Veterans Day always seemed like a holiday for old farts. When you were young and invincible the flag waving was nice but I wasn’t about to go to the American Legion hall or join the VFW. Now when I visit the VA I see guys in the lobby, hunched over and beaten up and a lot of them wearing “Viet Nam Veteran” ball caps. Am I that old?
I joined the Navy in the late 60’s. Nam was ever-present and the draft was in all ahead full mode. There were guys that got a deferment for this or that but most of us joined something. It was a sense of duty because quite frankly everyone was doing it. If it was all volunteer I can’t say one way or another whether I would have joined.
That being said I really treasured my years spent with Uncle Sam as my boss. I was 22, fresh out of Georgetown and we didn’t really take career paths too seriously at that time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life so why not see the world.
My first ship was a prototype of a new Garcia class Destroyer Escort out of Newport,RI. About 420’ long and with a ships compliment of about 250 including 13 officers. The Navy sent me to communications school and of course when I came on board was made First Lieutenant which is about as far from electronics as you can get. Made perfect sense.
This was the deck crew and was for the most part the repository for every raw recruit and misfit in the service. You chipped paint and heaved lines. Bosun mates had a rep for hard drinking, cussing and fisticuffs. I knew the Uniformed Code of Military Justice by heart. I would go to quarters in the morning and from the look at bloodshot eyes or big shiners knew part of my day would be spent writing guys up. C’est la guerre.
As an officer you stood watch on the bridge. There were four hour increments and that is where you started to grow up. On the Mid Watch (12:00-4:00 AM) you were in command as officer of the deck. Everyone else was sleeping. There is a ceremonial tradition in the Navy where you say “I relieve you” and the off going Ltjg or whatever salutes and says “I stand relieved”. You are now in charge both under Navy regs and maritime law. Pretty heady stuff for a young turk. Light up a Marlboro Red under the Southern Cross and you were king of the world.
Well of course my big mouth and bravado had me on my second tour in Viet Nam as skipper of Swift Boat. It was a 50’ gun boat with a crew of 5. The next step in my maturation process. I was still calling the shots but now on a 24/7 basis. A little older and I hope a little wiser. You developed your leadership style that would probably carry on in years to come. For better or worse you came into your own.
I won’t bore you with war stories because that would take too much time and too many scotches. But I will tell you that if I didn’t want to get married and have kids there is a good possibility I would have stayed in. There was an exhilaration of going to sea and feeling the gentle roll of the hull as we picked up speed. It was exciting to tail a hurricane to see what the big ship could take. It was bone jarring to transit the Gulf of Siam in 20 foot seas in a 50’ beer can. And then who can beat Navy Whites on liberty. All part of the job.
When I got out, there was a petty officer who looked over my papers and very unceremoniously said,”You can go now.” No thanks. No good luck. Just see ya’. That was a little deflating. But it was the way I came in. In OCS there first thing they do is shave your head. Everyone looks alike and they don’t really care who your daddy is. A newbie chirped up and asked when he would see his wife. The chief growled back,”If the Navy wanted you to have a wife it would have issued you one.” When status and background don’t mean a thing it is good. We should all have to go through that for some period of time in our lives.
Today among contemporaries if I run into people who haven’t been in service I sense a sense of unease. They will say they did this or that and that is why they couldn’t serve. It really makes no matter to me. They don’t know what they missed. Over the years I have formed close friendships with many of those with whom I served. These are wonderful men and very decent people. I am so glad I have them.
When I see these guys in Iraq and Afghanistan I am in awe. Some of them have not put in three years but 8-10 tours over 10 long years. When I go to Normandy I look at battlefields that raged for days on end. Their three to four years were a lot different than mine. But then again today we are still a Band of Brothers and Sisters. I take my hat off to all of them.
A couple of years ago a close friend had a retreat in the mountains near Vail. He set it up so that injured warriors from Walter Read could come out and have a little time off. The airlines were more than generous. There were cabins and fishing for them and their families. He asked me to come out. I donned a Navy sweatshirt and tooled down country roads with not too many cares.
When I got out of the car I was floored. A I met these fine young men and their cute wives and kids. I was in awe. Their broken and missing limbs and wounded psyches were hard to fathom but even more their spirit. They were upbeat and even more than humble. Each man came up to me and said, “Sir, Thank you for your Service”.To each one I choked back emotion and said,” No son, thank you for yours.” Happy Veterans Day and God Bless to one and all.
Ted The Great
1. 30 of the 43 Presidents served in the Army, 24 during time of war, two earned the rank of 5-star General (President Washington and President Eisenhower) and one earned the Medal of Honor (President Theodore Roosevelt)
2. Less 28% of Americans between the ages of 17-23 are qualified for military service, that’s only about 1-in-4. Drugs,obesity and education are the main disqualifiers
3. The Department of Defense employs about 1.8 million people on active duty. It is the single largest employer in the United States, with more employees than Exxon, Mobil, Ford, General Motors, and GE combined.
4.There were 400,000 military deaths in the Civil War, 458,00 in WWII, 58,000 in Viet Nam, 2,229 in Afghanistan and 4,488 in Iraq.
5.Non-lubricated condoms are distributed among the armed forces not just for safe sex, but as an emergency water canteen. A non-lubricated condom is part of the United States Military Standard Issue Parachute Pack Survival Kit (SRU-16) and can carry a liter of water..and that’s the truth.