I am an avid Olympics watcher – from the opening ceremonies to the closing, I watch everything I can – absent anything else, on Saturday I watched synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. What attracts me to the quadrennial games is not the champions – I love watching them, for sure, but what really inspires me is the 97 or 98% of the athletes who show up knowing that their Olympics will be over in one heat or two at most, for whom medals are not more than a dream, and who come for the pride of representing their country and their love of their sport.
In that they remind me of soldiers, sailors, and marines – I suppose some choose to serve in hopes of heroism or a distinguished military career, but most of those in our armed forces serve for love of country, esprit de corps, or a sense of duty, of giving back. Few will be or want to be heroes or generals. Most want to serve and to survive, not necessarily in that order.
I'm struck by another similarity between athletics and the military, and that's how they are treated after their service is over. Jim Thorpe, the Sauk Indian who was considered one of the most versatile athletes in modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, played college and pro football and professional baseball and basketball. He was stripped of his medals (later restored) on trumped-up charges of professionalism, and died a penniless alcoholic.
Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian who was a decorated Marine and one of the flag-raisers on Iwo Jima. After being feted (much to his discomfort) as a hero, he was left to fend for himself and died, like Thorpe, penniless and alcoholic.
We seem to treat some of our heroes well; others, we cast aside. This is the more tragic when the heroes have gone to war on our behalf.
Today there are veterans of wars as far back as World War II and Korea, but mostly Vietnam Era, and from the Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq conflicts, who are as lost as Thorpe and Hayes. In Reno alone, there are 1200 veterans registered as homeless and many others in in-patient and out-patient treatment at the VA Hospital. Many more are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving the service and needing to make their way in a difficult economy.
I had the privilege a few weeks ago of attending a meeting of the Incline/Crystal Bay veterans' group sponsored by the Senior Program at IVGID. Vets attending covered the entire range of recent history, including one who landed in France on D-Day and fought his way across Europe – stories like that were the rule, not the exception. This group, under the leadership of Jim Peterson and others and facilitated by Sheila Leijon of IVGID, is trying to do what they can for the veterans in Reno, and they need your help. Theresa DiMaggio at SNC has taken on a project of collecting business-type clothing in good shape for returning veterans to use for job interviews and starting work. Peterson and others are collecting clothes and money, particularly for the homeless vets. If you want to help, here's some information:
The VA hospital accepts packaged new clothing - underwear, sweats, socks etc. The VA hospital and the Washoe County Social services give Veterans a voucher to go to the Good Shepherd Clothes Closet in Reno, but there is NO place just for veterans – one is planned for next year, but for now, Good Shepherd is the only place for used clothing, and there is no guarantee that what you give will go to veterans. St. Vincent DePaul Society in Reno serves 600 -700 meals a day to the homeless - about 25% of those served are vets. They have an urgent need for the anything non perishable and they will take anything you have to donate.
We are all used to donating to Project Mana and others around the Fall and Winter holidays, and we should keep doing that. But if you're like me you have business clothes you don't use or need, canned goods you might someday use, maybe, and maybe even some spare cash. Give it in memory of Ira Hayes and in honor of those who go in harm's way so we don't have to.