Dear Hope Nation,
Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor our military dead, those who died while in uniform. Five years ago I delivered a speech at Veterans Park, following the Memorial Day Parade. This is that speech, which, unfortunately, is as timely now as it was then.
Today we remember our military dead, particularly those who died in battle defending our country. Each of those war dead raised his or her hand and swore an oath, a promise to every other citizen: I will die for you. Think about that. I will die for you. Life is what we live for, life is all we have, yet each fallen warrior we remember today offered to die for me and you and you and you. That promise, ladies and gentlemen, whether fulfilled or not, is truly remarkable, for who offers death for the sake of strangers?
You heard that I am a veteran. It is true. I was no great patriot, just a dumb kid from Durham with a duty to serve my country, so I joined the Army for four years. Like all veterans, I raised my hand and offered to die for you. After my enlistment, I did many good things, but also made large and self-destructive mistakes. So large and so self-destructive that eight years ago, I was living on the street, drinking mouthwash for the alcohol. Having reached the jumping off point, I no longer wanted to live. I wanted to be dead. I wasn’t offering to die for you—I wanted to die for myself.
Instead of embracing death, I reached out to the Manchester VA medical center. I was stabilized and introduced to the group that has helped me remain sober ever since. I was a suicidal drunk, and I got the help I needed. Today, I am the luckiest man on the face of the planet. As director of a transitional housing program for veterans, I witness the redemption and return to health of many veterans every year. That is exciting. What is not exciting, though is seeing the dozens and dozens of vets who are not ready when the lightning strikes, the lightning that might return them to sanity and safety.
I am an alcoholic, and identify myself as such, but I am also a heroin addict and always will be. I’ve been clean four times as long as I’ve been sober, but I’m always just a needle away from active addiction.
I’d like to tell you about three men from that veterans program, representing the certain past, the current present and the unknown future. Their stories are our stories, and each of them raised his hand to die for you and for me.
First, Ernie, a 1990s infantryman. Ernie was the first vet I brought into the program three years ago. Newly clean of heroin, Ernie was a good resident and a good man, but the wreckage of his past landed him back in jail. When released, he didn’t come back. Instead, he returned to the arms of heroin. He is dead. He overdosed on heroin in February. His death was not for you or me. His death meant nothing.
Second, Don, an Iraq combat veteran. When I met Don sixteen months ago, he was completing treatment for heroin addiction. He came, became involved with a support group, and began rebuilding his relationships with his children. Today, he is working full-time, self-supporting and completely clean and sober. His life is filled with meaning and I am proud to call him my friend.
The third vet I’ll call Joe. He lived with us for two months, going to support group meetings, working full time and regaining the respect and trust of his family. Unfortunately, Joe stopped going to meetings, violated program rules and is this very second living on the street in Manchester, an active heroin addict. Just Saturday, he stopped by, telling me he was excited about getting clean. Last night, while I was writing this speech, Joe approached a current resident on Elm Street, visibly high. The current resident, clean and sober, became emotional telling me about Joe, and the promise he is throwing away.
You have heard of the heroin epidemic in Manchester, all the overdoses, all the wasted promise, all the death. I see this every day, see the Ernies, the Daves and the Joes. Joe, and he may be in this crowd right now, bumming money or cigarettes off you, faces the juncture every junkie faces. He can choose death—by overdose, by neglect, by violent crime. Or he can choose life, the path of recovery Don and I have chosen. I’m not a praying man, but if you are please pray Joe and all the other Joes and Janes using heroin today, veterans or not, are offered the real choice of recovery, the choice between a life of purpose and a meaningless death.
You, Hope Nation, face that same choice every single day. Please choose a life of purpose.
You matter. I matter. We matter.