For Veterans, It’s Personal

 

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?” 

“No sir.”

“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.  

Military funerals.

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.    

There are 35 comments.

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  1. Member

    Airborne!!!

    • #1
    • November 11, 2011 at 1:09 am
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  2. Inactive
    MRK

    Thanks Dave, I started this day with tears of pride reading your post.

    For a daughter of a WWII pilot and mother of an active duty Army officer this is a special day in our home.

    • #2
    • November 11, 2011 at 6:57 am
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  3. Inactive
    MRK

    Thanks Dave, I started this day with tears of pride reading your post.

    For a daughter of a WWII pilot and mother of an active duty Army officer this is a special day in our home.

    • #3
    • November 11, 2011 at 6:57 am
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  4. Member

    [With My eyes wellled up] Thank You.

    • #4
    • November 11, 2011 at 7:43 am
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  5. Inactive

    Thank you!

    • #5
    • November 11, 2011 at 7:46 am
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  6. Inactive

    What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing. And above all, thank you for your service. Blessings!

    • #6
    • November 11, 2011 at 7:49 am
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  7. Inactive

    From one Airmen to another, Happy Veterans Day.

    • #7
    • November 11, 2011 at 7:52 am
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  8. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author
    Josiah Fast: From one Airmen to another, Happy Veterans Day. · Nov 10 at 6:52pm

    Thank you Sir. You as well.

    • #8
    • November 11, 2011 at 7:55 am
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  9. Inactive

    Thank you for the moving piece Mr. Carter. Vet’s day is always very meaningful to me, and especially this year as I just learned I’ll be going into the Armor branch of the Army once I get the gold bar pinned on in May. Going to be joining the cavalry scouts. It’s been the greatest honor these past few years to meet so many combat veterans and be immersed in the culture of America that still lives out duty, honor, and valor, and isn’t ashamed of it. I’m thankful to the civilians as well in Ohio who are fiercely pro-military and bend over backwards for the servicemen among them. Not to mention I’ve made the greatest friends. I’ll be calling my old music teacher and Korean war veteran to wish him a happy one.

    • #9
    • November 11, 2011 at 7:56 am
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  10. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author
    Byron Horatio: Thank you for the moving piece Mr. Carter. Vet’s day is always very meaningful to me, and especially this year as I just learned I’ll be going into the Armor branch of the Army once I get the gold bar pinned on in May. Going to be joining the cavalry scouts. It’s been the greatest honor these past few years to meet so many combat veterans and be immersed in the culture of America that still lives out duty, honor, and valor, and isn’t ashamed of it. I’m thankful to the civilians as well in Ohio who are fiercely pro-military and bend over backwards for the servicemen among them. Not to mention I’ve made the greatest friends. I’ll be calling my old music teacher and Korean war veteran to wish him a happy one. · Nov 10 at 6:56pm

    Best of everything to you as you begin your service as a new lieutenant. Beware of grizzled old NCOs bearing nerf guns. And thank you in advance for your service, Sir.

    • #10
    • November 11, 2011 at 7:59 am
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  11. Thatcher

    Thanks to all of our Military members, past and present.

    • #11
    • November 11, 2011 at 8:04 am
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  12. Inactive

    Thank you, Dave!

    • #12
    • November 11, 2011 at 8:29 am
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  13. Inactive

    I’m a peacetime Cold War USN vet, and I’m embarrassed to hear myself lumped into the same group of people as Iraq or Afghanistan vets. I’m not, in any realistic sense.

    But I have a few memories that stand out.

    The time I went into the main engine lube oil sump to clean it- while the ship was training in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba- and felt cold after I climbed out of it. Why I remember that – the engine room was about 110 degrees, the sump quite a bit warmer.

    My eighteenth birthday- on duty, just after leaving Gitmo.

    The day I saw the cruiser with a portside SPY-1 antenna scraped up after colliding with a Soviet warship. I’d seen that in Navy Times, but seeing it in person was different. I started to think we’d win the Cold War, and I’d survive my enlistment- and it was like a great weight was lifted from me.

    The time I was using my navy-issue seabag as luggage- and a woman came up to me and said, “thank you.”

    I mumbled something, and I figured she had me confused with someone else, somehow.

    • #13
    • November 11, 2011 at 8:40 am
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  14. Inactive

    Thanks Dave, and all other veterans, from an ex-Navy Pork Chop. Happy Veterans’ Day, all.

    • #14
    • November 11, 2011 at 8:53 am
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  15. Member

    Thanks.

    • #15
    • November 11, 2011 at 8:56 am
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  16. Inactive
    Xennady: I’m a peacetime Cold War USN vet, and I’m embarrassed to hear myself lumped into the same group of people as Iraq or Afghanistan vets. I’m not, in any realistic sense.

    You served, that’s what counts. Happy Veterans Day. I serve now because of you guys that came before me. God bless.

