Scrolling through the feed on the Facebook timeline brings a litany of thank you for your service messages to all manner of Facebook friends and their family members. It is a well-deserved custom that’s spawned from the disgust at how the Vietnam vets were treated when they returned home. Yet we need to be careful that it doesn’t become a thoughtless, de rigeur statement that’s thrown off as easily as a meaningless compliment because many of us never served – a large percentage of the population hasn’t served – and we generally don’t have a solid grasp of history and the fights in which they’ve been involved. It’s changed cinematically as many have now seen the early carnage of the seasonal replays of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, but there’s still a quantum leap between the family sofa and hunkering down behind a pile of rubble. We say the right thing, but the great majority simply don’t get it.
While I think about my own father often, I always reflect more on Veteran’s Day and reading all of the thank yous made me even more thoughtful. Dad’s been dead for almost 14 years. We knew growing up only that he’d been in the service during the Korean War but it was something that he never – never – discussed. I once asked him when I joined Boy Scouts if he’d come along camping with me and he demurred with a gruff I spent a year sleeping outside and I promised myself that I’d goddamned well never do it again so no, I won’t. But he’d say no more than that. Since this was an old established troop with a strong tradition of outdoorsmanship, I caved in to my intimidation and quit. When I later asked him – during middle school – about his experiences, he simple refused to discuss it and the matter was dropped. It wasn’t until many years later, when he learned that my then-medical student wife was doing a rotation at the local VA, that he opened up one evening and began to talk and between that evening and the years afterwards, the stories flowed and so much that I couldn’t puzzle out in my youth became clear.
Dad had been in Korea at the outset, a mere tech sergeant doing work near the 38th parallel when the North Koreans invaded; he and his squadmates were cut off and spent days – with the loss of several of his men – escaping before being found by American troops and receiving what he termed a battlefield transfer. This receiving unit was the 27th Infantry Regiment, the Wolfhounds, and he spent almost the next year with them before finally rotating back stateside to finish his enlistment as a drill instructor. He related incidents of leaving a makeshift bar in a shack in Pusan to literally cross the road to repel a massed North Korean attack in the blackest days of that conflict, of seeing his buddy so drained by the violence that he killed one of his own pilots in a barfight after warning him to stop badmouthing the infantry who were being pushed relentlessly backwards. A few years before he died, I learned that whenever he was in the Midwest on business, he’d take an extra day and stop at Fort Leavenworth to visit this man. Dad spoke of massed Chinese attacks after they entered the war and how the differential in sizes between the American bayonet and the outsized Chinese bayonet, aka the pigsticker, gave birth to decades of nightmares. There were other stories but it was even later after his retirement in 1991, that more became evident. Dad finally came to terms with his experience and contacted his congressman to help in obtaining the citations for which he knew that he’d been nominated but had opted to never touch before then; it required additional effort since the Veteran’s archive in which his records were kept was badly damaged in a fire decades before with the loss of an untold number of servicemen’s records. When the congressman’s office finally finished helping him, we found that these included the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for courage under fire.
I have no photos of my father in uniform, although I do recall seeing one photo of a young man wearing glasses and a helmet, kneeling in the dirt outside of Fort Bliss, Texas. It wouldn’t surprise me if he handled them the way that he handled all of his camping and hunting equipment when he later returned home to the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania…he simply got rid of all of it and promised himself to never do them again. His decorations and division and regimental insignia are safely put away although I do, on occasion, pull them out to look at them and think about the old man. He certainly mellowed with age but the experience changed him forever. I recall seeing him watch an Army recruitment commercial – Be all that you can be…– and just rolling his eyes while he shook his head. When I discussed with him the idea of enrolling in ROTC during college, he argued against it and persuaded me to put the notion to rest and that there was no reason to feel guilt for not doing so.
So would I tell my father thank you for your service, as insufficient as it might seem? Now it would seem to be the least that I could do, although it absolutely isn’t enough and his response would be a typical if you feel that strongly about it, then get your head out of your ass and actually do something. And that’s what we should do for these men and women who are serving. Pay closer attention to the controversy occurring in the Veteran’s Administration and if you aren’t vocal, become moreso. Learn about the service dogs that are increasingly taking an important role to provide an emotional anchor for returning vets and throw support to those who raise and train them; in a short attention span society, we forget that the effects of combat stress can last for decades and the canines won’t be a one-off effort. Most important is this, however: understand that we are now entering a time in which the promises made to all of the various constituencies in American society can no longer be supported by the resources available to us. We can no longer run endless deficits without burning out the engine and at that time, we’re going to have to renegotiate the social contracts that have bound us together and it will be a truly ugly process. It will be then that you’ll have to remember what many of the vets suffered through and advocate forcefully on their behalf and in that way, you can begin to repay the debt owed them and show that their service truly isn’t forgotten.