The man on the ground was supposed to be unconscious. But we knew he'd be drunk. He was sprawled across the concrete plaza near the Park Street MBTA station, where every patient we treat seems to be homeless and intoxicated.
I tapped him on his shoulder. He opened his eyes. "Don't fuck with me," he growled.
"Whoa," my partner said calmly. "Let's not start that."
"C'mon," I said to the man. "We're going to help you sit up."
The man seemed to sense that we hadn't come to give him a hard time. With our assistance, he sat up on the sidewalk. "Let's move to that bench over there," I said.
Unsteadily, and with one of us on each side, he took a seat on a nearby park bench. By this time a pair of EMTs--one male and one female--had arrived. "You in the military?" the man asked the male EMT. Even now, I have no idea what made him pose this question.
The EMT held out his arm, exposing a long tattoo based on the Army Airborne insignia. "I think this says it all," he told the man.
He turned to me. "How about you? Did you do any military service?"
"I'm a JAG guy," I said.
"And you?" he asked, looking at my partner.
"Aviation medic," he said. "National Guard."
The male EMT sat beside him on the bench. I sat on his other side. It was a glorious spring afternoon, and the tourists swarmed around us in full force. It struck me as odd that just a few minutes earlier he'd been a passed-out drunk awakened by us on a sidewalk. Now, because of a common connection, we were sitting in the sun, chatting like old friends.
"So, how about you?" I asked. "You must have been in the military. Otherwise, you wouldn't have asked all those questions."
"I was in Vietnam," he said. "Nineteen seventeen-one to nineteen-seventy-three. A grunt."
He talked a bit longer. We were genuinely interested in his experiences, but there came a time when we had to move on to the next call.
"You want something to eat?" one of the EMTs asked.
"Sure," he said.
"We'll, come with me. We'll take you to the hospital. They'll keep an eye on you, and you can have a sandwich or something."
As we escorted him to the ambulance, I found myself wondering why, with so many resources available to veterans, this guy wound up living on the streets. The government gives veterans all sorts of loans, and educational benefits, and housing assistance, and health care. There's a shelter, exclusively for veterans, right up the street. Yet this guy wound up homeless, drunk, and asleep on the sidewalk.
The answer, of course, is that veterans' assistance, extensive as it may be, does not come close to meeting the needs of every veteran. Some have too many psychological problems to blend in with society. Others have such terrible substance abuse problems that they can't hold a job or even seek out the necessary services. And this is a shame, because of all the people who need public assistance in this country, veterans deserve it the most. They stood up when the nation needed them, and now that they need help, they should get it, whatever the cost.
We helped the man into the ambulance. "Thanks a lot," he said.
"You're welcome," I told him. "And happy Memorial Day."