The S & J Restaurant in Riverdale Park, a short walk from Hyattsville, is a step back in time. Drinks at the S & J are cheap compared to the popular Busboys and Poets, where young professionals gather. Customers at the neighborhood bar and restaurant are mostly working class and reminiscent of Hyattsville before it became hip.
One recent Sunday evening, I visited the S & J for a beer before retiring. Instead of the usual crowd, it was nearly deserted, with only two other customers. I took a seat at one end of the bar near a heavily tattooed older man. We both faced a young man seated at a right angle down the bar.
The older man asked the young man, “Are you a vet?”
“No sir, but I worked with the military as a contractor in Iraq,” he said.
“Well then I consider you a vet. I served in Vietnam,” said the old vet.
“Army?” asked the young man.
“Army Rangers,” said the vet.
“Very cool, Army Rangers are the best,” said the young man.
“I was in the Airborne,” said the vet. “I jumped out of airplanes at night.”
“Behind the enemy lines!” said the young man with enthusiasm.
“I was scared to death,” said the vet.
The young man was apparently filled with the patriotic spirit exhibited during the seventh inning of major league baseball games where veterans of wars are saluted while crowds sing God Bless America.
The older vet felt differently.
“I have demons. I killed children, women and children. I was ordered to kill them, and I killed them,” he said.
“Well, war is hell,” said the young man.
“I shot a 5-year-old child,” said the vet.
“Sorry to hear that, man,” said the young man.
“My wife and daughter have died. Now I am old and alone with the memory of what I have done,” he told the younger man.
The veteran’s admission that he had killed children was upsetting to hear. It was like some poisonous bile that he had to expel before it could do any more damage.
I finished my beer and headed home.
A Stony Brook University study found 78 percent of the Afghan War deaths were working-class Americans and 70 percent had no more than a high-school diploma. It’s no surprise: the working class always bears the burden when our country goes to war. As Hyattsville becomes more gentrified, with fewer working-class veterans, there may be fewer conversations about the reality of America’s wars.