I am a veteran, a Cold War veteran. There is even a medal for it — or not. I come from a line of veterans including a grandfather both gassed and shot in WWI and a father who served aboard submarines in WWII. I have their casket flags and medals an arm’s length away and I see in them daily the sacrifice they made that allowed me to become a veteran. Yet even though I served, I always feel a bit odd about being a veteran on Veteran’s Day.
My “war” wasn’t a war, unless by war you mean people practicing for an unlikely one. My four-year enlistment was one of the few times since WWII that America had no major combat operations in the world. There was scant danger of me, or anyone else, being shot. But, that is true even when major wars are happening. Many civilians don’t know that most military members never get close to combat, even in “combat” zones.
It has become di rigueur to thank veterans for their service. When they thank me, I’m always a little embarrassed to be in the same class as Dad and Grandad. They were shot and shot at. They sacrificed family and friends. Not me. I just did my job.
A Veteran Without the Sacrifice
My short military career was anything but a hardship. I flew to half the countries on Earth on someone else’s dime. But I didn’t go to shit holes in the sand where people tried to blow me up. I went to Madrid and Athens, Tokyo and Seoul, and stayed in pretty nice hotels along the way. My annual two-week trip to Las Vegas for Red Flag wasn’t much of a hardship either.
I learned a trade that gave me a leg up in life and the opportunity to see and do things most people only dream of. I was “deployed” for more than three years of my four-year enlistment. I spent most of it in a single airplane with five other crewmen bouncing around the dirt fields and international airports of the world. Effectively, I had no boss. Sometimes I might not see my boss for months at a time. I was spending a month or two traveling around Europe or Asia. I was making weekend trips to the casinos in Panama or seeing the bullfights in the Azores before going back to North Carolina. True, I was gone a lot, perhaps more than many military members today, but I was a single guy living in the barracks with no family. My time away was more relief from boredom than sacrifice.
I spent most of my little war repairing airplanes and readying them to go out and play at real war — dropping troops or tanks or equipment. My job was not much different from a job as an airline mechanic except the airplanes were dirtier and I got paid a fraction of the civilian wage to keep them up. At the end of the shift I generally went home on time. The benefits were pretty good too.
No, my primary job was to occasionally kick at the Berlin Wall (which I also saw and touched more than once) long enough so that St. Ronnie of Reagan could come along and push the loose bricks over for a photo op a few years down the line. In that sense, I did my job well I suppose.
Of course, not everything was practicing to make perfect war. I did things to help people too. I flew missions to take snow removal equipment to blizzard areas and bring supplies to earthquake and hurricane zones. I flew some medical missions in Argentina and carried the bodies of service people around morgues in Europe after they died. I played airline, hauling dependents between England, Germany, Spain, and Greece. There were airplane loads of fruits, vegetables, and eggs bound for pre-prison Guantanamo. Airplane loads of furniture for redeploying service families were common. Once, I spent a week hauling movies between base theatres all over Europe. A fresh print of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was my contribution to battle, not a close encounter with a bullet with my name on it. The closest I ever got to combat was dropping Zodiacs for SEAL teams or waving bye-bye to Green Berets as they calmly walked out the door of my airplane at 15,000 ft.
A Veteran of My Own “Little War”
When I entered the Air Force at the advanced age of 21 I did it for a job and career training. Given the times, I didn’t give much thought to being shot at or making sacrifices. And in real terms things played out that way. I always felt good about being in the military (who wouldn’t given my career), but I can’t say I swelled with pride over it either.
As I got older and the pace of wars quickened, my practice war gave me enough insight into the difference between a Green Beret leaping into the North Carolina forest to pretend fight a generic “enemy” and one leaping into the maw of hell to fight someone intent on killing them. From that insight I began to identify more as a veteran, even if my contribution was to drive others back and forth to school so they could learn what to do when real wars came along.
But even as I’ve begun to identify more as a veteran I’m acutely aware that I didn’t really sacrifice. Though my contributions were important I still distinguish between combat veterans and me. I see myself as a sort of junior veteran, one who did their time, but someone who is also as beholden to battle-hardened troops as the most confirmed civilian.
I’m trying to get better about it, but when people thank me for my service I still find myself a little red-faced. Had war broken out I would have gone. I know I did do some humanitarian good in the world. I can better see the importance on my “little war” in the context of man’s ongoing battle between good and evil. I try to simply say, “You’re welcome,” but the words always come hard.
I find receiving and showing my thanks works better in a different way. When people scam veterans, I speak out. When people cheat veterans or deprive them of care, I fight against it. When someone forgets the free speech they feel so impassioned about exercising isn’t free, I remind them.
This Veteran’s Day I say, “you’re welcome” to those folks who thank me, even if I am sheepish about it. But, I take that thank you and use it to show thanks to those veterans more deserving than me by trying to make things better for them. It still isn’t sacrifice, but it is what I can still give.
Thanks combat vets, allow me the privilege of fighting a bit for you now.
- Veteran’s Day Tribute (paintingpundit.com)
- Remember Our Veterans (asdaqua.com)
- Veteran’s Day (timmaass.wordpress.com)
- Reflections on Veteran’s Day (straitthegate.wordpress.com)
- Help Veterans by Taking Them Off the Pedestal – Alex Horton – The Atlantic (theatlantic.com)
- Veterans Day (onesmallactblog.com)
- Marvin: For veterans, service isn’t over when the uniform is put away (newsday.com)
- A Veterans Day salute (examiner.com)
- Veterans Deserve More Than Thanks (yourfaceispolitics.wordpress.com)
- Veteran Goes From Ashy to Classy (TheMajorMinor.com)