Written By: Tami
Mark's Story Chapter #2
I can't tell you what happened to the veteran after he froze to death in that filthy shack one cold winter night. But, I know what happened to his body; I know the coroner arrived at the scene and I know his glance landed upon the stiff, frozen remains of Mark Holt. I know officers and other curious officials arrived, glanced about and eventually just walked away and abandoned what remained of Marks earthly being. They left "that thing" in an unsecured shanty on the east end of some proudly refer to as America's largest landmark historic districts. I can't tell you why they abandoned the body without even a rookie cop to stand guard as is normal at such tragedies. Maybe they thought no one would notice. After all, the rickety building would never be included in any tour of our "beautiful, historic town." Maybe they thought no one was watching or maybe they thought no one would care. But I can tell you that in Madison Indiana we don't want to admit such places exist and we would certainly be ashamed for visitors to see the filthy secret side of beautiful historic Madison. But I can also tell you we don't mind letting a veteran die there and we didn't have a problem abandoning his remains to the elements and curious nearby citizens.
I've tried to understand, to be forgiving of the disrespect. After all, the corpse was that horrible color that terrifies the living because we know such a blackish blue means only one thing and we don't want it to come near us. Still something is so seriously wrong when those who were sent to investigate, assist and serve had hearts as frosty as the air that captured the veteran's last breath. I can't tell you how dark someone's heart must be to speak of the dead as they did, to abandon the unfortunate deceased and disrespect a veteran remains. I know the sister was saddened and angry; I know so many who joined in her sorrow, including me. I can't tell you what happened to Mark Holt after he died because I don't know if the dead see but I hope for Marks sake, the dead are blind. I hope he was someplace glorious where souls care for one another and all the words in Red are loud and real and truer than any lord's prayer forced on officials, citizens and community for "show" before meaningless city council government meetings.
In the living world Mark wasn't just a mentally ill, foul tempered, stubborn alcoholic, prone to confused, sometimes violent hallucinations; he was a veteran who suffered the horrors of war every day in a never ending terror called PTSD. So how did such a sick tormented soul tidy his clothing, store his belongings and gather the one document that proved to the world he was more than just Mark Holt alcoholic, no good criminal and rotten kid from the start? I don't know why Mark decided to gather his honorable discharge then lay it flat beneath his shoulders as he reclined himself on what became his personal open casket declaration that he knew he would die that night. Still, his decision to place the honorable discharge in the one location that no one could miss was one of his last lucid thoughts, perhaps the only one he had a very long time. Maybe it was the peace of knowing all his struggles, terrors and pain would end that night that freed his mind to be rationale, calm and quiet. I hope I have as a much dignity on my deathbed as Mark did. I don't know what it means that Mark was more skilled to cope with his death than he was with his life. But I know what it means for his heartless, indifferent hometown.
It seems to me that Mark was careful and thoughtful of where to place his honorable discharge papers. It seems to me he expected us to see. More importantly, I think he also expected us to care. The document was one of the few things Mark guarded, protected and cared for all these years. So few Americans earn the right to possess this document , but Mark did. I think he expected us to find his honorable discharge; I think he believed we would honor the meaning of the document even if we never honored him. I can't tell you exactly what Mark wanted us to do. Maybe he wanted us to know he could and should be buried with all the other heroes who rest beneath fields of stone marked with flags and soldier's names or maybe he meant to convey it wouldn't cost anyone, anything to bury him. Maybe he meant to say please don't leave me; I belong someplace special. But they did, they left him there, at least for a little while. And when they finally returned to take him, they left the honorable discharge in the same place Mark had put it the night before. No one paid attention.
It was a fellow veteran who arrived sometime after an incompetent coroner; indifferent law enforcement and a funeral home director finally gathered Marks remains and departed the grisly scene one last time. I can't explain why none of those charged to care for and protect the dead veterans remains didn't care enough to take the seconds needed to secure such valuable a document if only to provide it to a grieving family member. You would think in a small town people would care, especially if they are paid to care, but those people didn't. Like I said, it was a fellow veteran who arrived on the scene after everyone else, including Mark was gone.
It was the same fellow veteran who took the time to consider the grisly scene and all its clues to Marks thoughts in his last moments. He was an older veteran, seventyish with gray hair and a somber face. He was the one who took the time to look around, to notice the discharge paper, the clothes neatly hung in the closet at attention, in the way every good military man knows to hang them. He even noticed Marks shoes rested quietly sided by side, at ease near the drab, dirty mattress where Veteran Mark Holt froze to death. Everything was as Mark had left it, exactly tidy and in its place. It was a bizarre contrast to the filthy despair of a toilet that gathered waste with nowhere to flush away the horrible stench of homelessness. There were no curtains, no homey comforts, just the brittle fog of the fellow veteran's breath as it drifted off in the swift wind that blew through the holes in just one of many death shacks hidden in beautiful, Historic Madison's landmark district. Who would believe such a torture chamber existed in this perfect little town? No one would, and so the fellow veteran took photos and shared them with others including me.
