He was crying, and trying to hide it. His uniform said he'd been in the U.S. Army Rangers. What was left of him said he'd been in one hell of a fight. One side of him was gone: arm & shoulder, leg & hip, his rib cage seemed pushed in on that side, and the same side of his skull was flattened with one ear missing.
We were by the front door at one of the VA's four poly-trauma centers, hospitals where the worst wounds are sent---sometimes to stay for a very long time.
"Why are you crying, soldier?" I asked him.
He turned in his wheelchair and waved me away angrily. I caught his one hand in both of mine. People, mostly other vets like us, were going in and out of the hospital. Some stared as they passed us.
In a gentle voice I asked, "Are you in pain, soldier?"
He turned to look up from his wheelchair into my eyes, as though he was studying me. After a long moment he shook his head. I let go his hand.
"Why are you crying?"
"It's just that . . ." he wiped his eyes. "I get so damned lonely."
"Don't you have any family?"
"Sure I do. I have a little girl. She's three months old. I haven't met her yet. And my wife. She writes to me all the time. She calls me sometimes, too."
"Doesn't she ever come visit, and bring the baby?"
"Can't. They live too far away. Can't afford it."
A hospital guard started walking toward us, a stern look on his face. I'd noticed him out of the corner of my eye and I figured he was suspicious that one of us, either me or the soldier in the wheel chair, was panhandling or something.
"You need something?" the guard asked me, glowering.
"No, thanks," I said and went on inside to keep my outpatient appointment.
About two hours later I came back out the front door into the parking lot. The Ranger in the uniform was gone, of course. Nowere in sight, but very much in my thoughts. All the way home I kept running the problem in my mind. Why is this war hero left in loneliness like this? Why isn't someone helping him? There must be hundreds---maybe thousands-of badly wounded young men and women like him in VA hospitals.
Next morning, early, I phoned the VA in Washington. I told the lady about meeting the Ranger.
"Isn't there some special fund to help these soldiers get a bedside visit from their family?" I asked.
The lady's voice was sad. "No. I'm so sorry. The VA is always strapped for money. We barely have enough for the medical needs of veterans like the Ranger you met. I am sorry."
I was sorry too. And damned angry. I talked it over with my wife, Linda. We'd just won an award for a novel we'd co-authored and self-published, and sales were starting to get strong.
I said to Linda, "Hon, I know we can't do much, but, damn it, we gotta do something."
She said, "Here's an idea. Let's donate part of the income we get from selling our book. And for every book we sell, let's give one for free to a veteran in hospital." She wrinkled her brow and started chewing the inside of her left cheek-always a dangerous sign because it means she's thinking. "And, then, you know what? We can get some other authors to join us. Do the same thing with their books. Together I bet we could donate a million dollars a year to help vets get bedside visits!
She's a genius, this Linda. Her dreams get out beyond the moon sometimes, but they're good dreams. Worth pursuing. So I got back on the phone to the VA. They agreed to accept our gift and give the money to poor families so they could afford the cost of travel to make a visit to their own wounded war hero in a hospital too far from the family home---like with my guy in the Rangers' uniform.
That was some months ago. Since then, we've given our new program a name: Books for Boots, got a website: http://www.booksforboots.org (Notice it's ORG), and at that Internet site we are now signing up other self-published authors (and any authors & publishers, really) who want to help. There's no fee, nothing to buy, and no long-term obligation.
And, I heard on the grapevine, that veteran I met outside the hospital? He got a visit from his wife and baby last month. On his birthday. All right!