By Glenn Stevens, NCHM President
Five years ago I was in Hawaii with my colleague Matt to perform services under a contract with the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. I know what you're thinking – "Wow, how great is it that this guy gets to go to Hawaii for business." To be perfectly honest, I would rather go to Newark or Baltimore, which are both closer to my home and my family. Flying to Hawaii is grueling and staying in a hotel room is, well, staying in a hotel room. But this visit would be different.
At around six o'clock, Matt and I decided to go across the street for dinner. The next day, Dec. 7, was the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, just a few miles away. We walked into the restaurant and noticed an old man sitting alone. Matt, being from a military family, immediately recognized him as a survivor. I approached the man and asked if I could buy him dinner or maybe a drink. I thanked him for his service, although he and I both knew I could never truly understand what he had been through.
The veteran, whose name was John, accepted my offer, and several Heinekens later began to open up. He had been to every Pearl Harbor anniversary in the past, but this would be his first without his beloved wife, who had just recently died.
On Dec. 7, 1941, John was at Schofield Barracks, the first location to be attacked on that fateful day. He said the Japanese pilots were flying so low he could see their faces. John was a crotchety old fellow and as politically incorrect as they come. He was never able to forgive the Japanese, and had even thrown a Japanese tourist off a ferry visiting the wreck of the U.S.S. Arizona for behavior he found disrespectful. (He was met back at the dock by police and coast guard officials. He said they simply asked him not to do that again.) He said Guadalcanal was even worse than Pearl Harbor. Months and months of battle in the rain and mud without so much as a change of socks.
John couldn't remember how many men he had killed but it was clear from the look in his eyes that the number was high, too high. He challenged Matt and me to tell him what was missing from a recent HBO series called The Pacific that talked about Pearl Harbor. After several incorrect answers, John answered, "the smell." He went on to talk about the constant, nauseating smell of being on that island in the hot sun with death all around.
Why am I writing about this? Two reasons. Last Pearl Harbor day I heard a guy on the radio say, "if you don't know what happened 75 years ago you should look it up." That made me sad – sad to think that there are people out there who don't know the horror of what John and other soldiers endured to defend our country.
The other reason is this: John lived in affordable housing.
Millions of people in this country live in subsidized housing. How many Johns are among them? How many people with exceptional histories live in your properties? How many stories may never be told?
It's easy to make generalizations about people based on their means, the color of their skin, or where they live. But if we look more closely, we are bound to be surprised. For many, affordable housing is but one stop on a profound journey.
Are there any heroes living among your residents? I'd love to hear about them.