Palm Sunday Reflections

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I need to get to Reagan National in the afternoon for a flight back to San Diego. I have been on the road for 11 days, three in the nation’s capital. I have time for one more mission.


    WalterReedMedicalCenter,” I tell the cab driver.


    A soldier checks my ID at the gate. The cab pulls up at Building #2, a gray monolith that I gather is the main hospital building. It’s as quiet and empty as a mausoleum inside. Somewhat spooked, I take a side exit out into the fresh air and start strolling.


    I am in a campus-like setting - a very large one at that - with brick buildings and a few stone ones situated along a rolling green landscape. The cherry blossoms are in explosive bloom and the birds are warbling in splendid song. But this particular campus on a Palm Sunday morning is virtually devoid of humanity. It’s almost as if I am in a scene from “On the Beach.”

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    I spot a small church and take a pew in the back. I find myself waving a palm frond with the rest of the congregation as the pastor talks about Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.

    The people were expecting a Messiah to bring back the good old days, he tells the rather sparse gathering. They would be disappointed, he continues. Then he says something that surprises me. We place too much faith in worldly figures, he reminds us, including Presidents.


    Outside I spot a woman in civilian garb walking purposefully. Her name is Jennifer and she’s paying a family visit to the “hidden vets.” She leads me to a small brick building where several Iraqi vets are gathered outside in the fresh air.


    I’m not a journalist, anymore, just a member of the public. “Sir, it’s an honor to shake your hand,” I say to a kid with no legs. I shake a few more hands, take my leave, and start walking. I stop in a grove of trees. My face is quivering uncontrollably. Tears are streaming down my cheeks.


    I find my way back to the main building. This time, I get on the elevator. The second floor is the main floor. I go up one flight to floor three. The cafeteria is the main attraction here. I spot a vet with one leg, in a wheel chair, leading his family to the snack bar.


    The fourth floor is for surgery.


    I poke my head out at the fifth floor. The directory lists the psych unit. Fifth floor, Building #2, Ward 54. The door is locked. A sign instructs me to press a button. A very polite man in army fatigues greets me. I produce a business card and explain my purpose.


    My business card announces me as the author of “Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder.” I tell the soldier I wish to visit a few patients just to shake their hands. No interview, no conversation, just a gesture of appreciation.


    By the reception area, I spot several young men shuffling past in bathrobes and slippers, a thousand-mile stare in their eyes.


    But I will not be allowed to shake their hands, the soldier tells me. On one hand, it’s a shame members of the public cannot cheer them up. On the other hand … I fully understand.

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    I thank the soldier and head for the elevator. It’s time to go.


    A very recent study has found that vets are returning from Iraq with the same rate of PTSD – about 15 percent - as Vietnam vets, plus high rates of depression and other mental illnesses. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the VA estimates that there are 200,000 homeless vets on any given night. Twice that many experience homelessness over the year. About half of this population served in Vietnam.


    Unless we have effective intervention now, with full social support, many Iraqi vets will soon join them. It is often difficult to pick up PTSD or depression or other mental ills, especially in a warrior culture that does not encourage revealing one’s vulnerabilities. When one’s brain starts to fail, it’s all too easy to blame oneself and seek solace in the bottle or recreational drugs. Then one is lost to the streets, often forever.


    We’ve seen it with the Vietnam vets in the tens and hundreds of thousands. And now a new group of vets.


    It’s Palm Sunday, time for quiet reflection on Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem. As Our Lord rode into town, did he have the slightest indication of what was in store? About what was to come down? I suspect he did.


    Time for quiet reflection on our heroes. Are they aware of what lies ahead for many of them? About the odium and contempt society will hold them in when it happens? These poor souls don’t have a clue.


    Jesus wept.

Published On: April 03, 2007