Another Veteran’s Day come and gone, but weekend events continue.
Am I the only veteran who is somewhat embarrassed by the fairly recent and seemingly expected desire to express love and respect for those who put time in the military? Most thanks are sincere, but sometimes I feel the words come from those who instinctively hate the military’s guts, but don’t wish to be viewed negatively by their peers.
Fifty-two years and some months ago, I enlisted in the Air Force at age 17. It wasn’t wartime, but there was a draft in effect, and the only decision we young men had to make was if we preferred to serve three or four years on active duty, or if a part time hitch in a local National Guard or Reserve unit better suit life’s plans. Very few of my friends and acquaintances made conscious plans to avoid military service.
I didn’t enlist because of a burning desire to serve or to sacrifice. Military service was something expected of every young man, and we accepted it as such. It was also a rite of passage…one of the first items to cross off your adult bucket list, even though you didn’t yet realize such a mental list existed. Those who enjoyed formal education went off to college and joined ROTC, or perhaps a National Guard unit, while some enlisted after they received their degree, or they simply waited for the draft board to summon them for a shorter two-year tour of duty. Those of us, who were bored to tears in high school, raised our right hands and happily flew off to basic training. We were seeking adventure and excitement, and an opportunity to get away from home while getting paid a meager salary to do it.
I served my contractual four years on active duty, and while I mostly enjoyed that time, pay was low and promotions were slow, so I got out. Progressing from a scrawny pimply teen, who couldn’t be trusted to take out the garbage when asked, to an airman wearing the uniform of the United States and being trusted to help launch a nuclear missile was an awesome step. It helped you quickly grow up and learn the importance of accepting personal responsibility.
After a couple of years as a civilian, American involvement in the Southeast Asian conflicts began and I decided I wanted to rejoin the organization and the people that I had come to love and respect. I tried to reenlist in the regular Air Force, but they weren’t taking people with prior service. It took over nine years, and while I never could get back on active duty, I was eventually able to join the Air Force Reserve as an electrician on the C-141A Starlifter. I came to love the job and the camaraderie of working with others who wore the same blue suit and shared similar experiences. Nineteen years later, I retired when it appeared that a sleazy draft dodger by the name of William Jefferson Clinton would be elected president and I decided I didn’t want his signature on my retirement papers.
That’s probably far more than you ever wanted to know about me, but I just wanted to explain how an old veteran became that veteran.
I don’t want to be thanked for my service. In my twenty-three years in the military, I never heard a shot fired in anger, I never saw a body bloodied by combat, and I never feared for my life. I babysat missiles during the cold war, and I fixed airplanes or pushed paper during the latter years of the Vietnam War. Yes, I saw the flag-draped aluminum coffins that arrived stateside on our airplanes, and I smelled the death they contained, but I don’t deserve thanks for doing something I loved while getting paid to do it. I was the far more typical airman/soldier/Marine/sailor for most of my career…the non-combat variety…not the dirty, sweating grunts that make the evening news because the viewing public finds pain and suffering more entertaining than anything done by the nine out of ten GIs who provide mission support for the combat troops.
I carried a weapon only during training or while on alert status. The rest of the time I carried a tool box or a briefcase. Oh, I too suffered the jeers and insults from a generation that hated anyone who wore a uniform…and the critics didn’t care if your job was to drop a tank of napalm, or count C-rations. The hate bothered me, but suffering insults is nothing compared to humping a pack in a stinking, vermin ridden jungle, or up the side of a mountain in 100+ degree heat.
I have a baseball cap that declares I’m retired Air Force. I often wore it at certain gatherings to send a message to others who wore the uniforms of the United States. It was an invitation to share stories and reminisce about our youth. However, when it became the norm for people to begin thanking me for my service, I quit wearing the cap in most venues. For similar reasons, I have begun avoiding such public events as Veterans Day parades, and Memorial Day services. I’m simply not comfortable sharing praise with those who earned it by risking life and limb, and especially those who died.
Perhaps I would feel differently if I had experienced war up close and personal, but I didn’t, so please don’t thank me for doing something I chose to do without expectation of anything more than a warm feeling and a big enough paycheck to make it financially worthwhile.
If I had my druthers, people would show veterans their thanks by doing everything in their power to rid our political system of those who violate their oath to defend and protect this country against all enemies, foreign or domestic. I swore that oath six times during my military career, and even though I no longer wear a uniform, I will continue to honor the oath I took. When we have accomplished that mission, we can thank each other…and I won’t be embarrassed to hear it.