I have been thinking about him all month, and the thoughts get
heavier, as Memorial Day draws closer.
I don't remember his name, but I remember his face -- pale, thin --
and a body, splotched with a cancer that old men get. But he was just
nineteen. He was a good looking boy, who should have had a bright future
before him. But he was dying. He had AIDS.
I was a Department of Defense "sand crab." One of those faceless,
civilian people, who work for Uncle Sam at military bases. It was my job
to discharge sailors whose discharges were "other than honorable." I
thought about "honor" a lot, that day, as I interviewed that young boy and
typed his paperwork. He kept looking at my daughter's picture. She was
about his age.
"She's so pretty," he said, wistfully.
I felt uncomfortable. I moved her picture, and I proceeded to do the
job I hated. I placed the paperwork on my desk and gave him a pen to sign
his name, asking all the meaningless questions I'd asked before, explaining
his "rights". He nodded, sadly.
In my heart, there was a rage going on. This boy was being sent home,
with an Other Than Honorable Discharge, and it wasn't fair! It was an
abomination, and all of us who worked with him knew it! Worst of all,
there wasn't a thing we could do about it!
He had been in surgery at a Navy Hospital, and he had needed a blood
transfusion. He was given infected blood -- blood that gave him AIDS.
When he found out, he went berserk! In a panic, he also went UA, otherwise
known as "Unauthorized Absence." The Navy proceeded to catch him, charge
him, prosecute him, and discharge him -- through me.
So, there I sat with a young boy who was dying, because he was
infected in a Navy Hospital with a disease that, at the time, NO ONE had
survived! He didn't yell at me, or call me names, or threaten to have his
mother sue the Navy. He just sat there, sweet and hopeless. And I was
helpless to do anything, except process him out of the Navy.
Yes, he had committed a crime. Desertion is a crime, according to the
Uniform Code of Military Justice. He should have been a man! He should
have stood his ground! He should have stayed the course! I knew all the
arguments. Instead he ran, and ran, and ran, and ran, trying to escape the
disease he had caught in a Navy Hospital.
I completed his paperwork, my heart crying out to God, for some clue
that could help his mother get some recompense for the healthy, hopeful
child she had entrusted to the Navy -- and for the shadow of a child who
was going home. The records were silent. Anything that could hold the
Navy responsible was no longer in existence. Everything in front of me
condemned him, on new, crisp, white papers.
As he continued to sign his name and date every paper, somehow my
fingers got in the way. One of those new, crisp, white papers sliced the
tip of my finger and, being a bleeder, I bled all over my desk, and him.
Then he did something extraordinary.
He grabbed some tissues and he began to blot the blood from my hand --
our hands touching, for the first time -- my hand pouring blood onto his
diseased hands. Suddenly, we both realized that our hands had touched.
That my blood had washed over his lesions, and his lesions had come in
contact with the cut on my hand.
Our eyes met for an eternity. Then he jerked his hand away. We never
spoke of it. We left the papers as they were, blood spattered, along with
his single, bloody fingerprint. Then I sent him home, knowing that he'd
never see another birthday.
As we approach Memorial Day -- a day when we remember veterans of the
past -- I think of a mother placing flowers upon the grave of a boy, who
had died in a losing battle, for his country.