The End of the World

     So, the world will end Friday.
     That’s a thought I can’t ignore as I drive to the courthouse on a rural highway through South Carolina’s Low Country that crosses the Savannah River into coastal Georgia. The radio is on, spewing Christmas jingles impossible to escape, and I’m thinking, what’s the point?
     Why put up the tree and hang rows of Christmas lights so bright your house is visible from space? Why buy another sweater your grandmother will never wear? Why bother to do more cleaning and cooking than you’ve done all year, in one week, when the end is so close?
     Maybe the solar system will miss that perfect alignment and we won’t get sucked into a black hole after all. Maybe Earth will not collide with the mythical planet Nibiru any more than it did in 2003, when the catastrophic prediction made headlines. And it is possible that the Mayans arbitrarily picked this year’s winter solstice to end their long calendar.
     But that doesn’t mean an asteroid can’t hit the Earth, or that our planet won’t start freezing from the poles any day now. There are no guarantees in life.
     The impending end of the world doesn’t seem to concern the homeless man standing at the side of the road next to a stop sign, where the highway crosses into Georgia. He holds a sign: “U.S. Veteran in need of help.”
     He wears a mustache and thin-rim eyeglasses that remind me of grandchildren and story time.
     He thanks me with a smile and a “God bless” as I hand him a $5 bill out the window.
     His name is Jim. He says he served four years in Vietnam, in the Air Force. He was young, enthusiastic to serve his country and looking to pay for an education.
     Today he is one of a handful of veterans who take turns standing at the side of a rural highway, begging for spare change or food.
     Some drivers slow down to read the sign, or roll down the window and hand him whatever cash they can spare. Others drive on, too busy or scared of scams.
     Jim does not bear a grudge or blame the government. He holds onto his sign, and his fate, with shaking hands.
     He is one of hundreds of thousands of U.S. veterans who are or have been homeless.
     According to one count on a January night in 2011, there were 67,495 homeless veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 144,842 veterans spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program in a recent year.
     Despite hundreds of millions of dollars poured into programs to end homelessness, and stand-down events put together by Army reserves and communities, many U.S. veterans will continue to struggle with poverty, disability, post-traumatic stress disorder and lack of support networks.
     Nearly half of homeless veterans are, like Jim, in their 60s and 70s, and served during the Vietnam era. Many younger ones are on the verge of joining their ranks.
     College kids who served in war zones where their jobs required them to lock away their humanity.
     Young men and women whose second tour in Iraq turned into their third and their fourth, removing them forever from their former lives.
     Two weeks ago I said goodbye to a friend, an Army helicopter pilot, who left for his third tour in Afghanistan, because he could not stay away, and did not want to.
     It doesn’t matter if we believe that Jesus was born to save us, or that we are aliens who will return to some extraterrestrial world, or we will simply disintegrate into the universe. Our resolution for a new year, or a future life, could be as simple as trying to understand people who are not like us.
     Not judging a soldier returning from war, who is asked to un-live his experiences, and function normally in a world he no longer knows.
     Or helping a young man struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, so he doesn’t pick up a gun and shoot children.
     The world ends every day, for someone.
     As I get ready for the end of the world – or Christmas, or the beginning of a new year – I think of Jim standing at the side of the road, holding a sign, asking for our attention.
     And my friend, and his buddies, in their Afghan camps, spending the holidays away from their wives and children.
     And the thousands of people who are blamed for not finding their way back after they were asked to throw their compass away.

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