… serving the served

Public service … it’s not for the faint at heart.  It’s an everyday sacrifice that can be the most rewarding job at the end of the day.  You never know what is going to be waiting for you when you pick up the phone or turn the corner to who is waiting for you in the lobby of your office except that there is someone who needs help and if they have made it to me then I know that I am their last attempt, pure desperation for help is where they are.

When I was asked what I wanted to do I said, and without hesitation … I want to be in the field kissing babies, shaking hands and cutting ribbons all day.  I mean who doesn’t want to follow a public figure around all day taking pictures and meeting people?  Power lunches and black tie events, that is the life!!  So let me stop right here and say that what you don’t think about are the hottest of summer days, coldest of winter mornings, the rainy season …. scheduling gone crazy, time frames that no one adheres to anymore and let’s just add parking to this equation.  Suddenly field work doesn’t seem as glamorous as FOX News portrays as they follow politicians and their entourages around flashing clips of shaking hands and kissing babies!  Even still I was willing to take the good with the bad and follow through with what I staked my future on.  So as the conversation went on I was asked what I wanted to accomplish at the end of the day and again, without hesitation I said … I want to help people.  I want someone to know that when all hope is lost, when they have found nothing but closed doors and locked windows they know that there is someone, just one person that will take the time to listen to their story, because after all isn’t that what life is, a story?  That when they lay their head down at night they know someone is in their corner fighting for them.  My coworkers love to give me a hard time and will use this speech to remind me that I chose this side of public service which is most definitely not field work.  And while it is all fun and games around the office water cooler what they don’t realize is that at one time I was that person who had no where to turn, no one would listen to my story and I remember vividly days that I would just scream for help.  I had no idea where to turn, who to call and was left holding this child who needed help and I had no idea how to make that happen.

I have the honor and I mean the extreme honor of serving our Veterans day in and day out.  It is the most humbling experience that one can have, serving the served.  There is no greater privilege than this.  From the youngest of the men and women returning home to those well into their 80’s who sit across from me day after day and can recount their time from World War II as if they were in that trench, leaned up against the dirt, cigarette hanging from their bottom lip and gun held in both hands.  I can see it in their eyes when they begin their story, they are right there.  I have spent hours listening to these men and as they lay out pictures and original papers so paper thin and soft that I can barely see the writing I don’t want my time with them to end.  I have watched grown men, men who have gone years without appreciation for their service, for their sacrifice for my freedom cry and sob as they hold their hands out for help.  How in the world can I say that my career in public service is a sacrifice as I watch these men with their cane in one hand and a faded and tattered folder in the other walk out my door?  Some of these men have become like grandfathers to me and there is one particular who I have grown rather fond of.  At my greatest time of need with Elizabeth he was my strength.  Here’s his story ….

As with all of my Veterans it begins with a phone call, usually frustrated and at the end of their rope they need help fighting through the red tape of government bureaucracy.  Usually their claim has stalled at the VA, they have lost their medals or their spouse is so sick and he is unable to take care of her but wants her home with him.  As I sit at my desk taking these calls the one that came in around the first of May validated my decision to serve those men and women we have come to extend our hands to when we pass them in an airport or in line at the grocery store.  He introduced himself to me, I could tell he was old but very sharp and I could hardly wait to hear his story.  Our first visit was very formal with paperwork and the line of questions I had come to know that had to be asked to move forward.  Within a few days we had a second meeting, only this time we shared a cup of hot tea and I watched as he settled in and I knew the story was going to be told.  For hours I listened to him as he would tell me about his time that he served, his college days, the day he met his wife and the day he lost her.  We both had tears that would fall but the story continued on into that rainy spring afternoon.  I was in awe of him and knew that he was so much more than a Veteran who needed me to inquire on a claim he had spent years waiting on, i just didn’t know how powerful our connection was until a few weeks later.

Early this summer we were told to say what could be our final goodbye to Elizabeth.  It was without a doubt the hardest day of my entire life and the one day that I saw God and felt His hands on this family.  There was forgiveness and healing amongst a broken family that had lost sight of what life was about.  I have kept it hidden deep within my soul, some just wouldn’t understand and others would find their flaws exposed to the world that they have spent years hiding the truth from.  I have been told by those that know … “It’s part of the story, Pam.  It has to be told.”  And they are right and it will be, in time.  As I was preparing to be away from work for an extended amount of time I had to let my clients know that I was leaving them in the best of hands with my coworkers but didn’t tell them the reason behind my leaving, just that I had a family member who needed me.  Except for my one Veteran, my one that I had become so close to.  He had come in to drop off paperwork and as I told him about Elizabeth’s journey he sat, very still and very quiet.  He really listened to me and somehow I knew that this was going to be one of Elizabeth’s biggest fans.  When I finished he sat for a few minutes and the silence wasn’t awkward but almost comforting.  He reached out, took his hand in mine and …. “she will be fine.  You see, on May 23, 1944 I was commissioned as a pilot for the United States Army.”  Calling it the greatest day of his life he then said that all good things happen on May 23.  Since that time he has called me often to check on Elizabeth and when I try to shift the focus to him he tells me that this call is not about him or his case.  And on the days that it needs to be about him he always finds a way to bring up Elizabeth.  He has become an office favorite and one that I always have a hot cup of tea waiting for so we can get him settled in and listen to his stories.

Today as we celebrate Veterans Day, take time to thank those who served.  Extend a handshake, hug a neck and thank a Veteran … every chance you have.  But what I encourage and challenge you to do is to take this gratitude well beyond today and into everyday.  The real public servants are these men and women who have chosen to serve our country so that you and I can wake up each morning and live a life of freedom, raise our family without fear and lay our heads down at night knowing that someone is fighting for us.  These are the unsung hero’s that I meet everyday and listen to their stories.

Thank you for your service.

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