You would think the photos would shake this town; force neighbors, friends and family to have a conversation about the ugly underbelly of our fantasy life in our 99% white, Christian small town. There were those who appreciated the fellow veteran's efforts, I know I did. His photos captured the essence of homelessness and cruelty of an entire community's indifference and arrogance. But there were those vocal few who vilified him almost as bad as they vilified Mark; they whispered behind closed doors, at lunch counters and meeting after the meetings that the fellow veteran shouldn't have taken the pictures, shouldn't have told the truth and he sure as hell shouldn't have shared those pictures with someone like me. The truth doesn't set you free in this little town; it gets you blamed. The truth gets twisted and tied up in evil words that get worked into hardened lies then sharpened into spears. It doesn't take long for messenger of truth to suffer through the angry wounds inflicted by those who prefer to pretend this little town is made of lollipops, rosebuds and rainbows. I doubt Mark toured the historic landmarks, rode a unicorn or celebrated the "glory" of one of Americas alleged Best Towns. Instead he lived in the volatile belly of homelessness, mental illness and indifference. He was nothing more to this town than some vile regurgitation and reflection of all that is caustic about us. I read and then reread those honorable discharge papers and wondered how we got to this place so dark, cold and cruel. I was ashamed and remain ashamed to live here …there is nothing "best" about this small town.
Do you know every day this man asked for help to get the medicines he needed to secure the cracks in his mind created by his service to our nation? Do you know, every day we told him no? It's not like Mark picked random people; knocked on doors and begged handouts. No, he did what he was supposed to do; he asked the right people but got all the wrong answers. How is it that the one person Mark always reached to for assistance, who was paid to assist persons just like Mark, told him no? How did we employ a non-combat, coast guard "veteran" to help serve those with PTSD? How did we select someone without compassion; someone who reveled and rejoiced in telling Mark even though he served with honor he was not entitled to the care and benefits other veterans deserve? What is a Veterans Service Officer if not the one person charged most to help get our veterans the service they need and to which they are entitled? Who told this VSO he was some sort of vicious god who had the authority to deny our veterans and ignore their pleas for help? Why does this incompetent, uncaring, inhumane asshole to this day still get paid to provide dis-service to those who deserve the most and best service? I'm told it's about politics. To me and many others it's about murder by negligence.
How is it that we did nothing and continue to do nothing but pretend to do something? I feel as if we continue to ignore Marks pleas for help even after his death. Maybe, just maybe when he laid those papers down, he meant for us to be forced to notice there was a time in his life when he wasn't broken and a burden. Maybe he just wanted to remind himself of something better than memories of a weeping, battered boy; frustrations of an abandoned veteran or the visions a neglected, sick old man sees when he surrenders his being to death in cold shack reeking of feces on frigid air. I say this to anyone that listens, I can't tell you what Mark thought or meant to do. But I can tell you when they finally returned to take his remains; they also left those sacred papers lying on the bed to blow in the wind that whipped though Marks death chamber.
Something is wrong in our wonderful heartland hometown and it was wrong long before Mark died that night. I can't explain why the person whose official title is Veterans Service Officer would refuse to serve any veteran but especially a veteran as tormented as Mark. Hell, I can't even explain how one human could throw another out of a warm snugly office every single day to lay in winters cold crippling arms each night. What would it hurt the VSO to make a call? What would dozens of calls hurt? What else did the VSO have to do that was so much more important than helping save a sick veteran's life? How do we leave a veterans body to unguarded mischief; return in a tardy fashion to gather what should never have been abandoned and then ignore sacred documents? How much meanness does it take to toss a human being out like useless trash? I don't know, but Mark did.
So I come back to where I wondered moments ago. Do the dead see? Does Mark know we were as horrible to him in death as we were in life. Dammit, I hope not and that's why I pray he did not see through deaths eyes how we ignored his last efforts to do his very best for us. What more did we Bible belt, heartland, small hometown, flag waving folks need if not honorable discharge to motivate us to respect and care for the remains of one of our own combat veterans. It's as if our community planted the seeds of vicious ignorance and now we reap an abundant crop of heartlessness. My mind is overwhelmed with shame and sorrow, rage and disgust and a deep fear of some hidden threat that lurks around tomorrow's corner. I sense its growing presence and know it will condemn this hometown to a grizzly, slow death. We will die of our own meanness and apathy. We don't care enough about each other to do what is right; we don't even care enough to do what is humane. I already see the cancer that is consuming us. There is no cure for ignorant, arrogant cruelty. Mark served Madison and his country with unquestionable honor; yet when he returned home broken, we dishonored him... and we let him freeze to death on a cold winter night.
As the sun rises tomorrow, we, for sure, will be ridiculed and scorned for "airing our dirty laundry". The truth is, it is not my dirty laundry; it belongs to those cold souls who know what is best for Mark's Hometown...
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