My father, Grover Journey, has always been reticent about his military service. He served stateside in the U.S. Army during the Korean era. His older brother, Richard, was killed in combat in Korea and his younger brothers, Paul and Huey, served in the Army around the same time as Dad, shortly after Richard’s death. Dad was serving when I was born in Fort Benning and he was in the reserves for several years until his honorable discharge.
But Dad never seemed to want to talk about his active years in the Army. I always wondered if it had something to do with the fact that Richard was deployed to Korea and Dad’s service was all domestic. Richard died before Dad married Mother a few years before I was born but his loss seemed to silently hover over Dad and his family. My paternal grandfather – Dad’s father, Tod – was an angry and bitter man and I often wondered if that was triggered by the loss of his oldest son in combat. Dad never seemed to want to discuss it; Richard still smiles in the small photo on his tombstone at Elmwood Cemetery.
In recent years, however, it seemed that Dad was a little more willing to acknowledge his Army service. When I accompanied my parents to their church for a patriotic service honoring the military, Dad stood proudly when the time came for Army veterans to be recognized. He stood again and, in a faltering voice, spoke Richard’s name when the time came to honor those who had died in battle in various American wars.
Dad’s recent long-term illness and hospitalization (107 days and counting) has created a need in my family to reach out for various sources of help and support to navigate the nightmare that is American healthcare. We have found support and encouragement from a number of sources but our need became more urgent recently when the Birmingham facility where Dad is currently being treated called in another facility five and a half hours from Birmingham to evaluate Dad. Mother was informed at short notice that if the decision was made to release Dad to the other facility and she refuses the move his Medicare coverage could be terminated. Mother’s health is declining and she has not been able to travel long distances without complications for years so moving my father so far has the potential to be devastating to her – to all of us.
Some of the advocates who have supported and advised us have suggested turning to the Veterans Administration for help. When others failed to get V.A.response and action on Dad’s behalf, Mother took on the task and, after a lengthy meeting with a V.A. representative in Tuscaloosa, Dad was enrolled in the system for the veteran’s benefits he earned; Mother was given an appointment with a V.A. social worker at the Birmingham Veterans Administration Medical Center
Mother and I went to the Birmingham meeting on Wednesday, February 3, and met a bemused and kind social worker who wasn’t sure what support V.A. could provide but took copious notes and assured us she would see what might be done to assist my Dad. Her concern and sincerity were obvious; “She’s a nice lady,” Mother said as we walked down the hall after the appointment.
The Birmingham V.A. hospital is a large facility teeming with activity. Veterans of all ages and conditions are in the halls and offices and waiting rooms. The wait for elevators was ridiculously long and as Mother and I waited for an elevator to ground level we heard a harmonica down the hall playing “Anchors Aweigh.” Eventually, the source of the music, a veteran wearing a patriotic tee-shirt and Army cap, appeared around a corner of the elevator lobby, accompanying a Navy veteran in a wheelchair. They stopped to wait with us for an elevator and the man with the harmonica looked in our direction. “What branch did you serve in?” he asked.
“Her husband, my father, was in the Army,” I said.
“So was I,” he grinned and proceeded to serenade Mother with a rollicking version of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.”
When he finished and Mother thanked him, he looked at an amputee in a wheelchair across the way, said “Hey, Jarhead!” and launched into “From the Halls of Montezuma.” “I hope that was okay,” he said. The Marine thanked him, saying “That sounded perfect to me.”
In fact, the harmonica player proceeded to play the song of every branch of the military before it was over (that’s how long it was taking for an elevator to arrive). Finally, after no elevator came, he looked at Mother and said, “Are you looking for an elevator that’s going down? Follow me.” He led a procession of several of us – walking, with canes, in wheelchairs – to another bank of elevators, chatting amiably the whole way.
At some point Mother mentioned that she is 81 and there was a chorus of disbelief from all of the veterans surrounding her. One called a buddy over and told him that “this lady is 81.” “No way are you 81,” said the buddy.
Mother has been quite sick recently and is exhausted by her regular vigils by my father’s hospital bed. Still, I thought I detected a slight hint of a spring in her step as she made her way out of the V.A., surrounded by admiring and complimentary vets.
I realized too that I had discovered a tight and supportive community that my father is a part of and that I never really experienced until yesterday, at a conference, trying to attend to Dad’s pressing health needs.
It gave me renewed hope and energy. It gave me a new perspective on those who serve.
(The photos at the beginning of the essay are, Left, my uncle, Richard Journey, and Right, my father, Grover Journey. They are teenagers and the photos were taken at their Grandmother and Grandfather Bodie’s farm in Mississippi.)