Hoooo doggies. Veterans Day again. It’s like getting two birthdays for a Vet. For others, it’s a day of recognition well-earned. To me personally, it’s confirmation that what I did was appreciated eventually by America. It sure didn’t appear that way May 16th, 1972 when I returned to the Land of the Big PX from two years off-road in the bush. My appreciation for the modern miracle of refrigeration knew no bounds. A cold Tanqueray and tonic with real tonic rather than crushed up quinine pills was an indescribable treat when you’d been drinking them lukewarm with no fizz for several years. I went so far once as to throw in an Alka Seltzer. War is uncivilized.
On a more personal note, I was interviewed last week by our local Key Peninsula newspaper for an article about Veterans. Since it’s only a monthly rag, it won’t be out in time for tomorrow’s celebration. That’s beside the point. The interviewer asked me to tell him my whole story from induction to the present and how, if at all, it had changed me. Where does one start?
When I signed up, I was a hop, skip and a jump ahead of being drafted into the Army. I was set to go to Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York but I had a little run-in with the law four days after I graduated in June 1969. Actually, Virginia considered throwing eggs at a moving cop car a felony in 1969 so it was more than a “little” run in. I felt a breather from 12 years of education was called for, too.
This definitely set the stage for my future. To be honest, everyone male in my family had gone to wars past and it would have appeared unseemly for me to miss this one. I admit I did put in for England, Spain and Germany. Fat chance. In 1970, everyone was headed to Southeast Asia. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have wished it any other way. Some of us are born with a defective survival gene and run toward the sound of gunfire rather than away. Eau d’ gunpowder is our preferred parfum. We prefer the thrill of victory and the agony of de feet.
In the intervening years since my service, I have evolved as we all do. Children, jobs and opportunities dim one’s memories of that time but never obscure it. With the onset of illness born of that era, it all comes back to me and sometimes consumes many of my waking hours. Giving back to other Veterans comes naturally to me. In fact, I find it to be a passion now rather than a hobby.
I consider it an honor to have served for many reasons. It certainly won’t be why I will be remembered when I pass but that wasn’t the reason I signed up. I don’t have any medals for above and beyond the call of duty. What I do hope to be remembered for will be my advocacy for Veterans. This was never meant to be about me and my travails with the Veterans Administration. I simply use that as a teaching tool in the fervent hope no Veteran will ever be abused as I was.
I took my friend Mark to the airport yesterday morning. He’s off to the Philippines to meet his future bride. On the way to SeaTac, we reminisced about our service as all Veterans do. One thing stands out about us. The first is that we are a very small club consisting of three percent of the population. Most importantly, the membership requirements are extremely stringent. You cannot decide at forty that now is the perfect time to enlist to fluff up your resumé. The window of opportunity to serve is narrow and fleeting. We give up quite a bit of our lives when young to do this. I don’t measure it in time but in opportunities lost. Veterans can rarely recoup four years of excitement, fast cars and wild women (or men for you gals). They can experience it later in life but not in the same youthful context. Years later, most of us realize it was a worthy investment that teaches responsibility with a capital R. There can be no higher Responsibility than keeping your buddies alive in a fire fight. They depend on you and vice versa. That life skill cannot be taught at Burger King or Albertson’s. Equally stated, it cannot be unlearned to the chagrin of those who suffer the aftereffects such as PTSD.
Veterans are a unique breed. Some are not role models or particularly well-groomed while some are more like Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Some are inordinately proud of their contribution and some, like Secretary of State John Kerry, consider it a black stain on their otherwise unblemished record of service to America. We won’t visit Miriam Webster to define “service” this morning. That’s not what this is about.
What I did in Southeast Asia will remain there. Many have said it was misguided but I maintain it was an honorable undertaking. We don’t get to choose how or where we served. Worse, we don’t get to choose our commanders. We do not have a choice of serving only in peacetime because that can all change at the drop of a hat- as it did on December 7th, 1941 or on September 11th, 2001. We chose to serve because we were motivated Americans. Nobody ever said you can’t be all you can be at Domino’s Pizza. It’s just less intense compared to watching tracers zip by you in downtown Falujah.
Veterans of all walks and services are not unique other than being an extremely small percentage of our population. Someone needs to print up some “3%er’s Club” T-shirts with the service logos. What mostly sets us apart is that rare defective gene called patriotism. I pray geneticists never discover how to suppress it. Without patriotism, we will become a second class nation and lose the respect of the world. Being the bastion of Democracy comes with many onerous responsibilities. The vast numbers of our military cemeteries on foreign shores are testament to our commitment to other nations who seek freedom.
Without Veterans, we’d still be using the English currency and affecting that godawful English accent.
“I say there, old chap. Another spot of Dr. Pepper, eh wot?”
” Aye. Bloody good stuff.”
Happy Veterans Day-even to you John Kerry-
From all of us here at asknod.org