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‘Meet a veteran’ talks bring the Constitution Center to life — and death | Mike Newall

Stories of service at a time when America doesn't act like a nation at war.

Veterans, Reggie Falls , left, Dustin Kinley, center, and Ben Rickert tell their stories at a Veteran's Day listening series at the National Constitution Center.
Veterans, Reggie Falls , left, Dustin Kinley, center, and Ben Rickert tell their stories at a Veteran's Day listening series at the National Constitution Center.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The announcement cut through the midday crowds at the National Constitution Center. Drop in and meet a veteran, it said.

In the cafeteria, three military men stood, waiting. They had traveled across Pennsylvania to tell their stories as part of a new Veterans Day tradition at the Constitution Center — a sort of pop-up conversation with those who wear the uniform and fight our endless wars.

The aim of Veterans Talks — which runs through Friday — is to match the museum's exhibits on war and service with real voices, said Kerry Sautner, the center's chief learning officer. To make it feel personal.

Vets say that is something needed now more than ever.

America doesn't act like a nation at war, said Tim Williams, executive director of the Veterans Multi-Service Center in Old City. But its military is. And those wars are fought by so few of us.

Charlie Forshee, the deputy executive director of the center, said to think of it this way: Even as our country continues to send soldiers overseas, how many of us actually know anyone who's been injured or killed in those conflicts?

In that environment, military families can feel like they're carrying immense burdens that the rest of the country doesn't understand. Take Forshee. At the center, he works with five people whose children have been maimed or killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. One of his son's groomsmen lost his legs in combat in Iraq. Forshee's oldest son is a Marine officer who flies V-22 Ospreys. His daughter's husband is about to be deployed overseas.

And when Forshee, a retired Army infantry colonel, was working as a contractor in Kandahar, he was able to visit his youngest son with the 82nd Airborne before he lifted off to a combat outpost on the first of two tours.

"That was tough," said the West Point graduate, who lives in South Philadelphia and served in more than a half-dozen combat zones over 21 years.

Now, in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge, he works with some 6,000 veterans a year. He and his staff try to ease the pain they've borne for their country with a drop-in services center, mental health outreach, transitional housing, and other help for the city's homeless veterans population.

Four years ago, Forshee and his colleagues thought they had won the battle against homelessness among veterans in Philadelphia. They had reduced the veterans' homeless rate to what the city called "functional zero." Then the opioid epidemic hit, and now, the center is trying to reach an entirely new population. There are 70 veterans who the city knows of living in the homeless encampments around Kensington. But Forshee fears that the actual number is likely double and that his agency just hasn't identified them yet.

He brings the weight of all that to the Veterans Talks. He's spoken at the Constitution Center for two years.

One year, he gave directions to two people who were simply lost and answered a single child's query: "Did you ever kill anyone?"

"Well, I was an infantry officer in combat," he answered, not wishing to elaborate.

Another year, 30 people gathered around him and asked questions about veterans' homelessness — the kind of questions he had plenty of answers for.

The three veterans who spoke Wednesday were multiservice outreach workers who work in the rural areas near State College and further upstate. Museum staffers called a half-dozen people from the exhibits to come listen.

The men told their stories from four decades of service. None had fought overseas, but all had experienced the trauma that comes from service nonetheless. The friends who died in their arms in training accidents. The guilt for friends who did go overseas and died there. Or who died once they came back.

Like a young soldier the three men all tried to help. He died by suicide two weeks ago, after he received his redeployment orders and told friends he couldn't go back.

Ben Rickert, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, said he hoped that if the crowd took away one thing, it was this: "If you ever meet a veteran and that veteran wants to talk, don't stop them."