I DON'T deserve the Bronze Star that hangs on the wall above my desk, but I never pack it up and send it back to the Nebraska soldier who gave it to me.
The package arrived last summer -- a manila envelope addressed to me, with a return address I didn't recognize. A letter written on loose-leaf paper told me the sender was, indeed, a stranger, a Vietnam veteran who was thanking me for an article I had written.
As if we were friends, he told me about his life. His family acts as though his war experience is "something that shouldn't be touched." He sobs when he watches "China Beach." One night he happened to open his newspaper and read my words on a page. This stranger told me I understood. I read, feeling as if I had quickly turned a corner and witnessed something that was none of my business.
My children, delighted with the mystery of a package from a stranger, opened it. When the cover of the black box was lifted, the unmistakable smell of 20 years in an attic escaped. Days later I would learn from an ex-Marine friend the significance of receiving the Bronze Star and that once it is issued, it cannot be replaced.
No words in a newspaper deserved a treasure like this. Even more troubling was that the soldier in Nebraska didn't know my story. If he had, I might not be holding his medal this Memorial Day weekend.
After all he has been through, this man is still filled with forthright, flag-waving patriotism that I lost a long time ago. He signs his letter, "Love America Always." He believes.
My patriotism has traveled through murky periods of cynicism his never knew, especially during Vietnam.
Perhaps the soldier from Nebraska should know that, in protest, I once sat through "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Yankee Stadium. It was a metaphor for my youthful zeal, not to mention disregard for bodily safety.
As a brash college student, I would have scorned people like him. Had we met in the '60s, I would have pitied him as a dupe. Given half a chance, I probably would have told him so.
Still, I keep his Bronze Star. Not because I earned it, certainly not because I deserve it, but because every time I look at it, I understand better what reconciliation means.
And change. We are two people with opposing histories who crossed through words in a newspaper. I understand his story in a way that was blocked to me (or by me) 20 years ago. I hope he understands mine.
Recently I was on my way to speak to a group of school children about being a writer. I pulled some readers' letters and rejection slips from my desk to take along. As an afterthought, I took the medal off its hook, slipped it into my blazer pocket and told the children his story.
Days later when thank-you notes arrived, there were these words from an 11 year old: "I'm surprised that man sent you his Bronze Star. I guess he knows you'll take care of it."
If that is what the soldier from Nebraska thinks, he is right. And that becomes part of my story now.
Linda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore writer.