onto it again for cold comfort. But I found something warm and soft, a hand. My friends hand. When I held it, feeling every pulse of his heart, I looked at him. And there was the worry that someday, he would be Justin.
Veterans day matters not only to honor those that have served for our country, but to remember why they went there. If you listen to other stories, Justin's isn't all that strange. And I'm sure that if you change the location, you can probably trace the same horrors back to a hundred years ago. This war has gone on for a long time. And it will affect this country long after those that started it are out of office. It will forever be burned on the skin of our country, like any other conflict that has ever happened.
You don't have to be standing next to your friend, who you know is on the verge on a mental breakdown because he has no other options than to go into something he dreads, to understand. Talk to a vet, read a book, watch a documentary. Do something. Just do anything you can to stop this never-ending cycle of peace and war.
You can't save those that have already been... but you can save those that might go in the future.
Posted in entirety with permission of author.
Originally posted on democraticunderground.com: http://tinyurl.com/39t3gt