As I walked down the narrow street, I was stopped by a man who sat on the ground counting pennies. He asked me if I had any change to spare. Regretfully, I did not. He had a long, scraggly beard and long, greasy black hair. Next to him sat his friend, Charleen. He introduced himself as Larry King, better known as "Shorty," and of no relation to the talk show host. "I was in the Vietnam War." He said sadly. "When I came home, I was called a baby killer and lost everything." Gladly, I shook his hand, it being a great honor for me to talk to Veterans about their past experiences. He may have been unkempt, long past needing a bath, that didn't matter to me. What mattered was his predicament, the same many other veterans are in today. They are homeless.
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My mother is homeless and I had received the opportunity to experience life on the streets for two days. I took the opportunity and found myself waking at 5:30 in the morning to begin her everyday routine. In Sacramento alone, there are 2,678 homeless persons and of those, 518 are Veterans. They do not ask for much. Perhaps some change, a comforting word, or simply to be acknowledged as human beings rather than the trash society has left on its doorstep to rot.
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Now, as I stand in my high school classroom, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I take a long and hard look at the flag. Tears come to my eyes as I think of Charleen; her left arm severed some time back, now in the hospital because she could not take care of herself anymore. I think of Shorty and his wife, Annie, permanently in the hospital, all of his money from his GI bills going to pay for her stay.
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Most days I forget how lucky I am to have great friends, clean clothes that I never wear, and plenty of food. I have people who love me and I am recognized by society as a young consumer, about to enter the world of commerce. I used to be scared to walk downtown for fear that the homeless would attack me due to dementia or some other mental illness that may have developed due to their stay on the streets. But I will not be afraid any more. I will not fear them because I know they are just like you and me. When I think of our veterans and my role in honoring them, I think of Shorty and the sacrifice that he made at Vietnam so long ago, and I pray that those brave men and women, who now remain homeless, may one day be recognized by society so that their plight may be helped. I know I will never be the same and I know that each time I drive past downtown, Sacramento, I will look for him and pray that he will make it through another night.
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from Rachel E. Wilson