Bob Rynbrand doesn’t think of himself as anything more than an old veteran still doing his duty. But many would disagree.
These days Bob lives in Twin Falls. But during the Vietnam war Bob served in-country as a Navy mine sweeper. Not the safest duty you could be assigned. But he was in his mid-20’s and invincible, like all the young seamen who served beside him.
Today he closing in on 70, and he knows better than most that once you hit his age, you are far from invincible.
Bob always wears his Retired Navy cap when he goes out. That’s one way he’s recognized in the hospice.
No, he’s not dying. But over the years he’s talked to many old soldiers who are.
That’s what Bob does. When a veteran enters a local hospice, Bob offers his services.
He doesn’t do any heavy lifting, but he lightens loads nonetheless. When he arrives at the bedside of a dying vet he just says hello, pulls up a chair, and chats.
Well, you might say, that’s not much of a service.
But Bob can talk with soldiers about things no one else can. Not the spouse, not the kids, sometimes not even the pastor.
It’s because Bob understands what it was like. What it was really like. The smells, the panic, the sounds, the acrid taste of death hanging like a low fog in the air. The long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The relief. The loss.
Try as they might, family and friends don’t really understand. You can’t truly understand what you’ve never experienced.
Sure, you can sympathize—but you can’t empathize. And to a dying soldier who still sometimes has those dreams, the ones that wake him up and frighten his wife, the distance between sympathy and empathy is as wide as the Snake River Basin.
When I talked to Bob, I asked him about some of the stories he’s heard. He said sometimes old vets on their deathbeds share stories they’ve never told their families. Often they still feel shame or blame for something that happened fifty years ago when they were all just kids following orders and amped on adrenaline.
There was the guy who got a telegram that his wife had just given birth to their daughter back in the States. His best friend offered to go out on patrol for him that afternoon so he could enjoy the good news. His best friend was killed on the patrol a few hours later.
Imagine carrying that burden for the next fifty years. How do you handle the quiet guilt? Sure, you could tell others, but all they could offer is sympathy—and who wants sympathy? That’s where Bob comes in. He’s the one who can tell an old soldier who’s slipping away that, yes, he understands. He’s seen it. He’s been there. When Bob tells someone, “there’s no way you could know, it’s not your fault, stuff just happens,” his words carry extra weight. Because he was there. Because he knows the language of the military, and the language of war. He knows the language of snafu.
Sometimes when Bob emerges from a visit with a dying vet, the family surrounds him and asks what the two of them talked about. The family wants to hear the stories they’ve maybe waited decades to finally be told. But Bob says no. They’re not his stories to tell. What transpires between him and the fellow veteran is for the two of them alone—a reminder of the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Next Friday, March 29, is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. It was inaugurated by President Obama in 2012, and signed into law by President Trump in 2017. It’s a day specifically set aside for flying flags.
I asked Bob what he’d like to see happen next Friday. He suggested going down to your closest Vietnam war memorial and just take a few quiet moments to think, or maybe even pray. He suggested leaving behind a wreath, or a bouquet of flowers. Just something to let a passing vet know that you appreciate his or her service, even if you can never really understand.