His eyes were brimming with tears as he related the story. He spoke without hesitation, recalling the memories of war as if it happened that morning, not 60 some years ago. Some things are just so painful they are imprinted on the mind forever.
As he spoke, detailing the horrors of hearing his fellow sailors eaten by sharks, a shiver went down my spine. Others gave up hope, delirious from ingesting salt water as they drifted in a foreign sea far from the comfort of their American homes. Soon their cries would be silenced as they slipped beneath the waves to their final resting places.
For those who were rescued, it was a bittersweet moment. They question why they were spared and their best buddies lost. They carried the same weapons, trained side-by-side, friends for life, so they thought.
It's a lot to bear for someone not old enough to order a beer at the neighborhood pub. Not more than kids when they first put on the uniform, they came home changed men, aged beyond their years.
Jump ahead decades later to the men and now women coming home from wars fought in sandy, white-hot lands halfway around the world. Communism has been replaced by terrorism. The faces of the enemy have changed but their aim is the same. It doesn't matter where, our troops don the gear and take orders to fight the battles deemed necessary to protect our way of life right here at home.
We have parades and ceremonies to honor them but some of us have let them down in the worst way. There has always been an unwritten rule that we, as a country, would care of those who fought for us. It was just a given that our veterans would have the best medical and psychological care this country could provide.
We would be there to open the door for those whose arms couldn't. And men and women with medals on their chests and scars on their bodies should not have to worry about finding a job. They've already proven they can meet any challenge.
The families of veterans should expect a collective hug from us and we should ask how they are doing while their loved ones are away, and when they return.
Yet these past few weeks we have learned the horror that some of our veterans have faced - not in combat, but in VA hospital beds. Some 40 veterans have died for lack of proper and immediate care and that's just the ones we know about. It's appalling. It made my skin crawl when I heard these allegations coming to light.
How can this happen in a country so quick to help foreign lands? Is it simply a case of a government agency once again getting too big that it dehumanizes the job at hand? Whatever is wrong has to be made right without delay. We owe it to the troops and their families for the sacrifices they make.
The worst battle a soldier must fight should not be in a hospital waiting room.
Heather Ziegler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.