The Vietnam Vet

“Does this bus go to the Tri-Rail station?”

With one foot on the bus and one on the street, I waited for confirmation from the bus driver. I was hunched over from the weight of my 60 Liter backpack and clearly stood out from the commuters that filled the Miami bus. The driver nodded and I sat down near the front of the bus across from a few disinterested elderly passengers. I heard a voice from a few rows back on the bus.

“You trying to catch the Tri-Rail?”

I looked back to see a man in his fifties or early sixties, several days removed from a shower with greasy hair and a face full of stubble. He was wearing  jeans and a denim jacket, but it was his hat that caught my attention–“Vietnam War Veteran.”

I responded with a quick glance and a disinterested “yeah.” The man scurried up to the front and sat across from me.

“I’ll let you know where you need to get off. I take the Tri-Rail all the time. You just gotta get off up here at Government Center and take the Metrorail to Metro Center. You can catch the Tri-Rail there.”

“Thanks,” I replied. I appreciated the directions, but wasn’t too interested in carrying on the conversation.

He continued to tell me about the intricacies of the Miami Public Transit station for the next ten minutes. He explained the difference between the Metrorail and the Tri-Rail, how much each ticket I needed would cost, and how many stops I would go on each leg of the journey. It was clear this guy knew his way around, but I didn’t trust his intentions. As I got off at the Metrorail stop, I fully expected for him to grab me by the shoulder and ask for a few bucks for the help. Instead, he got off with me.

“I’m going the same way. I’ll walk with you.”

We rode the escalator as he continued to guide me through every single step of the ticket buying process. I kept my words to a minimum and tried to carry on as if I were on my own and he just happened to be walking alongside me. As we rode the escalator toward the tracks, he informed me that I would have to get a fare card before I could buy credits and that it cost extra. I was still expecting him to ask me to buy him his next ride, when he instead offered me his fare card.

“I have this extra one. It doesn’t have any money on it, but it’ll save you from having to buy one. Here ya go.”

Wow. Maybe this guy is alright.

He waited for me as I loaded money onto the fare card and we walked up to the platform. He started telling me all kinds of Miami history, explaining each building of the skyline in detail.

“None of this was here back in the 70s. All of this…it popped up in the 80s and 90s. You wanna know how? Cocaine. Coke money built all of this.”

I was intrigued by the idea, but not really sure I believed his theory (Turns out he’s right). Nevertheless, I started to come around to the idea that maybe this guy was just really friendly. He told me that he was going to visit his daughter up in Hialeah. Sure enough, she called him and they talked on the phone for a few minutes. He told me all about her and his ex-wife.

We hopped on the Metrorail train and he kept talking. I started to open up and made an effort to converse with him. I still thought that he may have been a little off or looking for a pay out when we finally parted ways, but he was helpful and exceptionally friendly. The least I could do was be a passing friend to him. He probably just wanted someone to talk to on his trip.

We chatted for the duration of the otherwise silent train ride. I’m sure other train passengers looked on at this homeless looking man and a young backpacker with the same cynical thoughts that I had. I could feel the eyes gazing on us, listening to our conversation, but at this point we were traveling together. It may have been an uncommon pair, but there we were. I let my guard down and enjoyed the ride.

We reached my stop before his, and I stood up to get off. I have to admit that I still  half-expected him to give me a nudge for some spare change, but at the same time, by this point I wasn’t surprised when instead he gave me a wave. “Have a good day, man!”

I stepped onto the platform with a bounce in my step. There’s nothing that makes me happier than random acts of kindness; I felt guilty that I had doubted my new friend. I hoped that I had at least returned the favor in brightening his day by providing some momentary companionship.

Strangely enough, I encountered a remarkably similar situation in Los Angeles following a month out of the country. I had just arrived from Brazil and was excited to spend a day in the States before continuing on to New Zealand. I hopped on a city bus full of glaring eyes and rough looking characters. It was deja vu; a Vietnam Veteran sat down across from me and asked me where I was going. This time my attitude was a little different.

Vietnam War veterans are the subject of countless stereotypes and myths. Unfortunately, I was a part of perpetuating some of these. The least I can do is to try to spread some facts. Here are some interesting statistics from the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation:

  • 2,709,918 Americans served in Vietnam, this number represents 9.7% of their generation.
  • 25% (648,500) of total forces in country were draftees
  • There is no difference in drug usage between Vietnam Veterans and non-Vietnam Veterans of the same age group.
  • Vietnam Veterans are less likely to be in prison – only 0.5% of Vietnam Veterans have been jailed for crimes.
  • 97% of Vietnam-era veterans were honorably discharged. 
  • 91% of actual Vietnam War veterans and 90% of those who saw heavy combat are proud to have served their country. 
  • During the 2000 Census, the number of Americans falsely claiming to have served in-country is: 13,853,027. By this census, four out of five who claim to be Vietnam vets are not. 


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