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For veterans, wars end but memories last

A veteran watches the ceremonies at the McLean County Museum of History
Sarah Nardi
A veteran watches Veterans Day ceremonies Thursday at the McLean County Museum of History.

Travis Wheet had never seen the man before, and he has never seen him since. But the moment they locked eyes while under attack in Afghanistan, their bond was cemented.

Speaking Thursday to a crowd gathered on the lawn of the McLean County Museum of History in honor of Veterans Day, Wheet recalled the battle in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan. Men from different units were huddled behind a wall, taking enemy fire. As the battle raged, Wheet and the stranger, in one glance, acknowledged a shared helplessness.

“What are you going to do?” Wheet told those gathered. That moment shared with a fellow soldier represented a kind of existential shrug. It was the kind of experience that bonds two people together forever, Wheet said. It’s also the kind of memory a soldier always carries, even after the war has ended.

Wheet asked the crowd to reflect on “the horrors of war and the magnitude of its conclusion.” His words were echoed by a chaplain, who began the day’s ceremony with a prayer for veterans as they re-assimilated to civilian life.

“It can be kind of tough,” Del Saam said of the experience.

Saam served three tours in Afghanistan. When he finally came home, things were different. “It was hard to reintegrate with the family. My kids were little, and they grew up quite a bit in the several years I was gone.” Saam said, adding it hasn’t been easy to reconnect.

Like Wheet, Saam also carries memories. Like the electrical grid he helped build in Kabul; the landmines he helped clear in an area where children played. And of the little Afghan girl, maybe 5 years old, who once ran up to him in the street and told him not to be afraid.

“Don’t worry,” she told Saam, who was cloaked in body armor. “I’ll protect you.”

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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