“I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them, And the white skeletons of young men-I saw them; I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war; But I saw they were not as was thought; They themselves were fully at rest-they suffer’d not; The living remain’d and suffer’d-the mother suffer’d, And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d, And the armies that remain’d suffered.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
“…he was veteran proud, tried and true, he fought till he was black and blue, didn’t know how he made through the hard times, he bought our house on the G.I. Bill, but it wasn’t worth all he had to kill to get it…” – David Allen Coe, “If That Ain’t Country”
Since 1990 I have always made one call on Veterans’ Day…to my father…a fellow soldier…a fellow comrade-in-arms. We would always exchange our typical greeting of “thanks for your service” and then we would discuss what our plans were to celebrate. Some years my father mentioned some parade or event he was going to attend or participate in…and as he got older he just plainly responded with “I’m gonna go ride one of my horses.” I always made an attempt to get a tee time and play golf. For me I prefer to celebrate my holiday doing something devoid of Veterans’ Day references or meaning. Both of us dealt with our status as veterans in different ways…yet both of us laughed and said it was “our fucking day and we could do what we wanted.” We rarely worried with what others might think of our Veterans’ Day plans. We felt no need to explain ourselves. I usually shun Veterans’ Day events…and definitely avoid any sales greedily associated with the a day meant to honor me and my fellow military veterans.
Both my father and I come from a long line of men who have served. My maternal grandfather was a field artilleryman in World War I and came home blinded in one eye from a German mustard gas attack. I had an uncle who stormed the sands of Iwo Jima. I have a cousin who served in Panama and Desert Storm. My mom had a cousin who was a POW during the Korea War. There is even a Reese buried in confederate grave who left his home and hearth to fight for a lost cause. Soldiers and veterans all…my dad’s and my military service were just two more links in the long chain of our family’s service to our nation.
Tomorrow I won’t be making any calls. My father passed away a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have been busy planning his full military honors funeral at the National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. I won’t be thanking him for his service tomorrow…instead I will continue filling out paperwork to ensure that he is interned at a National Cemetery with the honor he deserves.
I enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1990 due to being kicked out of college due to way too much beer and not enough college classes. My dad joined the U.S. Army because he was the son of a Alabama sharecropper and his future without military service would have been nothing more than scraping by. Each of us decided to serve because we needed something to better us…to educate us…to teach us how to be men. The Army gave me an undergraduate degree (G.I. Bill) and a Masters degree. The Army gave my dad a life to provide for his family and eventually he got a college degree. Both of us had moved from humble beginnings to men who had accomplished much…and much of it was a direct result of our military service.
One of the things my dad and I used to laugh about was how our military service had given us a lifetime of stories. The kind of stories that were best described as “shit you couldn’t make up.” One of the very first experiences I had…the moment I realized Toto and I were no longer in Kansas…was when I got my first mess hall meal (chili mac of course)…standing outside in the cold rain at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I turned to the private next to me and asked him where he was from. The reply I got, to the best of my knowledge, was “Baahstan”…I had just met my first Irish-American Southie…I had just just experienced a hallmark of military service and that is how the military throws you in with a bunch of other guys from a million small towns and big cities…places you’ve never been to…or heard of.
One of my dad’s favorite stories was how he used to pull guard duty along the razor-wired fence separating East and West Germany (Fulda Gap) in the late 1960s and how he would exchange cigarettes with East German soldiers he would pass as each of them walked by on their different sides of the fence. In his own small way, my dad participated in military diplomacy at a very critical moment in the Cold War.
As Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, dead soldiers are “fully at rest-they suffer’d not.” I am now my father’s suffering and musing comrade…and I have no one to call to tomorrow and thank or be thanked. Most of us veterans are quite content to quietly go about our holiday and do what brings solace to our hearts…we appreciate the “thanks” and we appreciate the parades…but in the end we all quietly carry our memories and experiences that only our fellow comrades understand.
To all my veteran friends and comrades-in-arms…thank you and I look forward to mustering with you in that final bivouac we all go to when our suffering here ends.