My service

This past weekend’s Veterans Day festivities got me to thinking: like 80-90% of veterans, I never saw any combat, and never did anything remotely heroic, dangerous, or even very interesting. People sign up for the military for a variety of reasons, only a few for the starry-eyed patriotism of popular myth. That’s often a part of the mix, but most often not the main reason. I signed up because I was lost, and because I needed to escape my father. I could have resisted, which to me would have meant Canada; no other options were realistic. But I lacked the kind of conviction I would have needed to thumb my nose at my family and my society. I saw some people getting out of the draft in a lot of ingenious ways, and I saw others sucked in with no recourse. In I went.

My father was a strict disciplinarian, tailor made for the kind of rebel I was. He had a very clear idea of how I was to prepare for my life: Purdue University, engineering (my choice of branch, the extent of his flexibility on the subject), followed by a steady job; in short, to become a version of him. It was not a bad plan, especially in his eyes. He had endured the occupation of his homeland, Latvia, by two warring forces, alternating their occupations. He had escaped with his life and with his immediate family intact. I was born and joined my parents and two brothers in a DP camp in Germany. He figured his experience and wisdom outweighed mine by a long shot.

He was right, of course, but in the Fall of 1964, when I went off to live his dream, my only thought was that I was free. Free to do as I wished, associate with whom I wished, and had to answer to no one. I had a talent for science, and I didn’t exactly mind the engineering part of it, but it did not inspire me. The plan was inflexible. A measure of the meager latitude he allowed me was that when I unilaterally changed my major from chemical engineering to pure chemistry, he blew up. Not good enough. He was an engineer, my brothers were engineers, and so was I, like it or not.

All right, I thought, no problem. I went back to Purdue for my second year, goofed off the fall semester, and didn’t even bother to go to classes in the spring. I had a blast. In June of 1966, I definitively flunked out, after spending three semesters in a row on academic probation, a record I believe still stands.

Well, it was 1966, the draft in full force, and before the lottery system. If you lost your student deferment, you were basically next. It was also the beginning of the surging anti-war movement; the two things were not unrelated.

I had gone to college firmly believing that the war in Vietnam was just, that the communists had to be stopped or countries would fall within their grasp like dominos. I was, after all, an immigrant, a refugee from a country brutally occupied by the Soviet Union. Communism was why I was here.

Off at college and away from my family, I heard a different narrative. Yes, North Vietnam was communist, but a nationalist variety, uninterested in expansion beyond its own borders, and besides, America’s man Diem was at best a mountebank and at worst a dictator.

I vacillated between the two versions, ultimately tending toward the latter, but I never lost the nagging feeling that my view had more to do with peer pressure than rigorous analysis. Complicating the situation was a strong sense of duty. To what wasn’t clear.

What I knew was that returning home was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed a clean break. I joined the Air Force. I didn’t know much, but I knew that the moment I walked through the gates into basic training, my ties to my family were irrevocably changed.

I volunteered for overseas duty, and ended up in Okinawa for eighteen months. The F-102 pilots at my base flew regular missions over Vietnam, but the rest of us went about our jobs without danger of harm. Truth to tell, had I been sent to Vietnam, it would probably have been to one of the big air bases like Da Nang or Ton Son Nhut, and my service would not have been significantly different. Camp Hansen, a USMC base, was nearby, and we’d often see C-130s come lumbering in and disgorging entire platoons, bleary eyed and fresh from the bush, ready for R and R. That gave the bar scene off base a certain, shall we say, rowdy ambience, but that was it as far as danger was concerned.

I finished up my enlistment at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany, hardly a hardship. In fact, I have to say, with a salary based on what was then the almighty dollar, and meals and lodging free, it was a pretty good job.

Apart from some minor trouble I got into in Okinawa, which delayed a promotion for about six months, my enlistment was uneventful. The only medals I got were for just existing: National Service, Longevity, and Good Conduct. In Okinawa I wore a Presidential Citation ribbon my unit had gotten for something they did decades before in Korea, but lost the right the minute I stepped onto the aircraft out of there. I don’t know what you’d have to do to avoid any of them. My “good conduct,” for example, amounted to not robbing or killing anyone for four years, and not much more.

So, what is the point of this confessional? Don’t thank me for my service. I served four years in the Air Force, got a monthly paycheck, not enormous, but more than adequate. Afterwards, the GI Bill took me through a BA in Anthropology, and a Vocational Rehabilitation stipend for a minor service-related disability got me the rest of the way to an MS. I’m fine.

More importantly, my story is far more typical than you might think, even in today’s volunteer military. I’ve known my share of combat veterans; the one thing they have in common is the reluctance to talk about the experience. Remember that the next time you hear someone regale you with “war stories.”

