At most hospitals, the patients are mixed male and female, although it seems like there are usually a few more women than men. At the VA hospital, there are very few female patients. Little old guys shrunk to the size of middle-schoolers who once stormed Normandy and Sicily and Okinawa or sweated in the diesel stench of a submarine diving below a depth-charge or deafened themselves pounding one-ton shells into enemy ships. Guys a little older than my dad who froze while storming Inchon or huddled together wondering what might happen to them if a hundred million Chinese soldiers really did cross the Yalu River. Guys with gray ponytails and recently-acquired bifocals who woke up one morning ducking VC bullets and went to bed a day later wiping protester spittle from their country's uniform. Guys my age and younger who are probably thinking all kinds of things that the rest of us may not know for some time, if ever. There are plenty of lively, engaged guys who are just sick or hurt for now, but there are plenty who have that thousand-yard stare as well.
Signs warn the visitor that he or she is entering federal property and is subject to search while there. Groups of patients who are waiting on treatment or for their rides home seem to be readier to talk to each other than at some hospitals. Perhaps they've shared enough similar things in the past that they don't feel so much like strangers now. And since many sport unit patches or hats or T-shirts identifying their branch and area of service, striking up a conversation may be a lot simpler than it is when it's with someone about whom you know nothing.
Although there have been scandals in the recent past about substandard facilities and care at different VA hospitals around the country, the Oklahoma City facility seems clean and well-lit. No dingy corridors or flickering lights, but bright paint, modern equipment and properly-sized televisions in each room.
Asking for directions is different. Ordinarily, hospital information desks are staffed by volunteers, who have in my experience tended to be ladies in their sixties and seventies who are healthy and able and would rather do something than sit and listen to Oprah. They are almost always cheerful and pleasant and though they are sometimes challenged by accessing information on the computer, they have little or no trouble locating a printout that shows them what they need to know, even if not at quite the same speed as the electronic version. They will write down the room number on a card in well-formed if sometimes a little shaky and large-sized numbers, smile, and courteously point out the direction to the elevators.
The information desk at the VA hospital is also staffed by volunteers. The day I visited, those volunteers were two members of the Disabled American Veterans. I introduced myself as a pastor and asked for the man I was intending to visit. The printout was consulted and his name and location were found. Directions could now be given:
"YOU WILL GO 200 FEET DOWN THIS CORRIDOR AND TURN LEFT TO THE ELEVATORS. YOU WILL TAKE THE ELEVATOR TO THE SEVENTH FLOOR, AND AFTER EXITING THE ELEVATOR YOU WILL TURN RIGHT. YOUR CHURCH MEMBER IS IN THE TWO EAST TOWER, THAT IS TWO EAST. YOUR CHURCH MEMBER'S ROOM WILL BE HALFWAY DOWN THE CORRIDOR ON YOUR RIGHT."
Possibly, the gentleman helping me simply wanted to make sure that anyone I might encounter along the way also knew where I was going, in case I got lost. I'm not sure, although I will say that even in spite of my lack of military service, I felt a strong urge to salute the man and then drop and give him 20. An order which I suspect he had given on at least one occasion. I contented myself with shaking his hand, thanking him (for his directions and his service, although I mentioned only the former out loud) and very self-consciously not doing an about-face turn when I went back towards the elevators.
It's a different world in the military, to be sure. But, as I noticed when I walked back to the parking lot past a row of some 20 American flags on tall poles, it's still very much my country, and maybe largely because of some of the men in the building I'd just left.
Thanks again, guys.