11 November, 2014

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month

It's Veteran's Day.  It's also (originally was) Armistice Day.  The day "The guns fell silent."  You'll see flags flying, parades, the "support our troops" stickers etc.  I think we all know what a Veteran is. But how well do you know the conflicts these people were a part of? Do you know the things they gave up in order to serve their country? Are you aware that combat Veteran's never really “get over it”? Are you aware that the dwindling number of living WWII Veterans are still sometimes haunted by “their” war almost eighty years after it ended? Have you thought about our peace-time Veterans and the things they gave up to serve their country? Regardless of whether they saw combat or not, they all sacrificed their youth to serve. They didn't get to see their families, didn't get to see their children born by the wives they didn't get to see. They didn't get to see their siblings graduate high school or college. They missed their pets. A vinyl “support our troops” sticker is a hollow gesture if the veterans as a whole are not considered.

Want to know how bad this lack of understanding is? Years ago, on Veteran's Day, I had a brief conversation with a young lady at my local convenience store. She asked me if I would be interested in purchasing one of the “support our troops” stickers. I politely declined. She mumbled something about being unpatriotic (we knew each other fairly well as I was a regular at that store) and I turned to leave, starting to feel a little ashamed of myself. Then, something in my head snapped. I turned back towards her and asked “When did WWI end?” She gave me a blank stare. I then said “It's an easy question to answer. The answer is staring you in the face.” Blank stare. “WWI ended on this day in 1918. Do you happen to know what Veteran's Day was originally called? Armistice Day. WWI ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.” She was beginning to regret her unpatriotic comment towards me. “I'm sorry, that was a bit unfair. Here's an easier question for you. After all, we're both products of the same school system. Where is the WWI memorial (in our town) located?
She replied “In the park with all the others.” Credit to her for, at least, knowing where to find some memorials. “That is incorrect. The WWI memorial is downtown. You've driven by it countless times but, like most people, never see it.” She was, clearly, pissed at me. Probably thought I was trying to be a dick. I was polite during all of this, I was not trying to belittle her at all. I ended with “Veteran's Day is not only about the 'current' conflict. One is not required to display their patriotism and maybe you might read a book or two before you start accusing people of being unpatriotic. I'll see you tomorrow.”

My first experience with a Veteran was my neighbor. He died when I was very young so my memories are limited. Pat was a WWI veteran who saw combat. He was gassed and was in a hospital when his unit returned home. He was left to find his own way back to the US. There was no Veteran's Administration at that time. He got married, had a son and then had to suffer the Great Depression. Then, WWII started and his only son joined the Navy. His son was killed. Went down with his destroyer in the Mediterranean. I'm sure it was heart breaking for Mr. and Mrs N. When my family moved in next door to them, they treated us all like family. Mr. and Mrs. N loved my older siblings and I as if we were their own children. As I mentioned previously, my memories of them are few as I was just a toddler, but I do remember one specific thing. Going next door to visit Mr. N. (his wife had passed away previously) and seeing him sitting in his favorite chair (a green one which eventually ended up in our house), reading his paper and smoking his pipe. Slightly balding gray hair, glasses and slippers. The only other memory I have of him is visiting him in a nursing home, most likely just before he died. He had saved the orange from his lunch so he could give it to me. What a wonderful man. He had seen and experienced some horrible, horrible things, but yet he loved every day.

After my neighbor, I learned of my Father's and multiple Uncle's service in different branches of the military. A large portion of the teachers I had were veterans as well. WWII, Korea and Vietnam. One of them, Mr. Bill, stood out. I was lucky to have him as a teacher not once, but twice. No, I didn't flunk a grade. Mr. Bill switched from teaching fourth grade to teaching fifth grade. I didn't learn of his time in Vietnam until fifth grade. That was the year the Vietnam Memorial Wall was opened in Washington. It was also the time when most of his male students were becoming interested in guns, tanks, planes and war in general. As the callow youth we were, we had no clue what war actually was. The John Wayne “Sands of Iwo Jima” mentality was still predominant, even in the early '80s. As a grown man, I look back on that time and feel ashamed at how ignorant I was. Mr. Bill, being the great human he is, took it in stride. He even showed my how to roll up my sleeves in proper Marine Corps fashion. He told us, as a class, that he would be gone for a week so he could visit the Wall with another teacher from our school, Mr. M. After Mr. Bill's week-long absence he sat us down as a class and explained (briefly, we were young and dumb) the Vietnam war and his participation in it. He shared canned peanut butter with us, showed us some photographs... He even had a Q&A sessions with us. The only question I can remember came from Stacy. She had a speech impediment (regardless, she was a great girl) she asked “So, didju, didju shoot anyone?” An innocent question from a kid who, like the rest of us, was quite clueless. I guess I knew enough about war to think “NOOOOO!!!! You don't ask that sort of thing!!” You see, Mr. Bill and Mr. M were kinda known to the students as having short tempers. You didn't fuck with either of them. Period. So, I was fully expecting Mr. Bill to be sending her to the Principal's office. But, he didn't. He politely declined to answer the question and moved on. He told us about sleeping with his rifle, how he was a machine gunner, about the troubles he had adjusting back to the “real world”, how he was only able to sleep on the floor for months after he came home, how his parents had to learn not to just barge into his room to wake him. I suppose his visit to the Wall, as with many Vietnam veterans, gave him some semblance of inner peace. Enough that he was able to share some of it with his students. To this day he is, hands down, my favorite teacher. And he also remembers the names of every single student he ever had. In my early twenties I had gone to the county fair and found Mr. Bill doing ticket duty at the gate. “Hi Mr. Bill. Good to see you.” “Good to see you too. Don't get into trouble in there, Tim.” “Yes sir.” In junior high I had Mr. Luck, a history teacher. He was fond of saying “War is hell. I know, I've been there!” We used to joke about him saying he was in both the European and Pacific theaters... Goes to show how little I knew. I never learned specifics about Mr. Luck, but I did know he was air crew of some sort. I should look into that...

In more recent times an old friend of mine did a few tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's suffering PTSD, but is learning to cope with it. A few other close friends served, though not in combat. In my mind there is no difference. I remember my Father taking me down to the post office to register for the selective service (I went Navy because that's where Dad served). I never, ever expected to drafted. I remember the start of the first Gulf war. Chad came bursting into the milk cooler at the grocery store and hollered “Pack your bags, we're going to war!” I can hear you chuckling. Yes, it's okay in hindsight, but at that time it hit me right in the core. Before the doors of that milk cooler stopped swinging, I had already figured out what to do with my stuff before I got sent off to the middle east. I kid you not, I was fully expecting to get a letter from Uncle Sam. Cut me some slack, I was 18/19 and very naïve. Then came 11 September, 2001. Again, I was expecting a letter from Uncle Sam. “Well, the apartment's on a month to month lease so that can just run out. I can put all of my stuff and my truck at Mom's house....”

I've written about the veterans I've met at that time and since already, so no need to do it again. These days I have a much, much better understanding of war and the things those who fight wars go through. Tip of the hat to the public library and the many veterans I've known throughout the years. Veteran's Day is not about a silly sticker on your SUV or the whole “Tie a yellow ribbon 'round the 'ol oak tree...” nonsense. It's about the people. The people who have sacrificed their lives, their limbs, their mental stability and their family life. All so the rest of us can be free. That's why we honor our veterans on this day.

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