Allow me, as a Korean War era veteran, to make a few observations on the eve of another Veterans day. As long as that’s what it is, I wanted to give it some thought. This is a pretty long piece, so don’t feel you have to read it. It’s just me thinking it over, and if you know a veteran or are related to one, I invite you to take in what I have to say about it.
Not so many people know that Veterans day began as Armistice Day to celebrate the end of World War I, still very much in the collective memory during my thirties childhood. We kids considered it a special day because there was no school and folks went into Pittsburgh’s Downtown district for what seemed like the world’s biggest parade.
As that event faded into semi-shared memory and there was less civic celebration, at some point they renamed it Veterans Day. I’m not sure when–sometime during or after the Vietnam war, I believe. Maybe someone can tell me for sure. But for a while it went largely unobserved no matter what it was called, except for some occasional lip service.
Only recently has it begun to gain wide traction–perhaps because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure why that is–maybe because of a collective sense of regret, or even guilt due to the evident suffering that today’s young veterans of that conflict are enduring. I myself see that anguish frequently at the local V.A. hospital, where with my own relatively mild service connected disability I get my health care. And now that very few World War II veterans are still around, we Korean vets are the old timers, and our numbers are shrinking.
As that happens, we are aware of the ordeal our young comrades endure. Their war is different from ours in many ways. For one thing, they are recovering from wounds that would have killed us. For another, it seems that PDSD is more common among them, although I don’t know enough to speculate why that is. I just know those kids are hurting inside with a different kind of pain. Badly! That, too, is hard to explain, but what I and my fellow old timers among the Korean guys and the Vietnam vets can understand is the difficulty we all face when we return to civilian life. In many ways the transition can be as harsh as anything service itself can dish out. Sixty years after my own discharge, my stomach still tightens when I think of my own readjustment–the most painful period in my life.
Just the same, as I look back I regard my tour as a major event in my life. The reasons are too many to count here, but all told I am glad for the experience. Enough so that I advocate reviving the draft. We should all serve, not just volunteers. I think so because military service is a great leveler’ it brings us together–the affluent and the poor, the formally educated and those not so fortunate or so inclined, country folks and city folk–all walks of life, as it were; all of us marching together, unlike these divisive times when social mixing is more and exception than a rule, and nobody in boots wants to walk in someone else’s shoes, while nobody who wears shoes wants to walk in a pair of moccasins. .
In that regard, I remain bitterly resentful that a bunch of politicians who–if I may assume so–considered themselves above going through basic training or boot camp, but without thinking twice sent a bunch of young kids off to a war they pretty much felt themselves and their own sons and daughters exempt from. And an unpromising war to begin with–which now looks as if it has backfired.
Just as they made no effort to pay for that war financially, they were unwilling to pay the personal prince of being torn from home and family and sent into harm’s way. Now those politicians for the most part neglect those same kids, many of whom are homeless, underemployed, without the care they need, and above all lacking the deep understanding that only one veteran can offer another.
So while I have a deep regard for my fellow veterans, and especially the young guys, and feel that we are all entitled to our day of recognition, I still regard much of the current hoopla with a touch of cynicism. I sense some hypocrisy in all this fuss, a need to gloss over the regret that this latest war was fought in the first place and yet continues in its insidious way. Many of my fellow vets would disagree, I’m sure, but I don’t like the idea of branding us all as “heroes.” Maybe a few of us are, but I’ll bet most of us don’t think so, don’t feel much like heroes.. We’re just guys whose lives have been enriched in some ways, damaged in others, and educated in ways that those who never served cannot imagine.
There’s far more to be said about it, but just think of this as you try to understand. It seems clear to me as I enter and leave the Veterans hospital and make my rounds, no one else can provide the comfort we offer each other as we pass in the hallways and sit together in a waiting room. If I have to be a veteran, that’s the best place to be one. We make eye contact, we smile, we say hello, we joke, and in there we manage to feel good about ourselves no matter how bad we may feel otherwise. If nobody can understand that deep bond, nobody can take it away, either, Veterans Day or no Veterans Day.