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Open Mic

A Tribute

By Karen Pierce Gonzalez

MONTHS AND MILES away from Veterans Day, I salute the dying efforts of my friend Michael, 54, a Vietnam medic who did not choose to serve his country.

Agent Orange has claimed the parts of his body not yet ravaged by a recent stroke. Penniless in Arizona, away from the California lifestyle of high-tech pacing that helps give birth to road rage capable of triggering anyone's post-traumatic stress, he's eking out the rest of life in a one-room cabin surrounded each winter by two feet of snow.

Next month the Veterans Hospital plans to cut out part of his jaw in an effort to "control" the spread of war's poison in his bones. He's hoping it's only the left side of his rugged face, corralling the combined disease and stroke damage to just that one side. This leaves his right leg, arm, and hand free to steer his walker and to cook discounted day-old beef into stew (the meat's cost per pound almost fits his dwindling budget).

Unable to work, he still waits for state disability. The process takes three months once it's been determined he's disabled. To date, the determination, now in its third month, has not been finalized.

Waiting for approval he hopes won't come too late, Michael sifts through his belongings, sending me the "more precious" things. Among them is an aerial view of a lotus-seated Buddha in Da Nang. He came to know and love this deity almost as much as life itself. The peaceful white symbol of "infinite love," combined with small needles filled with heroin, made it easier for him to forget the Asian wife and child he lost in a village attack.

Today he calls me just to hear the voice of a friend; someone who's seen him crawl away from heroin and alcohol, but not away from the long-term wounds of war.

"The clock is ticking," he says calmly.

I start checking airfares. I want to be there in time--to wrap him in a new, soft, warm bathrobe that comforts his tired, polluted body, and to read his favorite poems aloud, the Psalms of King David, a musician of the soul, much like my friend Michael. He fights the good fight now on new ground. Not one to surrender to victories of war, he will go bravely into the night, a veteran of honor any day of the year.

Karen Pierce Gonzalez, a Rohnert Park-based writer, is the founder of Preserving the Sacred, which does public relations work for sacred and cultural events.

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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