We were invincible. It was 1984, and we had just emerged from a lengthy field exercise during Air Base Ground Defense training, at Camp Bullis, TX, a combat school for Security Forces. We had not known sleep in days, spending the daylight hours fortifying our fighting positions, the nighttime hours being devoted alternately to defending some pieces of real estate and then attacking others. We were versed in a variety of weapons, mines, grenades, and booby traps. From law enforcement training, to weapons training, to small unit tactics and combat school, we had been trained to save a life or take it with equal skill. There was no doubt that we had earned our berets. We were invincible. I was a machine gunner, having achieved the top score in M-60 training, and felt entitled to be as cocky as you please until the instructor asked;
"Carter, do you know how long your life expectancy is in a fire fight after you fire off the first rounds from that weapon?"
"About 15 seconds. Congratulations, Airman, you're a helluva gunner."
None of that matters when you're invincible. One of the first and most lasting lessons the military teaches you, a lesson that imprints itself on your soul, is that you can always do more than you thought. Can't make that last mile of the march, or the formation run? Bull squeeze! Dig deep, think of your fellow troops, think of your family, think of whatever inspires you and will your body to do the rest. You will finish or you will by-God die trying, in which case your team will have to haul your worthless carcass the rest of the distance! The instructors didn't have to tell us we were invincible. The reality of having repeatedly faced down and overcome our own limitations instilled more confidence than any pep talk ever could. It's interesting that looking back across almost 30 years, I see the picture of that young man seated in front of the group, staring back at me confidently, and marvel at his self-assurance, his pure commitment, and his utter ignorance of the world he was taking on.
On Veterans Day, in towns across the country, there will be parades. Parents and young children will unfold lawn chairs along sleepy main streets to watch the procession. High school bands will play. In some towns, active duty troops will march, receiving standing ovations and salutes from veterans in the crowd. Last year, a group of Purple Heart recipients, some severely disabled, rode by on a makeshift float. I caught the eye of one the old gentlemen and rendered a salute. He returned an equally crisp salute and I confess that it gave me a chill. What do these heroes see when they look out at the crowd? What do they see when they close their eyes at night?
We often speak in grand terms about military service and the honorable sacrifices it entails. But for many who have served, the memories are specific and deeply personal. From the Vietnam era Scout Sniper I spoke with a couple of years ago who said he separated from the military because, "I just got tired of killin'," to a WWII Navy veteran that I worked for years ago whose ship had been sunk from underneath him, to the infinite number of humorous stories that are part of GI life, a veteran's service is a personal thing. But sometimes the memories are vivid, such as:
The 6' 6" screaming psychopath in the Smokey the Bear hat that greeted us at 1AM when we arrived at Basic Training.
The Security Forces instructor whose chest was loaded with enough ribbons to make a fruit salad, who had worked Spec Ops in 'Nam, who had the most sadistic ice-water-in-the-veins smile this side of Dante's Inferno, who smilingly told us that he would make sure we "earned" the right to wear the beret.
The smart aleck kid at the chow hall, who was in uniform, outside, without wearing his hat: "Where is your hat?" asked the First Sergeant. "In my pocket," said the kid. "Why isn't it on your head?" asked the First Sergeant. Without missing a beat the kid said, "Because I can't get my head in my pocket." He went out in flames, as the song says.
The news that a plane had gone down during a training mission. The recovery efforts during which the pilot's helmet was found,…his head still inside.
Guarding that crash site.
Wearing chemical warfare gear in training.
Wearing chemical warfare gear for real.
Working for, and learning from, Colonel Arthur Hoffson, …a gentleman and consummate professional who was shot down and held captive by the North Vietnamese from 1968 to 1973.
Accidentally shooting a fighter pilot in the chest with a nerf dart and explaining that I was simply test firing a "B.S. seeking missile."
Learning just how many minutes flight time we were from the DMZ in Korea, or from SCUDs in the Mideast.
Watching the best aircrews in the world perform under combat conditions.
Watching my best friend struggle to walk across a parking lot due to service-related disabilities.
While the citizen believes in patriotism, the veteran has lived it. So has the family. Most of the people I've known who have experienced combat weren't thinking of patriotism when the shovel-ready material hit the fan. They were thinking of their training, and of taking care of their buddies. They love their country, but they fight for each other, in common cause to accomplish the mission and get home in the upright position. And in so doing, they know that they serve their country.
Last week, at a truck stop in Arizona, an elderly lady walked by and noticed my hat. She just looked at it for a moment, then her eyes welled up as she mouthed the words, "thank you." In talking with her, I learned that she had lost a family member to war. "I love this country so much," she said. Soon her husband came along and said that his father was a retired soldier of some 27 years service. We agreed that the people to thank are those who serve even now, who face unconscionable budget cuts and whose valor and sacrifice are undercut by politicians who sound retreat. "Thank you for your service," they said as we bid good-bye. "It was an honor," I answered,…and the highest honor of all, for this little Cajun, was to spend 20 years in the company of extraordinary people, warriors who are truly the best of the best. To my fellow veterans, thank you all for your service. Godspeed, and Happy Veterans Day.