    • #16
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:02 am
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  17. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author
    Josiah Fast
    Xennady: I’m a peacetime Cold War USN vet, and I’m embarrassed to hear myself lumped into the same group of people as Iraq or Afghanistan vets. I’m not, in any realistic sense.
    You served, that’s what counts. Happy Veterans Day. I serve now because of you guys that came before me. God bless. · Nov 10 at 8:02pm

    The Cold War is not to be underrated in any sense. The fate of the world literally hung in the balance. As Bill Buckley said to Ronald Reagan in 1985,

    “I pray that my son, when he is 60, and your son, when he is 60 … will live in a world from which the great ugliness that has scarred our century has passed. Enjoying their freedoms, they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong.”

    • #17
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:06 am
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  18. Member
    Dave Carter 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. ·

    That is how it has always been and that is how it must be. Many serve and many more will never know and will never understand it. Thank you for reminding me Mr. Carter. Veteran’s Day needs such admonitions, too many only wish to forget the dead and the sacrifices of those who have made our freedom possible.

    • #18
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:07 am
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  19. Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens: Thanks to all of our Military members, past and present. · Nov 10 at 7:04pm

    Amen.

    • #19
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:16 am
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  20. Moderator

    Thank you!

    • #20
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:18 am
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  21. Moderator
    Josiah Fast
    Xennady: I’m a peacetime Cold War USN vet, and I’m embarrassed to hear myself lumped into the same group of people as Iraq or Afghanistan vets. I’m not, in any realistic sense.
    You served, that’s what counts. Happy Veterans Day.

    Yes. Thank you, Xennady.

    • #21
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:24 am
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  22. Inactive
    Dave Carter

    Josiah Fast

    Xennady: I’m a peacetime Cold War USN vet, and I’m embarrassed to hear myself lumped into the same group of people as Iraq or Afghanistan vets. I’m not, in any realistic sense.
    You served, that’s what counts. Happy Veterans Day. I serve now because of you guys that came before me. God bless. · Nov 10 at 8:02pm
    The Cold War is not to be underrated in any sense.

    Nov 10 at 8:06pm

    Amen.

    • #22
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:25 am
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  23. Member

    I’ve often heard “you knew what you were signing up for” but really, you don’t have any idea. Yet people still sign on, accepting what the service brings because, no matter what you think you’ll be doing, the needs of the service come first. You volunteer and they decide where they need you. Not every veteran used a rifle. And even in peacetime you could be killed by enemy action, directly or indirectly.

    Yet young men and women continue to volunteer, to serve something bigger than themselves, to serve their country. It has to be for love because God knows it isn’t for the pay.

    There is no service that is lesser because you didn’t carry a weapon or your service wasn’t in a hostile fire area. If you served you were part of a team that kept our country secure. So, thank you.

    Thank you Dave, for your service. And thank you all of you veterans for your service. Let us never forget those who served and sacrificed all.

    *Slow Salute*

    • #23
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:30 am
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  24. Contributor
    Dave Carter Post author
    Robert E. Lee: I’ve often heard “you knew what you were signing up for” but really, you don’t have any idea. Yet people still sign on, accepting what the service brings because, no matter what you think you’ll be doing, the needs of the service come first. You volunteer and they decide where they need you. Not every veteran used a rifle. And even in peacetime you could be killed by enemy action, directly or indirectly.

    Yet young men and women continue to volunteer, to serve something bigger than themselves, to serve their country. It has to be for love because God knows it isn’t for the pay.

    There is no service that is lesser because you didn’t carry a weapon or your service wasn’t in a hostile fire area. If you served you were part of a team that kept our country secure. So, thank you.

    Thank you Dave, for your service. And thank you all of you veterans for your service. Let us never forget those who served and sacrificed all.

    *Slow Salute* · Nov 10 at 8:30pm

    Bob, my friend, thank you for your service, Sir. I salute you.

    • #24
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:35 am
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  25. Member

    Thank you, Dave and all the other Ricochetian veterans, for your service which allows me to live in the greatest country on earth, peacefully.

    • #25
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:40 am
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  26. Thatcher

    Thank you, all.

    • #26
    • November 11, 2011 at 9:59 am
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  27. Member

    Thank you, Mr. Carter. And Semper Fi. :P

    • #27
    • November 11, 2011 at 10:42 am
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  28. Member

    Roger that, Dave.

    • #28
    • November 12, 2011 at 1:08 am
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  29. Member
    Michael Labeit: Airborne!!! · Nov 11 at 12:09am

    All the way!

    • #29
    • November 12, 2011 at 1:09 am
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  30. Member

    To Byron Horatio: I got my gold bar –US Army, Infantry — and went on active duty 42 years ago this month. Thank you for following in the train and for the blank check you have written to our country. May Gob bles you as you serve. To Xennady: I totally relate. I was a Vietnam-era soldier who, by the grace of God, spent my entire post-training service in Germany. I never feel so insignificant as when surrounded by Vietnam vets who endured horrific combat experiences. To all vets, combat and non-combat alike: Thank you for heeding the call.

    • #30
    • November 12, 2011 at 1:18 am
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