The voice grew louder and angrier. Heads swiveled to see what the commotion was about, and then just as quickly looked away. The enraged shouting man was a veteran, and it was hard to know how to feel about his outburst.
Last Friday was Veteran’s Day combined with the rare 11/11/11. My husband and I decided to stop at the campus Applebee’s for dinner before the Gopher Basketball game. We love our “date nights.” The hostess had informed us that veterans were being offered a free meal as a thank you for their service. My husband, an Air Force veteran, told her he appreciated the offer but would pay his own way.
It was a short while later that the gentleman began his verbal eruption. His issue was that the waiter had neglected to include any butter or sour cream with his baked potato. He shouted at the waiter that it was Applebee’s way of screwing over the veterans. “I sure don’t want to break Applebee’s bottom line by expecting butter with my free meal,” he said with rancor. He went on and on about it while the waiter tried to placate him, apologize, and get him butter. Three different times the man railed loudly about the lack of butter or sour cream when his food arrived, about “Applebee’s plot,” and about the waiter’s incompetence. It wasn’t long before customers in the vicinity began to switch tables.
The following day I mentioned the incident to my son who had served in the Navy for six years. His first response was, “That isn’t cool. Applebee’s doesn’t have to pay tribute to the veterans, and I think it is very generous of them to offer a free meal.” But then we started to wonder if this man had some other things going on in his life—like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It would explain the paranoia about Applebee’s “plot.” Maybe he returned from his military assignment and discovered there are no jobs, or that his family situation had changed negatively. While I have no way of knowing the root of the issue, I was surprised at my response…confusion. Part of me wanted to slide in next to him and offer to listen. Part of me wanted to put my hand on his arm and say he mattered. Part of me wanted to wither from the heat of his pain.
Many of the men in my life have chosen to serve our country. They weren’t forced to do it; they wanted to give back in this manner. My son did two Navel tours around Iraq, and returned without physical or mental harm. He knows he was lucky. As his worried Mother I, too, was lucky. I have nothing but admiration for those willing to put their lives on the line to ensure the rest of us enjoy our freedoms. Witnessing the man’s rage in Applebee’s made me sad. What a vivid reminder of the high cost of wars.
Later, at the basketball game, a tribute was given to the veterans as well. A young man heading back into the military fray sang the National Anthem as I choked back tears. He was someone’s grandchild, son, brother, boyfriend, friend. He might come home damaged and carrying his anger to places like Applebee’s too. A free meal is a small gesture, but sincerely given. I think many of us struggle to say thanks to our veterans in a meaningful way, but I hope that somehow, someway, it gets heard.
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