October, 2010. I am standing atop Monte de Gozo, or “Mount of Joy,” and I halt where millions have paused before me on this thousand-year old route. The city of Santiago de Compostela lies before me, and I shiver slightly as the sweat on my back is chilled by the cool Galician breeze. The skies are overcast but the rain has stopped, and I can see the cathedral roof, still some five miles away, peeking out from the surrounding buildings. I hear the sound of its bells ringing across the valley, guiding me as a lighthouse does ships at sea. I sense Michael’s excitement, but he says nothing. He doesn’t have to.
I met Michael in Vicenza, Italy, where I was in command and he was one of my medics. Born with Klinefelter’s Syndrome, (47 XXY) a chromosomal abnormality affecting one in eight hundred male births. The extra X chromosome put his body at war with itself, as it tried to deposit fat around his bottom and breasts, forcing him to work far harder than most to meet the height and weight requirements for a male soldier. He was awkward in his ostrich-like body, and starved for acceptance. He had once been a free-lance photographer for the Associated Press, so I made him our unit photographer and the recognition made him happy, giving him a role at social functions where he was otherwise at a loss.
I was called one night to an Italian hospital after he turned himself in for contemplating suicide, and he apologized tearfully. That was when I told him I knew of his condition, and that it didn’t lessen my opinion of him. “We are as God made us,” I said, and we embraced.
There were no more admissions after that, and as my time there came to a close, he volunteered for Afghanistan. The assignment was to a remote training unit embedded in the Afghani army, and I feared how Michael would be accepted, but my efforts to block his transfer were overruled. We kept in touch. Michael made sergeant and received the Bronze Star. Apparently, the soldiers there understood that Michael was a Damn good medic, and would do anything to save them. I think it was the first time in his life he was fully accepted for himself.
I am in a labyrinth of ancient cobblestone streets when the bells ring again, encouraging us to finish. We are close, now, and Michael matches me, stride for stride.
Michael returned to Vicenza, but he was not welcomed back warmly, but seen as a “problem” soldier, struggling to meet the expectations of a new command. One dark night in the Italian mountains he jumped off a bridge, fell sixty-five feet, but survived. I was stationed in the Pentagon when he arrived at Walter Reed. Every extremity was suspended and pinned, and when he saw me, he began to cry. I did my best to reassure him I was there to encourage, not berate. We talked a long time, and at one point I mentioned my dream of walking the Camino once I retired from the Army. I felt the need to figure out who I was after a lifetime of wearing a uniform, and since the ninth century this ancient pathway to the bones of the Apostle James has been one means to find such answers.
Michael looked up at me and in a quiet voice asked, “When you go, may I go with you?” I paused at his question. I envisioned this journey as a private affair, a walk of contemplation of where I had been, and had yet to go. Then I saw his eyes. I said, “Yes,” and meant it.
We kept in touch. His rehab went well, he was discharged to the VA, found a girl and got engaged. Then one day I got an email from Michael’s fiancé, telling me that Michael had taken his life. She wrote that he spoke often of our promised walk together, and she asked me to say a prayer for Michael if, or when, I finally walked The Way.
2012 data from the VA shows that on average twenty-two veterans take their life every day. That is a statistic. Michael was far more. He was “my” soldier, made in God’s image, as God had always intended him to be. I cannot help but believe that his physical condition made his burden even harder than that of many who see war and return, altered forever.
The bells are loud as we approach the entry, celebrating our journey completed, our promises kept. We enter together, and as we do, I whisper, “We made, it Michael. Time to rest.”
When I am asked if I walked the Camino with anyone, I truthfully answer that I was by myself-but never alone.
Three months before he took his life, Michael sent me a series of photographs he took of a statue of the Archangel Michael outside a cathedral in Florence. The angel looms high on its pedestal, a sword in its right hand, prepared for battle. The one I found most striking was taken in the dead of night with just the outline showing, and I imagine him keeping vigil somewhere, still ready to serve, and protect.