I forget the name of the guy that told me it, but he told it to me all the same: "Go where you're invited." So, heeding his advice, I went to Mission BBQ to take pictures during a service for veterans. It's a veteran-themed restaurant, with memorabilia all over the walls from servicemen and servicewomen from all kinds of battles. It's a great place to eat. The line goes quick. The food is fantastic. You could wait for longer for food half as good and still be satisfied. You'd drive by it a hundred times before you saw it, on the outside of a giant mall on the outskirts of the outskirts of Nashville. It was about a month before we moved, so Texas was looming in my mind.
I got there early and it was hot, my shirt already sweated from the walk from the car to the door. They gave me a shirt so I would blend in as I took pictures. It's one thing to take pictures of a stranger. It's another to be a stranger yourself to them, so mitigating that, either through trying to illicit some sort of laughter or reaction from them, or wearing a shirt with the logo of the place, makes people ease up a little.
I got there as the first veterans started to arrive. There were about twenty, all in all, who arrived over the course of an hour, stayed for lunch, stayed for the salute.
None of them liked having their picture taken, in the classical sense of the word. They put up with it the way one might a new distant relative. One of the guys thought I was shooting video, and started to tell me about his book. One of the guys, Chief, I misheard as Keith.
I have zero frame of reference for what these guy have seen, what they went through, as they are painting with colors both darker and brighter than any on my palette. I think that is why America's relationship with its own vets is so skewed. Most of us, save for perhaps a week's worth of tragic days a decade—have no idea what it's like to truly lose someone. To be around, in a physical and demanding way, loss on every level. To be amongst these men is to be amongst the white noise of a thousand planes traveling overseas with no clear idea of if they're ever coming home again. There is a certain resonance in these guy's hearts that comes from something missing; the kind of hollow that makes a cello sing, or a guitar glide. And you can feel it if you're looking for it.
America's relationship with its own veterans is skewed because they've faced their fear of death; the rest of us do almost everything in our power to stay away from it. To resist it. We run screaming internally to stores, to the bottle, to the TV, to anywhere that presents itself as an immediate escape to the grim reality that we all will die. Even if you don't agree with the overarching military ideology—and I don't—you must respect the fact that at the very least, e these men and women have the courage and the audacity to die for something that they believe in. Speaking only from personal experience, and while I'm sure there's many exceptions to this, I have yet to meet a veteran who goes to war for strictly idealogical reasons. From what I'm told, they go to war to fight for their friends, their family, their flag. That last one, I feel, has the unfortunate reality attached to it that those in charge, the ones who don't experience the wars first hand, merely order it, are the ones with the pen to write the history of it.
War is political, but by and large the men who fight it aren't political people. That comes in after. Even if your side wins (in the grand sense of the word), there is unimaginable loss. And how you respond to loss, how you respond to any situation, is sometimes more emblematic than the situation itself. I can't speak for any of these men and women's personal beliefs — or how political parties attempt to play their own narrative behind these fighters. That, I don't agree with. But I don't agree, too, with the idea that these men and women fought for oil, or fought for strategic land grabs, or whatever the overarching ideas are behind these campaigns. I really and truly think they fight to the ability for us to stand in line and get good BBQ, to sit and talk with our friends and families. They fight for our ability to disagree with them. These soldiers fight for that cohesion between us, which is stronger than politics. No matter how much politicians on either side co-opt the message.
One of the vets came in alone. He stood in line and waited behind a family of four. He gave his order and waited by the soda machines. He checked his watch, stood next to a framed article, leaned in to read a few sentences, smiled, heard his name and grabbed his tray, thanking the manager. He walked by the article again. He was wholly unremarkable in presence, but if you were to walk up to that article and read it, you would have found out that the man standing next to it moments ago was the man the article was about: a prisoner of war who had survived 60 days of torture, refused to give up information, ended up being freed.
He came alone, but when he walked to his table, holding the tray, the room seemed to breathe out. I don't want to sound lofty. It's a barbeque restaurant, and a wonderful one at that. But for a few seconds, you could sense the men that didn't come home, that didn't make it there that day.