In the past week I have stumbled across four different posts and articles about different facets of military service. One post was an angry question by an active-duty officer to an advice columnist on how to get people to stop saying “thanks for your service”…and some unwanted hugs from strangers. Another was a journalist writing about how the military has a lot of multi-generational family service and how there is a “warrior” caste in America…and another one was by an active-duty officer complaining about being called a warrior. Finally, one was about the infamous conversation all active-duty service members and veterans have at least once or million times with civilians…”I was going to join, but…”
All of these posts/articles are experiences I have had or conversations I have participated in…it goes with the territory when you have served in uniform. Unlike some of the writers/journalists of these pieces…I have found more positive than negative in these experiences. So to add to the din of “information” provided by current or former military service members on these subjects, I am going to add my worthless opinion on these four topics…
My time in uniform afforded me education, pay, benefits, adventure, heartache, stress, and fucking tons of laughter. As I have said numerous times here on this blog site in numerous pieces by me and in countless conversations with friends and family…my dad said it best…”…if nothing else, being in the military gives you a life time of stories.” A-The-Fuck-Men.
“Thanks for your service”
Yes…I was thanked endlessly when I was in the Army…I think a lot of Americans are trying to make up for the reportedly awful way in which Americans treated Vietnam veterans…whether or not these veterans received a horrible homecoming is still one of conjecture and limited experience…Americans feel guilty as a whole. It seems since then…people have started falling over themselves to thank a soldier or veteran. These days I get “thanks” when I mention my service or post something about it on social media. I am not seeking a ‘thank you’ in either circumstance. I’ve gotten plenty of thank yous…and yes…I did serve my nation with pride…but it wasn’t always selfless and it wasn’t always something I did well…but in the end I finished my decade of military service knowing I did the best I could. I was rewarded with a retirement I got to carry over to my current federal profession, I got the GI Bill which assisted in paying for one college degree, I got a masters that the Army paid for, and I got to travel the world…doing fun and not so fun things…
BUT…If I never get another ‘thank you’ it will be okay…because on Memorial Day, 1997, I got the best ‘thank you’ any American soldier can receive. I was a young Army 1st Lieutenant home (in Germany) between multiple deployments of peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. My wife (at the time) and I decided to spend that Memorial Day weekend in Normandy, France. Normandy is wonderfully beautiful and horribly sad if you tour the D-Day invasion beaches that so many Americans tour…of course we did the invasion beach tour.
On Memorial Day, we went to the remembrance service at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. It is 172.5 acres of sadly beautiful white marble headstones that serve as the final resting place for over 9,000 (known) Americans and over 1,000 (unknown) Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice during the D-Day operations in June/July of 1944. Yes…it is a place that naturally makes you cry.
I wore my dress uniform that day, and upon entering the cemetery my first wife and I were asked by the cemetery’s caretaker if we were part of the official ceremonial party. I replied that we weren’t, and that we were in the area for vacation…and we had decided to attend the service there for Memorial Day. The caretaker nodded his approval and then asked if we would sit in the front row among the VIPs because there was just a few dignitaries that year and it would be a nice touch if a young Army officer would sit upfront in uniform. We obliged his request.
Honestly I don’t remember what the speaker said that beautiful French morning there in Normandy…I believe he was the ranking US Air Force general in Europe at the time…and my reason for not remembering is one that I think you can understand. See…among the VIPs in the first couple of rows were a number of older French citizens who had been present and eventually liberated by Allied forces during the D-Day operations. Beside me on my left was an elderly French woman who had been a young teen girl on D-Day…and as she cried through the USAF general’s speech and other parts of the ceremony…she clutched my hand and whispered repeatedly “merci beaucoup”…over and over she said to me “thank you very much”…”thank you very much.”
I appreciate the ‘thanks you’ now as a veteran…and I appreciated the ‘thank yous’ when I was in the Army…but honestly, if I am never thanked again…it will be alright because…once…as a young lieutenant I received the thanks of an elderly French woman who wasn’t thanking me personally…instead…once as a young Army lieutenant…I was thanked for being an American soldier representing the nation and the young men who sacrificed their youth and their lives to liberate her and her country…yeah…I’ve been thanked enough.
