Snow in New Mexico is unexpected. When a storm hits, it’s usually late at night on the high desert, and when you wake in the morning, it is to a perfect, even landscape of crystal white.
There are many places in the world where such an event goes unremarked and unnoticed. The windshield scraper and wide, flat shovel are constant daily reminders that you’d rather be living somewhere warm, like New Mexico, for example.
It isn’t warm here today.
But the unending white transformation of our brown horizon as I look out the window, reminds me of so many other things. A kaleidoscope of images roll through my mind as I touch a finger to the cold window glass. Around that touch, the window fogs briefly. Maybe I sigh.
My great friend, Jimmy, who much later became a bounty hunter in New York and worked as a consultant to police forces – a big, wall of a man… but here he’s just a child, bundled in New England winter gear, dragging a battered sled beside me as we make our way across a long field on his family’s farm at the end of Anthony Street. Neither of us knew where life would take us back then. But I can still feel the bite of the cold as it pressed into my clothes after many dozens of high-speed runs down that perfect hill. The thrill as you purposefully threw the sled over at the end and tumbled into the cold…
…Tumbling out the back of a slow moving truck in the dead winter on Britain’s Salisbury Plain. Somewhere out across the field was a Ground-Launched Nuclear Cruise Missile emplacement – two all-terrain tractor-trailer rigs connected by fiber-optic cable, surrounded by rings of well-trained security forces. On this night I was with a small team of Royal Air Force Regiment troops and we were playing the part of “aggressors.” Our five-man crew was detailed to find the deployed missile rig and destroy it. We were dressed in Soviet uniforms and gear for this exercise, acting like the real-world Spetsnaz, who were out there waiting to make the real attacks if we ever had the world-ending call to launch those nukes. It was cold enough to make you want to stay moving, numb and raw, but somehow the mud beneath us still soaked through everything as we low-crawled across that field…
…A field, flat like a spread of ground I walked one evening in Moscow, while Soviet power was still total. The snow crunched beneath cold boots. I was still without a hat, and the traverse was leaving me more than chilled. The KGB operatives trailing me seemed warm and comfortable as I would see them slip in and out of my peripheral vision…
…my peripheral vision almost as good as the starlight scope as I tucked myself up against a fence line and surveyed my observation area. As an Listening Post / Observation Post (LPOP), I was alone out there – able to call in a fire team if I spotted enemy movement, but that was impossible when they were standing right next to you. They had approached from a vehicle I couldn’t identify and now worked their way along the fence line to where I was. I had up-ended a trashcan and left it on it’s side, covering myself with the contents and staying there through the long night.
“What’s this junk?” said the one behind me, poking me in the back with the muzzle of his rifle.
“I don’t know,” said the other, his boots just inches from me. “But someone should come out here and clean this up.” They walked on, eventually far enough away that I could call command. The fire team soon rolled up and I saw it all …
… I saw my son’s face as I left him in 1992. A snow had fallen in Alamogordo and I had been attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. First stop Camp Pendleton, then onward to the Horn of Africa. I remember trudging through that snow fall to retrieve my mobility gear from a disinterested supply troop in a remote building, then driving in a blue Ford Taurus to the deployment area. Later, on a C-141, I thought back on that last glimpse of Nico and wondered if fate would return me, or not. Outside the scream of the aircraft engines I imagined I could hear the frigid blast of air as it roared past…
…A blast of cold air as opened the car door, climbed out and swung it shut. Climbing the hill toward the VA for one of the hundreds of trips I’ve made in and out of that hospital. I noted this time, that a huge bronze statue had been erected in front of the six-story structure. They had chosen to rename the facility in 2008 in recognition of one of the State’s most decorated war heroes. Raymond G. “Jerry” Murphy was a Korean War hero – a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He acted against orders to rescue his wounded fellow Marines who were caught by enemy fire on Ungok Hill. He refused treatment until all were accounted for.
But Murphy wasn’t buried in his dress uniform when he died in 2007. He chose to be interred in his VA volunteer smock. He was director of VA Services in Albuquerque Regional VA for 23 years, and when he retired from that job, he donned the volunteer smock from 1997 until he died a decade later.
I probably met Jerry a number of times. I may have passed him in one of those hallways – I may have asked him for directions to one office or another. He was still working there when VA doctors and staff saved my life. I may have seen him many times. But I don’t remember.
And that, for me, is one of the coldest memories of all.
How many seasons – how many snowfalls go by when we don’t remember the things being asked of our sons and daughters in some distant land. It’s not necessary for you to understand or agree with the reasons they are there. But the fact that they are there, has meaning and purpose, and it will forever change them and maybe everyone they know or have ever known. They deserve our thanks and a handshake or hug when we do see them in our day-to-day life. Stop what you’re doing and go up and ask them where they served. It will change their day, and strengthen their belief that there really are people out there who care what they’ve sacrificed for the colors, for their loved ones and for the people in their unit they served with. That simple “thank you” makes such a difference.
Or you can go to your local VA and have a look around. Talk to some of the people there. Maybe you can do something to help. Maybe you’ll see some folks like Jerry. And maybe you’ll take a moment, recognize them, and say thank you.
Outside the seasons will still keep passing us all by – and more and more of those fine men and women will rest beneath the snow with each passing year. They won’t all get a bronze statue, like Jerry – a monument still too small to represent the man himself. But remember, whether you believe in the war they are fighting or not, they all walked through fire for you, and still are.
Find them and thank them while you have that opportunity.