They came from across the country.
Still others rode motorcycles.
But whatever their mode of transportation, all of the people who attended the Honor for All rally today on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol building shared a common purpose: to make visible the invisible wounds sustained by veterans and their families, and to give honor to all of them for their contributions to the nation.
Organized by Tom Mahany, a clear-eyed, blonde-haired stone mason and Vietnam veteran from Michigan, the event began right at 10:00 a.m. and continued in a punctual manner throughout the day.
The weather cooperated beautifully, with a few clouds dotting the blue sky and the temperature peaking in the low 80s.
The crowd was small and many of the chairs were unfilled, but Dart Society founder Frank Ochberg, while acknowledging the disappointment, declared, “Empty chairs don’t hurt us; they tell us how far we have to go.”
Mahany opened the presentations by paying tribute to his brother-in-law, who killed himself 20 years ago after waging a 15-year struggle with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
His point, and that of other speakers like Gregg Keesling, whose son also took his life: soldiers who kill themselves after combat should be accorded the same honor and acknowledgment as those who died on the battle field.
Keesling, who sports a reddish pony tail, said he urged his son to get help for the psychological torment he was enduring, but heard the all-too-common refrain that to ask for help is a sign of weakness, not strength. The father took aim at the current practice of the military not sending condolence letters to military families whose loved ones commit suicide.
Honor For All aims to reverse that, and marshaled an impressive array of speakers to present their case.
Brigadier Generals Michael Miller and Richard Thomas spoke about the military’s commitment to helping soldiers dealing with these issues.
Dart Society Founder Frank Ochberg spoke about a Vietnam veteran named Terry whose wife Cathy approached him to help her husband. For 40 years Terry had blamed himself for his friend’s death, finding through his conversations with Frank another way to think about his experience.
Rather than causing his death, Terry, who is deeply religious, started to think about himself as delivering his friend to his Lord.
Terry and Cathy held each other and wept as Frank spoke about them and their story.
Several other speakers addressed the role and impact on the family.
Lucretia Bellamy, whose husband is convalescing at Walter Reed, declared her love for all veterans and her insistence that no one disrespect them. “My name is Lucretia Bellamy and I roar with the roar of a lioness,” she said.
For her part, Kristina Kaufman, a military wife, spoke about the number of spouses who committed suicide because of the stress caused by being married to their husbands after their return. She named three of the women who were her friends. She did so, she said, to give them their dignity.
Politicians’ like Daniel Inouye, a member of the 442 Regimental Combat Team who lost his arm during World War II, sent a message he had delivered to a staff this member at 7:30 a.m. this morning. Other politicians like Kent Conrad and Andre Carson also emphasized the importance of the cause.
Keynote speakers Jeremiah Workman and Jennifer Crane shared their stories of trying to drown their pain in alcohol and drugs, of losing almost everything, and of finding their way out from the abyss.
For both, a turning point came when they accepted that they had PTSD and a traumatic brain injury and got help.
Representatives from the non-profit sector addressed the crowd, as did trauma survivors and former soldiers turned writers like Dario DiBattista.
In the end, Mahany returned and called up his nephew Brian, the son of his brother-in-law.
Now 30, the younger man and his uncle shared a long embrace.
The open expression of emotion and the movement from the invisible wounds that contributed mightily to Brian’s father’s death into the physical presence of the son he sired symbolized the hope and promise of the day and the movement.
I have not served in the military and will never do so. I am by temperament and practice someone who believes in non-violence.
Yet the courage of today’s speakers – the catch in their throats, the limp in their walks, and the exquisite tenderness with which two Marine parents, whose son is struggling with these issues, asked Jennifer Crane if they could hug her – brought home to me as never before the valor of the men and women who have, as one speaker said, written a blank check to the country.
They deserve our respect, and they deserve our honor.