Multi-generational family military service and an American ‘warrior’ caste
In Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, there is a family member of mine…a Reese…a rebel…buried. He was a dirt-poor Alabaman farmer turned infantryman…he was probably shoe-less too. My mom has done all this ancestry shit…ya know…the shit old relatives do when they start trying to connect their lives with their ancestors…and she’s supposedly found a number of Reeses that may or may not have served in some type of uniform since the War of 1812. When Reeses…or Clarks on my mom’s side of the family…weren’t busy being traitors and rebels…they were serving in American wars. My mom’s dad served as an artilleryman in World War I…came home blind in one eye…the result of a German mustard gas attack on him and his unit in the trenches of France. I had an uncle who was a Marine on Iwo Jima…who…not surprisingly came home a changed man and battled alcohol and drug addiction for the rest of his life…today we would say he had serious PTSD. My wife’s grandfather fought in World War II, and was wounded in combat…she wasn’t completely aware of what his service entailed until his death…he never spoke of his military service that she was aware of. My mom had a cousin who fought in the Korean War…got captured by the North Koreans…and he also fought alcohol addiction for the rest of his life…again not surprising…and again I blame neither of these men for seeking solace in the only ways they knew how…nor do I blame my wife’s grandfather for never talking about his service. War breaks men. My dad served two combat tours in Vietnam…I have a cousin who fought in Panama…and I served a decade in the Army…both enlisted and as a commissioned officer.
We are a multi-generational military family. My dad was the only one who made it a full career and I followed closely by serving for a decade. As a kid, I assumed serving in uniform is what everyone did. I was an Army brat then…and all my friends’ dads were in the Army…so I just assumed everyone’s dad was in the Army. Later, after my dad retired, I discovered that military service wasn’t as common as I had believed.
Not everyone is able to serve for whatever reasons. I hold no grudge…I think no bad thoughts…I harshly judge no one…for not serving. Some kids are raised in families full of doctors or lawyers…I was raised in a family of soldiers and Marines. I do believe the military is a great equalizer for those that serve…and it matters little of where you come from or how rich or poor you are when you are in the military…as Gunnery Sargent Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) says in Full Metal Jacket…and so elegantly informs his platoon of Marine recruits…”…here you are all equally worthless…”
I never assumed there was an American ‘warrior’ caste until I joined it…others have argued that it is disrespectful to call military service members ‘warriors’…well maybe if the service member didn’t serve in a ‘warrior’ job…or if it clashed with their personal thoughts on military service. As for me…I purposefully enlisted as a ‘warrior’ and served as a 19D Armored Cavalry Scout…If you ain’t Cav!…You ain’t shit!… and when I was commissioned…I purposely selected (as my top three military branch choices) Armor, Infantry, and Field Artillery…the Army decided to make me a Field Artillery officer. I figured if I was going to pursue a military career…I might as well do what the military is meant to do…and that is fight my nation’s wars. I have no issue with the term ‘warrior’ and I have no qualms of thinking of myself as a former warrior. My family was full of warriors and I continued that tradition.
If you come from a family that has historically served in uniform…if you came from a family of warriors…then you just figured it is what you were supposed to do. As far as a nation being served by a minor portion of the population…well…we serve so you don’t have to…and like I said earlier in this post…I don’t need your thanks…but you are welcome.
“I was going to join, but…”
…I don’t care. I don’t care when I am having a drink with my wife or old Army buddies in a bar and I am about five bourbons in and start the rambling “…there I was…no shit…peeling potatoes in basic training..”…I am going to be loud…because it’s the loud rambling talk that veterans do with each other and loved ones when we are applying the liquid salve on our wounds…we don’t care about your reasons for not joining…we aren’t telling our stories for you to be impressed…we are talking loudly because we are releasing a stress valve…we are slightly lifting the top on a dusty box we have stored away in the dark corners of our hearts and minds…we are looking inside and letting a part of us out…
For whatever reason you didn’t join…medical issue, criminal record, drug use, chickenshit fear, bone spurs…what-the-fuck-ever…I don’t care. You owe me no explanation on why you didn’t serve…I don’t think less of you…unless you have issue with my service…or you think you know what it is like to serve…but 99% of the time…I…don’t…care. I don’t care about your thoughts on war and peace…ROTC…cool guns…or war movies…
So you can stop feeling the need to explain yourself…but do feel free to listen to my embellished half-truths and full-out lies…because as my dad said…serving in the military gives you the best stories…even if they ain’t true…or if they are completely true.