“But are my footsteps silent?
Are they just holes within the sand?
Or does another hear them, follow,
And find me where I am?” – L.S. Hartfield
I never saw the boots myself. But I can imagine them. Combat boots. Sturdy, durable, high-ankled, “rough-out” boots, standardized in color and style. Boots designed for mud and muck and desert sands and jungle wet. Boots made for war.
And, in my mind, I can also see the boots scuffed and worn and somehow looking terribly individualized – taking on the very contours of the feet that had been kept safe in them, reflecting the movement and maneuvers of the soldier who had relied on them every day and night and tour of his military life; shaped by his unique experience and exposure in the field.
I never met the soldier who wore these boots, either. But I can picture him too. And I know his name is Chris. I was told his story, in all its poignancy and perfect allegory, by those who were there and heard his own quiet telling of it.
Imagine every mother’s son. Every wife’s husband. Every father, and brother, and schoolyard chum. Someone who is far too young and promising for the pain and burden and brokenness he has carried back from the battlefield. Like his boots, he, too, is shaped by what he has experienced, and been forced into unnatural contours. But, unlike them, the experience need not ultimately define him.
On this particular day, it was bright and clear, with puffs of wind pushing bits of clouds around the sky, and rather warm for early February in South Carolina. The pastures at Aiken Equine Rescue horse sanctuary near where I live were filled with horses still thick in winter coats, rough and shaggy and anxious for an early spring. They were alert and curious and came to the fence-lines as newcomers arrived that morning. The cars that passed them brought to the facility another class of Saratoga WarHorse participants to a national program that operates out of two locations in the U.S. – Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Aiken, S.C.
Among this group was a veteran named Chris. After his horse connection within the round pen, the keystone of this remarkable program, Chris was obviously moved, his soul altered by the equine encounter. He held the life-impacting experience in his heart and head, replaying it, examining it, embracing it – as he looked out over the hills and fields, at the natural beauty and inherent serenity that surrounded him. He looked at his feet. He looked at his boots.
“I didn’t know what shoes to wear today,” he said. “So I thought maybe I should wear these – my combat boots. These boots have never been laced up on U.S. soil before. They’ve known nothing but war and pain and just such awful things. So I thought I should wear them today. And now that they’ve had this amazing experience...”
He paused to think some more. “Maybe I can retire them now,” he said.
War imprints on the souls of soldiers just as surely as the battlefield does on the soles of their boots. Perhaps, with places like Aiken Equine Rescue, and a program called Saratoga WarHorse, both can be retired in peace.
Marti Healy lives in Aiken, South Carolina, and is author of the books "The God-Dog Connection," "The Rhythm of Selby," "The Secret Child," "Yes, Barbara, There is an Aiken," and "The Childornot Tales."