One early March morning four years ago, I stood in the inner circle of the VA Domiciliary in Hot Springs. A bark of moon charted to port on the silvered roof above the sandstone courtyard. The grass between the walks was gray. The twin pines were shadows beneath a lens of heaven.
It was 4 a.m., and I shivered. As a Dom assistant, I had a course, too. Every hour: down this wing for bed checks and up that, down another wing and up that, try this lock and wiggle that handle … all snug as bugs in rugs. Prone to meditative spells, after writing, it was the perfect job: my thoughts, a few hundred sleeping veterans, and time.
As for the veterans, most had injuries like the darkened courtyard: hidden and elusive. Sometimes walks down the curtained halls of the patients’ quarters brought a litany of altered states. Sleep brings little peace for most of them, their dreams leaching fears from ponds of darker mysteries. Sometimes a soft cry and I’d pause outside a cubicle, pray surcease of suffering, then move on.
When rounds on the wings were done I’d stop beside the courtyard, step into its silence and inhale its peace. That early March morning reminded me of the last four lines of Frost’s “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening.”
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep …"
By 5 a.m., three hours left on shift, the veterans stir. A few wounded eagles alight around the courtyard. Early risers gripping coffee and the first smoke of the day; some go off in the circle to be alone, others collect in the soft patter of two or three. Watching, I considered Frost’s poem. Though it hints at trouble, it ends with resolve.
The Hot Springs VA has promises to keep, and many miles to go before it sleeps. Since Hot Springs’ beginning, its core mission has been to provide healing for every American gone into harm’s way. For the sake of its countrymen, the town could as easily be called the home of the Purple Heart.
All its citizens, young and old, know this. And they have always known this. Caring for the wounded veteran defines them. Deeper than the darkness of all our wars has been the town’s resolve to fulfill this mission, and that with the best medicine and most artful compassion.
For two years, those midnight to 8 a.m. shifts taught me many things. Mostly that humans, even those with the strongest warrior ethos, bruise and break deeply. Souls can be made to limp, become paralyzed, amputated even. But while there is breath there is hope. The veterans in the Domiciliary learn this. Over varying weeks their hearts are revived through tender care and the patient embrace of Hot Springs.
A sandstone island of caring, Hot Springs is a veterans’ refuge, harbor of peace, and haven when home from the hill. Its VA will not be duplicated elsewhere because we no longer build beautiful retreats of compassion.
If, because of politics, this VA is made an abandoned shell, it will be criminal. For it is truly lovely, and healing deep, and Hot Springs has promises to keep … and miles to go before it sleeps.