One Friday evening out on the town, I watched from a distance as a disheveled homeless man mindlessly bickered at all who walked by and did not leave money for him – almost everyone. On a whim, I decided to approach him.
Right on queue, he asked for money. "Spare change for the homeless?"
“I’ll give you a quarter if you tell me your story,” I countered.
He laughed wryly. “You’ll give me a quarter for my story?”
I lay the quarter in front him and changed my mind, “Nah, I’ll give you a quarter anyway, but it would be nice to hear your story.”
I followed his befuddled eyes to the shiny quarter, and for a brief moment, I saw a glimmer of reflection as he became quiet. So I sat down next to him and waited.
“I was in the army,” he eventually said in a low voice. “Was a sniper... was supposed to shoot the enemy dead from the distance.”
He seemed about 50 years old. He was wearing dirty old rags that smelled like a dead rat left in a mouse trap. I listened intently to his grizzly voice as he dwelled deeper into his story.
He told me how when he was young, he used to hunt with his family and was really good at it. He had his own way of respecting animals by not wasting what he killed for food and not killing more than he needed.
When the army came knocking on his door, he felt pride. The skills he had developed over all those years of hunting for food could now serve him in protecting people from the bad guys. He was excited for the first time to feel a real sense of purpose in his life. He proudly set out to fight in Iraq.
It wasn't long, however, before he realized his ideals of fighting to protect his country were just a shadow of the truth. He was quickly disillusioned with the random killing of what he was convinced were mostly innocent people. He couldn’t find any real justification for it.
“You see, I was a sniper. But I never really killed anyone,” he said.
“But then one day, I had to do it. They were right on me telling me to shoot this lady in the distance. In my gun's scope, I could see clearly what must have been the lady's kids right by her. My hands were trembling on the trigger as they kept barking orders at me to kill her. Man, the tears started comin'. I couldn’t do it. She wasn't doing anything to anyone, and she was with the kids. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't see through my tears. It all just didn’t make any sense to me.”
Eventually this man was court martialed and put in jail for 180 days for refusing to follow orders and kill that lady. Not only that, he told me how he was dishonorably discharged and then black listed by the military, so that he couldn’t even get a regular job. All the rights we take for granted were stripped from him.
Why? How could this be? The irony of it swirled through my head. Here was a man who was being punished – and for what? For refusing to kill a lady? For being a hero?
“I have no regrets,” the homeless man reflected. “I may be homeless now, but I never killed that lady. I never killed no one in the army. It didn’t smell right. I didn’t go there to kill innocents.”
After a moment gazing off into the distance, he added, “I can live with being homeless – that’s okay. But I wouldn’t be able to live with killing innocent people.”
On that suddenly poignant Friday night, I had no doubt that I had just met a hero. I just never would have expected that the hero would be this smelly, bickering homeless guy left on the street by his own country to beg for his life after committing an incredible act of bravery.
Note: This story was originally published in Positive News and reprinted with permission of the author, Rishi Oswal.