The Kindness of Strangers
As veterans, we hear the same questions everywhere we go. What was Iraq like? Was it like what they show on TV? How hot was it really? Did you ever kill anybody? It’s almost guaranteed that someone will ask me one of these questions every time I go out. It never fails. Last night I heard a new one though that made me stop and think. Last night someone asked me what stood out. What memories from Iraq stood out in my mind? That got me thinking.
There were quite a few memories that stuck out. Many of these experiences will be with me for the rest of my life and unfortunately I can remember them all with horrible perfection. The sights, sounds, the smells, they will haunt me forever, and that was just what I could remember from the chow hall.
I realized that most of the memories that stood out were of fire fights. Every time a bullet wizzed by me, every mortar that almost hit me, every IED that should have gone off, every time I was truly scared. Adrenaline fueled moments heighten your senses so your memories of these moments can be very vivid. So I remember very clearly every time I ever had to fire my weapon, but that was actually a very small part of what we did. It’s the foggy parts that I should be remembering. It’s the foggy parts that were actually important.
Those foggy parts include every letter that anybody ever wrote to me, every package that I received, every phone call home. While they all kind of blur together now there were a few that stick out.
People like to write to soldiers. I never got so much mail in my life. Every week I would get letters from people who I had never known, people I didn’t even know existed, complete strangers. There are a few that I remember clearly. The lady from Iowa who sent a package of meat from her local butcher shop (that’s another smell I won’t forget), the grad student in Georgia who always kept me up-to-date on what her belly dancing troop had been up to, the Vietnam veteran from Arizona. These people would write to me every week. For many months I never replied to any of them. I felt bad for that, so I sat down one day and wrote to them. I thanked them for writing for so long even though I never wrote back. I told them I read every one of the letters and appreciated them taking the time to write to a soldier. None of them ever wrote me again. I realized that even though the letters were addressed to me, they were really for them.
It wasn’t just letters; people would add me on whatever social media site I was using at the time. They would introduce themselves, make a comment on a couple pictures, and then disappear. I never took it personally, they had their own lives, but I started to ignore them more and more, until somebody sent me a quilt.
A college student from Greeley Colorado contacted me on facebook. She made polite conversation and I replied with practiced, generic responses. I knew that after a couple weeks the polite conversation would end and I would never hear from her again so I never put much effort into it. I don’t even think I took the time to learn her name. Then she sent me a quilt.
I grew up on a farm. I’ve watched my grandmother spend many evenings making quilts for all the grandkids. I knew how much work it took to make something as simple as a quilt. It’s a lot. I still have that quilt my grandmother made as a child; it meant a lot to me. So the fact that a complete stranger would take that much time, put that much effort into something that she would never see again for somebody she had never met, meant a lot to me too.
That single act of kindness made me stop and think. This wasn’t an empty letter or a care package full of toilet paper (though the toilet paper was greatly appreciated). This was something truly special. This was something made with care.
It wasn’t the quilt itself that meant so much; it was the thought. I had never seen a truly selfless act of kindness. I thought I had. I thought that the letters and the care packages were kindness. They were, but not the same kind. A quick letter, a package of used books, they were kindness too but this was something wholly different. This stuck out.
That quilt never made it home. Sadly, it was lost in the mail but it wasn’t the quilt that was important. It was the memory. There are many memories that stick out from Iraq but this may have been the most important. This one doesn’t stick out because my life was in danger. This one doesn’t stick out because I was afraid. This one sticks out for the right reasons.
While I haven’t spoken to the girl made that quilt for a couple years now, I think about it from time to time. It’s funny that something as simple as a quilt could change my outlook on life. I never went to Iraq expecting to learn the meaning of kindness but that’s exactly what happened.
I realize this is supposed to be a blog about student veterans and I realize this story doesn’t have much to do with CMC. Well too bad. Today I want people to be a little bit nicer to each other so you’ll just have to deal with stories about quilts.
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Aesop