Remember your loved ones who served, those who are gone and those who are still here; at least you know their story. And by all means, acknowledge those others who came home wounded, either physical or emotionally, or who never came back, but be aware that, for most of even these, they didn’t “sacrifice” themselves; they served in harm’s way, and through the luck of the draw didn’t come out unscathed, and if they were heroic they did it primarily for each other, whatever the original reason for enlistment may have been.

If you simply must voice a blanket thanks to veterans for their service, be aware you’re doing it primarily for yourself, and the relatively few veterans who enjoy basking in such gratitude. And reflect on this: what kid, hearing all this gushing, wouldn’t hope for a war of his own when he grows up?

Thanks, but no thanks

Another Veterans Day looms, or, judging by my local paper, Veteran’s Week. It won’t be long before we start decorating our front yards with little plastic tanks. People are falling all over themselves thanking anyone they see in uniform for their service. I’m sure by the end of the week, many a doorman will have been thanked by mistake. Although in the case of doormen, the gratitude is probably warmly appreciated.

Every once in a while, someone finds out I served in the military, and thanks me profusely. You might think it’s strange, but I find this irritating. In the first place, I was in the Air Force. As the always insightful (not to say inciteful)  Jim Wright has noted, the Air Force is known for the finest battle-tested high tech espresso machines in any of the armed forces worldwide. In the second place, although I was in during the Vietnam war, I was never sent there; I served in Okinawa and Frankfurt, Germany, not exactly hazardous duty, unless you consider the night life out the back gate. The most heroic thing I ever did was show up at morning Commander’s Call with a hellacious hangover. In one particular case, this was, in fact, cured, when the CO decided we all needed to know what hashish smelled like, the better to turn each other in. The First Sergeant stuck about gram of it on the end of a pin, lit it, and passed it around for us to sniff.

It never made it past the second row, and when questioned, no one seemed to know where it had gone. Those of us in the first two rows especially.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. As a member of Prime Beef, an elite group of engineers, I participated in several NATO exercises; in particular, I recall one near Thessaloniki, Greece. We arrived and within a few hours had dug our latrines and set up our tents and command post, along with the simulated combat airstrip that was our mission.  Since no actual aircraft were going to land on it, we were essentially done until the exercise was over. Under the circumstances, my commander entrusted me with the most important job that remained unfinished: taking a new 5 gallon jerry can into town, and getting it filled with cheap wine.

This was the late 60s, of course, and I’m sure things are more professional now, but I’m willing to bet these stories would not look all that unfamiliar to today’s troops..

My point here is that this is a far more typical military service experience than the Sgt. Rock stuff people imagine. The usually quoted ratio for support personnel to actual fighters is 9:1. That means 90% of us veterans did no significant fighting; for those stationed in combat zones the ratio probably goes down to about 6 or 7:1, but there are no hard figures to base this on. To be sure, things have changed, and the line between combat and support troops has gotten fuzzier, but not as much as you would think. Those truck drivers you hear about are certainly in harm’s way, but keep in mind that attacking supply lines has been a key military tactic at least since Alexander the Great.

The biggest difference, and a significant one, is the way troops are deployed. Up until Vietnam, troops were in-country for the duration of hostilities. In Vietnam, it was 11-13 months and out; you pretty much had to volunteer to go back a second time. What makes things difficult nowadays is the recurring deployments, arguably more stressful than even the long duration single deployments in the world wars, especially with the increased use of reservists. That recurring shift of perspective is, in some ways, worse than continuous deployments of the past. Still, even in places like Afghanistan, most of that is non-combat, although the constant threat of IEDs, suicide bombings and the like certainly takes a toll.

So, why am I being such a curmudgeon about this? Don’t I think some thanks are deserved here? Well, yes and no.

Apart from the disquieting realization that most of those doing the thanking haven’t the slightest idea what they’re thanking us for, and the suspicion that they’re just happy they didn’t have to do anything for the society they live in, there are other very good reasons.

It’s undeniable that some percentage of veterans have, indeed, endured harrowing experiences. Some of them will suffer from the effects for the rest of their lives. But most will get over it rather quickly, and settle into the routines of civilian life with no visible effects. Some, in fact, will have behaved disgracefully, and deserve nothing. A very, very small percentage will have been genuine heroes, not for ideological, or even patriotic, reasons, but for the personal sacrifices they made in circumstances all but incomprehensible to the rest of us, and I include the majority of veterans.

It’s for this tiny group that I object to the indiscriminate expression of gratitude to everyone who has had any military service. And I guarantee that you will never hear any of these people trumpeting their military experience, or even talking about it.  There’s a meme that makes the rounds of social media every now and then, which states something to the effect that anyone who has served in the military has voluntarily offered up his or her life for the good of the country. I seldom use the word bullshit, but it seems particularly appropriate here.