I was waiting to meet a guy in front of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, down on Vermont Avenue a block from the White House, and noticed that slogan they have on the front of the building: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan" (Abraham Lincoln).
In the bustle of modern life, I realized--just for a quiet minute, while standing in the autumn sunshine and seeing the words--that it's really important to remember those who put their bodies on the line for the rest of us.
A corny sentiment, maybe, but it reflects a critical truth. There's a price to be paid for this freedom we enjoy, and we have not all had to pay it. Some have borne the burden for the rest of us.
The guy I was meeting, John B. Kirby, is one of them. John heads the staff of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), the congressionally chartered, privately funded outfit that represents those wounded in battle, and the families of those who died. MOPH staffers and volunteers help vets and families negotiate jungles of Veterans Administration paperwork so they can receive benefits.
Kirby had an hour to chat before attending a meeting at the VA to firm up plans for the Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington this Thursday, so we went around the corner to a little deli for a sandwich.
Trim and fit at 55, Kirby's so affable you'd never guess he'd been a Marine drill sergeant with two tours in Vietnam. He was wearing a spiffy blue business suit with a little purple bar on the lapel--signifying that he received a Purple Heart--and I asked him about it.
The medal--awarded for "a wound which necessitates treatment by a medical officer and which is received in action with an enemy," in officialese--originated during the Revolutionary War with Gen. George Washington, who devised it as an award for bravery.
"The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all," Washington wrote in his orderly book on Aug. 7, 1782.
The medal fell into disuse until Gen. Douglas MacArthur helped reinstate it in 1932. Subsequent legislation made veterans of earlier wars eligible. The current design of the full medal (worn at ceremonial occasions) features a gold trimmed, heart-shaped medallion with a bust of Gen. Washington, suspended from a purple ribbon.
Purple represents fidelity. It's said that Gen. Washington had in mind the strong purple heartwood of trees. It is also, I couldn't help but think, the color of mourning.
"I deal with heroes every day," Kirby said, "guys who are in pain or missing limbs. I kind of stand in awe of them." He said there are an estimated 660,000 wounded American veterans still alive today and that, as a whole, the nation's former warriors--wounded and unwounded--are dying off at a rate of about 30,000 a month.
"That's a thousand a day," he said, sadly. "The World War I vets are almost entirely gone, and the World War II guys are going fast. I work now with a lot of guys 73 to 78 years old, and they're inspiring. They're out there beating the bushes to raise money for our organization, to help people, serving their communities."
Kirby is the Purple Heart order's adjutant general, heading a tiny national headquarters based in Springfield. There are 92 offices around the country, staffed mostly by volunteers, plus a ladies' auxiliary.
As for his own combat experiences, Kirby brushed off any notion of heroism on his part. In '65, he was patrolling with Vietnamese forces out of Cam Lo, they took mortar fire, and he got a leg full of shrapnel. In '68, operating outside a U.S. artillery position just after 3 a.m., he was shot in the leg.
"It was a through-and-through," he said. "Through the bone, through the meat. It healed up well."
It took longer for his head to heal, though, from psychological wounds. For years, he'd snap awake at 3:22 a.m., thinking he heard gunfire. He took to drink, but after a successful 1982 stint at a VA alcoholism rehab unit, was able to remain sober. He devoted his life to helping fellow vets.
"I started thinking about PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and about the World War I and World War II guys," Kirby said. "They didn't know about PTSD in those days, they just called it 'shell shock,' and these guys would come home and build a bar in their basement to medicate themselves. They raised their families and lived their lives and were good members of their communities.
"They are my heros."
After saying goodbye to Kirby, I went back to the office and called Robert "Bud" Payne, 76, a farmer in Montana's Bitterroot Valley and Purple Heart's commander for his region.
"I just bucked 75 bales of hay on and off a rack here, to feed cattle," he said cheerfully, coming on the line. He grew somber as he described his combat experiences in Europe in World War II, and his wounds--he'd stepped on a mine, been smashed in the arms and shoulder by shrapnel.
"There was a lot of bone and muscle damage," he said. "They got all the shrapnel out of me, but it never really did heal properly. My shoulder, it hurts constantly.
"As far as any fear in combat you might think a person might be in, you lose that fear someplace along the line. You're seeing your buddies buried all the time, and you're not thinking too much about ever being able to come home.
"You just think, 'Well, I'm going to get it sometime, I just hope it don't hurt too bad.' "
He's glad to be alive.
Glad to be living with his wife of 52 years in their "little valley," bucking bales of hay after 26 years on the Montana Highway Patrol, "a respectable job helping people to not be injured in highway accidents, which when you think about it is like war."
Glad to be helping other veterans.
Saved to serve.
CAPTION: John Kirby, adjutant general of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, in his office in Springfield.