The town I live and work in is adjacent to a large military base. We not only have the usual complement of active-duty folks in town, but also quite a number of retired military who have settled in the area.
Our practice, naturally, sees a fair share of these. They run from middle-aged on up, but I like the old men. They are friendly, gregarious, and a lot of them have The Hats. These are black ball caps with gold embroidery. They'll say something like "Korean War Veteran", and be bristling with various unit and flag pins and whatnot. One guy yesterday had all of his fruit salad (chest ribbons) embroidered on the front of the cap.
The girls in the office think these old guys are cute, and they are. Tiny, bent over, suspenders pulling their pants up to their chest, suit jackets two sizes too big for their bony little shoulders. And The Hats.
I think they're great. Not only are they a lot of fun to work with, even (sometimes especially) the cantakerous ones, but I also respect them. They earned every gold stitch on that Hat, and that American flag lapel pin isn't just an expression of patriotism, it's a membership badge.
The fellow I want to talk about didn't have the Hat or the pins. He didn't present himself obviously as military. He was just an old fellow in his 80's with sore legs. I was giving him an arterial Doppler exam, checking for "PAD", as they say on the TV commercials, or "po' circa'lation", as it's more commonly known.
I always do a good general physical exam first; check pulses, look for ulcerations, etc... basically a good going-over to see what I'm getting into before starting the exam proper.
This guy had missing toes. Now, amputated toes (or feet, or legs) are nothing unusual, but these looked more... random. Not surgical. He must have sensed my question, and said, "Frostbite."
I looked up, and was deciding whether to ask him about it. Hunting? Ice fishing?
He said, "In the Bastogne."
I stopped dead. The little hairs on the back of my neck rose up. "The Bastogne? The Battle of the Bulge?"
"Yep. Coldest I've ever been in my whole life."
Then he rested his head back down on the pillow, and didn't say another word about it.
Nothing about the misery, the blood, the noise. The confusion, and the overwhelming fear.
I almost asked him about it, and didn't. I realized that my perception of that event came from watching "Band of Brothers".
As well-done as that show was, I was humbled, ashamed even, to see the simple reality in front of me, and know that my best understanding of his ordeal came from a movie.
I almost said, as I had to other soldiers, "Thank you for your service". It's an honest sentiment, and is expressed too seldom. This time, it seemed trite and inadequate.
So we simply proceeded with the exam. Neither of us said much, but the atmosphere was friendly and casual. In the unspoken understanding that sometimes happens between men, we each understood the feelings of the other without cheapening the situation with words. My every action and tone conveyed respect, but without an embarrassment of deference. He was relaxed and appreciative of my professional efforts and my demeanor. It was a gentleman's agreement.
He and his comrades had fought and suffered more than I could understand, and had literally saved the free world. I looked at the old man lying on the bed in front of me, and tried to see him as a twenty-year old, up to his hips in muddy snow, half-deaf from the incessant barrage, nearly out of ammo, and watching his best friends die around him. I couldn't.
It was a situation where words were truly inadequate. But the understanding was there, and it was enough.
We finished the exam, and I told him to come out when he was dressed and ready. At the front desk, I gave him his follow-up instructions and opened the door to the waiting room for him.
He turned, and held out his hand. I looked him in the eyes, grasped his hand and said, very honestly, "It's been a pleasure to meet you, sir."
He shook my hand, and as a small smile passed across his eyes, said, "Likewise."