BY VICKI RACKNER MD
Standing in line at Starbucks, I tapped the shoulder of a grey-haired man in front of me and said, “Excuse me; it’s almost Memorial Day. I’m wondering: where did you serve?”
He looked a little surprised. He sized me up and read my genuine curiosity. Then he grew taller as he answered, “I was a paratrooper. My infantry unit was in Cuba in 1962.”
Then he treated me to his personal account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His description was qualitatively different than the history book story.
He reflected, “I had nothing against Castro, and I wondered why we were sent to Cuba. Today I know with absolute certainly that the Soviet ships turned back because they knew that American paratroopers were there.”
I thanked this stranger for sharing his story. I expressed gratitude for his willingness to put his life on the line to change the course of American history.
I offered to buy him coffee, and he accepted. After the barista handed him his drink, this 80-year-old man reached over to give me a kiss on the cheek. He said, “Thank you. No one has ever asked me about my military service.”
This Memorial Day, how about asking someone who lived through war to share his or her story?
I remember the first time I suggested this exercise. My editor introduced me to Marianne, the photographer who shot the author photo for the cover of my last book.
I had been dragging my feet about the dreaded photo shoot, and immediately trusted Marianne. Despite the urgency, there would be a delay. Marianne had to travel several hundred miles to persuade her 87-year-old father to move into assisted living. In her opinion it was no longer safe for him to live at home alone.
She told me she knew it would be a struggle. Her father did not like to be told what to do. He never really listened to his wife and children in the past, and now he even resisted wearing his hearing aids.
I suggested that if Marianne wanted her father to listen to her, she might start by listening to him. She told me her father took great pride in his service during WWII. I suggested that she bring a video camera and ask her father to tell her war stories.
When Marianne came over for the photo shoot, she was bursting with excitement. She said, “When I got to my dad’s, I asked him to share his stories, just like you suggested. We agreed to do it Saturday morning. He came into the living room in a button-down shirt—something he never wore. He pulled crumpled notes from his pants pocket. He had thought about exactly what he say! And the stories he told! He described what it was like to be on the beaches of Normandy. He described feeling the thunderous booms. I never even knew he was in Normandy!”
She said, “Then there was the real miracle. Usually when I leave, my dad just yells goodbye from the kitchen. This time Dad walked me out to the car. Right before I got into the car, he gave me an awkward hug. He told me—for the first time my 57 years of my life—that he loved me!”
That is the power of a story.
Many veterans, like my son’s 92-year-old great uncle, take great pride in their military service. Here’s a video in which it's the first thing he talks about..
Honor a veteran this Memorial Day. Ask them to give you the gift of their story.
Invite a military family or an elderly neighbor to your Memorial Day barbecue. Call a relative who served in the military. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee at Starbucks. It’s a great way to recognize and celebrate their role in protecting the freedom we all enjoy.
© 2015. Vicki Rackner MD. All rights reserved.
Vicki Rackner MD is an author, speaker and consultant who offers a bridge between the world of medicine and the world of business. She helps businesses acquire physician clients, and she helps physicians run more successful practices. Contact her at (425) 451-3777.